In the thirteenth episode of the fourth season of The West Wing, C.J. goes home for a high school reunion, but must confront the uncomfortable truth about her father’s mental decline. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
What a bold, heartbreaking, and uncomfortable hour of television, y’all, and I loved it so, so much. It was hard for me to watch beyond the obvious reason – that watching this much pain on screen must be difficult for any person – because my father had Alzheimer’s. If you’ve been reading my site for a while, you know that. You know that I had to experience a lot of what C.J. did here, so I know how utterly cruel the disease is, and more so for those who aren’t afflicted with it. My dad never seemed upset in those final days; I chalked that up to the fact that he never truly had a great memory to begin with, so it must have seemed par for the course for him. And he was always such a carefree guy anyway, so it’s not like he was prone to sharing his feelings.
That raw sort of energy, though – the one that hits when you realize Alzheimer’s has a firm grip on the person you love – is present in nearly every minute of this unorthodox episode. I only just found out that Aaron Sorkin didn’t actually write this; it was playwright Jon Robin Baitz who penned this one. Which is astounding to me because while I recognize that the closest episode to this one is maybe “Noel,” this still feels like it fits within The West Wing’s style of storytelling. It’s funny and deeply serious at the same time; you’ve still got a lot of walk-and-talks; and it strikes a chord in the human condition in that haunting way that the show has done many of times before. Still, I can’t ignore how monumental this feels. I’ve wanted a C.J.-centric story this entire season, and now I’ve got one that is literally centered around her. Besides a few asides involving Toby being the worst Press Secretary in the history of the universe, C.J. is in every scene. Allison Janney – bless her heart – is fucking unreal here, and I’ll be mad when I inevitably find out that she or Donald Moffat did not get nominated for an Emmy for their roles in this episode.
And, again, this is incredibly difficult material to work with. C.J., upon seeing the condition of her father’s house, must navigate her own anger, how own sadness, and her desire to give her father the best care that she can give. It’s a complicated set of emotions, and I’m happy that Baitz respects that C.J. feels all of them at the same time. We see her fear when she observes the dirty dishes and haphazard arrangement in the kitchen. We see her anger when she realizes that her father’s wife, Molly, has left him to himself at the very start of his disease. We see her desire when she speaks with Marco for the first time in twenty years. (Holy shit, Matthew Modine has aged well.) And then we watch her heartbreak when her father forgets who she is, first on the river, and later when he picks up a childhood photo of C.J. And she knows that he can’t help it, but I admit that I reacted the same way the first time my dad was confused as to who I was. You can’t help but feel betrayed. That’s a silly, superficial reaction, and I have no problem admitting that. I reacted selfishly to my father’s decline, and I reacted selfishly to his death. I did things to distance myself from the horror of it, and that’s the unfortunate truth. For once, I chose not to handle something. I’d like to think that for the most part, I approached my own problems and struggles head on, but I’m fine perceiving myself as a coward when it came to my father. That word has a viciously negative connotation, but I don’t have a problem admitting that I was terrified.
That’s what I admire about C.J. in this episode. As I’ve said a couple times, this whole ordeal is about as uncomfortable as it gets. Lord, Tal’s doctor literally tells C.J. that she’s got to start planning for the end right now. She can’t ignore this anymore, which is not to say that she was. No, throughout “The Long Goodbye,” C.J. offers herself up time and time again. She goes fishing with her father. She confronts Molly (in perhaps the most unnerving scene in the whole episode, especially for me, since I feel like I’m more like Molly than anyone else here), despite that her father doesn’t ask her, too. She even offers to quit her job to take care of him, and you know what? I believe she was being sincere. I don’t thing she was trying to bluff her way through this. She cares so fiercely for her father, and she refuses to let her own self-interest get in the way.
So I admire her. I admire her ability to pursue sex as a comfort in a moment of uncertainty. I admire her ability to have awkward conversations because she must have them. If anything, “The Long Goodbye” is not just a portrait of how such a common disease affects humanity. It’s also a portrait of the most resilient character on this show, and I felt so honored to have experienced it. As it stands, this is my favorite episode of this season, no question. I’m aware that Sorkin leaves as showrunner at the end of season four, and this episode gives me a lot of hope that the writers – whoever they may be in the future seasons – can do a lot of fun and interesting things with these characters while still staying within the framework of The West Wing.
The video commission for “The Long Goodbye” can be downloaded right here.
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