In the eleventh episode of the second season of The West Wing, a fairly routine leadership breakfast spirals into disaster when Toby misjudges his relationship with an old friend. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
I’ve noticed that quite a few episodes of this show do this thing that I don’t think has a name. It’s a way that Sorkin and company spread the narrative over a very specific style of rising and falling action. Numerous episodes sort of wander about. There are a few plot threads, all dangling, all giving us the appearance that we’re watching a very mundane and typical day in the White House. That in itself is pretty fantastic when you think about it, especially considering how many issues the staff faces that are resolved without fanfare or ceremony. But then there are episodes like “The Leadership Breakfast” where the narrative force barely putters forward until a moment. Here, that moment is the exact scene where C.J. and Toby realize what Ann Stark has done at their expense. Obviously, it’s right when everyone goes OH SHIT OH MY GOD OH FUCK THIS IS A DISASTER, but it also marks the place where this plot shoots ahead at a much quicker pace. Before this, I was uncertain where “The Leadership Breakfast” was going, and then I suddenly know, and then I don’t like where this train is headed CAN I PLEASE GET OFF OH MY GOD.
I know that I’m repeating myself here, but I’m so impressed with how Sorkin and company are able to portray the complex maneuvers that are part and parcel of American politics. “The Leadership Breakfast” is a criticism, in one sense, of how frustrating the very idea of partisan politics are. What is supposed to be an effort to unite the parties is nothing more than a photo-op, and that’s why Toby is so irritated with the whole process. Why can’t they take the opportunity to actually discuss necessary issues while they’re all in the same room without the press around? At the same time, the writers show Toby messing up. Badly. Like… holy shit, you really fucked up, dude. And both C.J. and Leo told you to be careful, warned you that this would not be good, and they were both right. And I’m glad that the writers don’t ignore this and don’t push C.J.’s concerns aside. She was slighted multiple times by Toby. Hell, she fought against moving the post-breakfast press conference to the Hill, and she fought that hard.
However, it’s important to note what these characters do with this public relations disaster. One of the best scenes this whole season is the rapid-fire walk-and-talk after Sam, Josh, Toby, and C.J. leave Leo’s office. It’s so fascinating to watch them fire off one idea after another, and even better to watch Toby realize that trying to take the high road isn’t going to work. What they eventually come up with isn’t just smart for PR, though. It highlights how absurd this is. The Republican party is so desperate to make themselves look good that they toy with the nation’s poorest workers. I’ve worked plenty of minimum wage jobs, and it’s never enough to live on. Ever. So yes, it is a political ploy to turn this against the Republicans by poking holes in their logic, to point out their comfort levels, but it’s the truth. So many of the people in either party have no idea what it’s like to struggle on minimum wage, how every action because a budgetary process. I KNOW MANY OF YOU UNDERSTAND ME HERE. Like, you can’t just do things. Every single thing in your life – what you make for meals, where you go, how you get there, what you choose to entertain yourself with or impulse buy – is all part of a complicated mathematical equation. Can you afford organic vegetables this week if you put off your phone bill for another two weeks? You know the phone company won’t shut off your phone for a bit, so you’re safe to buy one special thing to make yourself feel better. You also buy a lot of shitty things because you need them and because you don’t have the ability to save up and buy nicer things to last longer. You generally eat “poorly” because it makes your money last longer or leaves you feeling full by the end of dinner. And this is what these assholes are trying to make into an attack on their party! As that one Congressman started talking about being offended by how “partisan” this all was, he didn’t have to go home and worry about making rent for the next month. Why are you turning such an important political issue that people need now into this media spectacle?
Not that this absolves the White House staff or the Democratic party of the same behavior. I rarely (if ever) vote Democratic myself, and I am often exasperated with that party and their… well, DICTIONARY-LENGTH AMOUNT OF PROBLEMS. But in terms of the focus of “The Leadership Breakfast,” I wanted to criticize what was a very petty attempt by Ann Stark to get ahead of the White House. Also, oh my god, what a Slytherin. I can’t help but put characters into Hogwarts houses!!!! IT JUST HAPPENS.
Aside from this, there are a couple absolutely hilarious plots woven amidst the main story. Why did absolutely no one listen to Donna when she told Sam and Josh not to use that fireplace? God, this episode is basically one giant example of the men in the White House not listening to the women, isn’t it? IT TOTALLY IS. And then there’s the whole Karen Cahill plot, which is my favorite because WE NEVER EVEN SEE KAREN AT ALL. Yet she’s still able to dismantle so many people over the course of three days, and it’s beautiful. Bless her. PLEASE LET HER SHOW UP IN THE FUTURE.
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