The West Wing: Celestial Navigation

“Are you telling me that not only did you invent a secret plan to fight inflation, but now you don’t support it?”

The President’s nominee for Supreme Court Justice runs into some trouble while antiquing in Connecticut, and everyone else runs into some trouble when CJ takes a few hours out to get root canal.

There’s a loose theme of race relations running through this episode – a black Democrat has called the entire Republican party racists, and Presidential nominee for Supreme Court Justice Adama – er, Mendoza – has been arrested for drunk driving despite the fact he doesn’t drink. But the true theme of the episode is story-telling, and more particularly the importance of telling the right story to the public to get your point across. That’s why the framing device features Josh telling an audience a story about his disastrous performance in the press room. Appearances and ‘the story’ matter if you want to get things done, which is why Mendoza must give up pursuing justice for himself and accept a cover-up so that he can continue to pursue justice for everyone else in America.

When CJ goes out for dental surgery and is absent for a few hours, then returns unable to speak properly, everything quickly starts coming apart at the seams. First, Danny pulls a Jeremy Paxman on the President and makes him answer a question, so of course after a couple of attempts at deflection Bartlet does, and disaster ensues. Then things go from bad to worse when Josh does the press briefing and accidentally implies that the President has a secret plan to fight inflation, thus making inflation sound rather sexier than it usually does.

The best thing about this story, aside from the hilarity, is that it reinforces just how tough CJ’s job is and how well she does it. CJ is frequently the most under-appreciated senior staffer in the early seasons, not only cut out of the loop on occasions to protect her from having to lie to the press, but also the chief target of the casual sexism that abounds in this late 1990s office environment. When she tries to speak to Josh with half her mouth frozen for example, giving her a temporary but fairly severe speech impediment, Josh casually tells her, "you shouldn’t try to say that, you’ve got a great body". Charming.

Luckily, as ever, Josh’s pride comes before a fall and by the end of the episode the President has reiterated that he doesn’t care if CJ is bleeding from the head and has been trampled by a stampede of bison, only she should do the press briefing. It’s worth noting too that Josh got himself trouble because he was “kidding around with Danny” and apparently forgot he was in front of the whole White House Press Corps – so Josh is the one who’s made a mess because he’s too close to Danny, not CJ.

This episode succeeds largely on its charm and the cast’s comic timing. Cruel as it sounds, CJ repeatedly yelling in a muffled voice “I had root canal” really is very funny, and the President chewing out Josh in the Oval Office is, as always, very entertaining. The more serious side of the episode comes through in Toby’s confrontation with a hurt and humiliated Mendoza in the Connecticut jail cell, and that works well too – but poor CJ and her root canal is definitely the highlight.

Bits ‘n’ pieces

 - Josh makes a right mess of the press briefing, but in his defence, it would help if the President stopped bumming cigarettes from reporters.

 - 1990s problems: Toby calls Josh while Josh is on stage because he missed the exit and they’re lost in Connecticut without a sat-nav (today they could just use their phones).

 - This in turn gives the episode its title – Sam tries to use celestial navigation, but can’t work out where the north star is.

 - Connecticut Sgt McNamara is played by Vaughn Armstrong, who has appeared in every series of Star Trek except the original playing 12 different characters.

 - Goldfish bowl watch: I'm terrible at remembering to look out for this but apparently it contains a podium.


Josh (on the phone): You’re not there any more are ya? I’m talking to no one at all right now.

Josh: I don’t think it was as much my fault as other people do.

Sam: I’m nuts for dental hygiene.

Josh: The President spoke briefly (thinks, corrects himself) – the President has never spoken briefly in his life.

CJ (to Josh): Try vewy vewy hard not to destwoy us.

Charlie: Sir, I need you to dig in now. It wasn’t a nightmare, you really are the President.

Amusing but fairly inconsequential. Two and a half out of four painful dental surgeries.

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


Juliette said...

Apologies for the long absence of these reviews - there's just too much going on during the academic/new TV season part of the year! The aim is to do at least one review per week over the summer (probably followed by another hiatus once term/new TV starts up again in October).

Billie Doux said...

You wouldn't think The West Wing could do it, but OMG, this episode is so funny. I think it's because C.J. is so serious and so good at her job, and when she says "pwesidential bweefing" with a straight face, it's impossible not to laugh. It's not just C.J., though. The whole thing is great -- Josh not listening to Danny and inventing the president's secret plan to fight inflation, Toby and Sam lost in Connecticut, Edward James Olmos at his fierce and righteous best. I love this one.

Juliette said...

Allison Janney just deserves ALL the Emmys for CJ!

ChrisB said...

This is one of the great comic episodes. It always makes me laugh out loud. Toby's quick comments to everyone else are the best bits.

The absolute stellar moment for me, however, is when Josh is flailing in the briefing room and Danny just shoots him a look. Brilliant directing choice.

Gator said...

I loved West Wing, but not so much the "CJ gets root canal" story line. I've had a root canal and it's not like that at all. I was able to speak normally as soon as they took all the stuff out of my mouth. Root canal gets a very bad rap from how it's portrayed on TV. It's a lengthy procedure, but mostly painless since it's always done on a DEAD tooth.