Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S03E16 – The U.S. Poet Laureate

In the sixteenth episode of the third season of The West Wing, Bartlet makes an off-the-cuff remark about a possible Republican opponent by mistake, sending the White House into defensive mode. Meanwhile, Toby grapples with meeting one of his favorite poets and having to tell her to stay quiet, while Josh discovers the Internet. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

You know, this episode is flawed for one major reason (which I’ll get to at the end), but I still enjoyed it a lot. It’s such a light episode in comparison to most of season three, and I appreciated a story that was mostly humorous. Let’s do this!

A .22 caliber mind in a .357 magnum world

I realized like a second after the President described Ritchie that way that the green light was still on. And I knew, given the American media system, that this would be all the news outlets would talk about for days. Days! And I wasn’t wrong about that. It’s exactly what plays out here. And for what it’s worth (AND IT’S WORTH A LOT IN MY BOOK), C.J. Cregg kills it. She nails every single press conference. She is perfectly quick-witted and snappy, she’s hilarious, and she manages to turn the conversation towards energy conservation when its needed. It’s so fun to watch because initially, Josh, C.J., and Sam are terrified about the implications of the clip getting out. They’re about as close to panic as imaginable, so it’s nice to know that C.J.’s work is brilliantly able to turn the tide in her favor.

Of course, Toby’s advice in “Hartsfield’s Landing” hangs over this. Toby insisted that Bartlet not pretend to be one of the people, that he needed to play up his education and intelligence because it’s what makes him such a good President. So, granted, Bartlet’s comment about Ritchie is a bit mean, but isn’t he doing exactly what Toby wanted? That’s why the end of this episode is just so rewarding. LOOK AT BARTLET’S FACE ONCE C.J. FIGURES EVERYTHING OUT. He found a way to control the conversation, to use the media machine to his own benefit. It’s genius. I love it, and I love C.J.’s joy upon realizing what’s happened.

Bless this plot. It tied the entire episode together, and it was a damn treat to watch.


Oh god, my love for Laura Dern knows no bounds. She is fantastic as Tabitha Fortis, and Sorkin gives us a humbling and evocative look at art, truth, and protest. (Like the storyline surrounding Josh, I wonder how much of this was a deliberate act of introspection. More on that in a bit.) This isn’t the first time that the White House has had to deal with a celebrity or a guest of honor’s complications. In Tabitha’s case, the White House is worried that she’ll criticize the United States about their refusal to sign an international anti-landmines treaty. That they created. Tabitha can’t see a reason why she shouldn’t do what she does. She either gets to speak as she pleases, or there won’t be a party for her.

Now, Toby clearly wants this party to happen, and he also clearly can’t deal with the fact that he’s in the same room as Tabitha Fortis. I’ve never seen him so nervous or excited! So he has a difficult journey ahead of him. He has to tell a person he respects that she can’t do one of the things that he respects her for. It’s not until their second conversation that he makes some headway, but even that meeting ends just as poorly as the first one. And I think that Toby did what he could to avoid saying that Tabitha was flat-out wrong (though he does use the DMZ between North and South Korea as a example of the need for landmines), and instead tries to convey how a public condemnation at a White House-sponsored event wouldn’t help anyone. In this sense, Toby, who is very familiar with how the press works in Washington, is trying to explain how the condemnation would make the news more than the content of the condemnation itself.

Still, Toby doesn’t convince Tabitha quite yet. It’s not until she has a bizarre reaction to the past couple days while lecturing at Georgetown that she’s able to explain what’s going on in her head. Her landmine activism is terribly personal because she witnessed a father losing his son to a landmine, and the memory is seared into her mind. She knows what the human cost of the weapon is. But what I enjoyed most was Tabitha’s humble response to Toby. Well, sort of enjoyed? I go back and forth on this. First of all, she isn’t the arbiter or gatekeeper of truth; she entertains, and she is privileged enough to have anyone’s attention. And she admits that while her experiences are hers and they are real, perhaps she doesn’t know everything. That’s a difficult thing to admit! But it allows the two of them to come to a solution that doesn’t involve Tabitha betraying her activism, while also not creating a media firestorm. But then… art speaks to a lot of truth??? ALL THE TIME? Which is sort of what I write about on Mark Reads and Mark Watches all the time? So I’m torn between enjoying Tabitha’s personal struggle with her activism and feeling like this was also some weirdly personal cop-out that I don’t understand.

Josh Discovers the Internet

It…it’s so beautiful. IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL. Flawed, as I mentioned before, but so beautiful. I do wonder how much of this is based on reality. Did Sorkin have an experience that he then transferred to the screen? Because while I love the idea of Josh discovering Internet forums and making an absolute fool of himself because his ego can swallow countries whole, I didn’t like all the super intense ableism that came along with it.

So, let me back up. I’ve been reading messageboards and newsgroups since I was 14. I have been running online communities since I was 19. I have a long history in community management, and it was actually my job for many, many years. So understanding the dynamics of online communities is kind of my thing. There’s a lot here in “The U.S. Poet Laureate” that rings absolutely true, and that’s why it’s so funny to watch Josh misunderstand it. As soon as he said he wanted to reply, I knew it would be a disaster. There was no way it wouldn’t be. 

It makes me uncomfortable, however, how many times Sorkin qualifies the people online – who absolutely can be absurd, ridiculous, foolish, mean, bullying, and elitist – as mentally disabled. Constantly. Like, no, that’s not what you mean. Okay, even if you do mean that – you shouldn’t! – it’s not accurate. The reason that people have such horrifying and frustrating experiences online is not because of mental illness. It is so much more nuanced than that! There’s the entitlement that comes from people about what they think creators owe them. There are the people who are privileged and don’t care. There are bullies. Sockpuppets. Trolls. There are social and cultural forces at work that exist in the real world that also manifest online. But to insinuate that people who run fansites and such have something wrong in their head? That’s lazy, and it sucks.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy this because I will enjoy any plot where Donna has to show Josh how wrong he is. Oh, and C.J.’s epic smackdown of Josh is a spectacle that should be framed in a museum. It’s a work of art. I just want to engage with this show to the point that I can pick apart the things I enjoy and the things I don’t, and that doesn’t mean I hate the show. No, it’s quite the opposite, actually.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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