In the twenty-second episode of the fourth season of The West Wing, this is basically a series of vignettes that explore how uncomfortable one episode of a television show can make me. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
WELL, THAT HURT.
Somehow â€“ somehow â€“ that was not the season four finale. It sure as hell felt like it, though. This is one ridiculously tense and suspenseful episode, and I’d like to cover the various storylines before they converge at the end.
So, I’m repeating what I said in the video commission for “Commencement” because it bears repeating here: I like this aspect of the Charlie/Zoey relationship this season a whole lot more than what came before it. Just hours before Zoey’s graduation, a comment from Josh causes Charlie to remember a promise he made to Zoey about this very day. Here, Charlie shows a lot more restraint in doing anything to Zoey than he’s exhibited before, though Josh eventually convinces him that just as a friend, Zoey will appreciate the gesture that the buried champagne will provide. Okay, fair enough. I’m okay with that, as long as Charlie doesn’t consider this a last-ditch effort to win Zoey over again.
So when Zoey herself showed up at the National Arboretum, I was surprised. I did not expect this! And including Zoey in this bit of the story SUDDENLY MADE IT BETTER! She’s there of her own volition, and through this, Sorkin explores Zoey’s doubts. Not just about Jean-Paul, though that’s part of this. Zoey is confused about what the point is in going to Paris for three months. She doesn’t know if Jean-Paul has the best intentions. She doesn’t even know how Charlie fits into this anymore. It’s not lost on me that she comes to Charlie for some form of comfort, even if that comfort comes in drinking buried champagne. But Zoey’s anxiety â€“ while very real â€“ isn’t quite enough of a reason for Charlie to entertain the notion of being there with Charlie. He can’t be in the moment after everything else that happened, and on top of that, it just doesn’t feel right.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure Charlie is going to be fucked up in the next episode. I’ll get to that later.
WOW WOW WOW THIS IS FUCKED UP. Like, does Sorkin just have to one-up himself in coming up with a more awkward scene than the last most horribly awkward scene he wrote? Because I don’t think this show has ever made me feel like I did here. It was as if I was sitting inside that empty house, and then Toby and Andy start arguing, and I FELT LIKE I WAS ACTUALLY THERE AND I SHOULDN’T BE THERE AND MAKE IT STOP. And this season has been setting this moment up for a while. We knew Andy was unwilling to marry Toby, and despite brief hints why, it was never fully spelled out for the audience. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes it didn’t. (And if there’s any complaint I have for season four, it’s that too many events happened offscreen that we aren’t privy to.) But we also know that Toby was desperate to demonstrate to Andy that he was worth it, that it was good for them to re-marry. I will admit that while Toby says he’s tried to change, I don’t that we’ve actually seen that much change from him over the course of this season.
That being said, what Andy tells Toby about himself is undeniable, and it’s one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever had to sit through for Mark Watches, just in terms of what it means for his character. Throughout The West Wing, I’ve come to enjoy Toby’s acerbic and furious demeanor, often making it a joke or finding it as comic relief. But in this single damning moment, Andy reveals that the very thing that I found entertaining (and probably most people watching this show found amusing, too) was the same thing that she could not live with. She couldn’t live with his cynicism, his doubt, his anger, and his sadness. Moreover, she couldn’t stand the idea of this same man, so full of rage and dejection, raising the twins. Yes, I think this twist suffers from the same problem as many plots on this show: it seemingly comes out of nowhere. Perhaps this is less the case here, but I can’t deny that we haven’t even seen Andy for most of this season, so her outbreak comes across as cruelly sudden.
At the same time, it makes sense that upon being presented with the reality of Toby’s desire, she simply broke down. Well, and she is VERY PREGNANT, which I hope Sorkin doesn’t use as a way to sweep her complaints under the rug because I suspect she was telling the truth. I’m also curious to see what’s going to happen after Toby learns of THE THING that happened. Oh god.
My god, y’all, I had this specific thought about how far things had come since season four that was then UTTERLY DESTROYED by the end of this episode. I noticed that Bartlet’s reveal regarding what truly happened to Shareef was presented to the audience and the staff in an almost nonchalant manner, as if the information was nothing more than a kind heads up. To me, that suggested just how many other crises had happened since the start of season four. And the most recent one is still hanging over them all, since THERE ISN’T A VICE PRESIDENT OH MY GOD. That’s not good. That’s very not good.
