Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S05E07 – Separation of Powers

In the seventh episode of the fifth season of The West Wing, the possible death of a prominent Supreme Court Chief Justice spurs the White House to action in a horribly awkward way. Meanwhile, Donna is assigned a new responsibility (!!!!) and C.J. goes to assist Zoey with a difficult interview. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

WHAT A DOOZY. THAT ENDING ALONE WAS WORTH IT. Which is not to suggest that everything before it was a waste or anything, but holy shit.


She’s got a short role in “Separation of Powers” alongside Zoey and Abbey, but lord, does it hurt. She travels up to the farm in New Hampshire to coach Zoey for a possibly awkward and challenging interview with a TV personality known for…well, as C.J. so elegantly put it, “making dictators cry.” It’s nice that the writers check up on Zoey and Abbey this way, and Zoey, of course, handles the interview with tact and brilliance. Plus, the show inherently respects that Zoey’s journey is complicated and time-consuming. It’s the very nature of trauma like this.

But it’s C.J.’s frank conversation with Abbey that’s the most revealing. In many ways, Abbey is relieved to be away from the Washington machine as much as she can be, and that includes asking Bartlet not to come visit. Lord. Clearly, Abbey isn’t interested in reconciling their relationship as it stands, and who can blame her?


I’ll talk about the Capital Tax Gains vs College Tuition Tax Credit in more detail once I address that plot specifically, but I wanted to discuss the incredible chance the writers have given Donna Moss in this episode. Yes, I’m pleased that one of my predictions/dreams is coming true, but just purely from the perspective of character development, it’s utterly thrilling to see that Donna is being viewed in a different light. When Angela asks for Donna to help her, it’s devoid of any knowledge of who Donna is or what she does. Angela doesn’t know that Donna is Josh’s assistant. No, all she knows is that Donna was recommended as a sort of “human index” for all the budget documents.

Thus, we get to see Donna separated from Josh, which is OF COURSE very heartbreaking, much sad, all emotions. It is! Josh is like a dejected puppy dog for most of this episode, though it doesn’t help that he’s not in charge of legislative affairs anymore, either. He can’t function without Donna, who happens to be in the very budget meeting he should be in, mind you. Donna. Donna. If I just repeat her name enough times, she becomes real, right?

This is all too much, and it’s just the first episode of what I hope are many where Donna is given more responsibility.


Isn’t Chief Justice Ashland the best? Milo O’Shea is haunting as Ashland, a man unwilling to turn over and let Bartlet choose a new Chief Justice because he knows Bartlet has no power. Initially, though, before this plot intersects with the President, it’s much more about the moral and legal quandary that Toby puts Joe in. The unfortunate reality concerning Ashland’s health seemed obvious. He wasn’t performing well, and the other eight Justices were holding back important cases, waiting for the inevitable. The fall that Ashland has in the beginning of this episode was horrible, and when Joe finally visits the man he used to clerk for, he knows it’s way worse than he expected.

Still, Joe fights the implications of all this the entire time. He fights Toby on the separation of powers, he fights his own perceptions of Ashland, and then Ashland goes and FIGHTS EVERYONE. Y’all, I can’t get over this. The man stands and walks proudly into that Oval Office, sits down in front of the President of the United States of America, and tells him that he’s a compromising little shit. In as many words, of course. It’s incredible for many reasons, but I adore the idea that this man won’t give up, that he won’t let any physical disabilities or disadvantages get in the way of what he believes in.

Which leads me to –


Bartlet drifts from scene to scene here, adding comments when needed, and shooing off staff when they’re not. It’s been easy for me to imagine all this off-screen continuity happening with his character because the writers have been giving Bartlet (and C.J.) stories that reflect a lack of certainty. I do have to admit that I’m grasping at straws myself here because this show leaves so much to be imagined. But while Bartlet is not up in New Hampshire, while he’s willing to compromise on the College Tuition Tax Credit, while he’s willing to do whatever is necessary just to get the budget passed, we get to see a man who isn’t willing to fight for what he wants anymore. I think it’s vital that this comes after “Disaster Relief,” which took Bartlet to the opposite end of the spectrum. Wouldn’t that experience be a bit discouraging to anyone? So, I feel like he sort of settles into his presidency in this episode in a way that’s not nearly as fiery or fierce as he can be.

It’s Bartlet’s meeting with Ashland that kicks him out of his complacency. Could you imagine respecting someone like Ashland and then having them tell you that you’re not good enough to find someone to replace them? It’s with that meeting in mind that Bartlet attends to the budget agreement with the Republican leadership, who, in a last-minute change, decide to ask for a 3% cut in Capital Gains taxes. WHICH IS NON-NEGOTIABLE. Seriously, Ashland was right. The White House was letting him walk all over them. So Bartlet refuses to accept the deal.

WHICH ACTIVATES A GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN. OH. OH MY GOD. THE RELEVANCY. IT’S TOO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT. Well, first of all, please take note that in the video commission for this episode, I BASICALLY PREDICTED THE ENDING WITHOUT KNOWING IT. Oh god, what have I done? I cannot wait to see the next episode.

The video commission for “Separation of Powers” can be downloaded right here for just $0.99.

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About xpanasonicyouthx

Vegan cyclist, Internet community nerd, atheist bookworm, high-five purveyor
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