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The West Wing: Let Bartlet Be Bartlet

"As I look out over this magnificent vista..."

After a year or so in the White House, this episode finds everyone increasingly frustrated as they realise how little it's actually possible to accomplish in democratic politics.

Bartlet wants Josh and Leo to "dangle their feet in the water" by pushing for their own candidates to fill two spaces on the Federal Election Commission (I have no idea what any of that means, by the way); meanwhile, Toby and Sam are meeting with various senior figures in the armed forces to talk about amendments to the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy but are forced to admit right at the beginning that they won't actually be able to achieve anything.

Josh goes to visit with the people from the... thing... (I looked it up and established it's something to do with campaign finance laws but honestly, I'm gonna have to pull a CJ here and say I'm a smart person, but whatever this is, it's beyond me). At first, he's doing it to keep the President happy, but as the meeting goes on he becomes increasingly passionate about the whole thing and, therefore, frustrated that he's only supposed to be 'dangling his feet in the water'.

Toby and Sam's meeting is rather more comprehensible to us ignorant foreigners, even if it also revolves around an American issue (as, obviously, the whole show does). I found the discussion of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" much more effective than last week's discussion of slavery reparations, though I'm willing to admit that might be partly because I happen to agree with Sam and Toby on this issue and I think it's a really important one that needs talked about. I try to keep personal politics out of these reviews but with a show like this we should all probably admit it's impossible entirely to separate the experience of watching the show from political inclinations.

Beyond that, though, the sequence plays a part in the overall plot and theme of the episode as well as opening up a discussion of the particular issues concerned. It's part of how and why everyone feels so powerless and frustrated about everything they do, as everyone in the meeting states outright that whatever the outcome of their discussion, they won't actually achieve anything. It also culminates in a character making a particularly good point and Admiral Fitzwallace is, as ever, awesome in every possible way, and since it contributes to everyone's emotional state it tells us something about the main characters, so pretty much every problem I had with the slavery reparations discussion is answered in this – it's a great example of how the show was able to raise and discuss important issues in an interesting and entertaining way.

Just as everyone is feeling really low, an opposition research memo Mandy wrote while working for Russell comes out which identifies all their flaws and rips them apart. As Leo points out, Mandy was working for the opposition at the time so technically she hasn't done anything wrong, but it's impossible for everyone not to be hurt when they see their flaws laid bare. The fact that Mandy's assessment of all their weaknesses is so accurate is also what makes it so dangerous, because Danny has got hold of it – and for CJ, the fact that Danny in particular is willing to publish something both damaging and hurtful makes an unpleasant situation even worse.

All of this culminates in a fantastic scene in the Oval Office in which Leo, who has got the blame for everything, angrily confronts the President, begging him to be braver and work harder to achieve something with their time in office, however long that may be. This scene, and the staff's delighted affirmation following it that they 'serve at the pleasure of the President', are passionate, idealistic, rooted in what we are coming to know of these characters and just a teeny tiny bit cheesy – basically everything that's great about The West Wing in a few minutes. (It's perhaps notable that Mandy, due to the nature of the plot, is excluded from that team-building affirmation scene at the end). Leo writes a quick note – 'LET BARTLET BE BARTLET' – and leaves it on the President's desk to remind him why he let Leo persuade him to run for office in the first place (a new and interesting detail) and that phrase really sums up the joyful idealism of the show.

Bits 'n' pieces

 - Poor Charlie is standing in the background while Leo is ripping Bartlet apart (largely so he can pointed at as an example of bravery).

 - Leo states that Bartlet is staying safely in the middle due to a desperation not to be a one-term President and forces him to state that getting things done is more important than re-election.

 - British people quirks: I love the thing about the rain at the beginning. I am totally with Toby on the reliability of weather forecasts (my brother insists that the weather forecast that assured us there wouldn't be a hurricane in 1987 was technically correct because we are in the wrong part of the world to get hurricanes, but the tree that ended up in my classmate's bathroom implies that the reassurance was misleading, at the least).

 - This episode (and several later ones) was directed by Laura Innes, who was fabulous as Kerry Weaver in ER.

 - How did Danny get Mandy's opposition research memo "off [her] hard disk"? Did he break into her house? Between this and Margaret's e-mail problems, it's clear that none of the writers of the show actually understand how computers work.

 - The shipping news: CJ tries to exploit her feelings for Danny and his for her at the same time as denying she has feelings for him - obviously, this doesn't go well.


Toby: To our credit sir, we knew it was raining once it started to rain.

Josh (to Donna): Did you just call me "baby" back there?

Leo: Margaret, I’m sorry, I’m gonna have to – I hung in there as long as I could, but you long since passed the point when I stopped caring. If you’re curious, it was right around raisin muffin.

Margaret: Technical support says the pipeline’s been flooded. Apparently it happened when I forwarded an e-mail to several people, and one of them tried to reply. Everyone’s e-mail box is clogged with replies, which are now, automatically and constantly bounding back and forth at subatomic speed – I've passed the point where you’re interested, haven’t I?

Donna: Why is everyone walking around like they know they've already lost?

Mike Satchel: It's an honour to meet you, sir.
Fitwallace: I imagine it would be, yes.

This is basically the whole tone, theme and ethos of The West Wing in a nutshell, plus it's beautifully constructed and everything fits together brilliantly. Four out of four inspirational notes.

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


  1. It's so interesting watching them realize that they have a serious problem (they're stuck in neutral, too much compromise, too much running to the center), figure out what is wrong, and then figure out how they can fix it. Personally, I'm always sick and tired seeing Democrats run to the center. I'm a liberal and I'm proud of it, I believe in it. So this was a pretty satisfying episode for me.

    Yeah, they have a lab in the White House that can analyze raisin muffins. :) Probably hidden in the secret basement. Poor Margaret.

  2. I thought your point of keeping one's personal politics away from this show to be an excellent one. I have wondered in the past if one of the reasons that I love this show so much is that it, more often than not, reflects my personal beliefs. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is one of the things I have a strong opinion about.

    I love the scene at the end. It's a brilliant way to end an episode that has been mired in frustration. Margaret's email is, of course, the perfect metaphor. Trying to do good and it turns out wrong.


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