So when I saw Danny in C.J.’s office, I knew this wasn’t going to end well, and THAT DIDN’T MATTER. IT JUST KEPT GETTING WORSE AND WORSE. Given that the five possible terrorists the U.S. were watching just disappeared, it was highly probable that news of Shareef’s death would only inspire them to act out their revenge against the United States. It’s a messy affair, one complicated by the fact that Danny has a job to do that directly interferes with national security in a very real way. That’s the difficulty C.J. faces in trying to placate Danny while making sure she doesn’t do anything to bring down a rain of hell. But is she even responsible for that? I don’t think that’s very fair to insinuate because this wasn’t her choice. This got dropped in her lap, but you can tell that she takes it very seriously. She severely limits what she says to Danny because she knows that one misstep means that vital information might get out. And throughout this all, Allison Janney plays C.J. much more muted than we’re used to, and it’s just so unsettling.
Bartlet and the commencement
This is about the only plot that isn’t full of pain and terror, and most of it is just plain adorable. Oh god, his daughter is growing up. Everything is so cute andâ€¦ well, kind of sad! I know Bartlet relies on his humor to communicate how he really feels, so it’s clear there’s a huge part of him that wishes that Zoey would stay behind. Oh god, Bartlet is too much. I did enjoy that Will was there to constantly distract him with his speech, which I’m sure he absolutely nailed. I haven’t said this enough in a review itself (I usually reserve it for the videos), but Martin Sheen is SO GOOD at making Bartlet seem like an incredible public speaker.
Anyway, I think that Sorkin intentionally kept Bartlet’s scenes in this episode relatively light. He meets Zoey’s security detail, including Wesley, played by Taye Diggs. (Swwwooooonnnn.) He is updated on ongoing security situations, including the missing container in Portland. For the most part, he doesn’t advance things much, but again, I think Sorkin designed this like this becauseâ€¦ well, I suppose I should get there now.
Using Massive Attack’s “Angel” over the closing montage of scenes is so fucking brilliant that it hurts. Literally. It literally hurts because the pulsing music itself puts us in a mindset of dread, tension, and terror. I was so fucking nervous for the last ten minutes of this episode because I knew that all the clues I’d gotten over the course of “Commencement” meant something. But why were these things so important? What did the missing container have to do with all of this? Why did the five men disappear? Why was Amy so concerned about what she’d said to Josh regarding Hoynes? Why does everything feel so wrong in that club?
Sorkin and his team toy with our sense of suspicion. They draw our attention to details that don’t make sense, and as we try to piece the puzzle together, the music swells louder and louder. There are so many rapid cuts in this final act, and it’s done to keep us feeling awkward and out-of-step. We want the camera to linger longer so that we can finally figure out what’s bothering us so much about Zoey’s scene with Jean-Paul, so we can find out what it is that Amy is dancing around and refuses to say, so we can find out what’s lurking around the corner. It’s unreal, y’all, and I say that because the images and music make this feel almost as if we’re watching a dream sequence. And yet, when all the cards fall to the table, we know this isn’t a dream. It’s horrifyingly real.
Amy has figured it out: Donna is in love with Josh.
Jean-Paul drugged Zoey with ecstasy.
And C.J. knows that the Qumari terrorists will retaliate. When Danny asks her if the White House is worried about retribution, her face says it all. Of course they are. Of course she is.
And then Zoey is missing, and C.J.’s fears are real, and Leo’s fears are real, and Bartlet’s fears have manifested before his daughter has even left the country. Molly is dead. Zoey’s panic button was discarded. AND SOMEONE HAS ZOEY.
I am so terrified of the next episode. And yet, I can’t deny that “Commencement” is another fantastic episode in what’s been my favorite season of this show. GOOD GOD HOW AM I GOING TO MAKE IT THROUGH THE NEXT EPISODE.
EDIT: I was entering this review into WordPress and just realized the title has a dual meaning. It could also refer to the “commencement” of retribution against the United States for what they did to Shareef.
The video commission for “Commencement” can be downloaded right here.
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