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The West Wing: The Midterms

"Holy interruptus, Batman!"

Over the course of three months, the staff try to win back the House for the Democrats at the midterm elections.

Everyone except Josh is back at work now – actually everyone including Josh is back at work, he's just doing so from his bed – and everyone is trying to get back to normal. But of course the reality is that everyone is still dealing with the psychological repercussions of having recently been shot at. This episode covers a period of three months, handily covering the lead-up to the midterms in show, and from an external viewpoint, covering the summer break and allowing Josh to return to work in the next episode despite his massive and nearly fatal injuries. Leo and Sam are mostly doing OK, though Sam has a really depressing story in which he accidentally ruins a friend's career, but only CJ is completely holding it together, because we did her psychological issues in the previous episode (and Josh's have been held off for later).

Bartlet and Toby, unsurprisingly, both throw themselves into full-on attack mode (those two are far more alike than they realise). Toby reacts directly to the shooting by trying to take on hate groups, while Bartlet diverts his rage towards an old rival who's running for the school board at his daughters' old school. CJ manages to calm Bartlet down a little, and he in turn is able to help Toby by articulating what happened as not an assassination attempt, but a lynching – because "they tried to lynch Charlie right in front of us, can you believe it?".

What really helps Bartlet, though, is letting rip a truly epic and downright brilliant rant at a homophobic radio host. The rant is taken from an Internet chain letter aimed at Dr Laura Schlessinger, of whom, of course, I have never heard, but on whom Dr Jenna Jacobs is apparently based. While it may not be wholly original, the rant is glorious, and important, and The West Wing probably brought it to a wider audience than the internet did in the early noughties.

Poor Charlie is worst off of course, giving Zoey the cold shoulder and swearing at the President in the Oval Office. He reveals to an IT guy and his young son that he had asked his mother to switch shifts on the night she was killed, and of course the guy immediately understands that he feels responsible for the death of his mother and the near-death of his friend and his boss, a level of guilt and angst not often found outside of science fiction and fantasy. The IT guy, however (not coincidentally played by a black actor) knows exactly what to say – "if they're shooting at you, you know you're doing something right". Sad but true, and more importantly he correctly shifts the blame from Charlie to the people doing the shooting, allowing Charlie to stop blaming himself for other people's crimes.

At the beginning of the episode, the President's approval rating has jumped from 51% to 81% and there's much debate about what to do, if anything, with these numbers, coinciding as they do with midterm elections. But, as everyone knows, the numbers are soft, and at the end of the three months, the House stays the same. This conclusion is several things. It's partly a reset button of sorts for the show – not that the shooting will ever be ignored or forgotten, but this draws a line under it, to an extent. It's another sad but true statement about politics, as things tend to change at roughly the speed of the average glacier. But it's also a reassurance, as everyone sits on Josh's stoop drinking beer in defiance of local laws, that even after (narrowly averted) tragedy, life goes on.

Bits and pieces

 - In the cold open, Josh is lying in bed while on a liquids-only diet (judging by the yogurt), working by phone. This show is the poster child for workaholics. At least Donna is acting as gatekeeper for his apartment.

 - CJ calls Josh "mi amor" and buys him pyjamas and somehow it is not at all sexual but totally adorable. She then clutches Toby's arm for no reason, which is slightly more sexual. Maybe.

 - CJ mixing up psychics and physicists is hilarious, and totally the sort of thing I do all the time.

 - Sam is still not good at talking about the White House and there also I sympathise (I have been known to describe Hadrian's Library to my students as "a library... built by Hadrian").

 - I'm not sure Bartlet, a person who secretly has MS, should be calling people out for not standing up, but Jenna Jacobs is horrible, so we'll let it go.

 - Goldfish bowl watch: Gail's bowl contains a ballot box.


Bartlet: Well 19% of the country has clearly made up their minds about me, 20% just feel sorry for me. This is what you want if you're the leader of the free world.

CJ: In a democracy, oftentimes other people win.

Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.
Jenna Jacobs: I don't call homosexuality an abomination, Mr. President, the Bible does.
Bartlet: Yes it does, Leviticus.
Jenna Jacobs: 18:22.
Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it OK to call the police? Here's one that's really important, because we've got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes us unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother, John, for planting crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing, while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tightass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.

Leo: Charlie, you're taking extra protection, right?
Charlie: Hey, Leo....
Leo: Secret Service protection, Charlie, but thanks for loading me up with that image.

Josh: Everybody should have to stay inside for three months so that they truly appreciate the outdoors. I appreciate the outdoors, now. I'm an outdoorsman.

Josh: After four months and 400 million dollars, everything stayed the same.

A typically high quality three star episode, but I think the rant, however, unoriginal, brings it up to four pairs of over-sized pyjamas.

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


  1. I liked the way they showed people suffering from the fallout of the shooting without realizing they were suffering from the fallout of the shooting. Especially Toby, who was so angry and trying so hard to channel it. Lynching. Something so horribly American. It's not Charlie's fault the president and Josh were shot. And it's not Charlie's fault his mother was shot.

    Bartlet's takedown of the horrible radio star using the Bible, chapter and verse, was one of my favorite Bartlet scenes ever. And I loved Sam punctuating Bartlet's takedown by appropriating the crab puff.

  2. One of the great West Wing episodes ever. I love all the stuff with Toby; I love the way Donna won't let anyone else near Josh; I love the way CJ is holding everyone together. And, of course, I love the President's rant.

    Twice in this episode, as many times as I have seen it, I laugh out loud. The first is the psychics/physicists mistake with Josh banging his head on the bed and the second is the Charlie/Leo exchange about protection.

    Too bad this episode ends on such a ridiculous note. Everyone saying "God bless America" is just way too cheesy for me.

  3. I find it way too cheesy as well but I wasn't sure if that was just because I'm not American so I didn't mention it!


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