In the second episode of the fifth season of The West Wing, everything STILL hurts. No one is surprised. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
Can we just make it like, law or something, that shows cannot have peppy theme songs that follow EMOTIONALLY DEVASTATING COLD OPENS? Yeah, I think The West Wing has been unintentionally terrible about that, and here’s another great example of that: Angela Blake informs Leo that if Zoey dies, Bartlet’s approval rating will shoot through the roof! :: CUE UPBEAT MUSICAL THEME FULL OF WHIMSY :: Oh my god, you are so rude.
“The Dogs of War” is very much a companion to the premiere, and I enjoyed that Wells continued to explore the difficult issues brought up in that first episode. “Difficult” is an understatement, of course, since this is all SO GODDAMN PAINFUL TO WATCH. Again, Bartlet and Leo have to face the fact that they are, in some sense, partially responsible for what’s happened here. Of course, they react in different ways to this information, and Bartlet is certainly far more upset about it than Leo. But the reality is that Qumar was bombed, and it placed Zoey in danger of death more so than ever before. I didn’t really comment on the fact that Leo had such a fevered outburst about this very thing while in the Situation Room, and I think it’s important to address that and how it’s developed further here. It’s fascinating to me that Leo puts aside his own distaste for what Walken’s done and does his job. Yes, his scene with Umar Usef is disturbing for a number of reasons, namely the fact that he informs the Qumari ambassador of the bombing as it is happening. But I also noticed that he was quick to be the Leo we know and have seen in action before. So when Walken later tries to suggest that Leo recuse himself, I was a bit indignant. Leo is doing his job! FOR YOU. And pushing through an economic stimulus package RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT seems like a terrible idea!
For Bartlet, though, this is monumentally worse and not just for the obvious reason. The reveal of the Qumari bombing terrifies the Bartlets because they fear that the U.S. may have just exacerbated the kidnappers too much. Like I mentioned in the previous review, this sort of emotional toil is important in developing the emotional realism of what’s happening here. It makes this personal in a way that’s believable. How is Bartlet ever supposed to live with what he chose to do and what it came to bear? He’s contributed to a cycle of violence that just claimed Qumari lives, which then most likely inspired the terrorist attack in Turkey. Honestly, I really hope we see more of this sort of moral examination this season, especially given how volatile things have started off. Well, I could use less of the whole “Islam terrorists!” thing that’s always happening. I know, I know, broken record at this point, but is it so much to ask for some nuance?
Amidst this chaos, Josh and Toby have their own battles to fight. Josh, on a tip from Amy, comes to believe that the Republicans are going to use this crisis as a means to pass through radically conservative/right-wing legislation, one that doesn’t seem unfounded the more Josh digs. However, it’s not like Josh can just… walk in on the meetings? Actually, when he followed Steve, I thought he was going to do that. This whole Constitutional mess was created so that Bartlet could worry about his daughter and deal with that while, as Josh so neatly put it, the rest of the staff could deal with politics. And with Walken appearing more and more to the media, was it really so far-fetched that the Republicans would inevitably use this to take control?
So Josh’s conversation with Steve was… awkward. REALLY AWKWARD. Steve was being a bit facetious, right? I felt like he was trying to turn Josh’s accusation around on him, as if he was saying, “Well, anyone who thinks we would take advantage of this is clearly not a good person!” Um, no? Plus, Walken all but confirms that this is what the Republicans were going to do anyway, so shush, dude.
Thankfully, there was a bit of depth added to Walken in this episode. He has a sober moment with Mrs. Federer that is a neat reminder for him and us of just how much the President has to deal. I thought his “tee time” comment was crass considering just how messed up everything was, but it was nice that Walken appreciated the difficulty of his tob.
But Toby. Toby. The two speeches referenced in the end of the previous episode – one written if Zoey survives, one if she does not – are brought up again, and HOLY HEARTBREAK, JOHN WELLS, STOP DOING THIS TO ME. Look, Toby already shattered my heart with his goddamn twin monologue, and now he’s writing that speech, and NO, BARTLET, YOU DON’T NEED TO READ IT. YOU REALLY DON’T. ABORT MISSION. THIS IS A BAD IDEA oh. oh my god you’re reading it BARTLET NO. No, y’all, that choked sob that Bartlet does while he’s reading the speech is one billion times not okay. It’s not. But I love that this is later turned into such a powerful moment for Bartlet because he appropriates the grim speech as one of victory.
Oh god, and WHAT A VICTORY. After ramping up the tension for two episodes, we get relief. I think that Zoey’s return feels a bit rushed in one sense. Like, there’s a tip to the FBI, and then one scene later, the Bartlets (AND CHARLIE OMG) are in that field with Zoey, and it’s just sort of it? However, I don’t know that it would have been any better to focus on anything aside from the reunion and the transfer of power back to Bartlet. So I’m not sure I actually have any valuable criticism here. Truthfully, I’m just thankful that this chapter is over, that Walken is out of the White House, and that Bartlet and his team can find a way to move forward after one of the biggest crises in their whole career. I’m not envious of the path ahead of them. And god, who are they going to pick as Vice President??? I DON’T EVEN KNOW, Y’ALL.
The video commission for “The Dogs of War” can be downloaded right here.
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