The West Wing: He Shall, From Time to Time

"This isn't the worst of it, Charlie. The worst of it's coming up the stairs right now."

Days before he's due to give his first State of the Union address, Bartlet collapses in the Oval Office, giving Leo something else to worry about in a week in which he also has to address the press about his past.

This is where it starts, people. This is where things get real.

This is the episode in which we (and Leo) find out that Bartlet has MS, and has kept it secret from the press, the public and just about everyone. This is one of The West Wing's all time best ongoing plots and, of course, its impact reaches out across the entire series. I love this storyline, which is done sensibly, subtly and very touchingly. To be fair, some of this is personal as my Mum has a form of MS-or-something-like-it so I've grown up with it - in contrast to just about everything else in the series which is, of course, fascinating but literally foreign to me. But I do also think it's a fantastic plot development anyway.

One of the most important things this plot does is to show that Bartlet isn't perfect. Granted, we've seen glimpses of that before, particularly in his reaction to the news of Leo's divorce. But this is more than an over-reaction - this is a huge lie of omission, a conscious decision to deceive the voting public and possibly even a crime. It's a very understandable one and of course, there's plenty of precedent, as it's what FDR did (using all the advantages of media that were on his side and restricted to newspapers and radio). I doubt the public knew how bad JFK's back problems were either. So this is the perfect flaw to give a Democratic president (it's that or womanizing, and Bartlet would never do that!).

This story also shows Bartlet vulnerable, which we've seen glimpses of before with his back problems (which suddenly appear in a new light) and his concern for Zoey, but this is much more substantial. His desperate whimper that 'I wanted to be President' is simultaneously a bit pathetic and terribly sweet - he sounds like a little boy.

This new plot development also gives Mrs, or rather Dr, Bartlet a job and a (presumed) life outside the White House and her husband’s career, which is very good to see. Since Abbey had only made one brief appearance before this, Stockard Channing and the writers together are basically able to build her personality from here, and her career - both her desire to help people, and her no-nonsense attitude and insistence that she's always right - informs her character from here on out (that random reference to her having a Ouija board from 'The Crackpots and these Women' forgotten - while not impossible, it seems unlikely to be true of the Abbey we get to know). It also tells us a lot more about the Bartlets' relationship, aside from demonstrating their deep love, affection and attraction to each other.

Poor Leo has to be the audience surrogate, which necessitates the detail that when Jed and Abbey kept this secret from everyone, that included him. Since, as we're reminded in this episode, Bartlet knew all about Leo's drug and drink problems, Leo's a bit de-chuffed about that, though since Bartlet's standing behind him (well, lying down in another room, but metaphorically) through the whole drugs-revelation business, he can't really be too mad. Bartlet later advises the Secretary of Agriculture that, should he abruptly become President because everyone else has died, he should find his best friend, who he'd trust with his life, because that's his Chief of Staff. Aw.

Both the India/Pakistan/Lord Marbury storyline and the bulk of the plot about Leo's drug addiction are wrapped up here, so there's a real sense of moving on as Bartlet heads out to reflect on the old and herald the new. The West Wing was a great show from the get-go, but here it really starts to cement its place as easily the best thing on television.

Bits 'n' pieces

 - When Sheen is speechifying at the beginning, he starts to go really JFK. Just listen to the way he pronounces ‘dahllors.’

 - Our heroes have to pick one person in the line of succession to watch the state of the union on TV in case Guy Fawkes turns up or the Cylons attack. So they choose… the mayor of Sunnydale. And the entire population of the US was eaten by a giant snake.

 - This is also the episode in which CJ kisses Danny in order to get over him. It’s unclear how effective this is as a plan, but at least now Danny knows CJ likes him and it’s her job and his job that’s the problem.

 - Goldfish bowl watch: Gale’s bowl contains a miniature podium with little US flags.

