“I’m not cured. You don’t get cured.”
CJ is forced to compromise her principles to protect the President and Leo, whose problems as a result of the leaked information about his time in rehab seem to be coming to an end, albeit not without consequences.
The West Wing sits in an interesting position in terms of how we make TV shows. Airing from 1999-2006, it sits right over the period when, in SFF TV at least, there was a general movement from structuring shows around one-episode Monsters of the Week with occasional arc plots a la The X-Files, the various Star Treks etc., to long, season-spanning stories and shows you need to try to watch every week to keep up with what’s going on, like the later seasons of Buffy and Angel, Battlestar Galactica (the reboot), The Vampire Diaries and so on (plus, of course, anything in which each season is based on a single book like True Blood or Game of Thrones). In non-genre TV there are more MotW holdouts, especially in crime and detective dramas but also in things like House, where there’s a case of the week, because these shows get high ratings, because the people who go outside can still switch them on when they feel like it and know what’s happening (I think the MotW is a great format that’s seriously underrated, but that’s a rant for another time!). But shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad demonstrate that more intricate long-term story-telling is something that’s happening in other genres as well.
The West Wing doesn’t quite follow either of these formats. Like many successful shows, it essentially combines MotW stories – in The West Wing’s case, Political Crisis of the Week – with ongoing character-based arcs focusing on the lives and personal relationships of the West Wing staffers. But a number of the on-going story arcs are not only fairly substantial in character terms, they’re political issues too, while some of the PCotW (Political Crises of the Week, because this is The West Wing, so we must be sure to put the plural in the right place, like surgeons general or courts martial) are such slight stories they’re barely more than a punchline, or a branch from another story. What we end up with, in several of these early episodes, is a sort of collection of vignettes, some relating to an ongoing plot, some standing a little more separately. In this episode in particular, as I sat down to watch it again, it occurred to me that I vaguely remembered scenes from this installment, without necessarily remembering that they belonged in the same episode.
The main plot revolves around CJ, and partly around her relationship with Danny. In a role reversal from Danny’s earlier stalking we now have CJ treating Danny not entirely brilliantly, and yet they are both so adorable I still love them anyway. So, CJ calls Danny 'freak boy' (affectionately… sort of), she has apparently been grabbing him and kissing him in corridors for a week but refuses to go on a date, then she sort of breaks up with him except they weren’t together anyway. Meanwhile Toby is still giving her Looks like she’s going to leak something to Danny (I still think he’s jealous) and then she nearly does leak something to Danny but out of principle, not for sex, but he won’t let her… Honestly I have no critical faculties when it comes to CJ and Danny. I love them. They are awesome. Even if CJ did get a bit carried away in this episode resulting in her being wrong about something and Mandy being right, which is a painful thing to admit.
In amongst all this was one of the 'vignettes' that I had particularly remembered. The parents of the boy killed a couple of episodes earlier in a homophobic attack, Mr and Mrs Lydell, are coming to show their support for the President, but Mandy’s concerned the father isn't actually feeling very supportive. Everyone assumes that he had a problem with his son being gay. However, when they sit down with him, the father reveals that he has no problem whatsoever with his son being gay – his problem is with the President, who he feels isn’t doing enough for LGBT rights. It’s a brilliant scene and a great performance from the actor playing My Lydell (and it’s quite heartening to think that though we may be moving slowly, things have perhaps moved on a little from where we were in early 2000, albeit not a lot). I love the way he sneaks in the fact that actually he’s not even that wild about the hate crimes bill either (he doesn’t see how you can police what people are thinking).
The other vignette-type scene I had really remembered comes at the conclusion to the Leo-drugs-scandal plot, which is finally resolved tonight (phew. I don’t know why exactly, but that particular arc didn't do much for me). Sam finds out who leaked the information about Leo’s rehab in the first place, calls the woman, Karen, into his office, and fires her (he is terrifying as he calls her into his tiny office and shuts the door to yell at her, I felt uncomfortable just watching it). When Leo finds out, he calls Karen to his office (brave thing, she goes and doesn’t run a mile) and talks to her about why she did it. Aside from providing Aaron Sorkin with a platform to try to explain alcoholism, I love this scene because like the scene with Mr Lydell, it undercuts possible viewer expectations to offer a fresh perspective. Where Sam just yelled, Leo understands why Karen did what she did. Having grown up with an alcoholic father, Karen was worried about an alcoholic running the White House. Leo admires her for being ‘a little bit brave’ in acting according to her conscience and gives her her job back (though if I were Karen, with everyone knowing what had happened, I don’t think I’d actually want to work there any more, even if it is the White House!).
The title of the episode refers to the trick of dumping unwanted stories all together on a Friday, so none of them get written about too much and fewer people read the papers the next day anyway (The West Wing also predates the ubiquity of 24-hour news, I find myself needing to remember at this point). In addition to sending the Lydells away for being unsupportive, CJ is forced to quietly dump a sex education research paper as well, because in order to protect Leo from an inquiry into his time in rehab, Josh and Sam have promised to put it to bed (hehe) until after the midterms the following year. Neither sits well with her conscience, which is why she nearly leaks the truth about the Lydells to Danny.
The sex education paper itself is mostly used to make giggly jokes (those of us who, like CJ, would have no trouble passing an abstinence class could have coped with hearing less about how much sex teenagers are having!). The President repeatedly saying ‘I won’t say that word’ is especially funny. But underneath all the laughing and discomfort there are serious issues here, and only CJ truly seems to regret the fact that, by deliberately choosing not to make improvements in their sex education, our guys have ensured that the number of unwanted pregnancies will continue to be high, just to protect Leo from an unpleasant experience.
All in all, this is an episode that’s just sort of there, but stands out for a couple of excellent scenes with Mr Lydell and Karen which both undercut the sense of smugness that could sometimes sneak in to early episodes of The West Wing and remind us that our heroes are not infallible. There’s a strange sense of discomfort about the taking out of the trash, which is entirely the point, so bravo!
Bits ‘n’ pieces
- There’s a mention of the White House Counsel’s Office, but we don’t see them.
- The thinnest story of all involved Toby defending PBS’ funding. I feel unqualified to comment on this given that a) the only PBS programming I’ve seen (apart from the British period dramas on Masterpiece Theater) is Sesame Street and b) we have the BBC, so… yeah. The BBC’s funding has been seriously slashed in the last few years, which is a very sad thing.
CJ: Abstinence only? I would have no trouble passing such a class.
CJ: Everything but? They want teachers to teach…..?
CJ: Carol? Dotting the "I"s and crossing the "T"s, thank you for that.
Carol: We do our homework.
CJ: You misspelled 'senator'.
Sam: We never have our chats anymore, Toby.
Toby: What chats?
Sam: Our late night chats!
Toby: Did we ever do that?
Bartlet: Unless a war breaks out, I'll be spending much of my day talking about bananas. He almost sounds like he wants a war for a minute there.
Mr Lydell: I’m not embarrassed that my son was gay, my government is.
Toby: This administration is gonna protect the Muppets!
Memorable mainly for Leo's gentle understanding towards Karen and Mr Lydell's anger - two and a half out of four words the President won't say.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.