Josh takes an eclectic group out for drinks, and Bartlet demonstrates that people skills are not always his forte when he learns of Leo’s upcoming divorce.
The opening sequence of this episode, in which we see how close the staff are as we watch them staying late at work playing poker, reminds me very much of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Clearly, late night poker games are the way people with stressful and demanding jobs unwind (how they aren’t so exhausted they just fall into bed is a mystery to me). The key difference between Bartlet and Captain Picard, though, is that Bartlet is right in there playing with them from the start. Well, sort of – his sneaky way of gaining the upper hand (following on from the previous episode’s classic ‘It was Steffi Graf, sir!’) is to distract everyone with trivia, which seems highly appropriate and characteristic. Toby wins anyway, which also seems characteristic – although he is established as a person who often loses in life, he is also a determined person who will not be put off by an attempt to name all the punctuation marks (and knows them all off by heart anyway).
Much of this episode isn’t very kind to Bartlet as a character, as his reaction to the collapse of his best friend’s marriage is about as awful as it could possibly get. It’s just about comprehensible on the grounds that he feels that his job has been part of the problem and is trying to place the blame elsewhere (and I suppose maybe he’s a stricter Catholic than he usually lets on) but it’s a wonder Leo is still talking to him at the end of the episode, apology or no apology. His interactions with Zoey are much more successful though, as he explains in excruciating detail exactly why he’s a bit over-protective at times.
And talking of protective, Charlie gets to show how awesome he is here, when, as Josh puts it, he doesn’t ‘blink before [putting] his body between danger and Zoey.’ Josh shows his awesome too, solving the problem with brain rather than brawn when Jesse-from-Buffy starts to get aggressive. There’s a sense of the danger inherent in taking on such a high-stakes job that runs through the episode from beginning to end – early on we see a security lock-down for the first time, though it’s apparently not the first time for the characters. (Mandy whines that this didn’t happen at her old job, thus proving once again that she is one of the most irritating characters ever written – you work for the President, there’s a level of security risk involved. Shut up and get on with your job!) As long as Josh and Charlie are around, though, surely all will be well…
The nominal subject of the episode is the census, the taking of it, understanding it, and, through Mr Willis, a moment of connection with one of the people in it. CJ has to ask Sam for help understanding it because it’s her turn to play what’s usually Donna’s role and get another character to explain what’s going on and why it matters to the audience. I have some reservations about the fact it’s always a female character who has to do this (and seriously, the White House Press Secretary doesn’t understand the census?) but at least it’s pretty funny. Donna, meanwhile, is busy complaining that she wants her taxes back (I have some sympathy there) and dating the show with her outlandish, extravagant desire for a DVD player.
I’ve always liked this episode a lot, and the guest character of Mr Willis, played by Al Fann, is a big reason for that. His storyline makes even less real-world sense than CJ’s (you can’t just replace deceased elected representatives with their spouses) but the scenes between him and Toby are just so beautiful, with Toby finding his hard edges softened a bit by meeting someone who really cares, that it’s all worth it. I may even have learned something about the US census. Shame I’m not a US citizen but never mind, useful knowledge anyway!
Bits ‘n’ pieces
- Although it doesn’t reflect my politics, I rather like Donna’s little ‘lesson’ at the end.
- Ron Butterfield appears! I love Ron. Congressman Skinner returns a couple of times as well, most memorably in Season 2’s ‘The Portland Trip.’
- Isn’t Zoey underage for the States? Why is she buying CJ a drink? Won’t she get ID’d?
- SPOILER WARNING It’s our policy to avoid spoilers for future episodes in these reviews but I just have to say – Bartlet’s speech/rant at Zoey at the end of this episode. Man.
Bartlet: Just trying to kill me isn’t necessarily evidence of being mentally unbalanced.
CJ: I don’t understand certain nuances... like the census.
CJ: I’ve been faking it.
CJ: I'm a person saying there's something I do not know, will you teach me. It's hard to admit you don't know something. That makes me submissive.
Sam: What exactly is it you’re asking me to do?
CJ: I now know everything there is to know about the Census. Go ahead, you can ask me anything.
Bartlet: How many people live in the United States?
Sam: There is some material we haven't covered yet.
Logically flawed but sweet and rich in character. Three and a half out of four inaccurate censuses. Censi. Whatever.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.