"Would you ask him if it's better to diss the House Whip or the Senate Whip?"
This episode is memorable for two things: it has Felicity Huffman in it, and the cold open.
The whole fire sequence in the cold open is a thing of beauty. Donna is sure this isn't a good idea. Sam suggests they might be burning important heritage items. Josh promises not to use flammable liquids just as Sam arrives with kerosene. Sam and Josh manage to work out that Donna is not, in fact, going out to the forest to get dried leaves. But best of all, the gag the whole sequence has been leading up to, Charlie finds himself knocking on the President's door and saying, "You know how you told me not to wake you up unless the building was on fire?"
I may have spent a bit too much time extolling the virtues of the cold open. To be honest, that's because the rest of this episode isn't really that thrilling. Don't get me wrong, it's not bad. It's well known that you could put just about any episode of The West Wing next to most other TV shows and the episode of The West Wing will be brilliant by comparison. But this episode sits in the middle of season two of The West Wing, one of the best overall seasons of television I've ever seen, and by comparison with most of the rest of the season, it suffers a little.
One of the reasons this episode can feel like a bit of a slog is that the point of the episode is that everyone is engaged in a pointless exercise that is supposed to symbolise bipartisanship but in practical terms, achieves nothing. Toby, predictably, tries to make this glorified photo op about actual issues and genuine bipartisan debate. Equally predictably, it all blows up in his face and everyone in the Bartlet camp ends up looking bad. All of this is just as frustrating to watch as a viewer as it is for Toby to live through. Honestly, on re-watch, I usually watch the cold open and then skip the rest of the episode.
The most significant part of the A plot comes at the end, as Toby and Leo decide to start campaigning for Bartlet's re-election in two years' time, having realised that he may be running against the Majority Leader. They also decide not to tell the actual President, because Leo is worried he'll freak out and say he's not running. This is by far the most important moment for the season's ongoing arc, and does go some way towards redeeming the rest of the episode and making it mean something.
Elsewhere, there's a B plot about a chain of unfortunate events kicked off by Leo making a joke about a news columnist's shoes and trying to get his staff to make things up to her. Somehow this leads to Sam mixing up Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and Donna losing her underwear. It's supposed to be funny and it is mildly amusing but - why was Leo making jokes about women's shoes in the first place? Does he make jokes about men's shoes when he meets them? Would he be that worried they were desperately offended if he had? The whole thing is oddly sexist, and culminates in Donna's underwear falling off (thankfully offscreen) which makes Donna into the butt monkey again, and also raises the question of how exactly that happened? How did Donna walk around all day not realising there was a second pair of underpants stuck in her trousers, nor did she notice when they fell out? And is wearing the same pair of trousers two days in a row so weird? That's completely normal. I may have given this too much thought.
Bits and pieces
- Following the events of Noel, Leo is asking how Josh is once a day. Or, four times in ten seconds.
- CJ tells Ann Stark they can't have the press conference on the Hill, Toby over-rules her, CJ is proved to have been completely right. When will the rest of the staff learn to listen to CJ?
- The shipping news: Hints of both Josh/Donna and the lesser seen Sam/Donna - see below.
- Goldfish bowl watch: Cathedral with smoke.
Donna (skeptically): Sam Seaborn's being so cute?
Sam: It'd kill you?
Josh (to Donna): I'm holding your underwear in my hand right now. And the way I know it's your underwear is that your name is sewn in the back which, obviously, we'll spend some time talking about at a later date.
CJ: Why were you holding women's underwear before?
Josh: Never really needed a reason.
Toby: Leo, Ann Stark's a wartime consigliere. That's why she was bumped up.
Leo: I'm a wartime consigliere too, Toby.
Leo (to Toby): Shake my hand. We just formed it.
Leo: The committee to re-elect the President.
The weak link in The West Wing's otherwise stellar second season. Two out of four pointless photo ops.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.