The West Wing: Bartlet's Third State of the Union

"That's all that tonight's speech was about!"

Bartlet gives his third (or second - see below) State of the Union speech, but Abbey is not impressed that serious issues concerning domestic violence got bumped for school uniforms. Very sensibly, she deals with this by going for food.

There's a lot going on in this episode. Bartlet delivers the State of the Union speech, obviously. As a result, Abbey is mad at him. Joey Lucas is here (yay!) and polling responses to the speech. CJ has to break bad news to a guest honoured in the speech. Five DEA agents have been abducted in Colombia, an ongoing thread to be resolved in the next episode. And there's a bench covered in wet paint in the rose garden that people keep sitting on.

This is basically the first part of a two-parter, so most of the storylines won't be resolved until the next episode. However, it still works as an individual episode, partly thanks to a really strong final scene. The core of this first part is a brilliantly tense scene between Mr and Mrs Bartlet which forms part of the ongoing story about preparing to run for a second term and is especially memorable, partly because it's so strongly acted, and partly because this is the first indication the audience gets that Bartlet running again may not be a done deal.

Leo and Toby formed their little committee to re-elect the President and didn't tell anyone else, but Abbey Bartlet is perceptive and brilliant and can see a political campaign coming a mile off, and she is Not Happy. She and Bartlet made a deal, which he has apparently broken if he is running for a second term. (Bartlet himself appears to have been letting Toby and Leo do their thing and deliberately not thinking about it - he knows Abbey's right but doesn't want to face the issue). Stockard Channing can do righteously pissed off like no one else and the weirdly domestic-but-not setting of the argument, in a kitchen while eating a sandwich (very domestic) but it's a huge kitchen with staff milling around (less so) really highlights the nature of the problem. This is a dispute between a husband and wife, but played against a background of high politics, and the outcome may affect the whole country. (I also love Abbey saying she'll stay up with him when he goes to deal with the whole drugs-kidnapping situation. You can see how much they love each other, no matter how angry they might be).

With the major storylines in this episode being pretty heavy (the kidnapping plot involves Bartlet asking how many enemy casualties there will be, to which Leo responds 'Do you care?' and Bartlet says 'No' - understandable, but heavy stuff), it helps to have something to lighten the mood, and the lighter stories in this episode are brilliant. Everything between Josh, Donna and Joey Lucas is hilarious and adorable (I especially like Joey's exasperated explanation that she just didn't pay enough attention in airplane mechanics class when Josh complains because she was late) and while CJ sitting in wet paint is funny in itself, the joke it's setting up is genius. Ainsley has never met the President, so Sam decides to set up a surprise so she won't get nervous, unaware that she is drunk and wearing a bathrobe, dancing around her office in the Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue. It is joyously ridiculous and wonderful.

It's hard to sum up a Part 1 without reference to Part 2, but the final scene between Jed and Abbey really does pull this together so that it leaves a lasting impression on the viewer by itself, even as most of the stories carry on into Part 2.

Bits and pieces

 - This episode introduced the secret 'come to the situation room right now' code that has ensured if anyone ever tells me they want to introduce me to an old friend, I am likely to panic immediately.

 - There's a lot of exposition in the cold open of this episode. Some of it is reasonably elegant - Josh complaining that Joey Lucas would have no way of knowing if anyone had an accent sounds offensive but is actually pretty funny. Some of it - Bartlet saying 'is Abbey in her seat?' and immediately following it up with 'I say, my wife's in her seat?' - is less so.

 - I love Sam and Toby still writing the speech as Bartlet walks towards the room.

 - The shipping news: Donna is trying to get Josh to ask Joey out, which it seems he still hasn't done even though she dumped Q ages ago.

 - The further shipping news: Sam refers to Ainsley as a 'blonde Republican sex kitten'. I'm choosing to see this as a cute indication of the fact he clearly has a crush on her, rather than a horrifyingly sexist way to describe a colleague.

British people problems: I had no idea, before seeing this episode, that school uniforms were such a moral issue in the States. They make some good points. (I did go to a school for a while where you didn't have to wear the actual uniform as long as you had the right colours on, because some parents couldn't afford the uniform, but I have no idea if that helped the kids in that situation).

 - Further British people problems: I am extremely grateful to this episode for explaining to me what the State of the Union is. (We have no such equivalent. We have the opening of Parliament, which probably comes close. The Queen also gives a three-minute speech after lunch at Christmas, but even the people who bother to watch it are in a food coma by then).

