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The West Wing: The State Dinner

‘You know, one of the things that happens when I stay away too long is that you forget you don't have the power to fix everything. You have a big brain, and a good heart, and an ego the size of Montana. You do, Jed. You don't have power to fix everything. But I do like watching you try.’

On the evening of a state dinner for an Indonesian diplomat, Bartlet has to negotiate with truck drivers threatening to go on strike, a hostage situation goes badly wrong when Mandy gets involved, Sam’s special friend turns up under an assumed name, Donna struggles to find an interpreter who speaks the correct Indonesian language and a hurricane threatens to take out a tender ship full of expendable ensigns.

Let's get She Of Whom We Do Not Speak Unless We Have To out of the way first. Josh is completely right when he says Mandy has no part to play in a hostage situation (though to be fair, he hasn’t exactly been trained in dealing with hostage situations by the FBI either). She spends the entire episode chirping and gloating before eventually possibly getting someone killed (we never do find out for sure). Josh doesn’t come out of all this much better, admitting to the fact that ‘it bugs him’ when Mandy tries to take a more active role in government, which, since it hasn’t all gone horribly wrong at that point, just makes him look petty and possibly sexist (though it does seem to be an ex-girlfriend-specific problem). The moment at the end, where Josh holds her while they listen to the signal from the sinking tender ship, is rather sweet, but otherwise this whole plot is yet another reason Mandy’s character simply doesn’t work, and brings others down with her.

No one else is having much luck in the romantic department either, but at least most of the others avoid accidentally killing people in the process. Danny makes CJ’s day even harder than it already was by drawing attention to a protest (comprising six people) taking place outside the White House. He does this as a prelude to flirting with her out of the blue and in a remarkably aggressive way (by asking what she’s wearing that night and saying he’ll ‘be looking forward to it’). But somehow Timothy Busfield has so much charm that he pulls it off in such a way that suddenly you’re rooting for this couple that didn’t exist five seconds ago. Genius.

This is the episode where we finally meet First Lady Abigail Bartlet, previously known only as the owner of a Ouija board. She’s played by the wonderful Stockard Channing, my absolute favourite actress from Grease, who immediately establishes an incredibly comfortable and affectionate relationship with Martin Sheen’s Bartlet that tells you these people have been happily and securely married for a very long time. Also, she seriously rocks some impressive d├ęcolletage, for which, kudos my friend. Her full awesomeness has yet to be revealed (in no later episode would Abbey go gooey over trying to set CJ up with a doctor) but most of it is here in miniature.

In the thinnest of many sub-plots, Sam’s prostitute friend Laurie turns up at the dinner on the arm of a random politico, calling herself Britney. I actually really like this scene, faintly ridiculous as it is (I’m not sure high class hookers can get into White House state dinners, especially under an assumed name). I love the tension in the scene, Sam’s horror, Laurie’s discomfort and the general impossibility of the whole situation. There’s also something strangely chivalrous and tragic about Sam’s offer to pay her $10,000 not to have sex with the random dude that night, and something sadly sweet about Laurie’s silent departure.

Multiple other sub-plots come and go throughout the episode. The scene in which a conversation goes through four different people translating various different languages is essentially stolen from Frasier and is as broadly comic and farcical as that implies, and is surely a far more ridiculous situation than could ever occur in the real White House (I sincerely hope). It’s great TV though, and it allows the Indonesian diplomat to demonstrate his superiority in both languages and sheer organisation before completely owning Toby by pointing out the White House’s essential hypocrisy at this particular diplomatic function and suggesting that lecturing people after you’ve invited them to dinner is not terribly polite. (It’s a shame this probably means Toby’s French friend isn’t getting out of jail any time soon).

I actually like this episode quite a bit, which may not be obvious from this review. It is undeniably bitty and full of too many sub-plots, as is probably clear. But there’s a shallow part of me, that would drive CJ crazy, that quite likes seeing everyone dressed up and the women in some lovely evening gowns, so it’s got that in its favour! Danny and CJ together is always wonderful to see and they spark off each brilliantly. Perhaps it’s the introduction of Abbey that really cements this episode as a good ‘un, or perhaps it’s the tear-jerking final scene, in which Bartlet and his entire senior staff try to comfort a young signalman called Harold on a sinking ship. It’s the sort of scene that reminds us of everyone's ultimate powerlessness, even the President, while also reminding us that these are good people, who’ll spend time comforting a dying man even if that’s all they can do. And that's why we root for them.

