In the seventeenth episode of the fourth season of The West Wing, Bartlet and Leo deal with the stress and terror of a rescue mission, while half of the team assists Sam in California. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
Okay, I’m not actually going to do what I said I would at the end of the commission for this episode, but this is a good start: “Red Haven’s On Fire” is GREAT and HURT.
There is a really weird undercurrent of misogyny in this episode that, for once, is actually addressed on screen. I mean, I only say it’s weird because it’s so blatant; it’s not like it’s at all surprising that Sorkin’s writing has produced unfair, bizarre, or downright derogatory portrayals of women and women’s issues. But, as I said, the text here actually holds Josh and Will responsible for what they say to the women in their lives.
Stockard Channing, in all her perfection, gloriously returns to The West Wing along with Mary-Louise Parker, both of who I wish were on the show way more. Now, it’s not shocking that this episode features Josh getting his way and gloating about it. I daresay that this is his entire characterization. Obviously, there’s a lot more nuance to him, but I feel like he’s an extension of Sorkin’s own view of himself, which is fine! Power fantasies are awesome, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy them. Truthfully, it’s pretty common for this show to put Josh in increasingly difficult political nightmares and have him use his ridiculous amount of knowledge to best the competition. Hell, now we know from Sam’s role in the beginning of this season that having Josh’s job is a nightmare in and of itself, especially since Josh is so perfectly suited for the role.
So it was upsetting and infuriating to watch him treat the First Lady – THE FUCKING FIRST LADY – as if she was nothing more than a political enemy. Dude, she is the First Lady. You’re on her team! Yes, you may not be working for her directly, but surely your boss is going to be upset? But let’s put that aside for a moment because WHAT ARE YOU DOING BEING THAT CONDESCENDING TO ABBEY BARTLET? It’s so gross! And it’s hard not to see this being a sexist thing because Josh feels like he’s targeting Abbey so specifically.
I love it, then, that Abbey goes straight to Amy to ask how the fuck she dealt with Josh. I kind of side-eye Sorkin’s decision to make Amy say that Josh’s condescending sexism actually turns Amy on (UGH WHY), but whatever. The point is that Abbey takes Josh’s rude advice at face value, does exactly what he says, and she crushes him. Well, wait, Amy first crushes that op-ed writer in a brilliant display of passive-aggressive power, which gives Abbey the idea to give her Chief of Staff a “professional” face. AMY’S FACE. WHICH I LOVE. I absolutely adore the idea of these two people teaming up to ruin Josh’s every waking moment. And it’s not that I hate Josh at all because have you seen every scene of his with Donna? It is the oxygen that powers my goddamn body. It’s just that it’s not often that this show – or most shows for that matter – switch the power dynamic up, to make the condescending man the loser and the embarrassment. Bravo.
And this same dynamic appears in Will’s story in “Red Haven’s on Fire,” though for an entirely different reason. I did notice that the interns were being treated poorly by Will, and this episode ONLY MAKES THINGS WORSE. Will is condescending, insulting, demanding, and, worst of all, completely unwilling to help when it comes to the women who have been asked to help him with his speeches. Of course, I was worried that Sorkin was going to botch this, too, especially since this show relies on characters being smarter than everyone else around them. In Will’s case, his panic over his first job as the Deputy Communications Director has eclipsed his ability to be empathetic, to understand what this experience must be like for the women working for him, and to actually teach these interns how to write. Despite that he knows that they’re interns, he expects such a ridiculous and rigorous level of brilliance from them that you’d think he believed they were the normal writing staff.
I’m thankful, then, that Elsie is here to remind Will of where he came from and how his behavior is 100000% inappropriate. And this needed to happen so that Will could put this situation into perspective. So much of what’s expected of him is amplified because it all happened so quickly. I like that Elsie uses the analogy of Sputnik falling on his head because of how disastrous it sounds, but she also has to remind Will that however he feels is probably exactly how the interns feel. Plus, how is it at all helpful to make a sexist comment about “Republican Vogue” as if women can’t know anything about politics without reading it in a fashion magazine?
So I’m glad that Will not only apologizes, but finds ways to encourage their writing. Even if he changed some of the phrasing, he acknowledges what these women contributed, and guess what? IT WORKS. They feel wanted and validated, and they are eager to keep working. Even when they can go home, they appreciate the limited timeline they’re on and the severity of the work they have to do.
