Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S07E03 – Message of the Week

In the third episode of the seventh season of The West Wing, the Vinick campaign tries to come up with a way to put Santos on the defensive, but it might come at a cost. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.


Trigger Warning: For talk of racism and pro-life issue. It shouldn’t be too heavy or detailed, but just in case.

So, I admit that it’s very strange that this show has decided to so closely follow the campaign because the West Wing itself is definitely a background story. We also have no idea what Will and Donna are up to at all, and that’s kind of disappointing. They were major characters on the show who have basically disappeared from the narrative! We haven’t seen Bartlet in the last two episodes; the same goes for Charlie, Kate, and Leo. Almost all of the original characters in this show aside from Josh aren’t in the main stories being told the writers. And that’s weird.

Yet I can’t deny how goddamn fulfilling and satisfying it is to watch “Message of the Week.” In any other case, I’d say replacing an entire ensemble cast of a show where they were the focus for SIX YEARS with brand new characters is a disaster. (Look at season nine of The X-Files for a similar example.) It’s going to be terrible. IT JUST IS. And then The West Wing gives us this in its seventh season, and I can’t believe this is real. Not only is it real, BUT I FUCKING LOVE IT. I love seeing these two campaigns. I love that the writers decided to give us two candidates who aren’t stereotypes, who are both challenging and brilliant and charming. AND THIS EPISODE FEATURES A PLOT ABOUT HOW RACISM CAN BE THIS SUBTLE, QUIET THING AND STILL HURT SOMEONE. OH MY GOD.

I really feel like “The Mommy Problem” and “Message of the Week” are perfect companions to one another. The previous episode showed us the flaws present in the Santos campaign, and now we see how the Vinick campaign is struggling to maintain their lead over Santos. It’s just downright fascinating, and it helps that I’m enamored with watching Alan Alda portray Vinick. Plus, even Bruno feels slightly different than he did before, and it’s making me re-think his characterization back in seasons three and four. Like, I remember that he and his staff clashed with the Bartlet staff, but this episode really puts his slimey behavior into context. Oh my god, was he like… a secret Republican all along??? MY BRAIN IS EXPLODING BECAUSE THIS ACTUALLY MAKES A WHOLE LOT OF SENSE. Well, this will be my personal headcanon.

In the meantime, let’s actually talk about this episode. Again, the chance to see the inner workings of both campaigns leads to a much more fulfilling experience for me, especially as I watched Santos step right into every trap that the Vinick campaign set. But it’s not one-sided in this regard. Vinick messes up – gloriously so – and also distances one of his campaign staffers in the process. In “Message of the Week,” Vinick convinces his staff that they can’t coast through the campaign anymore; they need to make an offensive maneuver that will force Santos to show his hand. It’s through this that they come up with the idea to address homeland security through immigration issues, creating a miserably awkward situation for Santos. And seriously, I’m so impressed that the writers (Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. has got the main credit for this one) managed to show us how Vinick’s behavior wasn’t a malicious thing at all. We could certainly disagree with his politics (and I did, quite vocally in the video!), but we understood that he was playing the political game as best as he could. If he was the first to speak on issues like immigration and amnesty, then Santos would look like he wasn’t a leader. He’d also have to deal with the complications around the fact that… well, he’s not white. Y’all, how eerily spot-on has this show been about addressing some of the issues around a non-white presidential candidate? Because I remember the absolute shit-show that Obama had to go through because suddenly, some of his beliefs or policies were definitely because he was black, despite that the opposite views all held by white men were never because they were catering to white votes. And that’s the difficulty that Santos faces: he is terrified of being pigeon-holed as the “Latino candidate.” I’ve never seen this as Santos being ashamed of his skin; I just know from experience how restricting it can feel when people only define you by your skin color, even if the qualifications are positive.

And then Vinick just… lord. I yelled a lot when Vinick’s director suggests that they hold a meeting with the Minutemen, and then it ACTUALLY HAPPENED, and even if Vinick called them “vigilantes,” THIS WASN’T ENOUGH FOR ME. If it isn’t clear yet, FUCK THE MINUTEMEN. They are despicable, evil people, I hate them, I hate everyone who supports them, and while I’m at it, fuck Joe Arpaio, too. Fuck people who use the term “illegals” to deliberately dehumanize people, too. THERE. Now my position is clear, and this is an issue that’s extremely important to me because I’m Latino myself, because the vast majority of people I’ve loved and known growing up were immigrants, because I wouldn’t even be in this country if it weren’t for immigration, and watching Leon visibly struggle with every bit of what his campaign was doing? Goddamn, that was unreal to see on the screen, y’all. Again, none of these people are Klan-robe-wearing bigots. Vinick was trying to appeal to his base, and he even was honest about the fact that he didn’t truly support the Minuteman. But Leon isn’t a fool. This entire ploy to put Santos on the defensive was inherently because Santos was a Latino candidate, and Leon knew this.

Look, I do appreciate that this is a complex thing for Vinick. This episode shows us that because he’s not a cookie-cutter Republican, he has issues with his own damn party. Specifically, he’s expected to be pro-life when he’s not. He’s opposed to partial-birth abortions, which is a problem all on its own, but he’s a pro-choice candidate. So when he’s forced to meet a representative of the American Christian Assembly, he balks at the notion that in order to run the country, he has to cater to people who are everything wrong with the Republican Party. I’ve always got the sense that Vinick is in favor of reducing the government’s influence in most matters, so it makes sense that he’s largely pro-choice. But it’s so much more than that, isn’t it? I found that he was repulsed by the idea of putting a pro-life judge on the court. And justifiably so! The very notion that Roe v. Wade should be overturned upsets him so much that HE LIES TO THE ACA REPRESENTATIVE. He tells him that he’ll put pro-life judges on the bench, knowing he’ll never do so, and then the news is leaked like MINUTES LATER. (Well, it might have been longer than that, but it felt like George Rohr leaked the info RIGHT THEN.)

Of course, this is a disaster. The scene where Vinick admits that he promised the judges to the ACA is SO HORRIFYINGLY AWKWARD. It just gets worse and worse and worse, and it was during that moment that I began to think about how incredible it was that I was so affected by these characters and what they were doing when they’re all new characters. At least, relatively so! It’s why I started off this review speaking of how unreal it was that this was actually happening as it was. Patricia Richardson is incredible here, and she is new to this show.

That’s not to say to say that I don’t miss the regulars. I do. I want more of their stories. But goddamn, y’all, this is some fantastic television. The West Wing took a huge risk in re-tooling their show for this season, and even though I’ve only seen three episodes, I’m completely on board. And this all follows the brilliance that was season six! I really hope the momentum (HA GET IT) continues for this final season because I DEFINITELY WANT MORE.

The video for “Message of the Week” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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