In the sixth episode of the fifth season of The West Wing, everything is a disaster, including the actual, literal disaster at the center of this episode. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
So, I hope that we don’t get more episodes like this when it comes to Will, who is, largely speaking, shoved into the background now that he works for Russell. Take him out of “Disaster Relief,” and you’ve got exactly the same episode. He doesn’t really affect anything here, does he? Nooooo, I like Will, and I like VP Russell. More of them? I mean, the one scene Russell in is a shocker because holy shit he did something. Not a whole lot, but did anyone expect him to step to the plate for Bartlet like that? MORE PLEASE.
Aside from the weird goat war plot with Terry O’Quinn (whose character is apparently replacing Fitzwallace??? THAT HAPPENED SO FAST) and Hutchinson being an asshole, “Disaster Relief” follows the two major disasters affecting the White House. C.J. convinces Bartlet rather quickly that he should be the one to tend to the state of emergency in Oklahoma, where a vicious tornado tore apart a small town. And I agree with C.J.; I think it was a smart idea to get Bartlet out there, but in hindsight, OH MY GOD. Now I know why she believed that and DID YOU HEAR MY HEART SHATTER.
The thing is, we’ve seen this coming in the past five episodes. In the wake of learning what the administration she works for has done, C.J. has repeatedly questioned the moral standing of their actions. She’s fought Leo numerous times. She’s felt horribly conflicted about her job. And this is the culmination of that: She brings Bartlet to Oklahoma because she wants to so badly believe that this is the President she believes in, that he’s the same Bartlet she respected when she first started working for him.
But it’s not that easy, is it? She gets Bartlet to Oklahoma, and he becomes obsessed with doing “real work,” so much so that he quickly shirks off his responsibilities and duties in order to listen to the people of this small town. And I’m going to be the first to admit that I don’t think what Bartlet does here is superficial or meaningless. Rather, it’s the exact opposite. Bartlet is desperate to find meaning and infuse it in everything he does. It’s what inspires him to HANG UP ON LEO, which is just the most ridiculous thing imaginable. Okay, I’m being hyperbolic, but we have never seen him do something like that ever. But he’s intentionally valuing the work he’s doing helping the disaster relief group over everything that’s in Washington.
However, C.J. has to be the one to point out that maybe he’s not helping at all. Maybe the hotel rooms to motorcade and Secret Service folks are taking up could serve a better purpose, and maybe they’re just all in the way. God, HOW DOES THIS SHOW KEEP FINDING WAYS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE FEEL SO UNCOMFORTABLE? It’s heartbreaking to watch because it really is a portrait of two people who are heartbroken and desperate clashing with one another. Bartlet is searching for meaning in his presidency in the wake of a flurry of crises, but he’s grasping at straws. C.J. is faced with the terrifying prospect that she’s lost the leader that she and the United States need.
AND THERE’S ABSOLUTELY NO RESOLUTION OF THIS. Of course. The pain must be everlasting.
I made a comment during the opening credits about how the cold open felt like a bunch of adults coddling another adult who was quite possibly going to throw a tantrum over making a mistake. However, over the course of “Disaster Relief,” I came to understand just how horrific this was for someone like Josh. This guy made a mistake – and I have no problem admitting that – and then he is summarily ignored or dismissed by EVERYONE EVER. It is relentlessly brutal. At times, is it necessary? Yes, and I think Leo made it clear that Josh needed to understand the ramifications of what he’d done.
Still, this is hard to watch. It’s hard to watch Josh react so poorly, it’s hard to know that this might affect his role in the White House for a long time, and it’s hard to rectify the fact that CLEARLY, DONNA IS THE ABSOLUTE BEST PART OF HIS LIFE, AND YEAH, THIS SHOW IS CRUEL FOR TEASING ME WITH THIS SHIP AND THEN SHOWING ME SHIT LIKE THIS. DONNA IS THE BEST. Look what she does for him this episode: everything ever. She comforts him, she keeps him busy, she sends Pierce to the restaurant where Congressman Wilcox is supposed to meet him and PIERCE IS ACTUALLY USEFUL AGAIN. Donna. Donna. And then she brings in the What A Shame folder so that they can work on pet projects they never have the time for and please tell me that look at the end of the episode is of Josh realizing his in love with Donna. Damn it, let’s be real. I’m going to have to wait until the end of the show to get this, if I get it at all. DAMN IT.
Bradley Whitford is fantastic here, though, and it deserves to be stated. Like most of this show, he’s able to portray difficult and complicated stories with ease. I mean, out of context, who could have ever made that scene where he shouted at the Capitol Building work? Okay, granted, even in context, it’s absurd, but that’s the point. Like Bartlet, Josh is having a sort of existential crisis once he’s taken out of his comfort zone. He looks to those around him to explain it or to bail him out, but they’ve got their hands tied. Leo has too many party members to accommodate and baby through this, and so he’s got to come down hard on Josh. (Gods, did he have to say that no one wants him there, though? That was rough, buddy.)
So is this season all about tearing these characters down in the most painful way imaginable? That would mean it’s basically Buffy season 6. Just kidding, nothing hurts as much as that.
The video for “Disaster Relief” can be purchased here for just $0.99.
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