Y’all. Y’all. Toby gave someone a hug, and he meant it, and he didn’t shy away from it, and THIS FEELS LIKE A BIG DEAL TO ME? So much of what Toby does for Sam in this episode feels like a goodbye to me, which is kind of sad, because I got the sense that Sam isn’t going to be a main character on this show much longer. As the election in the California 47th hits setback after setback, Sam starts to lose hope that he’ll ever win the election. I mean, stranding kids at Disneyland, Bartlet’s anti-French comments, the whole “getting arrested” thing…. yeah, that’s probably bad. Probably.
But then Sam is confused by what Toby makes him do in the final week prior to the election itself. As he puts it, he’s “speaking to the choir” instead of challenging/seeking out new voters. I admit that I was confused by the strategy myself. How was Sam going to win unless he converted Republican or undecided voters to his side? However, I was looking at this the wrong way, and truthfully, Sorkin had already hinted that Sam’s run in the California 47th was more of an idealistic thing than anything else. Despite that Will had managed to win the initial election, Sam was facing a different battle.
I love it, then, that Toby took the time off from the White House to come out to California and give Sam the send-off he deserved: one that was about values, not winning. Because… well, Sam’s not going to win. It’s not just that he revealed the President’s tax plan, though that certainly didn’t help. I lived in Orange County for a while (WAY TOO LONG, HONESTLY), and the people who live there are, generally speaking, deeply devoted Republicans. There’s a lot of money in that county, more so than nearly every place I’ve lived before. With that comes a lot of political weight, and that weight often supports any sort of legislation that’ll keep that money in one’s own hands. Sam’s form of liberalism doesn’t mesh with these people! It just doesn’t. And yet, there’s something honorable about his and Toby’s refusal to cater to these people to win. Instead, they’ll run a campaign that’s idealistic and hopeful, knowing they’ll lose, and that is what’s going to make it worth it.
TOBY HUGGED SAM, BY THE WAY. JUST WANTED TO POINT THAT OUT.
At the heart of this episode, though, is President Bartlet and Leo’s struggle to deal with the emotionally harrowing rescue of the three Marines captured at the end of the last episode. As complex and politically confusing as foreign affairs can be on this show, I think Sorkin and company managed to brilliant convey both the technical aspects of the rescue while respecting the emotional weight of all the characters involved here. Again, we have to remember that Bartlet just started his second term, and the United States is now inching ever closer to some sort of global conflict.
You can see how much this is affecting Bartlet and Leo a few times in this episode. There’s a rather chilling moment just after Bartlet gives the go to Dawnsky. Instead of focusing on the flurry of activity in the Situation Room, the camera lingers on Bartlet’s face. He looks shocked and tired. He looks like he cannot believe the very decision he made. He looks cynical. And it’s this amalgamation of emotions, conveyed in an image that only lasts a few a seconds, that builds this idea that Bartlet is taking recent events very personally, more so than we ever saw him do in the early parts of this show. But how can he not? It was his decisions that got these families involved in this mess, you know? His decision to change the foreign policy is what brought about the invasion of Kundu and the capture of that Batangi airport. Oh god, and what about Bartlet’s face when he finds out why it’s called a “wet team”? YEAH. NO. NO FOREVER.
Of course, I don’t want to ignore how much of the tension and pain comes from these people just waiting. Even though Leo and Bartlet know what’s going on, they’re ultimately in the dark. They have no idea if the special-ops mission was a success, and given that the projected time of completion is an underestimation of how long it actually takes, the waiting is a BILLION TIMES WORSE. However, it’s the families in the White House itself who make this so unbearable. They can’t be told anything. No news about where their sons are being held, what’s being done to rescue them, or even if they’re truly being hurt or tortured. That, y’all, must be agonizing to keep from these people. Obviously, it’s an issue of national security, but that doesn’t make it easier for these people to deal with relentless terror of waiting to find out if their sons are dead or alive.
SO. When that paper got passed around to Fitzwallace, my first thought was that the radio message had only told half the truth, and that the “cargo” retrieved from the base was just the bodies of the Marines. And that would have been resolutely horrific, I don’t want to deny that. But I found it extremely disturbing that after Leo told the families that they’d see their sons the following day, he informs them that the very people who helped rescue their sons were just victims of a terrorist attack. How is that going to sit on Leo and Bartlet’s consciences? I mean… shit, their foreign policy has already been demonstrated to be a failure, hasn’t it? It’s a nightmare, and with this new terror attack, it’s only going to get worse.
GREAT. AND. HURT.
The video commission for “Red Haven’s on Fire” can be downloaded right here.
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