Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S02E03 – The Midterms

In the third episode of the second season of The West Wing, the staff deals with the stress and frustration of midterm elections in Congress. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

THIS SHOW IS UNREAL WHAT THE HELL IS IT DOING TO ME

Sam

The trauma of the events of the assassination attempt on Charlie hangs over everyone, and while no one wants to initially admit it, it haunts them all. Each character deals with it differently, but Sam seems to be the only one who doesn’t struggle as visibly as the other characters. However, he deals with his own crisis amidst the White House’s attempt to direct the midterm elections in their favor. After asking his friend Tom Jordan to run for Congress, Sam faces the hard truth of political pragmatism. Despite that he made promises to Tom and his wife, he has to break those promises when two uncomfortable realities emerge: Tom was in an all-white fraternity and, as a prosecutor, he favored all-white juries against black defendants. Now, if this just happened to be a coincidence, it would be a tragedy, but that’s not what the writers are doing here. The truth is that appearances do have meaning, and if there’s an unfortunate implication to Tom’s past, it should be addressed. At the same time, Sam recognizes this for what it is. It’s less about the possibility that Tom might be racist and more about the White House’s need to support a winning candidate and keep votes in the process. It’s pragmatic, not moral, and it infuriates Sam. Oh god, this show has a tendency of bringing small plots back at a much later date, so I’m guessing that this isn’t the last time we’ve seen the Jordans.

C.J./Toby

C.J. is at the forefront of the media’s requests to question the staff about the psychological impact of the shooting they all survived earlier in the year, and we see how this eats away at her over the course of this episode. She clashes with Toby initially, and it’s over his desire to focus on domestic hate groups in… well, constitutionally dangerous ways. On top of this, she has to deal with the fact that the President is also obsessed with something that goes against precedence and decency. The writers do a fine job of addressing how both Toby and the President must come to terms with the true nature of an actual democracy, which means that people will be free to do things that they don’t like.

But let’s talk about Toby first, because it’s not just that he doesn’t like these white supremacist hate groups. He wants them monitored because of their recent penchant for violence. Unfortunately, as C.J. spells out for him, until they actually do something, you can’t monitor people using their First Amendment rights just because you despise how they’re exercising their free speech. And that’s an important distinction to make. It’s not like C.J. feels all that much sympathy at all for these groups, but she knows what a legal and media nightmare Toby is asking for. Plus, she’s the one person on the staff who seems willing to talk about the psychological state of everyone post-shooting, so it’s clear that she knows how taxing this has been on these people.

But it’s not until Toby and Bartlet have a very intimate conversation that Toby is able to figure out why he’s so gung-ho about this. These people did not experience a simple act of violence. No, this was all a hate crime, and I’m so thankful that this was spelled out for the viewers. This is why hate crimes are so nefarious. And these two white men, who weren’t even the targets of the terrorists, suddenly get a taste of the horrors of racism and bigotry, and it revolts them. It has left Toby so upset that he’s willing to disregard all notions of constitutionality just to get revenge, just to stop these people from ever hurting another person. Hell, even the President himself has thought about having the West Virgina White Pride headquarters raided every night for three weeks. But it’s unfortunately not this simple. Again, it’s a double-edged sword, but it’s one that this country is based on. These people must be free to practice their despicable beliefs (to an extent) because the government cannot get involved in designating which sort of free speech is morally acceptable and what isn’t. It’s one of the few slippery slopes that can actually be reality.

That being said, I don’t think that means that a white pride group like this one should be absolved of all responsibility, nor do I think they should be ignored. I don’t think the writers were trying to say YAY FREE SPEECH HOW GREAT IT IS. It’s more about the inherent difficulties and complications that arise from a deeply personal and upsetting situation. You can see that manifested in Bartlet’s obsession with Roush, you know? Just because Bartlet believes that Roush is the antichrist doesn’t mean he should get involved in upsetting who the people chose in this election.

