In the nineteenth episode of the fifth season of The West Wing, both Josh and C.J. struggle with moral ideals in the face of grim political realities. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
I actually felt a pit of stress growing in my stomach while watching this episode because WOW SO UNCOMFORTABLE, but ultimately, I thought this was a neat way for the show to address reality vs. expectation. LET’S DO THIS.
I actually think that this episode follows “Access” very well since C.J. spends most of “Talking Points” doing her damnedest to do what she thinks is right in this instance. (See, good things can come of “Access”!) Her story is cleverly paralleled with what Josh goes through, too, and ultimately, this is about abstraction. How do you run a country without knowing all the specificities that go along with it? How do you enact policy that strips statistics of their human face? How do you purport to live in the land of the free as your choices are categorically being shrunk?
Like Josh, C.J. struggles with the grim reality of what the White House (and their policies) has done to the world around them. In her case, she balks at an FCC ruling that clearly gave a tremendous break to MertMedia after they’d been discovered illegally buying local television stations. Given that net neutrality was, generally speaking, completely destroyed in the United States recently, this was particularly relevant to watch unfold. What C.J. says here â€“ which is only fictional in terms of the details â€“ is the reality of the media here in the United States. A very small number of companies hold control of a large part of the ways that we consume media. Television. Publishing. Radio. Internet service provides. The list goes on and on. I had the privilege this year of finally switching from Comcast to a local ISP (Sonic.net, if you’re curious, who are utter babes of brilliance), and this was based largely on my desire to escape having to pay a giant corporation to give me a subpar product. (COMCAST WAS SO TERRIBLE, AND I’M SURE Y’ALL WILL HAVE YOUR OWN STORIES.) But C.J.’s point here is that most people don’t have a choice. I know that’s the case! I know that if you want to watch television or make a phone call or have Internet access, sometimes there is only one company that will give you access.
And so “Talking Points” takes C.J. on an increasingly frustrating journey for her as she tries to get the White House reporters to understand the enormity of what she’s discovered in the FCC decision. I admit that it was kind of surreal to watch C.J. intentionally try to give reporters a story, but I think that the writers did a good job of showing us why C.J.’s little quest was both admirable and naÃ¯ve. What she’s saying isn’t untrue, but how can the reporters openly criticize the very companies who write their paychecks? It’s Greg Brock who first brings up a good point: Does C.J. even know who she’s fighting for? Unlike Josh’s story, C.J. was perfectly fine dealing in abstractions. She knew she was fighting for an idea, for the theory of choice, and I loved how that was contrasted with what Josh was dealing with.
Still, it was great to see her literally use the briefing room to make her point, to give these conglomerates a single seat instead of allowing them to have multiple voices in the room. At the same time, it’s important that Leo points out that C.J. doesn’t even know any of the “little guys” that she’s claiming to fight for. There’s that scene with Josh where Leo asks him where his suit was made, and I think this one served the same point. But Leo does commend C.J. for making the point regardless of the outcome, and it prevents this from feeling hopeless. It’s not an issue that’ll be resolved in a single day, either, but C.J.’s got this infectious way to her when she gets like this, so I appreciate the story as it is.
OH GOD, IT’S SO UNCOMFORTABLE. There’s a lot going on in “Talking Points” that Josh is not just responsible for, but which haunts him over the course of this episode. We open with a victory, and then the writers spend 42 minutes unraveling everything ever, including Josh’s relationship with Donna. (I’ll address Donna’s stuff in a new section.) In this case, Josh’s win in negotiating a complex trade agreements ends up forcing him to examine what it was he negotiated in the first place. Now, this is certainly not the first episode of The West Wing that focuses on difficult decisions. THAT’S SORT OF THE ENTIRE SHOW. And it’s not the first time that someone on the staff has had to deal with supporting a policy, bill, law, or some other issue while completely disagreeing with it.
