In the fourteenth episode of the third season of The West Wing, Bartlet initiates games of chess with Sam and Toby while dealing with war games of his very own. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
UGH, THIS EPISODE WAS SO FANTASTIC! I love how seamlessly Sorkin is able to weave the idea of war games â€“ China, Taiwan, the chess games, Hartsfield’s Landing, and Charlie’s revenge â€“ within every plot of this episode. It’s both disturbing and hilarious, and I think this will remain one of my favorite episodes by the time I’m done with The West Wing.
The chess metaphor is EXPERTLY USED here, I swear. So, I’m approaching this by thinking about how Bartlet played against each of these men. How was his game with Sam different than the one he played with Toby? First of all, Sam’s game was a lot more affectionate. The chess board was gifted to Sam because of his work on the State of the Union address, and throughout the game, Bartlet calmly and kindly engages Sam in an intellectual conversation about what’s happening between China and Taiwan. It’s an interesting dynamic because it lacks the tension of the conversations in the Situation Room or in the Oval Office, where Toby and Bartlet have a viciously aggressive game. Of course, it’s hard not to frame the entire thing with Bartlet’s final words to Sam! He tells Sam that he shouldn’t be afraid to run for President â€“ no, he actually tells Sam that he will run for President one day. So the chess game has a very interesting subtext to it. It’s like Bartlet is quietly passing the torch, which is not to suggest that he’s done. Oh no, it’s clear from the way he ends the game that he’s still in charge. But note how many times Bartlet also provides tips and trivia on the game itself during Sam’s game and how that parallels with Sam’s own attempt to figure out the Chinese War Game strategy.
Above all, Bartlet’s most important message is the one spoken aloud numerous times in this episode: See the whole board. Obviously, that’s a direct reference to what Bartlet and his team of advisors come up with. They see every piece, every move, and every outcome, and then they execute the plan that’ll allow Taiwan to have their first free elections since falling under China’s power, and they’ll do this without causing another global conflict.
In contrast with this, Toby’s game of chess is a further continuation of the uncomfortable conversation from “100,000 Airplanes.” I love that this is still being addressed, so it makes sense that the game itself is way more intense than Sam’s. Still, it must be acknowledged that Bartlet invited Toby to his office this time, that he is still inherently asking the man to continue his thoughts from before, but in a new light. Granted, I didn’t expect things to get so fucking awkward in less than ten minutes, but WELCOME TO THE WEST WING. Emotional landmines hide behind every single plot twist! God, it really doesn’t take Toby long to drop one huge bomb of a line, and HOLY SHIT, THE INTENSITY IN THAT ROOM GOT TO BE TOO MUCH. But it’s what needs to happen, not just because Bartlet still has issues to work through. As the conversation turns back to the campaign, Toby is the one who finds a way to convey what he thinks the President has done to possibly hurt his own image. And it’s a difficult thing to try to explain! Can someone be too nice? I think there was a part of me that thought that Bartlet’s folksy impression was a reference to President George W. Bush’s campaign. (Side note: One of my favorite David Cross bits skewers the entire idea that Bush was ever just like us.)
And so we watch the chess game get more and more frantic. I mean, y’all, chess games are known for being slow and thoughtful, and it was kind of terrifying to see how Bartlet pursued Toby’s king. But he was also trying to get to the root of what Toby was trying to explain, too. All of this reminded me of Bartlet’s declaration many episodes ago that he wanted to run a different sort of campaign, so now all I want to see is the actual re-election campaign. Oh god, it’s going to be so fun to watch. By “fun” I mean “endless terror and pain,” but you know how it goes.
Okay, I guess Donna’s story from the previous episode isn’t carrying over, though I couldn’t help but notice all the times her job is justâ€¦ really demanding? It’s like “Night Five” has awakened a very specific form of critical analysis in me: finding all the terrible things in Donna’s job. There’s Josh yelling at her, and then yelling even louder once she doesn’t arrive within a second. Then he gets her to call a family of voters in Hartsfield’s Landing to try and change their vote! Which is voter intimidation? Maybe? Regardless, he asks her to do this outside in the freezing cold. REPEATEDLY!!! Oh my god, at this point, I feel like the only thing that sustains these two is their witty banter. It is all they live for.
Okay, I’m being facetious. The real point of this story is a saccharine (but totally enjoyable) view of American democracy. Josh comes to realize that these people â€“ and many other Americans â€“ get to argue the finer points of salmon fisheries and pulp mills and Bartlet’s viability as a President because they live here. He thinks about how Taiwan gets threatened with annihilation just for thinking about an election, and he knows that we have it good here. We’re the privileged ones, so I think that’s why he tells Donna to just give it up. The beauty of democracy is that it’s about personal choice, you know?
OKAY EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS WAS SO FUCKING BEAUTIFUL. I just understood something: C.J. didn’t see the whole board. No, even better, she didn’t even know that Charlie HAD a board. She had no idea what she was in store for once she went up against Charlie regarding the President’s private schedule. What’s so funny about all their scenes is that once Charlie starts lashing out at C.J., HE NEVER LETS HER RESPOND. First, it’s the super glue on the phone; then it’s the swapped security cards; then it’s the collapsing desk. At that point, she flat out gives the fuck up. She’s seen the whole board, and she knows loss is imminent.
I LOVE IT. I now know I should never fuck with Charlie. Ever.
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