The West Wing: The War at Home

"Are we gonna keep them alive longer, or is it just going to seem longer?"

In the follow-up to 'Bartlet's Third State of the Union,' Jed has to decide how to deal with five American citizens taken hostage by drug dealers in Colombia.

The choices Bartlet has to make in this episode are the sort of choices no one ever wants to have to make. I was reminded a little bit of one of my favourite episodes of Scrubs, which gave a bit of insight into the choices Dr Kelso had to make and how that was part of what made him the character he was. Bartlet is a much more sympathetic character, which makes it even easier to empathise with the horrifying decisions he has to make, on an evening when he's already given an 87,000 word speech and had a fairly big fight with his wife.

A lot of the shows I watch are adventure shows, and if someone (especially, of course, if it's a main character) is kidnapped, the heroes will always move hell and high water to rescue them, and they will always be absolutely right to do so. If they've been ordered not to attempt a rescue by a higher power, they'll be even more correct. But The West Wing takes place in the real world, and Bartlet is that higher power, and sometimes when you do the thing that feels emotionally like the right thing to do, it goes wrong and you find yourself meeting nine coffins coming off a plane. I like to think my job is important, but I have the comfort of knowing a slightly low mark isn't likely to kill anyone, and I absolutely do not envy my friends who are doctors and officers and whose decisions could mean life or death for someone. This episode captures the awfulness of that responsibility really well.

More cheerfully, the subtext in Josh and Donna's relationship has finally, officially become the text, at least briefly. Sort of. Donna spends the entire episode pestering Josh to ask Joey Lucas out and eventually Joey has to point out to Josh that she's doing it because she likes him herself and she's covering. Since Josh has already admitted he doesn't like it when Donna goes out with guys and does his best to discourage it, and since there is almost no other reason (maybe distance?) for him not to ask Joey Lucas out at this point, we have to assume he likes her too.

The other dangling threads from the previous episode are all wrapped here too, most hilariously Ainsley trying and failing once again to meet the President without embarrassing herself. Meanwhile, Bartlet confirms to Abbey that he hasn't actually made the decision to run again, though he doesn't assure her he won't either, leaving that decision for later. And Joey explains the problem with relying on poll statistics to Josh brilliantly, with a line (quoted below) that has run through my head pretty much any time I've heard a politician speaking over the last few years. Classic West Wing.

Bits and pieces

 - The chess symbolism is a bit obvious, but hey, it works.

 - Abbey calls Jed a jackass, and tells him they need to argue later because she loves him too much to distract him during a crisis. Stockard Channing is on fire in that scene - as, indeed, she is in every scene, including the anguish in her voice later when she tells Jed she can't tell him why his body is breaking down, or how bad it will get.

 - Leo advising Jed (in early 2001) not to get into a war with no end in sight is mildly chilling.

Quotes

Sam (following Ainsley's declaration that she's brought shame upon herself and her father): You are just in your own little Euripides play over there, aren't you?

Toby: The President's not a member of your party, he's the leader of your party.

Ainsley: I'm concerned about peeing on your carpet.
Leo: Well, now I am too.

Bartlet: They won't let me smoke inside, but you can pee in Leo's closet?

Joey: You're like the French radical watching the crowd run by and saying, "There go my people. I must find out where they're going so I can lead them."

Heart-breaking on several different levels. Four out of four closets for Ainsley to pee in.

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

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Leo advising Jed (in early 2001) not to get into a war with no end in sight is mildly chilling. Yes. Isn't it?

Every time there's a scene in the residence, it just makes me think about how little privacy the president and first lady have. They're *always* on, constantly interrupted. How utterly exhausting.

Josh actually admitting that he tries to sabotage Donna dating other guys and Donna is trying to set up Josh with Joey because she's starting to realize how she feels about him, woo hoo. :)

Although I don't care much for Ainsley, she was terrific comic relief in this one.

Marianna said...

Excellent review of what is probably my second favorite episode of The West Wing! I especially liked the Scrubs reference. (I'm in the process of rewatching Scrubs.)

ChrisB said...

I love the Josh/Donna relationship, so this episode has given me cause to hope. In a very similar vein, I love the Sam/Ainsley relationship as well. Polar opposites on so many levels, yet the chemistry they have is undeniable. His comment about Euripides always makes me chuckle.

Unlike Billie, I really like Ainsley. I like the fact that she understands why she was hired, she understands that she is sacrificing a lot for her job, but she is going to be superb at it. Her smile when Bartlet asks her if her father is proud of her makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

As you point out in your excellent review, everything works in this episode. The reality of being outfoxed by men in the jungle and the awful consequence of that is hard to watch.

Damien Bradley said...

Juliette, I love your reviews! And I like the reviews on this site in general. Every time I watch an ep of a show covered here I come read the review of it, because there's always something insightful. Please start them up again!

Juliette said...

Thanks Damien! I'm hoping to start them up again soon. It's not something I've been able to fit in this year for various reasons, but hopefully things are calming down at work now and I can get back to them!