It’s important that “Talking Points” is as much about specificity as it is about Josh’s inherent need to not disappoint those around him. This episode ends up being a vicious and uncomfortable character study of Josh Lymon, and it’s such a pleasant surprise! Well, wait, THE EXPERIENCE WAS NOT PLEASANT, GOOD GOD. It’s just that I love fiction that ends up exploring a character like this, you know? Josh is a winner. That’s what he does. That’s why Leo sent him to negotiate this trade deal in the first place. But what if Josh’s desire to do the best job humanly possible means that he’s contradicting his own morality? Well, initially, this isn’t much of a moral issue. When Josh discovers that a computer company is going to send 17,000 of its jobs to India â€“ on the very day after Josh just secured this deal for them â€“ he worries that it’s going to upend the deal itself. At the very least, the tech unions are going to be completely furious and withdraw support. How many Democrats will do the same? How long until the whole thing unravels and it was all for nothing? My god, that scene between Josh and the JCN lobbyist is so infuriating for a lot of reasons, the least of which is the guy’s smugness as he reveals that there’s virtually nothing Josh can do to stop him. He doesn’t care if the trade deal fails, and the jobs will be exported regardless. Of course, given what we learn much later, it’s even more frustrating because the lobbyist KNEW THAT JCN WAS GOING TO DO THIS THE WHOLE TIME.
Amidst this, Ryan announces he’s leaving, I’m not sad at all, and then Ryan deftly shows Josh that he hasn’t been listening the whole time because SURPRISE: He is Congressman McKenna’s new legislative director. WHOOPS. So is Ryan actually leaving the show or will we see him in a new position? Because we know that Ryan is a lot more politically savvy than Josh realizes he is, so this might also make his character more intriguing. LOOK, I JUST DON’T FIND HIM THAT INTERESTING. He’s had some neat moments, but overall, he’s a bit boring?
Anyway, it’s Josh’s conversation with Haffley that finally reveals the truth of everything: Josh was intentionally not told about what JCN and other tech companies were going to do so that he’d secure the deal and keep his conscience intact. It comes across as much more underhanded of Leo than I think the show acknowledges, but regardless, it also helps put a human face on the ramifications of this decision. That’s what those union reps represent here. Josh can’t deny that these people are losing their jobs because of the trade deal. But it’s more than that. How are people supposed to live the American Dream if companies constantly lay them off for a chance to increase their bottom line? How do you work towards stability if the jobs market is so relentlessly unstable? How does Josh remain in favor of the free market if the harsh effects of that belief is staring him in the face?
There’s no easy solution here, though Josh does have to begrudgingly accept that at the end of the day, he works for President Bartlet. He has to support the President’s decision, as difficult as it is to do that. And this really is a case of being stuck in between a rock and a hard place in general. With a world economy that is rapidly shifting directions in unpredictable ways, this trade deal will most likely have a positive affect to an extent, and then they’ll have to go through it all over again. Granted, “Talking Points” glosses over some of the arguments against globalization and free market trade, and it’s telling that the only faces we see of those harmed by it are of white middle class Americans. Relative to some of the legal and moral offenses perpetrated against indigenous cultures and peoples of third world countries, the suffering of people who made $85,000 a year is probably nowhere near as bad as those who have it much worse. In that sense, The West Wing itself talks in abstractions when it serves them.
This really had been coming for a while. In this episode, Donna finally expresses her disappointment with how she’s been treated over the past year, and in doing so, MY DREAMS ARE FULFILLED. Donna has been given more responsibility this season, but in this episode, she asserts a desire to have a job that’s meaningful, that allows her to do meaningful things, that will give her a chance to do more than just get a paycheck. It’s neat that this fits in so well with the larger story at hand, and it’s also great that the show is acknowledging Donna’s talented. Granted, this all happens after Josh and Donna get into an argument and then cease speaking to one another, using Ryan’s (apparent) final appearance as a chance for them to speak through him. After all that happened to Josh in this episode, I thought it was touching that he did better than just letting Donna come on the Brussels trip. HE GOT HER ON THE TRIP TO GAZA WITH FITZWALLACE AND SHE’LL ACTUALLY BE DOING WORK AND IT’S IMPORTANT AND I AM SO HAPPY. CAN I HAVE THIS EPISODE RIGHT NOW? RIGHT NOW?
HALLELUJAH. PRAISE DONNA MOSS.
The video commission for “Talking Points” can be downloaded right here for just $0.99.
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