Bits n pieces

 - CJ’s frustration over having to give a press briefing on fashion to In Style magazine is hilarious.

 - Yo-Yo Ma is apparently playing some Bach at the function later. In season 2, we’ll actually get to see him do so, possibly implying that Bartlet only listens to Bach cello concertos and only knows one cellist.

 - It is important to realise that the weather in the West Wing universe is very sensitive to political developments and is connected to President Bartlet’s emotions. This hurricane taking out ships is almost certainly his fault for becoming stressed over a threatened strike. It’s no wonder he looks so guilty when he’s talked to the poor doomed redshirt Harold.


Reporter: Shoes?
CJ (referring to the First Lady): I believe she’ll be wearing shoes, yes.

Bartlet: I can’t decide if that man is boring or rude, but he’s one or the other.

CJ (to Danny): You’re a rabble-rouser, you know that? You rouse rabbles.

Donna (following the translation disaster): You should keep in mind all the things that I do right!

CJ: When you flirt with me, are you doing it to get a story?
Danny: No.
CJ: Why are you doing it?
Danny: I'm doing it to flirt with you.

Sam: Toby, do you really think it's a good idea to invite people to dinner and then to tell them exactly what they're doing wrong with their lives?
Toby: Absolutely, otherwise it's just a waste of food.

but followed by…

Bambang: Mr. Ziegler. Does it strike you at all hypocritical that a people who systematically
wiped out a century’s worth of Native Americans should lecture the world so earnestly
on human rights?
Toby: Yes, it does.
Bambang: You humiliated my President tonight, and for no other reason than to show off, and now you want me to do you a favour? Go to hell.

(Last lines of the episode)
Bartlet: Harold?
Harold: Yes, sir?
Bartlet: I’m going to stay right here, as long as the radio works, okay?
Harold: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Hang on.

Tragically touching. Three out of four pairs of Manolo Blahniks (those are the shoes the First Lady is wearing).

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


  1. I didn't really remember this one until you mentioned Bartlet on the radio with the man trapped in the sinking ship. Man that was depressing. And well done, but also depressing.

    I also love CJ attempting to be professional and fend off fashion questions. "Yes, I believe she'll be wearing shoes." Poor CJ, a woman trapped in an Aaron Sorkin world. :/

    I never realized before, but in another actor's hands, Danny could have been a complete creep. As it is, though, he's sweet and funny and charming. Awww.

  2. Stockard Channing, as Abigail Bartlet, is one of my favorite fictional characters ever. I read somewhere, long ago, that her role was not unlike Sheen's. She was meant to play an episode or two, but was so good and was so instantly popular that the writers continued to involve her in the story. Thank God for that -- she adds an immense depth to the White House.

    I love CJ and Danny as a couple. You’re a rabble-rouser, you know that? You rouse rabbles, always makes me laugh out loud.

    What saves this episode from being completely OTT is that final scene. It always brings a tear to my eye as we watch Bartlet comfort a kid who will be dead within the hour. It is simply gutting to watch and it reminds us, without hitting us over the head, that these people play for real stakes.

    Great review, Juliette.

  3. I really liked the extreme contrast between the opulent state dinner and the multiple crises going on simultaneously. I imagine that that does happen in the White House.

    Stockard Channing is pretty much the perfect first lady for this show; there aren't too many actresses who can keep up with Martin Sheen, but she does. What she told him, how she helped him deal with failing, was lovely and immediately told us what their marriage was all about.

    But mostly, I loved C.J. I think this was the episode in which she became my favorite West Wing character. Loved her with the press, with Danny, and typing in her office while wearing a gray silk evening dress. There's just something wonderful about her.

    And yes, the end is quite moving.

  4. For what it's worth, details of this hostage situation in this episode are derived from the so-callled Ruby Ridge incident in 1992.


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