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The West Wing: The Portland Trip

"You weren't wearing that during the day today."

The President, Charlie, Sam, Toby, CJ and the White House Press Corps work through the night on a flight to Portland, while Josh, Donna, Ainsley, Leo and Margaret work through the night back at the White House.

Writer's block is pretty terrifying at the best of times (except for those people who claim it doesn't exist, but I'm ignoring them). It's even worse when you write for the President and if you mess up the speech, both he and you are going to look pretty stupid. And poor Sam's problem is further exacerbated by the fact that their grand plans for education reform haven't exactly come to fruition. He considers coming up with a new plan on the plane, and while that doesn't quite come off, by the end Toby and Bartlet have come up with something smaller that might work, so they've achieved something at least. It's one of many stories that don't entirely go anywhere, but then, that's the point.

CJ is forced to go on the trip because she made fun of Bartlet's alma mater Notre Dame right before some kind of important sports event. She is also forced to wear a baseball cap and lead the press in a rendition of the Notre Dame fight song. It's funny, but someone should probably point out to Bartlet that with great power comes great responsibility, and that this includes resisting the urge to abuse your power to mete out trivial punishments to your staff. On the other hand, then we'd never have got to see CJ in a baseball cap.

Meanwhile, back at the White House, Josh is arguing with a gay Republican Congressman about a proposed bill that would outlaw same sex marriages (take a moment to revel in the fact the world has actually got better in some ways since the year 2000). This is one of my favourite of Josh's political arguments, because not only does it bring up an important issue, I love the conclusion to the row. I agree entirely with Josh, but Skinner's final point is so important – just because he belongs to a minority doesn't mean his whole life has to be about that. Considering how often characters from various minorities appear in TV only when there's a plot revolving around a minority issue – and ironically, of course, the character of Matt Skinner would have to be included there – it's worth reiterating that being gay or black or Muslim or whatever is not the beginning and end of a person's life story.

But forget all of that because much more importantly this is the first episode in which Josh and Donna get an actual shipping – shipper? shippy? waterborne? – storyline! Up till now it's been mostly off the charts chemistry and occasional hints of a more intimate friendship than the average boss/PA, but here, while the subtext has not quite become the text, what we are seeing is definitely a complete subplot devoted to the possibility of Josh and Donna getting it on. Janel Moloney looks incredibly beautiful in the fancy dress Donna wears for her date with a random dude called Todd, and unlike the ball/dinner episodes she's the only one dressed up so it really stands out. The way Josh stares at her as she walks away manages to be sweet rather than creepy as well.

The pairing of that story with Margaret's concern over Leo's well-being on the day his divorce papers came in is effective. There is definitely nothing romantic or sexual at all in Margaret and Leo's relationship but, like Josh and Donna, they are pretty close, presumably due to the extreme demands of their jobs and the constant stress both are under. Margaret is one of my favourite tertiary characters because I love how slightly weird and hyper-competent she is, and this is a lovely little moment for her and Leo.

Bits and pieces

 - Before I saw this episode, I had no idea there was a special – less luxurious – cabin for the White House Press Corps on Air Force One. The President carries the press around with him? that seems very generous!

 - I think CJ looks cute in the baseball cap. But then, I've rediscovered baseball caps this summer. They're brilliant.

 - Donna obviously feels threatened by Ainsley, which is weird – Ainsley's of more interest to Sam for one thing – and their scene seem a bit like a way to force Ainsley into the episode.

 - In non-Josh/Donna-related shipping news, Danny is still sulking at CJ (OK, he went to Notre Dame, but there's no way that's the main reason he's being awkward), and CJ self-consciously removes the baseball cap before she goes to talk to him the first time.

 - Bartlet went to Notre Dame because he was thinking about becoming a priest, but he met Abbey. I love this little revelation. It fits him perfectly (though I'm not sure he's cut out for obeying other people's orders. But I might just be over-identifying and describing myself, there).


Matt Skinner: You let Donna out?
Josh: Temporarily. She's having dinner.
Matt Skinner: Oh, with who?
Josh: A guy she has no future with.
Matt Skinner: Why no future?
Josh: Because I say so.

Toby: I'd love to write a speech about a radical new approach to education, but we don't have one!

Matt Skinner: My life doesn't have to be about being a homosexual. It doesn't have to be entirely about that.

Josh: You look really great in that dress tonight, Donna. You should buy it for yourself.

CJ: When I said before that there'd be absolutely no policy shifts or new initiatives in the education speech tomorrow... That was correct, except it's possible there might be a policy shift or new initiative in the education speech tomorrow.

A bit scattered, but good stuff. I kind of want to give this four out of four gorgeous dresses.

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


  1. As you said, this is one time when the fact that this episode is dated is pretty cool. (I'm speaking about gay marriage, of course.)

    As you said, if President Bartlet made C.J. go along on the trip just because she dissed Notre Dame and not because he needed her for something work-related, that would be just wrong. But since she did come, I'm sorry we didn't get to hear C.J. leading the press corps with the Notre Dame Fight Song. All five verses.

    I love Margaret, too. She and Leo have a strong relationship that's just *there*, rarely addressed but an important part of the show.

  2. These are really great reviews, keep at them! Shame I'm now overtaking you, though - but the allure of a West Wing episode day after day is just too strong

  3. Thanks Zed! They'll have to go on hiatus for a little while when this term's teaching starts, but they'll be back - and you definitely shouldn't wait. The back end of season two preferably needs watched in one giant sitting - that's what I did!

  4. I hadn't seen this episode in a while and the whole gay marriage thing just made me smile. It is nice to think that we've moved forward in this country.

    I always feel for Donna in this episode. First, Josh is pretty awful to her right before her date. Then, she realizes that her date thought she was Ainsley. But, all is right with the world at the end. The look she gives Josh after he tells her to buy the dress melts my heart. I love these two.

    [S]ome kind of important sports event made me laugh out loud. College football ("rugby with pads" as Giles would say) is taken very, very seriously by some. The Michigan/Notre Dame game is one of the largest rivalries in the calendar.


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