Charlie

Y’all, it hurts. Charlie is, understandably, immensely affected by the shooting. As he closes himself off to those around him, including Zoey, he doesn’t know how to process the fact that he was the target all along. And it wasn’t like there was no reason for Charlie to feel guilty, responsible, or conflicted about all of this, but through Andrew Mackintosh, Charlie reveals the real reason why this is bothering him so much. His own mother was gunned down after he technically influenced her decision to work that specific shift. So in his own mind, Charlie is indirectly responsible for other people’s suffering. My god, it explains so much beyond the obvious, and it also makes me INCREDIBLY SAD. Charlie, you are not responsible for what other horrible people have done to you and the people you care about. I loved that Andrew put it in perspective for him, too: “If they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right.” It’s what Charlie needs to hear to help him reconcile things with Zoey. Good for you, Charlie. This is not your fault, and you shouldn’t blame yourself.

Dr. Jenna Jacobs

OH MY GOD, I DON’T EVEN CARE THAT THIS IS A VAGUELY-DISGUISED REPRESENTATION OF DR. LAURA SCHLESSINGER. I DON’T. I DON’T EVEN CARE THAT BARTLET’S MONOLOGUE IS BASICALLY RIPPED OFF FROM THAT CHAIN LETTER THAT’S BEEN AROUND SINCE THE INTERNET STARTED. I AM ABSOLUTELY FLOORED BY THAT SCENE. IT IS SO AMAZING THAT BARTLET ESSENTIALLY DERAILS THAT MEETING JUST TO MAKE THE POINT THAT WHAT DR. JENNA JACOBS BELIEVES IS VILE BECAUSE DR. LAURA IS A VILE PERSON WHO DISGUSTS ME, AND DO YOU REALIZE HOW LONG IT TOOK ME TO GET MY MOTHER TO STOP LISTENING TO WHAT SHE SAID?

Oh my god, I am guessing there’s going to be fallout from that vicious takedown in the coming episode, but I’m so proud of Bartlet for standing up to her. (I can’t resist saying that because she did not stand up. GET IT? GET IT?) It’s indicative of his character’s change since “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” and I appreciate the continuity.

God Bless America

It’s fitting, then, that this episode ends on the steps outside Josh’s apartment. Josh, who’s still working amidst his own recovery, ponders the absurd results of the midterm elections: Everything has stayed the same. The writers took a risk in passing about three months worth of time in a single episode, but I’m satisfied with how the narrative flows in “The Midterms.” It’s a portrait of the American democratic system, the way money affects everything and absolutely nothing. It’s about contrasts and contradictions, how the tiniest thing can change the course of the future and how the bulk of $400 million can have virtually no effect on the will of the people, at least when viewed in hindsight. It’s both a serious rumination on democracy and a parody, and none of these ideas are mutually exclusive. They are what they are.

The White House staff has the same Congress to deal with as Bartlet tries to pull his presidency out of a rut, and that’s going to make things difficult. And then they’ll have to start considering a re-election, too. But for now, these people sit on the steps of Josh’s place, breaking forty-seven city ordinances, and they offer up sardonic (and genuine) blessings to their country. All said, things aren’t that bad where they are.

NEXT DAY EDIT

I just came back to this post a day after I wrote about it to say WHERE THE FUCK IS MANDY. I can’t even begin to explain how a bowl of cereal made me think about her, but it did. Holy shit, did she just disappear? Was she in Rosslyn? Did she die? Moira Kelly isn’t even in the credits anymore, is she? What the fuck?

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since ’09.

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One Response to Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S02E03 – The Midterms

  1. Meg says:

    Mandy? Yeah she disappeared into a black hole. *shrug* Guvf unccraf gb n YBG bs punenpgref ba Gur Jrfg Jvat.

    I love the “Jenna Jacobs” scene as well. Thanks to the Internet, it’s probably the single most famous scene of the show, and it’s definitely one of my favorites. One of the reasons why I love it so much (apart from how much of a boss Bartlet is in it), is the fact that the show demonstrates that there is a difference between being religious and being homophobic. I’m a queer woman (who fully supports gay rights/marriage), but I’m also a devout Christian with a strong personal faith. I was actually told once (in the middle of an interview with an admissions offer from a liberal arts college that shall remain nameless) that “I couldn’t be both [Christian and pro-gay rights],” so I love that in this scene Bartlet shows how wrong that common generalization is.

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