In the tenth episode of the seventh season of The West Wing, the Santos team worries about Leo’s debate skills. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of death and of misogyny.
Wow. I think there’s an undeniable irony that’s both tragic and fitting in the way that “Running Mates” unfolds, and the opening – with Martin Sheen dedicating the next batch of episodes to John Spencer, who died of a heart attack prior to “Running Mates” airing – sets an eerie pall over the episode. But this really felt like one of John Spencer’s finest moments on the whole series, and what better way to honor his memory?
There are two other plots I want to discuss before we talk about Leo, though.
Will / Kate
WELL, THIS IS SO PLEASANT. And at least the show is being forthright about their attraction to one another and not taking out another page from the Donna and Josh Handbook of Endless Frustration. (WHICH IS STILL GOING, CHRIST.) Watching these two flirt with one another is just downright entertaining. The unabashed sweetness of it all is a nice turn for the show because I get why Will and Kate would make a good couple. The real question, though, is whether or not these two might actually get together. Or will we be teased for the remainder of season seven with the possibility? WHO KNOWS?
Wait, all of you actually know.
Teri Polo is also incredible in “Running Mates,” and I feel like the title of this episode is a reference to her relationship with her husband and what this means for her life. Helen’s never been naïve about what she’s gotten into alongside her husband, but this episode explores many of the more uncomfortable aspects of their surreal new life. On a trip home, Matt grapples with a desire to see his family and the demands of his campaign. And really, “surreal” fits here. The Secret Service have turned the Santos family into a veritable fort, and it’s just so strange to see. But it’s just one of a number of frustrations that trouble Helen. She’s also worried that this campaign is keeping her husband away; she’s worried that her husband is shying away from his responsibilities as a father because his campaign is more important; and then the straw breaks the camel’s back when a trashy tabloid publishes a photo of her where her thong is visible.
Make no mistake, it’s a viciously misogynist act, and understandably, Helen is beyond upset. It’s a horrifying thing to see, and it’s one that only Helen (or women, I should say) is faced with. Matt Santos has never been the target of anything so humiliating or intended to shame him merely because of the clothes he is wearing. And look, there’s no solution provided here because there isn’t a way to fix something like this. It’s the way the media works, sure, but how exactly does Helen fix the damage done? I do like the idea of Donna and Helen working together to develop Helen’s identity as the First Lady, and goddamn, I can already see what a fantastic First Lady she’ll be. Still, that’s some time down the line, and at the moment, she knows that her life is going to be difficult regardless. I found the image of her standing in the doorway, watching Matt leave their Houston house, to be incredibly haunting. While the two of them may have left one another feeling a little better about what their lives had become, there certainly was some tension leftover. This isn’t going to be solved in a single day, and I’m glad that the show didn’t try to sell us on the notion of some fairy tale ending. This is complicated and brutal, and it’s not going to get any easier.
Leo and the VP Debate
You know, I suppose I’d just assumed that Leo would be incredible at debating because I’ve seen him hold his own behind the scenes for years. But the truth is that this really is the first time that Leo’s had such a public role in politics. He was the one pushing his own candidates; he was the one orchestrating a Presidency out of the spotlight. The closest he’s ever come to a public debate was his hearings back in season… two? Oh gosh, that feels like a million years ago!
Combine that with the immense pressure that the Santos staff puts on him, and I get why he was so flustered during that first debate. I believe what he told Annabeth at the end of this episode: He really was lost at the start and only found his way once he was able to trust himself. But it’s a messy, scary journey up to that part. Actually, it’s one of the more awkward things this season because Josh, Lou, Otto, Ronna, and Annabeth are all very aware that this is Leo McGarry standing before him. He’s not a newcomer, he’s not a fool, and they all expected him to be so much better. Of course, it doesn’t help that he’s given competing advice on how to do best. Oh god, watching him and Annabeth bicker? That was the best. IT WAS THE BEST THING, particularly that scene where she explained about his perpetual smirk.
But it’s hard to ignore how everything is overwritten by the sadness of it all. I’m glad that the DVD set I have contained Martin Sheen’s dedication because I preferred finding out now (as the general public did) rather than be completely destroyed by his in-universe death. Which I assume has to come soon? Gods, I don’t even know how to deal with that. Who will the Santos team replace Leo with? How close to the actual election will that happen? How am I supposed to cope? There were so many ironic lines in this episode alone, and it’s undeniable that fiction and fact have intertwined together here.
I never felt like this episode was crass about John Spencer’s death, and if anything, this was such a necessary story that it really did feel like the best memorial possible for the man. There’s a lot in “Running Mates” that’s Spencer’s best material, and there’s a lot that does wonders for the character of Leo McGarry. I mean, y’all. HE LEAKED HIS OWN TERRIBLE PERFORMANCE. It’s so sneaky and underhanded and brilliant, and it’s a perfect example of what kind of politician and person Leo always was when he was Chief of Staff under Bartlet. He took initiative to make things better for himself. Of course, I need to also acknowledge that both Matt and Leo’s growth in this episode is due to their advice to one another. I love this idea that they understand each other, which is also why it’s so heartbreaking to think about where this is headed. This has to end, and I AM SO SAD. Leo McGarry, I already miss you, and you’re not even gone yet.
I’M STILL SAD.
The video for “Running Mates” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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