In the seventeenth episode of the seventh season of The West Wing, the Santos team deals with tragedy as the election comes down to the wire. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
Trigger Warning: For talk of death/grief
Holy shit, what an episode. I truly was overwhelmed by the second half of “Election Day,” though I admit that’s partially due to the timing, since someone I knew just passed a couple weeks ago. On top of that, Eli Attie and John Wells’s script doesn’t ignore the tragic irony of John Spencer’s departure. Watching this, I had to wonder how much of what we were seeing from the cast was real. I don’t know the exact production timeline for when these episodes were filmed, but I can imagine that Spencer’s death played a huge (and surreal) part in the performances in this episode. How could it not?
So this was a raw and bizarre experience for me, too, especially since this was all wrapped up within the unbearably suspenseful election. One minute, I’m tearing up, the next I’m ready to fall over because I’m so tense. The writers have spent a lot of time on all of these new characters, and I think that this two-parter is evidence of why that needed to happen. Yes, I was very glad that we got to see Margaret, C.J., and Bartlet’s reaction to Leo’s death. But I also felt impressed that the show had managed to get me to care about Vinick, Edie, Ronna, the Santos family, Lou, and everyone else who only recently joined The West Wing. But let’s be real: I wanted Santos to win the election, and I knew that Leo’s death would have uncontrollable ramifications for the results. And Santos has always felt like an underdog, too! So I think that without Leo’s death, the race might not have been quite as close as it was.
But that’s all a moot point, since this is what we have to deal with. The first third of “Election Day, Part II” is steeped in heartbreak. We have to watch these characters discover Leo’s heart attack. AND THEN WE HAVE TO WATCH THEM BELIEVE THAT HE’S GOING TO SURVIVE. Oh my god, Lou’s comment about Leo waking up was TOO DIFFICULT. Watching that hope be destroyed was painful, in particular when Donna and Josh (who looked a whole lot like Mulder and Scully when they were running through the hallways of the hospital) came upon a tearful Annabeth. And I was happy that the show portrayed the importance of Leo to specific people more than others. Leo had been in the lives of Josh, Donna, C.J., Margaret, and Bartlet more than anyone else, and the camera showed us that. That’s why it was smart of the writers to have Lou – who only knew Leo over the past few months – vocalize the difficult choices that Santos had before him. He had to make a statement soon, before the polls closed on the West Coast, or he risked letting the undecided voters cast their votes for Vinick.
I mean, it was an all-around horrific situation. Amidst grief and loss, these people still had an election to win. It’s not like they could relax and mourn Leo. The Vinick campaign had the same uncomfortable situation to deal with, though his staff (aside from Sheila and Bruno) were a lot more crass about the need to do something. Bless Vinick, by the way, for refusing to use Leo as a step stool.
Around the time that Santos gave his statement about Leo, the episode shifted largely to the countdown: Which candidate would get the necessary 270 electoral votes to become president? I found it meaningful that it was in the middle of this that we discovered Josh was down in Leo’s room, sitting among Leo’s things. I talk a lot about the presence of a vast emptiness whenever I talk about death, and I thought that scene represented that sensation brilliantly. The camera focuses on Leo’s things – his glasses, his empty shoes – and we realize that they become things without Leo around to give them meaning. They’re remnants of who he was. It wasn’t lost on me that Josh, who had dealt with grief and trauma repeatedly over the course of this show, was particularly torn up about losing Leo. I think he stood in that room and realized that he had lost the friend who had been down in that hole with him before. Leo and Josh were close, obviously, but it was so much more than that. And then he was just gone.
But the show had to go on (both literally and metaphorically), and they couldn’t just pause the election. Josh is going to need time to grieve and work through his own guilt, but this was not that time. At the very least, the too-close-to-call election provided some sort of distraction for everyone, though it got real close there to the SADDEST possible outcome. As Vinick pulled in more and more states, including the large amount of electoral votes in Ohio, I actually thought we were going to get a double dose of heartbreak: Santos would lose his friend/running mate and the election at the same time. I felt that especially after Vinick managed to win his home state. Only Oregon and Nevada were left, and Santos needed both of them in order to win.
It was hard to watch this, and I had flashbacks to the last two U.S. elections. But this was SO MUCH WORSE! It’s not like I thought Vinick was a terrible candidate. I’d just invested so much emotional stake in Santos, and I didn’t want him to have his heart broken twice in one night. And I know the very idea of Santos meant a lot to me, too. He was an ideal candidate for me in many ways, which is no surprise to y’all. I’m thankful, then, that before we do learn the results of the election, the writers show us precisely why Vinick and Santos were a lot more alike than people thought. In the wake of such a close election, the staff urged both candidates to start a legal fight to contest the win of the other man. But Santos and Vinick are idealized versions of Republicans and Democrats, and neither one is interested in becoming stereotypical politicians. So I believed that neither candidate would ever want to prolong the election just for the sake of some distant hope of victory. It was beautifully in-character for Vinick and Santos, you know?
BUT LET’S JUST CELEBRATE BECAUSE THEY DID IT. Santos did it. Josh did it. Donna did it. This whole team of people did it. MATTHEW SANTOS WON!!! And I really did feel a mixture of sadness and joy. Sadness for Leo, who wasn’t there to see what he’d helped secure. Sadness for everyone who had lost their best friend. And joy for Santos, because in the West Wing universe, a Latino man had won the presidency. (And the airing of this episode pre-dated Obama, so it was ahead of its time, too!) AHHHHH, HELEN IS NOW FIRST LADY. That is such an exciting thought!
Which… lord. Y’all, what the hell is this show going to do for these last 5 episodes??? I actually thought the election would happen much later than this, so…. stuff? Stuff is going to happen? What about Bartlet’s exit from the Presidency? Will we see Santos sworn in? HOW MANY TIMES WILL I CRY IN THE UPCOMING EPISODES??? Let’s find out.
The video for “Election Day, Part II” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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