In the fourth episode of the sixth season of The West Wing, THIS WAS ONE OF MY VERY FAVORITE THINGS IN THE UNIVERSE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
Oh god, let’s get into this, because THERE ARE MANY THINGS I NEED TO SAY. I’ll save my piece on C.J. for last.
I think it would have been a bit cheesy and cliche for Leo to offer C.J. some sage advice about her new position, and truthfully, I’m sure I would have teared up about it. Because seriously, I’m eager to see if Leo ever gives a justification for why he chose C.J. over everyone else. It’s not that I need it; this episode is a perfect example of why C.J. will be a commanding Chief of Staff, one that will benefit Bartlet’s presidency in new ways. So I think it’s fitting that in a time of dire need, C.J. sits beside an unconscious Leo McGarry, telling him that she doesn’t think she can pull this off. He gives her silence, almost as if he’s refusing to address her sense of defeat. It’s a haunting scene, y’all, one of many in “Liftoff” that will make this one of my absolute favorite episodes of The West Wing.
YES, IT’S JIMMY SMITS, ONE OF MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE ACTORS. So, I knew he was going to guest star on the show because the DVD box spoiled me. HOW RUDE. I didn’t expect it so soon, and I certainly didn’t think we’d see him in a role that’s so limited for the moment. Still, it’s an important one for a couple reasons. I loved that Santos had that moment where he asked if Josh was disappointed for not being promoted to Chief of Staff and then proceeded to point out why Josh wasn’t best for the role. Seriously, what would Josh be like stripped of the chance to do so much policy work? His work with the members of Congress is vital to his sense of accomplishment, and coming to people like Santos was what Josh did. But I’m thinking that Josh’s interest in Santos’s work on a Patients’ Bill of Rights is what’s going to keep this alive. We’ve seen Josh act like this before when an idea gets under his skin, so I’m guessing he’s going to make a big push for this very thing in this season. Maybe? I DON’T KNOW, I could be wrong here, especially since “Liftoff” didn’t exactly give me a whole lot to go on.
Oh my god, I honestly did not think that the trainwreck from the previous episode could get any worse, but that’s because I never thought of a world where Toby Ziegler would be the stand-in Press Secretary. That’s because I COULD NOT IMAGINE A WORSE PERSON FOR THE JOB.
Sort of. Initially, it’s not hard to see why anyone would think this. Toby is disorganized. He uses sarcasm like oxygen, so he’s quick to viciousness in the face of an already chaotic press. He’s abrasive! And the press has a field day setting him up for failure and then tearing him down. Y’all, bless the editors and actors and everyone involved in creating that exact moment where Toby insults C.J. It’s brilliantly executed, from Toby’s delivery, to the editing that shows the absolute CLUSTERFUCK of a disaster that it caused, to the sound editing, to EVERYTHING. It’s one of my single most favorite scenes ever because of how well that gaffe is conveyed to the audience. Josh literally ran through the halls!
But C.J. just wants to move past it, so she tasks Josh and Toby with getting her a short list of four-to-five names for her review. Which Josh passes on to Donna. WHICH MEANS WE GET AN INCREDIBLE MONTAGE SEQUENCE OF DONNA AND TOBY AUDITIONING PRESS SECRETARIES. Oh, I love it. It’s just one character actor after another, and I have nothing intelligent or brilliant to say that would explain why I enjoyed watching this so much. It was just fun, the end. Actually, you know, I don’t know that we’ve ever seen Toby and Donna hang out so much! That was nice. Anyway, it seemed like they found their replacement, despite that even I admitted that while he was good at deflecting questions, he was dry. Yeah, how do follow up C.J. Cregg with that guy? You can’t, so you bring in KRISTIN CHENOWETH. Sort of. I’m fascinated with the what her character, Annabeth Schott, suggests to Toby becauseâ€¦ well, I’d love to see her behind the podium. But coaching Toby to be the Press Secretary until they find a permanent one? Holy shit, there’s not one thing I dislike about that idea. I mean, it’s going to be painful to watch Toby behind the podium, and I can’t wait for it.
But let’s be real. In the span of a single episode, The West Wing becomes The C.J. Cregg Show and it’s absolutely incredible. I love it. I love that the writers realized that in making C.J. the new Chief of Staff, they had to devote an episode almost entirely to her transition. The camera follows C.J. around the office, often drifting behind her as she flutters from room to room, overwhelmed and panicked; it hugs her face as we watch the anxiety settle into the lines around her eyes and her pursed lips. And as much as “Liftoff” elevates C.J. to the central character in the narrative, it also does something that this show has needed to do for nearly six years: it elevates Carol and Margaret, too. They’ve provided plot segues and bits of character development, but they’re largely background characters. And yet, in this episode, we get to see why they matter. In particular, I was floored by NiCole Robinson’s performance here because she was asked to straddle a line between sympathy, sadness, and irritation, and she does it beautifully. Margaret feels sorry for C.J.’s sudden dearth of responsibility, but she also has a job to do, and it’s not like Margaret has a whole lot of time to sit C.J. down and walk her through all the intricacies of the job Leo once had. In this sense, it’s Margaret who is the most helpful to C.J. in this episode, and I love it. Carol and Charlie both assist her, too, and even Bartlet does his best to ease C.J. into the job. (Quick note: CHARLIE CAN’T LEAVE. HE JUST CAN’T.)
However, it’s through Bartlet’s idea of “help” that C.J. learns the hard way just how unendingly frustrating (and intimidating!) it was to be the Chief of Staff. This wasn’t the first episode where one of the main staff members covered for someone, but C.J.’s position is permanent. This isn’t something that she gets to leave after a day, and that’s why she’s so furious over her treatment from the head of the Department of Defense, Miles Hutchinson. I wouldn’t be surprised if part of Hutchinson’s behavior was due to some sort of sexist resentment of her, especially since she’s a woman who clearly can exert control over him, as made obvious by her final interaction with him. On top of that, I bet he thought he could exploit her naÃ¯vetÃ© in order to avoid going through her regarding the Georgian nuclear crisis. AND WHAT A CRISIS THAT WAS. I will concede to believing (for only a few seconds!) that the Georgian diplomat brought the uranium with him in the suitcase. Then I thought about it for a few seconds and realized it was a garbage idea. Still, THAT WAS C.J.’S FIRST DAY. That’s what she gets on her first day. Wait, I just realized that this means that Annabeth is soon going to have her very first day, and in West Wing tradition, that means it’s going to be the worst thing ever. Oh god.
Regardless, that day will hopefully come soon. This episode is a surreal experience, but it’s one that reinvents the dynamics of the entire cast in a way that is astounding for me. I have seriously never been so excited to see where The West Wing can go from here. I love the idea of C.J. in a position of power. I love that C.J. is willing to pass the torch temporarily to Toby. I love that this show suddenly feels so new. This is the sixth season of this show, and I’m back to feeling like I did when season one hit its stride. Bravo, John Wells and company. This is SO EXCITING.
The video commission for “Liftoff” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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