Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S06E18 – La Palabra

In the eighteenth episode of the sixth season of The West Wing, Santos grapples with a complicated political problem and the reality of his possible future. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.



I just have so many glowing things to say about this episode, which is one of the most stressful things this show has ever done. In the lead up to Super Tuesday, we get to see how the Russell campaign and the Santos campaign deal with the Democratic fight for the presidential nomination, and like much of this season, I’m loving how this is framed through the dual stories of Josh and Will/Donna. Which, of course, lends itself to a lot of emotional destruction because Josh and Donna are on opposite teams. However, it works because DONNA IS GETTING TO PURSUE WHAT SHE WANTS. This is one of the best choices the writers have made in regards to her character, and it’s thrilling to see Will delegate more responsibility to Donna, only for her to UTTERLY CHANGE THE ENTIRE ELECTION. Y’all, it’s Donna who shifted the dynamic of the candidates for the Democratic nomination.

Will’s decision to give Donna a trial run as the new spokesperson for the Russell campaign has an immediate affect on Donna. It’s great that she tells Will that she knows the issues “clockwise and sidewise,” so he essentially makes her prove it. AND SHE DOES GREAT. It’s definitely an improvement over the chicken snafu a few episodes ago. But Donna doesn’t stop here; her suspicion of the issues director leads her to propose an interesting theory. What if Hoynes isn’t going to California at all? What if he’s banking on the governor’s support to win in California, and he’s using the excuse of a cold to hide the fact that he’s trying to pull a fast one over on Russell’s campaign? OH GOD, I lost count of how many times I thought that shit was getting real, and the truth is that I HAD NO FUCKING IDEA WHAT WAS REALLY GOING ON. Even though Donna was wrong about why Hoynes was staying in New York, it was her persistence and her work as the spokesperson that got the truth out in the opening. I’M JUST SO IN LOVE WITH DONNA MOSS AND EVERYTHING THAT’S HAPPENING WITH HER. But… what happens next? Like, now we’ve got Santos and Russell paired off, so either her or Josh is going to have to find a new job. Soon. VERY SOON. I’m guessing that, given the timeline, the DNC will be the finale this season. Oh god, I can’t even deal with this thought. I CAN’T.

Josh / Matt / Helen

Oh my god, HOW? HOW IS THIS SHOW REAL? HOW ARE WE BEING TREATED WITH SUCH INCREDIBLE WRITING? I’m just in awe at how “La Palabra” goes from dread and sadness to ABSOLUTE ELATION in the span of a single episode. The difficulty presented to us here is multi-faceted: Santos is in third place among the three main candidates. He’s heading to a state where his opponent got the governor’s nomination. A divisive (and, frankly, extremely racist) bill concerning driver’s licenses for immigrants just got passed. Santos might not get the support of a longtime friend in order to further his chances of coming in second place. (Which I’ll talk about in a sec because THAT KILLS ME.) And the campaign is broke. LITERALLY SO.

Initially, “La Palabra” is not about the underdog miraculously beating the odds. It’s a vicious commentary on how money and moral compromise make up the bulk of the experience of campaigning to become president, and it hurt to watch this. The writers aren’t straying from addressing the fact that Santos is, at least in the West Wing world and our own, the first viable candidate for president who is also Latino. Through this, they examine the complicated issues at hand, both personally and politically, that come with being a person of color and getting involved in something like this. It’s extremely telling to me that “voters” (referring to the nebulous block of Americans who vote) will often believe that a person of color is pandering to their own color, while white politicians are almost never accused of pandering to other white people, despite that they actually do this all the time. So I get why Santos resents this, and I get that while he’s proud of identity, he’s trying as hard as he can not to be defined by the color of his skin during this election. It’s not that he’s ashamed; it’s that he can’t escape these negative associations! They’re never brought up with positive connotations, you know?

I’m happy the show called out Josh for trying to suggest, however subtly, that Santos wasn’t Latino enough or that he was trying to turn from his base. And really, as uncomfortable as this whole thing is, they don’t ignore how morally complicated this is for Santos, either. He clearly doesn’t agree with the bill, but has chosen to ignore commenting on it so that he has a better chance of coming in second place. Not winning. SECOND PLACE. And it’s so devastating to watch Helen, Matt, and Josh struggle with this because it’s not what they want. But they’re so far behind Russell that the idea of Santos winning really is just a miracle at best. So, with the news that the campaign is largely broke, Matt agrees to mortgage his house to fund the campaign in Texas if they don’t get second place in California. And even if they did get second place, that’s not a guarantee that they’ll raise enough money anyway.

It was necessary, then, that Helen was a large part of this, and lord, I want so much more of her in the future. Her sarcasm and biting wit gives me life. But she also serves a purpose here in the story, one that shows us that Matt shouldn’t make decisions about the future of his own family’s well-being without her. I mean, in the scene where Matt suggests the mortgage, he doesn’t even ask helen if this okay. It’s not until later (in that scene that is BRILLIANTLY framed, with Helen and Matt on opposite sides of the bed, facing away from one another) that Matt realizes what he’s done and what’s at risk. What’s so fascinating about this is that Helen is actually okay with the mortgage but only if Matt is willing to win.

And really, that’s what this comes down to, isn’t it? In the end, Matt Santos believes he can win, in spite of the bad polling, in spite of the negative statistics, and in spite of the media focusing on so many tangential and unimportant dramas instead of the issues at the heart of the campaign. Josh doesn’t, or at least he comes to believe this after the events of this episode. And he’s freaked out that the Santos’ might be risking their financial health for a shot in the dark. So I love that Matt tells Josh who he’s running for: the kids back in Houston, the neighbors who ruined his chance to work for the Pentagon by refusing to talk to the feds, and for all those people he grew up with. It’s a poetic statement, but Matt Santos is a poetic sort of person, one who genuinely cares for the people at the bottom far more than those at the top. (Which is precisely why it’s so upsetting for him to stay silent on the driver’s license issue; it’s clearly not his style.)

God, I just… this episode is incredible. I can’t believe it, but SANTOS HAS A CHANCE. He won California. HE WON CALIFORNIA. I didn’t think it was possible at the beginning of “La Palabra,” but now it’s undeniable. HOW IS THIS HAPPENING. Oh my god, I need the next episode right now.

The video for “La Palabra” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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