Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S03E09 – Bartlet for America

In the ninth episode of the third season of The West Wing, Leo must finally testify in front of the Congressional committee investigating the President and his team. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

Well, that was easily one of the best episodes in the whole show.

  • I will remind y’all at the end, but this is now the third inanimate object that The West Wing has made me cry over. A knife, a box of pens, and now a napkin. I fucking hate all of you.
  • This is a stunning episode that focuses almost entirely on Leo, alternating between the gripping testimony scenes and the very necessary flashbacks to the campaign. It’s suspenseful as hell, it’s at times very funny, and at heart, it’s about how Leo McGarry is Jed Bartlet’s best friend
  • No, no, I’m okay, there’s just something in my eye.
  • “Bartlet for America” basically starts with a misdirect. The title itself made me think this was about the upcoming campaign. Then, the subplot involving black churches in Tennessee being threatened (as well as Clark Gregg’s guest appearance) suggested that there was a significant story ahead. While both of these plots are addressed, one more so than another, it rapidly became clear that Leo’s testimony would take up the bulk of the story. Why wouldn’t it? This is an extremely vital part of this season’s ongoing plot, which is funny because I just said I wanted to see more of it. My wish was granted, and then everything hurt.
  • I seriously love how Sorkin and the writers use flashbacks on The West Wing. The fact that they’re so rare makes them feel so special, so bravo on that point. Like I said in the commission video, I was also impressed with the job that costuming and make-up did here. It was a great way to make us feel like we were really watching these characters from four years prior. But it’s also emotionally important for us as well because it allows Leo’s testimony to manifest in a visual way. We don’t get to merely hear Leo tell the committee what happened all those years ago, we get to see these cuties in action.
  • They’re all cuties. ALL OF THEM.
  • The biggest cutie? Mrs. Landingham. I don’t even recall what unholy noise came out of my mouth once she walked on the screen, but I was 1000000% unprepared to deal with it. It’s… it’s not fair. You can’t do that to me. You can’t bring her back for a flashback and do it all casually like that. You are messing with my heart, Aaron Sorkin. THIS IS MY EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING WE ARE TALKING ABOUT.
  • Actually, Leo’s a close second in the Great Cutie Contest. God, John Spencer is otherworldly here, and it was such a pleasure to watch this man act. Seeing him tell Jed about why he should run for president was touching enough as it was, but then he stuck that napkin up on the easel, and I was already done with this. Of course, I had no idea that a napkin would ruin my life.
  • You know, for the majority of this episode, I thought that Leo asking Jordan on a dinner/lunch date was just him being facetious and coy for the sake of it to make the committee wait. Except he wasn’t really joking at all. Okay, I am kind of WAY in support of Jordan/Leo. Can we see more of this? Thanks.
  • It was nice to see Mike Casper again, though I am a bit confused about what Sorkin intended with his story arc here. Obviously, there’s a lot of political relevance to the story. First of all, it was clearly an example of white supremacist terrorism, something I wish the script actually named for what it was. The issue of states’ rights was brought up, too, particularly when the governor of Tennessee refused the offer of bringing troops into Tennessee to protect other black churches on Christmas eve. Then there’s that weird moment where Casper doesn’t want to meet the President? Like, he doesn’t want to take credit for it? I was interested in this until it just sort of ends. I feel like something was cut from this story? I don’t know. It felt weird.
  • But then Sorkin drops a whopper of foreshadowing into the midst of this. Obviously, the entire plot about getting Gibson from Michigan out of the room isn’t hidden from us, and it’s intentional. I mean, I instantly started worrying. Why would they need to do this? What did he know? Plus, we’re shown a fascinating and disturbing side to the team. Josh, Sam, and the President are willing to do something that’s rather underhanded and deceitful, though it’s out of a desire to protect their friend. So… it had to be something bad, right?
  • I appreciated Jed’s comments about “the things we do to women,” especially since it called to light the inherent sexism of targeting Abigail in an effort to smear the president. Nice touch, Sorkin.
  • THE STOREFRONT FLASHBACK. OH MY GOD, C.J.’S HAIR. The basketball. No, everything is too cute and amazing. I LOVE THIS SHOW.
