The West Wing: A Proportional Response

Bartlet’s White House fumble their way through their first military operation and just about manage to prevent the President from making a bad situation worse. We also discover that Bartlet smokes when he’s trying to be badass.

The A story of this episode is a direct follow-up to the tragic but inevitable death of Morris Tolliver at the end of the previous episode. Bartlet, having gone from peaceable academic with no military experience to trigger-happy hothead with a lust for vengeance but no military experience, has to be talked down from starting World War Three. Fortunately Leo manages it, though he does so without pointing out the essential flaws in Bartlet’s Roman Empire analogy, much to my personal disappointment.

The B, C and D plots also concern themselves with our heroes' ongoing drama. The B plot features CJ finding out about Sam and Cuddy-in-her-incarnation-as-high-class-call-girl. Josh makes a reasonable argument that Sam had no idea about her job when he went home with her and didn’t pay her, but Sam yells and stamps his feet like an irate child and refuses to acknowledge that one of the President’s closest aides hanging out with a prostitute might be a slightly iffy idea. The whole business gets sort-of-cute-in-a-comforting-sort-of-way White House reporter Danny into CJ's office though, so it isn't a total loss.

The D story involves Mandy hanging around and reminding us all that she’s Coming Soon. We do not speak of it.

The episode is saved, though, by the C story, because this is the introduction of the wonderful Charlie Young to Bartlet’s White House. Poor Charlie goes through the most insanely traumatic interview process ever; it involves applying for a messenger job and, because apparently his awesomeness shines through so clearly it gets him jobs he didn’t apply for, getting passed up to Josh with only the briefest of explanations, quizzed about his personal life, yelled at by his new boss and then given a job which, while the networking opportunities are out of this world, will absolutely not give him any time to look after his orphaned younger sister so he might as well have gone to college in the first place. None of that matters though, because Charlie is awesome. Fitzwallace also gets the opportunity to show some personality beyond scowling at Bartlet as he reassures Leo that not hiring Charlie to be an assistant because he’s black and it might look bad is probably not the way to fight racism.

This is an important episode, as it establishes Bartlet’s uneasy relationship with military operations, an area in which his inexperience tends to fluster him and everyone ends up doing what Fitzwallace or Leo suggest. Also, of course, we meet Charlie. It’s not the most fun episode – the tension on the screen tends to bleed through, in a slightly uncomfortable way – but it keeps things moving, and also, once more for emphasis: Charlie!

Quotes

Josh: You paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista! Woah that was way too far.

Toby: He’s scaring the hell out of Fitzwallace, which I didn’t think was possible.

Bartlet: I met Morris four or five times, let’s not do this like he was my son. At least he’s self-aware.

CJ: Really? Strength guts or courage? You just said three things that all mean the same thing.

Sam (on Josh interrogating Charlie on his sexuality): I don’t mind being held to a higher standard, I mind being held to a lower one.

Josh: I've got nothing to do. Like a writer on a movie set.

Josh: Why can't you tell me that there's a person in my office?
Donna: The first time I didn't know, the second time I didn't care that much.

CJ: There's something commendable about Sam's behaviour here. Don't ask me what but there is.

Two and a half poorly constructed Roman empire analogies.

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

10 comments:

ChrisB said...

C.J.’s and Josh’ s fight at the beginning of this episode is one of my favorite scenes in the entire canon of this show. It always makes me laugh and I have been known to quote the master, “Wow, are you stupid!” I also love this episode as it introduces both Charlie and Danny -- two of the great characters of all time.

I enjoyed the article you wrote last year. As I was re-watching the episode this afternoon, I thought of you when Bartlet told the Roman citizen story and wondered how much of it was true. Thanks for clearing that up!

Juliette said...

Thanks! I felt a bit bad about linking to my blog from the review, but it seemed silly to type it all out all over again, and I couldn't let it go! ;)

sunbunny said...

You do such a great job pointing out the problems with an episode while not sounding negative or nitpicky. Charlie's job always bugged me too. It's like, I have to take care of my sister. I should work 20 hours a day.

The whole 'should we hire Charlie' thing is so funny/weird/ironic/stupid. The idea that not hiring a black person because he was black would be a blow against racism...it makes sense and doesn't at the same time.

I can't go back and forth watching this show and Psych. It makes for major character confusion. <3 Dule Hill no matter what tho. :)

Mark said...

This is the episode I think of, when some chicken-hawk blowhard talks about how the US should missile strike (or nuke) its enemies.

I enjoy West Wing when they take what appears to be an obvious or simple issue, and shows how complex it can be when it is examined in detail.

Juliette said...

For the first two seasons, I quite like The West Wing's foreign policy stuff, which mostly seems to involve trying to avoid wars. After that, for obvious reasons, it gets a bit more complicated...

Iago said...

I think civis Romanus is a reference to Julius Caesar: when he returning from a diplomatic job in Bithynia (modern-day northern Turkey) he was captured by pirates and reminded them he was a Roman citizen and he'd see them all crucified. He was released and then followed through on his threat. However, this being Caesar, it's entirely possible a) the story came from Caesar himself and b) it's entirely made up.

