Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S01E03 – A Proportional Response

In the third episode of the first season of The West Wing, C.J. copes with the threat of a political scandal while President Bartlet becomes increasingly irate upon learning he must order his first military strike. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

Oh lord, let’s do this. I think for the time being, I’m going to keep splitting up my reviews to address each of the episodes’s plots because it’s the easiest way for me to organize my thoughts.

Don’t Make C.J. Mad

Like seeing Leo pissed off in the previous episode (and at the end of this one, too!), I’m pretty sure that I would make it my life’s mission not to upset or disappoint C.J. SHE’S BEAUTIFULLY FRIGHTENING WHEN THIS HAPPENS. It’s interesting that this episode centers around different members of the staff having to reel around people around them, and in C.J.’s case, she’s furious that Sam didn’t come to her first after he knew he’s stepped on a potential political landmine. But before that even happens, she rips into Josh, who failed to inform her of this development. It’s an ugly fight that doesn’t exactly paint Josh in a positive light, especially when he helps it devolve into a underhanded shouting match. I got the sense that C.J. knew she had to be tough in the office in order to get people to take her seriously, as there’s a subtext to her argument with Josh: She knows that men often don’t respect her because she’s a woman involved with politics. While Josh denies that this is the case, you can’t ignore that not one guy who found out about Sam’s possibly-disastrous actions decided to tell C.J., despite that she should have been informed of it days earlier.

That, of course, is the basis of her fight with Sam, which ends far more worse than her confrontation with Josh. While I understand Sam’s idealism, the context of it kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Again, he’s obsessed with this idea of “reforming” Laurie, which is gross in and of itself, and C.J. rightly calls him out on it. But their conversation took an unexpected term when Sam accused C.J. of not standing up for him, that she was too obsessed with how things appeared versus how they actually were. Again, I understood what Sam meant, and by all means, I support the idea that saying it’s wrong to have a sex worker as a friend is pure absurdity. But his attack on C.J. felt so personal, as if he was accusing her of not having the gumption to have principles. We see later in the episode that Sam can’t view this situation as anything but deeply personal when he interrupts Josh’s interview with Charlie. Dude, Sam needs to understand nuance and context just a little better. Drop the whole “reform” angle, stop acting like you’re a knight in shining armor, and just be someone’s friend!

Clearly, though, C.J. was affected by Sam’s accusation, because she does defend him when a reporter friend of hers reveals that he knows what Sam is doing. It’s kind of sweet! Maybe she doesn’t like Sam all that much (I can’t really tell at this point), but I had a lot of respect for the fact that she ripped into Danny for trying to pull a story out of her.

Basically, I really like C.J. a whole lot, possibly more than anyone else on the show at this point. Granted, I am so biased that it’s revolting. ALLISON JANNEY IS JUST SO WONDERFUL. But I enjoy that her characterization is so complex! Actually, that’s the case with everyone so far, and y’all know how much I love character development.

Charlie Comes to the White House

Oh god, GUS FROM PSYCH IS ON THIS SHOW. I HAD NO IDEA. I have fostered a rather intense crush on Dulé Hill for way too long, so I AM TRYING NOT TO LET MY BIAS TAKE OVER. But then when I saw the character he was given on this show, I knew I was already done. Oh my god.

So, Charles Young. Lord. HELP. The young man comes to the White House in the hopes of getting a job as a messenger, but both Mrs. DiLaguardia (who I’ve not met) and Josh feel like he’s a better fit as the Personal Aide to Bartlet. Charlie is instantly and consistently overwhelmed by this, especially since he was perfectly fine taking the messenger job. And as ridiculous as Josh can be, this episode shows us how he can appreciate the subtle things his job involves. He clearly enjoyed Charlie, but was concerned that hiring him as an aide to Bartlet would have problematic implications. I’m glad that Admiral Fitzwallace told Leo that they should hire Charlie because he’s the best man for the job. And while this episode certainly wasn’t a stand-in for some metaphor for affirmative action, it was interesting to me that this worked well to show that people of color just need the access to these positions, that it’s not about hiring people to meet a quota. I don’t know who DiLaguardia is, but I respect her for taking the chance in sending Charlie to Josh. There aren’t that many people who would do that.

Unfortunately, Charlie comes on board during the most chaotic time we’ve see on The West Wing so far, which initially gives him a confusing and bewildering first impression both of the White House and President Bartlet himself. And I imagine after having spilled the details about his utterly heartbreaking living situation, it didn’t help to have the President yell at him during their first exchange, especially after Charlie helped locate the President’s glasses! Like, that moment was the most perfect example of how Charlie would be the best fit as Bartlet’s aide!

But the President Is Kind of a Huge Asshole

He is, and I was impressed that the writers were willing to take President Bartlet’s character to such an unlikable place so quickly. Despite him denying it to Leo, Bartlet was taking Morris Tolliver’s death personally. He was! And this unseated this absolutely horrible internal war within the man about what he should do versus what he was expected to do. We see him snap at nearly every single staff member over the course of “A Proportional Response,” and even hear that he’s been rude to his wife. (We still haven’t met her either, have we?)

It’s not until we see Bartlet in the Situation Room that we see just how much this is messing him up. I knew that it was hard for him to make a decision about his first military strike, but this was a million times worse since it was personal for him. It was disturbing to see him refuse the option of Pericles One because he wanted a disproportionate response. It’s precisely this that Leo hones in on when he finally confronts the President at the end of the episode. He tells the President that he cannot use his position as some sort of mechanism for a revenge fantasy, and neither can he approach these disasters by thinking that in the end, there will always be a virtuous choice. It’s not virtuous to blow up an airport, killing thousands of civilians, as it is to also blow up an empty intelligence base. There’s no virtue in what they’re doing either way.

And that’s the reality of what this man is going to have to do as President. Obviously, this episode gives us a pretty terrible situation that they have to deal with, but I’m sure this is just going to be the first of many awful decisions Bartlet’s going to have to make. He’s a first-term president, and he’s not going to win any favors by insulting the Joint Chiefs or yelling at his own staff. At the very least, I appreciated that the writers showed us the gravity of what Bartlet wanted, and also made sure to have the script itself criticize it. I’m fascinated by the role Leo plays, and he (along with C.J.) really shone in “A Proportional Response.” They’re the glue that helps hold this Presidency and its staff together.

The video commission for this episode is now archived on MarkDoesStuff.com for just $0.99!

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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