In the thirteenth episode of the third season of The West Wing, Sam responds to a claim of sexism; Donna ponders her role in the White House after getting a job offer; Toby meets with his ex-wife over a U.N. speech; and Bartlet speaks with a therapist about his inability to sleep. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
Oh my god, this was probably the most uncomfortable episode ever, and I don’t think that was entirely intentional either.
Let’s start with the two stories that aren’t a hot mess of ideas that Aaron Sorkin tried to pull off and NO. Truthfully, what little we got of Donna’s story is so intriguing! She’s offered an extremely well-paying job where she’d be in charge of things! Donna then begins to pick up on small details of her everyday routine that grate on her: the way Josh asks her to do things. The fact that she can’t get a promotion. The things she’s asked to do and deal with as an assistant. Her story intersects with C.J.’s in a very deliberate way. While we watch C.J. seek out every avenue she has available to her to save Billy Price’s life, Donna is there to spend a quiet moment with Will’s wife to console her as best she can. But she doesn’t have the information, does she? And it’s an interesting moment when you put it into the context of the horror and despair that lines her face later in the episode, after Josh reports that Billy was killed in an ambush. You can’t help but think about the job offer. Is the offer more appealing? Will she have to deal with this sort of thing in another job? Is it worth it? I was surprised that Sorkin didn’t provide any closure for this, which makes me wonder if this will continue in a future episode, sort of like how “The Two Bartlets” informed what happened in “Night Five.”
Oh, I love how Stanley was brought back to the show in a way that’s initially a trick. He’s not there to follow-up with Josh; he’s there for President Bartlet. The reason for this meeting stems from the disturbing conversation that Toby and Bartlet had about Bartlet’s father. Since that night, Bartlet has suffered from insomnia so bad that he hasn’t slept at all, aside from an unfortunate incident of dozing off during an important meeting. What’s so entertaining about this plot is that Sorkin plays up the dynamic of Stanley and Bartlet constantly. You can tell that Bartlet has a certain sort of contempt for what Stanley does, and he spends the better part of two hours picking at Stanley, insulting him, or relying on witticisms and wordplay to avoid what’s really eating at him: Toby’s uncomfortable callout was spot on. Because Bartlet is so resistant of being honest to Stanley, it’s not until they reach the end of their double session that the truth comes out. Bartlet is far more affected by his father’s treatment than he ever let on.
But Stanley takes a very no-nonsense approach to the President’s behavior, and it was kind of rad to see him turn down Bartlet for more time simply because he can. Well, not just because of that. He insisted that he get the chance to treat Bartlet like all of his other patients instead of giving him special exemptions. I like that. And I hope this means we either get to see more of Dr. Keyworth or that Bartlet finds a way to deal with what’s plaguing him.
Well, this episode wasn’t that enjoyable to watch because of two subplots, the first being Toby’s. Clearly, this was written after 9-11, and clearly, Sorkin was trying to find some sort of logic to justify the comments made about “fanatical Islam” that were rife at the time. He found that logic, though in doing so, he uses the worst character possible to do so: Toby.
I’ve always found that Toby was the most explicitly liberal member of the staff, perhaps the most radically liberal. More often than not, he says things and pushes for policy that is more left-leaning than everyone else. So it struck me as brutally out of character (or, at least, out of context) that he’d be the one pushing for American exceptionalism on a global scale. (TextEdit is telling me that “exceptionalism” is not a word, but fuck you, it’s been used for centuries.) In this instance, Toby stops being Toby and becomes a mouthpiece for Aaron Sorkin. Now, I’d heard of this being a thing of his, something I should look out for in his writing, but I think that largely, you could still see these preachy bits as being in-character.
That’s why I wonder what I’m missing. I know that Toby’s character arc in this season has changed. He has been saying and doing things that are unexpected because of the upcoming election. But this? I can’t believe it! I can’t believe that Toby would find a way to defend a pernicious form of Islamophobia. And as much as Toby tries to dance around it, to say that he and the other speech writers are just trying to call fanaticism what it is, I think Andy is entirely right. If that is the only mention of Islam or the Arab world in a speech, it’s going to come off terribly. On top of that, the speech reeks of American imperialism, of white knight savior fantasies, of a willful attempt to see the worst of a culture in order to demonize it. You can’t say you respect a culture and its people by only telling them that they’re inferior to your own country specifically because of the behavior of an extreme minority.
Blah. No, thank you.
Let me start this by saying that I am going to try my best to be aware of what I’m saying so that I don’t do the very thing that Sam (and, by that logic, Sorkin) does in “Night Five.” This is a perfect example of mansplaining, though that’s not the intended portrayal of the scene. I’m sure Sorkin intended this as some grand statement on what feminism should be focusing on, WHICH IS PROBLEMATIC IN ITSELF, and it instead comes off as one giant attempt to bully women who complain about harassment and sexism in the office. There is a major, massive, undeniable flaw in the argument that Sam, Charlie, and Ainsley put forth. It doesn’t matter if Ainsley was okay with the comment because she wasn’t the only person in the room.
Look, I’m sure many of us have relationships with loved ones or friends where we’re allowed to be off-color, to make remarks that might otherwise be offensive to other people. We understand this! We know we don’t need to filter ourselves and we know we’re not hurting anyone! I do it all the time with certain friends or in a certain social situation, and it’s about reading the context of that group. I parse my language if I’m doing a public reading, especially if I know there are minors there or people who aren’t familiar with my work. I don’t talk the same way to my boyfriend as I write to all of you. (I mean, my own voice is pretty much literally identical to my writing style; I just mean in terms of content or tone, we have a different way of conversing than this.)
So I get what Ainsley says when she defends Sam’s comment. It’s perfectly fine for her to feel that way! But Celia was also there, too. And maybe it wasn’t fair for her to assume that Ainsley was being demeaned when she isn’t sure what sort of rapport Ainsley has with Sam. But the point still stands: Celia was in that room, she heard Sam’s sexualized comments (WHICH HE HAS A VERY, VERY, VERY LONG HISTORY OF MAKING), and they offended her. And she had a right to feel gross about them!
Instead of a nuanced approach to the topic, we get two men getting a woman to tell Celia to keep her thoughts about office sexism to herself, and it feels SUPER FUCKING GROSS. Yeah, so office sexism isn’t a real issue? I don’t like this at all. Not one bit.
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