The West Wing: Lord John Marbury

"Well, bring in Dr Strangelove, and we’re all set."

India and Pakistan are about to implode, China is threatening to get involved, and no one wants to tell CJ. Meantime, in the story that won’t die, Josh is being grilled on staff drug use.

Oh goodness, Lord John Marbury. I have to confess, he is not my favourite West Wing character. Between the strange, slightly disheveled look, references to butlers, reminding Leo he should be addressed as 'your Lordship,' the fact that he's an Earl... Lord John Marbury - who, if he's an Earl, I'm reasonably sure should be called 'Lord Sherborne' or something like that, in the same way that Downton Abbey's Robert Crawley is called Lord Grantham - is a painfully typical caricature of a certain American view of the English that feels a bit like watching nails scraped across a blackboard to me.

To be fair, I'm not from the sort of circles Marbury is supposed to be from, so I can't really speak to how accurate or not his portrayal is (ChrisB's Downton Abbey reviews have informed me of all sorts of bits and pieces about the English aristocracy and the customs they still observe that are completely outside my own experience). And since his job is to use his experience and connections to help Bartlet negotiate with India and Pakistan, it makes a sort of sense that he comes from a wealthy, privileged background, which has given him the knowledge and experience that Bartlet needs to draw on. It's just a matter of personal taste, really - I have an instinctive dislike of this sort of outsider's view of my country that represents so little of the reality of living here. But Marbury has his uses and he's not a bad character overall - he offers an objective point of view and an historical perspective on the situation, which is good. He just annoys me!

The Marbury/India/Pakistan story is left unresolved with Marbury sticking around for a couple of weeks. Also unresolved is the continuing arc about Leo's drug use, which I confess I am beginning to tire of a little. It's very sweet the way everyone promises to support him, though. That scene includes one of those little details that show just how much thought and effort everyone on the show puts in to The West Wing - when Josh asks Leo if his family knows about the pills and Leo says yes, Margaret is nodding in the background. That nod says so much about their relationship, about how close she is to Leo and how much she's done for him, and how much she cares about what happens to him. It's lovely.

Also lovely is Charlie and Zoey tentatively beginning a relationship despite Bartlet's regret at not locking Zoey in a dungeon. Charlie asking Bartlet for permission is terribly old-fashioned but he manages to make it look sweet and considerate of his boss's feelings, rather than being too patriarchal. Just about. Bartlet warning Charlie about the hate mail he'll receive is even more heart-warming. You can see how much both men care about each other, as well as about Zoey.

The only story that's actually resolved within this episode concerns CJ being kept in the dark about early developments on the Indian sub-continent. Asked about the situation in her press briefing, CJ ends up looking uninformed and a bit foolish. To be fair, this is partly her own fault, as she could have been less dismissive and snarky when denying anything was going on and offered to follow it up with the President. But still, even if the others didn’t want to give her details they should have given her a heads up that there was a situation developing.

The atmosphere of the whole thing isn’t helped by the fact CJ is the only female member of senior staff, which has nothing to do with this particular plot really, except that what we end up with is a story about a group of men refusing to tell a woman what’s going on because they think her romantic affections will rule her head. (I think Toby is just jealous. I'm convinced he and CJ are secretly in love with each other). It all ends up feeling just a bit uncomfortable.

This is exacerbated by an unrelated moment in the Marbury plot, in which Leo worries about bringing Marbury to a place with liquor and women and Bartlet says they can hide the women, but the man deserves a drink. It’s funny, but the fact there are no women in the room at the time doesn't help the general representation of a place where the men decide what to do with the helpless womenfolk - and when you add Bartlet's anxiety about his fully grown daughter going out with any man at all and wanting to lock her in a dungeon, you end up with a really odd attitude towards women running throughout the episode. I'm sure it's completely unintentional and largely a coincidence - it's just unfortunate that all three stories have come together this way.

Bits 'n' pieces

 - Ed and Larry explain India and Pakistan using the Encyclopedia Britannica, because it's the year 2000 and Wikipedia doesn’t exist yet.

