In the seventh episode of the second season of The West Wing, the staff tackles numerous frustrating issues while the President is on a six-hour flight to Portland. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
I am constantly impressed by this show’s intentional subtlety amidst its own drama because any other show might have chosen a much more ridiculous path when depicting the White House staff. When you think about it, “The Portland Trip” doesn’t advance things in a huge way, and I know that Sorkin did this on purpose. What we get here is a sober and, at times, emotionally touching story about how the very nature of the American government prevents people from making huge changes when they need to be made. We’ve seen episodes where the team failed, but this isn’t quite the same thing, and it’s truly one of the stronger episodes of this season so far.
This is a great example of how Sorkin and company personalize things that are lofty and unseemly to deal. Initially, the issue of Bartlet’s education speech is filtered through Sam’s writer’s block and his lack of faith in his own writing. Because of this, we don’t realize the full scope of what it is these people are trying to do. It’s partially played for comedy, especially since there’s the hilarious running joke of C.J. insulting Notre Dame in this episode. But Sam’s doubt comes from a place that isn’t funny. While Toby does pick on him for wanting to write a feat of oratory magic, the real problem here is that Sam knows he has no real material to base a proper speech on. What exactly are they going to do to make education a national priority? What makes the President’s position important and significant? What are they doing? It’s taken even further when Bartlet tries to inspire his fellow staffers with the poetry of a red-eye flight. (I’ve only done one red-eye, and it was a goddamn nightmare. Poopy babies and snoring and no thank you. I have my second one ever in August when I fly to London, and I am not prepared.)
It’s an offhand suggestion from Charlie via a doodle that gets Sam thinking outside of the box, and then we have to watch him get crushed. And it’s not that Charlie’s idea is a bad idea! Toby is not trying to tear down the use of “permanent revolution” or a college incentive program to get more teachers in our country. What Sam is crushed by is practicality, and it’s a common theme throughout this episode. Where do they get the money? How do they reference a communist without the media shitstorm that will follow (Spoiler alert: You can’t because there are immature assholes who can’t appreciate nuance living in our world)? Can you even shift policy in an effective way with a single speech? Ultimately, Toby floats the idea of a pilot program with just 100 teachers instead of the 100,000 that Bartlet wants. “It’s a start,” Bartlet says, and it really does spell out the point of this episode. As frustrating as this whole thing is, they have to start somewhere, right?
Which is directly related to the oil smuggling crisis that Leo and Bartlet deal with during the flight, too. When a tanker smuggling oil out of Iraq is caught, Bartlet comes to learn just how frustrating the UN’s system of economic sanctions is. (Actually, it might not have been the UN, but I wasn’t clear on that point.) The punishment for smuggling oil is so low that the oil companies still turn an enormous profit, and so the world is left with a system where the very nature of this arrangement means that it’s still economically viable for oil companies to smuggle oil. This is one of those things on this show that is barely based in fiction at all, and I assure you that many regulatory agencies in the United States face the very same issue. It is often times more profitable for a corporation to blatantly break the law than to obey the same law, and there’s really nothing the government can do. Bartlet is so outraged by this because, like Sam, he must admit that without a change in policy, there’s absolutely nothing that he can do. He’s either a part of the flawed system, or he’s making an empty gesture.
And that is precisely what happens with the Marriage Recognition Act. Obviously, this was infuriating for me to watch, not just because it affects me personally, but because I know people just like Congressman Skinner. Look, I understand the desire to live a life where one’s sexuality doesn’t define who they are. I was bullied ruthlessly for appearing to be effeminate and gay, then bullied for actually being gay, and I still deal with homophobia as an adult. (You might be surprised how often trolls on this site go straight for my sexuality when insulting me.) This idea that many gay and queer folks want normalcy is something that I completely empathize with because there are plenty of times that I want the same thing. I want to know that I can one day marry my boyfriend and have a life with him where we can have the same rights as straight couples. I want a world where I can walk around any city holding his hand or give him a kiss without the very real fear that I’m going to be discriminated against, be hurt, or be killed. (Let me use this space to dispel a myth about “progressive” cities being a perfect haven for the marginalized: My boyfriend and I still choose to restrict most public displays of affection to Oakland or the Castro because we both have experienced homophobia in the Bay Area in less “diverse” parts of this place. It sucks, I despise it, but I’d prefer not to be gay bashed.)
Now, I could spend a lot of time talking about assimilation and how that relates to this issue, but I honestly feel like this would just be me going on this ridiculous tangent that maybe ten of you would even understand, SO I’M GOING TO STOP MYSELF HERE. My point is that I get Congressman Skinner’s statement that he wants to be more than just a homosexual man. I get that because I want that as well. But his personal desire for acceptance should not be used to restrict the right for expression and legal acceptance for other gay folks. That’s nice that you want to be more than a gay man, but what about everyone else? So it didn’t bother me that Josh basically erupted with fury over the idea that Skinner could support a party that considered his very nature to be illegal and immoral.
But what can these people do? Josh’s arguments are brilliant, airtight, and impassioned, and it was downright empowering to hear a show spell them out so plainly. At the same time, the harsh reality of the political pragmatism that these people are forced into hurt to watch. Bartlet knows that this bill is garbage. He also knows that vetoing it just means it’ll come up again. It means that he’s basically powerless, and THIS SUCKS. It sucks so much because these people know it’s wrong to do this, they know that the majority of people are wrong about this, and there’s nothing they can do. Even Ainsley finds that the legal language involved in this allows for the federal government to define this bigotry. GAH.
I do want to add one thing here because it gives me a chance to use one of my favorite tweets of all time. Skinner brings up the idea that the Founding Fathers wanted a “Judeo-Christian morality” imbued into our country (OH MY GOD NO THEY DIDN’T SHUT UP), and I have just one thing to say to this idea:
Amen, Cohen is a ghost. Amen.
I love her. So much. And it makes me sad that someone as bright, hilarious, engaging, and brilliant as her is having such unfortunate luck with men. (Though… an insurance lobbyist? Honey, that ship sank before it even left port.) Even if her story doesn’t necessarily fit in with the general theme of “The Portland Trip,” I appreciate that we get character development for her. Even better, this episode starts with Josh giving her a backhanded compliment about her self-worth, and then ending with him genuinely telling her that she’s beautiful, and then it starts. Right there. Donna/Josh. It has been sowed in my shipping garden, and even though they’ve been adorable before, it has begun to germinate, and I can’t stop it. There it is. It’s there. You can’t stop science, bros. You just can’t. It’s science.
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