There is a ring of truth to it though: during the golden age of the Roman state (roughly the end of the Republic/reign of Augustus) the Romans did trample over countries who showed their citizens discourtesy. It's important to note that being born in the Roman Republic/Empire didn't make you a Roman citizen (which is a marked contrast to the USA), but if you were a Roman citizen people tended to show deference.

I like your response to Mandy - the less said about her, the better. I enjoyed CJ versus Josh, I think it was important to establish CJ could hit on an equal level with Josh, Toby and Sam. Loved the Josh/Donna relationship too: they were great right from the start.

Billie Doux said...

My hate-on for Sam Seaborn continues. Wow, what an ass he was in this episode. Incredibly immature for a man with a prestigious job in the White House.

It feels like they're setting up Mandy to be Josh's love interest since they used to be involved, but he has so much chemistry with Donna, who unfortunately works for him.

I loved what Bartlet did for Charlie, especially during a presidential crisis. It was the *perfect* thing to say to make Charlie comfortable and bring him on board. I love Charlie. And I was also thinking, when is he going to have time to take care of his sister? Although of course, a job with the president is going to do wonders for Charlie's resume sometime in the future.

Josie Kafka said...

That Roman thing was weird. The implicit definition of the "known world" made me say out loud to the cats, "Yeah, because Ireland..." (As they are telepaths, I didn't bother to complete that question.) Thanks for linking to your site with more info, Juliette. It was nice to get my suspicions confirmed by an expert.

I get that the show wants Bartlet to look smarter--or at least, better educated--than everyone else. But with the Roman citizen thing this week, and the awkward idea that POTUS was the only one who knew what "post hoc ergo propter hoc" meant, I think Sorkin could have tried a bit harder to make this point.

Marianna said...

I think the point of Charlie not going to college was he needed to make money to support his sister and student loans wouldn't have covered it. I don't think we ever actually see his sister, but I always imagined her to be very independent, cooking dinner for herself and that sort of thing, so it's probably more important that he make money for her than that he's there to pick her up from school.

Diane C said...

Quite an enjoyable episode, not least because of the introduction of Charlie and his rather awkward job interview with Josh, and a little help from a disgruntled Sam!

Charlie is a great everyman character. He brings a sense of normality & cute naivety to the show given his relatively limited education and exposure to the whole political dynamic when compared to his peers such as “Berkeley” CJ and “Harvard” Josh. Even at the interview Josh straddles his highest of high horses, posturing furiously to underline (and undermine) a bewildered Charlie with Josh’s perceived greatness, tempered with his usual aloof arrogance. But credit to Charlie, he didn’t let it faze him even though he was still inwardly struggling to accept he could well be working as the President’s personal aide rather than as the intending job of messenger.

But typically with the West Wing show (especially this particular season), it has a very common ability to manipulate/reassure TV audiences with quick-fixes to innate problems. And here we have another one where Charlie, after accepting the role of presidential aide 10 minutes ago, suddenly works out where Bartlet may have mislaid his glasses while all the old pros in the room “umm” and “err” short of sucking their thumbs and scratching their heads in mock confusion.

The ongoing Laurie/Sam Thing almost reaches closure, thanks in part to CJ finding out about it. She not only goes into a fiery temper, but as she will find out in later episodes there is a general feeling of mistrust going on between her and the unofficial “inner circle” of the west wing – namely Josh, Toby, Leo and to a lesser extent Bartlet.

I liked how Leo brought Bartlet down from the parapet after the terrorist attack in the previous episode. In the pilot episode Bartlet comes across as some kind of all seeing all knowing pacifier; like someone’s uncle who knows how to fix things in a calm and measured way. However, when faced with his first military crisis he lets his personal feelings get the better of him, and it is only through the calming hand of an experienced military man in Leo does Bartlet accept that his actions could be seen as wildly disproportionate.
I have to say I never fully believed Leo’s argument about him (Leo) raising an army to destroy Bartlet should Bartlet defy everyone and carry out his intended carpet bombing of Hassan Airport. I always thought a chief of staff served at the pleasure of the president, and that presidential orders must be obeyed no matter what!

Good to see the introduction of Danny in the show: as one of the senior White House reporters he will become a constant thorn (and feather) in CJ’s side. But what makes it easy for him is that he has a very endearing smile, which can sometimes hide a fierce determination to discover the truth in his reporting of White House matters – unless suitably coerced by a pleading CJ!

And last but very least there is Mandy!

I think there was only one occasion during her season 1 tenure where I felt any sense of empathy for Mandy, but this episode wasn’t it. I do generally like empowering no nonsense women, and CJ is mostly certainly one of them. But Mandy (and in a season or two’s time Amy Gardner) is nothing more than a badly drawn caricature that just makes her look more than a little ridiculous. Her juvenile antics with ex-lover Josh and her belligerence in her new job role within the hallowed halls of the west wing leave a bad taste to an otherwise very good and emotive episode.

3/5