Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S06E20 – In God We Trust

In the twentieth episode of the sixth season of The West Wing, Vinick secures the Republican nomination for President easily, and then nothing becomes easy for him at all. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

Incredible. THIS IS INCREDIBLE TELEVISION. What a bold choice to write Vinick this way, and what a brilliant way to frame these two candidates. It would have been so much easier if we were given two candidates who were polar opposites and we were meant to clearly enjoy one over the other. Instead, we’ve got Santos closing in on Russell, and Russell is the only one it’s easy to dislike. I’ve been pushing for a Santos/Vinick election, but now I’m seeing how this is going to HURT ME FOREVER. I JUST LIKE VINICK A LOT NOW?

For the most part, “In God We Trust” focuses on Vinick, his easy nomination, and the crushing complications that come along with it. I know I’m being repetitive, but I’m so into the way that this show has so seamlessly intertwined the upcoming election into the narrative. I had a very distinct realization watching this episode: this might be one of the biggest ensemble casts I’ve ever seen on a television. Between the normal West Wing characters, Santos’s staff, Russell’s staff, and Vinick’s staff, what is this? Twenty characters? A WHOLE LOT OF CHARACTERS. And you know, I think the writers could have botched this balance. This could have felt a lot more strange and forced than it does, but goddamn, IT DOESN’T. Oh gods, let’s talk about this.

Vice Presidents and Surprises

Unintentionally or not, I enjoyed that Vinick’s first episode solely about him focused so much on a desire to maintain personal dignity throughout the campaign. It felt like a parallel to many of the Santos-centric stories we’ve gotten this season. Again, I don’t know if that’s done deliberately, but I’d like to think so. The writers have made this journey so remarkable personal, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying it so much. So, after getting the Republican nomination four weeks prior to the DNC, all Vinick needs to do is choose a Vice President. EASIER SAID THAN DONE. Bless Don S. Davis for his role here as Reverend Baker, the first possible candidate for Vinick’s running mate. It’s with his inclusion that the writers explore an issue that’s inevitably controversial: Should we care about a candidate’s personal religion?

Initially, this didn’t feel like anything more than an examination of Vinick’s difficulty in courting to the more far-right elements of the Republican party. Truthfully, the existence of a pro-choice Republican is rare, and I admit that this all definitely feels like a continuation of the liberal fantasy that is The West Wing. Still, it’s not like it’s an impossibility, so I’m pleased that these issues are being discussed in such a sensitive way. For Vinick, he’s got to balance the desire to run his campaign how he wants and making sure he gets enough votes in the electoral college.

SO SHEILA BRINGS IN BRUNO GIANELLI. OH MY GOD OH MY GOD. WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE, I THOUGHT YOU WERE A DEMOCRAT AND then Bruno knocks me on my ass. His appearance here is an absolute surprise, obviously, but then he starts telling Vinick that he believes Vinick might be the first candidate to sweep all fifty states. And look, Bruno is ridiculous. He’s a reserved sort of ridiculous, but he’s aggressive about what he thinks he can get done. We saw that when he helped Bartlet get a second term. But goddamn it, as I sat there watching him tell Vinick that he is the perfect candidate to unite the country instead of dividing it, I WAS TRANSFIXED. I don’t agree with all of Vinick’s position, and I’m definitely a Santos man, but I wouldn’t be devastated if Vinick won. I wouldn’t! Particularly after this episode, I think I like Vinick a great deal. The whole thing is a trip to think about because, again, this would be so much easier to handle if I loved Santos and hated Vinick. BUT I DON’T.

This episode is a big reason why I’ve come to like Vinick. His handling of the disaster that starts with Reverend Butler is endearing to me because I know what it’s like to struggle with your faith. After Butler rejects the VP ticket without even being offered it, it was clear that Vinick was going to face some difficulty with his own pro-choice values. But when Butler went on television and set in motion a complicated crisis involving Vinick’s churchgoing activities, this got SO MUCH WORSE. The writers have cleverly shown us time and time again how well-spoken and articulate Vinick is, so that meant it was a big deal to watch him stumble through those reporters on the way to vote on the debt ceiling. He’s never like that.

Oh god, does this all mean that Bruno is going to be hired to run Vinick’s campaign? I DON’T EVEN KNOW. What a surprise, y’all. (Let this stand as yet more evidence that you shouldn’t spoil me for return appearances. IT WAS SO FUN TO BE SURPRISED.)

Presidents, Candidates, and Ice Cream

I know I’ve been saying that this is a Vinick-centric episode, and I don’t think I’m wrong in stating that. But I did enjoy that it wasn’t solely about Vinick; there were a lot more scenes at the White House than I expected. It’s also clear that at some point in the near future, Bartlet is going to have to back one of the Democratic candidates left. Holy awkward, could you imagine being Russell and not having your own president backing you at this point? I can’t, but that scene where Bartlet brilliantly invites both Santos and Russell to the Oval Office is a great manifestation of that uncomfortable reality. God, Bartlet is the best, and now I have to start dealing with the fact that he’s not going to be President much longer. DAMN IT.

Let’s push those thoughts away and talk about one of the most iconic and memorable things this show has ever done: stick Vinick and Bartlet in the White House kitchen, eating ice cream, and talking about religion and politics. Like, you realize this is Martin Sheen and Alan Alda ON THE SAME SHOW ACTING TO EACH OTHER’S FACES? Oh my god, it was too much. And that’s something that’s undeniably great to me, you know. This show has managed to make a scene like that happen, and they don’t just rely on the fact that it’s two of the biggest actors in the universe eating ice cream together. The writing is downright incredible. It’s raw, it’s emotional, and it’s uncomfortable. There’s a scene before this where Vinick is walking through the West Wing for his meeting with Bartlet, and various staff members all suddenly realize that it’s entirely possible that this might be the next man to walk these halls as President. Perhaps the scene in the kitchen is foreshadowing in some sense, since it felt like Bartlet giving advice to the next man in line. But it’s more than that. Bartlet’s Catholicism has never been hidden from us, so it was fascinating to me that Vinick was a Republican who had hidden his own agnosticism from the world.

And look, I found something deeply powerful in Alda’s portrayal of a man who turned from his church upon losing his wife. It’s a sad story, one complicated by the fact that he can’t share this with everyone. He can’t tell the world that he doesn’t go to church because it reminds him of his wife. Even if it’s a perfectly understandable reason, this whole episode presents us with the evidence that the media (and perhaps Americans in general) cannot deal with someone running their country who isn’t openly religious. The circus that arises because of Alda stumbling through a question is absurd! It really is! But there is also a fascinating undercurrent to the conversation he ends up having with Bartlet because it turns to disclosure. Should he have admitted upfront that he hadn’t been to church in five or six years? It’s a complicated issue, and Vinick directly draws parallels to Bartlet’s disclosure of his MS, which is only slightly comparable.

So I’m happy that at the end of this, Vinick finds a balance, one that definitively demonstrates that the questions asked of him are ludicrous and unfair. Truthfully, I thought he was spot-on: asking politicians to express religious faith is asking them to lie to you. Because who can then claim that your internal beliefs aren’t real? It can all become a charade, can’t it?

Again: What an incredible episode of The West Wing.

The video for “In God We Trust” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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