In the thirteenth episode of the sixth season of The West Wing, THIS IS PERFECTION. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
This is, honestly speaking, some of the absolute best writing the show has ever had, and I’m saying this after having seen the previous twelve episodes of this season. I LOVE SEASON SIX WITH ALL OF MY HEART, Y’ALL. And what a bold choice it’s been for the show to not only tackle the upcoming elections head-on, but to do so by alternating with stories revolving around the White House itself. It’s such a smart decision because then we get immersive stories contained to each setting instead of having episodes that try to juggle both the election and Bartlet’s presidency at the same time. They’re less convoluted because of it. Of course, it helps that this episode is FUCKING INCREDIBLE, too! Oh my god, I can’t.
“King Corn” is bookended by scenes involving the most familiar characters, and I wanted to talk about that first before we get to each individual campaigned detailed here. I know that it’s no secret that I ship Josh/Donna fiercely and ferociously, so it’s also unbearable to see them free of their previous responsibilities and NOT CONSUMMATING THEIR ENDLESS LOVE FOREVER. Seriously, they don’t work in the same office anymore, and if that was the final barrier standing between them pursuing a relationship, it’s gone. However, I don’t feel like this is a gratuitous attempt to tear them apart. Donna needed to leave Josh and the White House because she deserved better. She deserved to be taken seriously, to have more responsibility, and to work in a field where there was a chance that she could actually move up. Is it absolutely painful to watch her and Josh interact like they do? Do I breathe oxygen? But you know, this needs to happen. Josh needs to understand what he lost. Oh god, I wish they could do so much more together, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what’s happening here.
So let’s get into it. CAMPAIGNS.
Donna / Russell
I have a lot of praise for this episode, SO BE PREPARED. I adore that the writers have focused each of the three sections here through one person, even if that person isn’t the candidate himself. All three acts open the same way, with an alarm at 5:45am, and each of the three people must listen to the same news story about an adultery execution in Turkey (which… contextually doesn’t make any sense. There’s no Islamic law there and no death penalty. So… no) and all three stories are both about the personal toll of these campaigns and what campaigning for a nomination is actually like. As I said before, devoting an entire episode to just the election allows the writers to be a lot more detailed than this story might have been if we were switching point of view with the White House. So we get to see Donna wake up, prepare for her day, and then thrust herself into the utter chaos that is the Russell campaign. But the chaos we see here is controlled, much more so than the other candidates, and I love this chance to see how Russell, Santos, and Vinick all differ from one another. Russell has the money, the staff, the organization, and the style, and it’s clear he’s way, way ahead of the others. He has the fanciest bus; he has an easier time garnering support. Which isn’t to say that Donna’s work getting donations from the “boulders” should be ignored! No, it’s WONDERFUL. She’s good at it!!!!
She’s tasked with finding fringe Democratic candidates to set against Russell in this episode, and “fringe candidates” is an understatement here. They are SUPER FAR OUT THERE. And Donna worries that this is actually going to backfire against Russell. He’s not going to look like the “normal” candidate when contrasted with Hoynes and these men; he’s going to look like the leader of a circus.
All three candidates, though, struggle with the same issue: Do they pander to the Iowa corn growers to secure votes, or do they oppose the further subsidization of ethanol? Surprisingly, all three candidates privately want nothing to do with ethanol as a possible fuel source or additive, but it’s in their best interest to pander at this early stage to get votes. Russell was most at risk of losing the most votes, but that doesn’t mean that the same decision is less meaningful for the other candidates. Regardless, I feel like I’m not imagining some sort of quiet disappointment in Will, am I? He keeps having these moments where his face betrays how he really feels for Russell, and it DESTROYS ME. OH GOD. Russell predictably doesn’t bother stating how he feels about ethanol publicly, taking the safe route when he can. So how the hell is the Santos campaign ever going to beat this? Russell has over $8 million for his campaign at this point!
Josh / Santos
Is it perfectly fine to imagine that Josh is sloppy and messy because he lacks Donna in his life anymore? THIS FEELS LIKE CANON.
Anyway, some of the same issues that we saw in the last election episode present themselves here. Namely, Santos has no interesting in selling himself short, and he doesn’t want to compromise his ideals in order to get votes. This is also the first chance that Helen Santos gets to be a part of the action, and in this case, she’s the number one criticizer of the ethanol subsidy. It’s her dissent that inspires Santos to disagree with Josh in the first place! (Which had a nice subtext: Santos listens to his wife’s political advice.) As Santos verbally spars with Josh over the schedule and over policy, I just fell MORE AND MORE IN LOVE with Matt Santos as a candidate. CAN HE BE REAL? CAN WE JUST PLUCK THIS CHARACTER OUT OF THIS SHOW AND MAKE HIM RUN NEXT YEAR? THAT WOULD BE FANTASTIC. And it’s in knowing his politics that I can understand why it’s such a huge deal that he decides to support the ethanol subsidy in the end. His wife is dejected, but you can also see Matt crumple a little bit as he pushes on. So will Santos continue to compromise out of desperation, or will this inspire him to be true to himself more? I don’t know, y’all. This is such a tough one because Santos is SO FAR BEHIND. Didn’t they say he was grabbing just 3% of the possible vote? My god, what.
The biggest surprise here, though was the third parallel story told in Iowa. I honestly didn’t expect an entire act devoted to Arnold Vinick. Despite that we heard a few names of other possible Republican nominees (did I hear Glen Allen Walker at one point???), I’m happy that this focused on him. He’s so good. HE IS SO GOOD. And he’s fascinating to watch! We got to meet the staff closest to him (WHICH INCLUDES PATRICIA RICHARDSON AND STEPHEN ROOT OH MY GOD) and see how his campaign differed from the other candidates. It’s nothing like Russell’s, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how similar he was to Santos. They both felt the same about ethanol; they’re both uninterested in pandering; they’re both in possession of single-digit poll numbers. It’s exciting, y’all.
That’s not to say that I enjoy all his politics. That Malaysia comment was super, super awful. But I can separate how I feel about Vinick as a Republican and how I feel about Vinick as a character in this show.
I suppose that’s largely because of the unreal ending to “King Corn,” which sees Santos and Vinick, without the press and without most of their staff at their sides, discussing what it’s like to largely be dead last. Vinick took a huge risk (one that I admire) in being the only candidate who didn’t support ethanol. And I felt this electricity between Santos and Vinick as they began to talk about ethanol, about education, and about taxes, and it reminded me of the characters in “The Supremes” debating. THERE’S SO MUCH POTENTIAL HERE. Just purely in entertainment terms, I want to see Vinick and Santos debate one another. I WANT IT MORE THAN MOST THINGS.
Just… holy shit, y’all. This episode was incredible. I cannot wait to see more.
The video for “King Corn” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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