"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.
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.
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.