 - Gail's fishbowl watch: I can’t work out what’s in the fishbowl in this episode, something in ruins? It's noticeably central during the scene in which CJ and Toby are talking about CJ's relationship with Danny.

 - The Pakistani ambassador is Daniel Jackson's father-in-law and the Indian ambassador is Abed’s dad.


Sam: I admire your pluck.
Mandy: I’m sorry, what part of me do you admire?!

Leo: He’s a lunatic!
Bartlet: He’s colourful.
Leo: He’s certifiable!

CJ: You sent me in there uninformed because you thought I’d lie to the press.
Tony: We sent you in there uninformed because we thought there was a chance you couldn’t.

Bartlet: I should have locked her in the dungeon.
Charlie: I don't think you’ve got one, sir.
Bartlet: I could have built one.

Bartlet: I’m a father in pain.
Leo: Well, really you’re just a pain.

CJ: Are you apologising?
Toby: Yes.
CJ: Well?
Toby: What?
CJ: Apologise!

Bartlet (to Charlie): Just remember these two things: she’s 19 years old, and the 82nd Airborne works for me.

I think the unfortunately patriarchal vibe is an accident, and sense has largely been seen by the end of the episode, but I'm afraid Marbury rubs me up the wrong way a bit. Two out of four ridiculous British stereotypes who think Leo's the butler.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


Billie Doux said...

Love Lord John. Possibly my favorite sporadic character in the series.

ChrisB said...

While I agree that Marbury is a caricature of an upper class Englishman, he always makes me smile. And, you're right. He would be called Lord Sherborne, but only if someone were addressing him by name. He corrects Leo as "Sir" is technically incorrect.

There is a scene in Downton, right after Bates arrives, where he slips and calls Robert "Sir," a holdover from when Bates was his batman. From then on, it is "Your Lordship."

In terms of the CJ story, I think what the writers were trying to do was show us that CJ had been right all along. She refuses to date Danny for the longest time because she doesn't want to compromise her role as the Press Secretary. In the episode after she dates him, this situation occurs. I don't think it was at all clearly explained and it does come across as sexist.

Juliette said...

I think the sexism is entirely accidental - it's just a bit unfortunate!

Lord John did grow on me eventually, a bit!

Billie Doux said...

Let me expand on my previous short comment. Even though I'm aware he's something of a caricature and I know how irritating it is when British shows do that to us, I do like Marbury. I think it's because Bartlet knew Marbury would help, and he did -- and that Bartlet saw the worth in someone that Leo dismissed. (I think Marbury kept calling Leo the butler because Marbury was aware of Leo's opinion of him, not that he didn't know who he was.)

"You're a cheap hack. And if you come after Leo McGarry, I'm going to bust you like a pinata." I never liked Sam Seaborn more than at that moment. Yes, the drug thing is a plot that won't go away, but it's playing out slowly and painfully, the way it would in real life, and I appreciate that.

Josie Kafka said...

Gail's fishbowl watch: I can’t work out what’s in the fishbowl in this episode, something in ruins?

I looked, and I really think it's a small tank. A military tank, not another fish tank. That would be too meta.

Damien Bradley said...

(I've been reading reviews on this site for ages, but this is my first comment!)

I also noticed Margaret's nod, and thought it was an excellent touch. I wonder if it was directed or not.

Leo's drug use is actually one of my favorite story arcs of the whole season. I feel like they treat addiction and recovery from an informed, compassionate place.

I appreciate the discussions of conscious or unconscious sexism in this show (or any). I could agree that the sexism in this episode is unconscious, but either way, it's definitely indicative of the attitude hinted at in "The Crackpots and These Women": even with women, formerly relegated to the private and domestic spheres, now working with and among the powerful men, they're still something notable, unique, "other", still to be handled, still to be protected. It's subtle and insidious.

Every time I see the scene where the men in the Oval Office clearly keep the one woman (whose job it is to know exactly the kind of thing they kept from her) in the dark, I always feel heavy overtones that there is a sexist element to the men's withholding of information, and those overtones could easily be intentional on Sorkin's part. Would they punish a man in the same way for having dinner with a reporter the way C.J. did with Danny?