 - Having said that, I have learned something of American politics over the years, and this should surely be Bartlet's second State of the Union, not his third - his first January speech would have been his Inauguration speech, not a State of the Union.

Quotes

Joey/Kenny: Joshua Lyman, you have the cutest little butt in professional politics.
Josh: Kenny, really, that better have been her talking.

Sam: Where'd you get the bathrobe?
Carol: The gym.
Sam: There are bathrobes at the gym?
CJ: In the women's locker room.
Sam: But not the men's.
CJ: Yeah.
Sam: Now, that's outrageous. There are a thousand men working here and fifty women.
CJ: Yeah, and it's the bathrobes that are outrageous.

Mrs Landingham (looking at a perfectly normal image on TV): Charlie, is it possible that CJ isn't wearing any pants right now?

Sam: Why are you moving like that?
Ainsley: I'm blaming it on the Bossa Nova!

Tense and funny in all the right places. Four out of four bathrobes from the women's gym.

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

7 comments:

Billie Doux said...

You're probably right about it being the second state of the union, Juliette. I think I just assumed there was one we hadn't seen before the show started. But that's not right, is it?

I have to say, one thing this show does extraordinarily well (along with so many other things) is conveying how important every single tiny detail can be, and how good these people are at their jobs.

Ainsley Hayes has started to remind me of Harmony in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I loved the way she shrieked and her glass just went into orbit when Bartlet came into the room.

Joey Lucas is not an expert in either airplane repair or electricity. Good to know. Lighten up, Josh.

Countess of Monte Cristo said...

It's definitely the second State of the Union that we see, since the show starts almost a whole year into his term. I thought I remembered Obama giving a State of the Union in 2009, his first year in office, so I looked it up and learned that both Obama and the four presidents before him (Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Reagan) gave speeches to joint sessions of Congress that technically weren't States of the Union but were close enough that http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/sou.php includes them in its archive of SOTUs and says "For research purposes, it is probably harmless to categorize these as State of the Union messages." Looking at this, it appears the history of the State of the Union isn't quite so cut-and-dried as to what constitutes a SOTU as I thought (and I'm American). But it makes sense to me that his staff would think of it as his third SOTU, if he gave a speech shortly after taking office like Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama did, and he probably did because one of Jed Bartlet's strengths is public speaking and they'd want to show it off.

Marianna said...

This may be my favorite The West Wing episode of all time! You are correct that it is the second State of the Union; I vaguely remember reading that Aaron Sorkin admitted it was a mistake.

In additions to the ones you listed here are some other quotes I love from this episode:

Josh: Joey? Can I ask you what may be a silly question?
Joey/Kenny: Sure.
Josh: It's not possible, is it, for us to just open up one of these computers with a screwdriver and get the numbers that are in there, right?
Joey/Kenny: Why did you think that'd be a silly question?

Josh: Call Sam. [yells] I want the numbers!
Donna: You know Josh, everyone else is having fun with this.
Josh: You're the only one who's having fun with this. Nobody else is having fun with this.
Joey: Boo!

(to continue one you started)
Mrs. Landingham: Charlie, is it possible that C.J. isn't wearing any pants right now?
Charlie: Yeah. She sat in wet paint.
Mrs. Landingham: And she's not wearing any pants?
Charlie: Well, she's wearing underwear Mrs. Landingham. She hasn't gone smokeless.
Mrs. Landinham: Okay.

Juliette said...

Mariana, I love all those lines - I always have trouble not just typing out the script of West Wing episodes, there are so many great lines!

Hank said...

No I still buy that it's his third State of the Union address based on the thought that the series begins 18 months into Bartley's first term.

Countess of Monte Cristo said...

The show does NOT start 18 months into Bartlet's first term. It starts about nine months in. I know various comments from people associated with the show make it sound like it's more than a year but if you do the math that doesn't make sense. The first four seasons are all set roughly around the same time they aired, except for specific episodes, like In the Shadow of Two Gunmen is immediately after What Kind of Day Has It Been?. Aaron Sorkin has said they're all set at roughly the time they air because it's easier for the audience that way. Bartlet is elected in 1998 and takes office in January 1999. The show picks up in September of 1999.

ChrisB said...

I love this episode due mostly to Abbey Bartlet who is one of my heroes. There is a brief moment at the end that always gets me. She's just found her our husband is running for a second term and had a fight with him, so she is understandably upset. As she leaves the kitchen, she pauses. takes a breath, straightens her shoulders, and goes back into the fray with a smile on her face. Wonderful character beat.

The exchange between CJ and Sam about the bathrobes is one of the greatest in this series.