In the third episode of the sixth season of The West Wing, the staff struggles with upsetting events amidst the most important peace accord in Bartlet’s Presidency. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
There’s a relentless sort of horror to “Third-Day Story,” one which teases us with the inevitable. Initially, we’re left to wonder how the West Wing staff is going to find out that they left Leo behind at Camp David because he had a heart attack. I STILL CAN’T GET OVER HOW FUCKED UP THIS PLOT TWIST WAS. He was alone in the goddamn woods FOR HOURS! In the cold! BY HIMSELF. I will say that while I know I’m utterly ridiculous once the opening credits rolled, I won’t apologize for my behavior. I think is one case where, my own hyperbole aside, the opening credits actually do a disservice to the story. For a show that relies on facial reactions so much to communicate drama, they sure as hell cut Bartlet’s reaction to what Charlie told him. It felt terribly rushed, and I think it would have been better suited if the show had waited for the credit music to swell. Also, MAKE THE MUSIC SAD OR SOMETHING, OH MY GOD.
From here, the narrative shifts to one of pervasive dread. Is Leo going to survive? And even if he does, can the West Wing sustain Leo’s absence, even just for a few days? What arises from this is Bartlet’s devastating combination of loyalty and guilt, which is put in direct contrast with the obvious need of the rest of the staff for ANYONE AT ALL TO ORGANIZE THEM. It’s sad that it takes Leo’s heart attack for the West Wing to realize that without a Chief of Staff, they all turn into chickens with their heads cut off. It’s UTTER CHAOS. Understandably so! And the show does a good job of conveying how necessary it is in times like these for there to be a Chief of Staff.
It’s through this that the writers set up two red herrings. Initially, it’s Toby who tries to take control so that someone can act as a filter (or cat herder) for what takes place in Bartlet and Leo’s absence. In doing so, it seemed to set up Toby as a possible temporary Chief of Staff, but Toby’s plan is destroyed in… shit, like an hour? Seriously, like an hour later, Toby and Josh are both repeating C.J.’s ideas back to her, and you can already tell this is going to be a disaster. There’s a beautiful mixture of panic and humor here, though, and I’m so thankful that this wasn’t as dire as it could have been. C.J. constantly trolling Josh about his healthy eating was hilarious; so was the scene where Toby played the good cop to Josh’s bad cop in Speaker Haffley’s office. As much as this was a comedy of errors, it’s also about how this group of people came to depend on Leo to get them through their day.
I think the same could be said about Donna, who returns to the West Wing in a wheelchair. Her character was such an integral part of Josh’s day, and while he claims to want to refuse to take her for granted anymore, doesn’t he kind of do that? It seemed very obvious to me that Donna was off emotionally, that she wasn’t quite ready to be thrust back into the chaos of her job, but Josh didn’t ever pick up on that. Instead, he’s yelling at her again, ordering her around, and Donna just looks so sad the whole time. Y’all, I don’t think she wants to return to this at all. After an experience like the one she had in Gaza, how could she come back to a job like that? Perhaps this is a combination of wishful thinking and desire on my part, and I could have been reading a lot more than what was here, you know?
Anyway, can we talk about how spot-on the characterization of Josh and Toby is in “Third-Day Story”? I’m only commenting on this because there were parts of season five that were… well, they were strange, given canon characterization that came before Wells’s era. But Toby is the one who generally wants to look at the big picture over the smaller one, and he does that here multiple times, not just including his idea to make someone the interim Chief of Staff. Josh is the aggressive negotiator more often than not, reflecting his desire to make sure he isn’t disappointing the people around him. Of course, there’s a distinct lack of communication, and I swear, every five minutes, the tax cut gets worse. The possible vote for support for the peacekeeping plan gets worse. THE TREASURER GETS WORSE. Oh my god, it’s an avalanche. That’s not to suggest that Toby, C.J., and Josh alone are responsible for all of this. The Republicans clearly took advantage of a White House offensive to try and get another tax cut passed through, and certain members of Congress are MISOGYNIST DOGS who want the tax passed, but only if it includes exceptions in the name of social responsibilities that come in the form of not having too many children. There’s a monarchy bill! AN ANTI-MARRIAGE BILL. (That part was my favorite.) Seriously, it’s like the tiny snowball rolled down the hill at the start of “Third -Day Story” becomes the size of a state by the end of this.
Of course, if they’d just listened to Toby, he might have been able to help them prevent this. I admit that I, too, was shocked that he wanted Josh to be Chief of Staff, but EVEN THEN, IT WAS A RUSE. A TRICK. AND I FELL FOR IT.
But sweet mother of Gimli, I was not fucking prepared for the ceaseless wave of emotions that the Bartlet/Leo relationship would bring to my life. I wasn’t surprised that Bartlet felt guilt over his behavior the night before, and I expected him to blame himself since he fired Leo. And shit, Abbey’s face once Bartlet revealed this to her? THAT WASN’T VERY COMFORTING. However, I understood what she was trying to do, and her point was invalidated by this new information. If stress can lead to a heart attack (in the simplest terms), then the job itself was part of the problem. While Josh tried his hardest to bring up the uncomfortable task of replacing Leo for the time being, it’s Abbey who actually hits a nerve. Seriously, that line about Leo killing himself for Bartlet? NOT OKAY IN EVERY BOOK ABOUT THE SUBJECT OF BEING NOT OKAY. That’s why it’s so haunting when Leo admits as much to Bartlet at the end of “Third-Day Story.” He knows that he’d jump off that cliff again with Bartlet without a second thought, and this time? It’s going to kill him.
I admit it’s pretty damn devastating to think about Leo and Bartlet being separated, even if it’s going to be for a short period of time. I think the ending of this episode made it clear that Leo wasn’t coming back as the Chief of Staff. This was it. So what is Leo’s role going to be on the show now? I mean, the end of this upsets everything. Leo’s gone. And Bartlet dramatically asks C.J. to be the new Chief of Staff! (Which I have to laugh at because it’s not like C.J. knows what Bartlet’s referencing when he asks her to jump off a cliff, so I imagine she walked into Leo’s room thinking, “What the fuck did my President just ask me?”) So who takes her job???? Someone internally? Then who takes that person’s job? THERE’S TOO MUCH GOING ON. But oh my god, you better believe that I’m ecstatic about C.J.’s promotion. THIS IS SO EXCITING. I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE MORE!
The video commission for “Third-Day Story” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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