  • There’s another aspect to the flashbacks, though, that I wanted to bring up. Once we saw the scene after the storefront, it was clear that not only was Leo telling the truth in his testimony, but the flashbacks demonstrated that the President and Abigail weren’t compelling people to lie to them. At the same time, that scene with Abbey and Jed in the snow also showed us that he truly didn’t think he’d make it to the DNC.
  • Once he does, though, Bartlet picks his running mate and, just as Leo says, Jed and Abbey immediately reveal Jed’s MS to him. It’s a precarious and complicated thing, you know? They don’t ask him to lie. Was it understood that he wouldn’t tell anyone? Is that simply how it always worked? While that’s left unsaid, it clears up a few things, yet it doesn’t diminish the inherent complexity of this whole affair.
  • Good on Leo for objecting to Erickson’s implication that MS is fatal.
  • After Sam and Josh fail to get Gibson out of the room, the thing happens. The horrible thing. Initially, it’s horrible because it doesn’t make the President or Leo look very good. There was a previous collapse.
  • How? How did Gibson know?
  • With this, Sorkin moves into the final act, a poetic and dizzying display of his prowess with dialogue and the written word. As Leo begins to tell Jordan (in private) what bombshell Gibson has discovered, he makes a wonderful admission: He is a fan of the small things that Jed does. He adores the attention to detail, and it’s precisely this reason why this flashback is so fucking powerful. Sorkin focuses on so many details that make the scene work. The 60-year-old scotch. The sound of ice falling into a glass. The way the light falls in Leo’s hotel room. The lighting at the debate site. The redness of the carpet. This is some of the most vivid work in the entire show, and Sorkin smartly devotes a lot of time to letting this flashback play out in completion. We see everything.
  • But what we feel is a dawning and growing sense of horror. The fact that Bartlet collapsed at the site is suddenly not the most important detail. Leo relapsed. He relapsed, and Gibson was there to witness the aftermath of it. It’s in that moment that Leo foolishly lets slip that the President “collapsed” at the debate site.
  • And it brings up an entirely separate issue: Gibson is acting both as the interrogator and the witness, and the ethical ramifications of that make me feel uncomfortable. When we cut to Cliff, Gibson, and Bruno discussing this surprise revelation, this very idea is brought up. Why? Why bring up Leo’s sobriety in a hearing about the President’s health. Gibson spells it plainly: He is here to win.
  • God, it’s horrifying in its simplicity. He doesn’t even seem to care about whether a law was broken or not. He wants to win, as if this is some fucked-up game show.
  • Bless Cliff, then, who rejects the notion that this is what they’re all there for. And you know, it’s entirely in-character for him to do this! Everything we learned about him earlier in the season showed us that he was a man of principle, and that ethical core is what comes out here. I love this because it’s a conscious effort by Sorkin not to paint Republicans with the same brush. They’re not a monolith, either.
  • The end of “Bartlet for America” is relieving in one sense, but it’s only for a limited amount of time. Eventually, Leo’s going to have to answer Gibson’s inquiry. And it isn’t going to look good.
  • For now, though, I will sit here and appreciate what Bartlet does for Leo. Gifting Leo the very napkin that convinced him to run for President is a demonstration of love, plain and simple. Leo is the very best friend that Jed Bartlet has ever had.
  • I will remind y’all again: A knife. A box of pens. A napkin. You’re all evil.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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1 Response to Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S03E09 – Bartlet for America

  1. jayzhelle says:

    This was the episode where John Spencer won his Emmy y’all.

    And yes, that ending made me cry. So much for a freaking napkin. I was a mess after watching this episode.

    Everyone on Team Bartlet are all cuties. I love those precious moments when we see them when they were all just starting to build their careers, reputation and the Bartlet administration.

    “I don’t want to minimize winning the Emmy–it’s sort of a celebration of you by your peers–but for me, I had been nominated two times before, so it was like getting the monkey off my back. I didn’t find any sort of unique things happened after. I don’t say this as a complaint. It’s an observation. Even with my family. They’ve had esteem for me since the first time they saw me walk out on stage in a school play in elementary school. They’ve been wonderful about that. So winning the Emmy for me was, ‘OK. Wonderful. Now on with the show.”‘ – John Spencer

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