 - Bartlet watching daytime TV is hilarious, and is, in fact, the genesis of the entire MS story-line. Sorkin wanted to show Bartlet ill and stuck in front of daytime TV, and needed to write a story around it. So we have Jerry Springer and Days of Our Lives to thank for the whole thing.

 - In a tiny sub plot about arts funding, Toby totally owns people with facts. It is awesome.

 - Very minor spoiler alert: this is the only time in the entire series that Leo calls Bartlet ‘Jed’ and not sir or Mr President.


CJ: Damn you know what I forgot to do today? I forgot to feel the president’s glands.

Bartlet: The pound sign is silent?

Abbey: Are you still dizzy?
Bartlet: No.
Abbey: He’s lying. Clearly there are some advantages to being your own spouse's doctor.

Bartlet: I could jump you right now.
Abbey: I could kill you right now.
Bartlet: My thing’s more fun.

Marbury: You know, there are some marvelous flu remedies known in the certain remote parts of the subcontinent. Licorice root, for instance, combined with bamboo sap and a strong shot of whiskey. Ginger root, also, mixed with citrus peel.
Bartlet: And a strong shot of whiskey?
Marbury: Yes, of course. In fact, you can throw out the ginger root and citrus peel, and still be well in your way. Maybe I'm starting to warm to Marbury...

Bartlet: I was watching a television program before, with a sort of a roving moderator who spoke to a seated panel of young women who were having some sort of problem with their boyfriends - apparently, because the boyfriends had all slept with the girlfriends' mothers. Then they brought the boyfriends out, and they all fought, right there on television. Toby, tell me: these people don't vote, do they?

12 episodes in, The West Wing is all grown up. Four out of four whiskey-based flu remedies.

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...

This is indeed an exceptional episode, and a game changer. I can remember how shocked I was, and how it ramped my interest in the series up to eleven. Terrific review, Juliette.

sunbunny said...

"And the entire population of the US was eaten by a giant snake."

My favorite line in any review on this site. Ever.

I watched this during its original run, even though parts admittedly went over my eleven-year-old head. I remember not knowing what MS was. I was entirely sympathetic to Bartlet.

I don't known if it's that I'm older now or the changes in the political climate but now Bartlet's actions seem really, really selfish and almost unforgivable. Of course we had presidents in the past that kept health issues under wraps, but to keep a secret like this today (or, you know, fifteen years ago) requires more doing. Bartlet's keeping his MS from the voters doesn't even feel like a lie of omission, it just feels like a lie.

Of course, I still love him and the show. And I do like that the story gave the first lady something more substantive to do than pose with school tours and smile for photo-ops. I love that they made her a doctor. The idea of having a purely ornamental first lady is so last century. :)

Barbara Bush was the last first lady we had who didn't have a career, right?

Juliette said...

Thanks sunbunny! I hesitated a bit about the potential spoilery-ness but it was too fun to resist!

ChrisB said...

It was interesting to watch this episode today as I have spent a great deal of time lately watching all of the JFK shows. This is a man who hid a great deal of sickness during his presidency and I wonder how much of it he would have gotten away with half a century later.

What I love about this episode is how much love is on view. Bartlet's and Leo's friendship, the Bartlet marriage, Mallory and Sam, CJ and Danny, Mallory and her dad, Josh and Donna, Josh and Sam defending Leo against his wishes, Leo refusing their help because he doesn't want them tainted with his sins,. And, even though we could never say that Bartlet and Toby are the best of friends, the scene where Toby talks the President around is lovely to watch. There is also the lovely coda at the end when Marbury says goodbye to everyone and subtly provides a voice of support to Leo.

Great review, Juliette. I agree that this is when the series really took off for me.

Billie Doux said...

(Since I'm doing a rewatch, here's more of a comment.)

Totally did not see that one coming. The M.S. certainly adds some dramatic angst to the story. I'm a bit torn about it, too. I get why he concealed it, but like sunbunny says, it feels dishonest.

It was nice to see the Mayor of Sunnydale in the Oval Office. :) And what Bartlet said about choosing your chief of staff got to me.