Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S03E15 – Dead Irish Writers

In the fifteenth episode of the third season of The West Wing, Abbey struggles with the upcoming possibility that she’ll lose her medical license while at a birthday party. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

Oh, this turned out to to be a great episode, though it didn’t necessarily start that way. “Dead Irish Writers” was one of those slow-builders that Sorkin has used a lot in this show, perhaps more so in season three than any other season of the show. For the first ten minutes of this episode, I wasn’t quite sure where things were going. Donna’s not a US citizen? Hector Elizando is telling Sam about a supercollider? Why are Amy and Lord John Marbury in the same episode? (Answer: Because why the fuck not.) But when this episode came together, it proved to be very satisfying. 


One of Sam’s professors from his college days shows up at the White House. His physics professor. Which is strange enough, granted, but then everyone is super concerned that Sam is going to pick a fight with Senator Enlow? Oh god, of course he’s going to. It’s Sam. That’s what he does. But the fight that he does pick with Enlow isn’t what I expected. Initially, upon finding out that Dr. Millgate was seeking billions of dollars in funding for a supercollider, I thought that this was a lost cause. Given that the project had no practical application or snappy theme or sound byte attached to it, it seemed doomed from the start, right? I mean, that’s all I thought Sam and Enlow’s conversation would amount to. “Can we afford this?” “No, it’s too expensive, and we can’t get support for it.” “Okay, enjoy the party.”

BUT THEN THE CONVERSATION GETS REALLY INTENSE AND THE COMMITTEE IS HOLDING FUNDS BACK BECAUSE OF AN ANONYMOUS BLOCK AND WHY ARE THEY SO MAD AT ONE ANOTHER? Obviously, there’s an unspoken history between these two, but still! This is not what I was ready for! Yeah, that’s an understatement. Because then Dr. Millgate and Sam’s conversation turns to their motivations. Why are they doing this? Sam has a history with Enlow, and Dr. Millgate right calls that a “stupid-ass reason.” Dr. Millgate’s motivation? He has non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He is trying to secure funding before he dies.

Look, I think Sam is a deeply flawed character. Sometimes, Sorkin plays up those flaws, but sometimes, they’re unacknowledged or intended to be perceived as a good quality. But here, we get to watch Sam get what he needs, and it’s brilliant. He correctly figures out that Enlow is blocking the funding himself in order to use the money for projects that’ll make himself look better. Granted, it’s not like Dr. Millgate gets the funding at the end of this, but at least there’s a hope that it might pass. Sam would make a terrible physicist, but sometimes, he’s a fine politician.

Toby/Lord Marbury

Okay, I love that this episode features two separate groups coming to terms with history and themselves over drinks. I don’t know if that is a deliberate parallel or not, but regardless, it was neat to pick up on. There’s an incredible message in this subplot, one that got me thinking about the trip I just took to Europe for the first time. Now, I’m not going to talk about the conflict between Ireland and England because my knowledge of this is limited and very basic, and I’d rather not make a fool of myself. I’ll leave that up to smarter, better educated, and more experienced people in this community who can talk about it without sounding like they’ve only read the Wikipedia entry on the IRA. Anyway, at one point, Lord Marbury says that the United States needs to understand that they’re still young, and that they need to gain an appreciation for the history of other nations before they get involved.

This struck me because it’s something I really did experience while in Europe. Everything made me realize how new my country is. Hell, I don’t even live on the east coast! Like, the oldest thing I’ve seen in my state is a tree. And then I was in London and Paris, and everything is OLD AS HELL, and there’s such a visceral feeling of history around you, and it really puts the United States into perspective. We are so new.

On top of that, Lord Marbury admits to Toby (in one of the most honest scenes for his character) that while he is entitled to convey the desires of the Queen, he personally thinks that Toby is right. Someone needs to sit these two parties down and talk to them. It’s a raw moment from someone who is largely showy and grandiose, and I really liked it.


Oh, gods. Stockard Channing, you are a national treasure. This was a difficult episode to watch because Abbey wanted to fight the future she saw coming. Initially, there was some hope that the hearing wouldn’t go terribly because of a swing vote they had on their side. Still, it haunts Abbey’s entire night at her own birthday party. (The literal fanfare was a nice touch, by the way.) I admit that I’d probably be freaking out, too. Who wouldn’t??? Abbey might lose her medical license, and we later learn that she considers it a large part of her identity, too. It’s a personal loss for her.

There’s a lot going on here. Donna’s, Amy’s, and Josh’s stories are all inherently wrapped up in what Abbey is going through, but the culmination of it all is what ultimately gives me my favorite scene in all of “Dead Irish Writers.” After C.J. has to inform Abbey that Dr. Nolan is probably going to recuse himself from her hearing, all Abbey wants to do is get drunk. And so she brings Amy and C.J. along with her. It’s not long after that when Donna shows up, who is dealing with her newfound Canadian identity, and then I realize how great it is to see these four women in a single room without a man in sight. It’s wonderful. Awkward, too, but that comes later. And Donna’s uncomfortable outburst is even explained away by Abbey because the truth of it is that Donna was right. Like I said, Abbey clings to her identity as a doctor, not just because it personifies her, but because of the unfairness she sees in her husband’s treatment versus her own. It’s Donna who reminds her that Abbey willingly injected her husband with Betaseron and lied about it.

I’d say that’s why she decides to give up her license voluntarily. In one sense, she probably wants this to be over with. But in another, I saw this as a parallel to Bartlet standing up and taking the censure. She’s going to do the same thing. She’s going to admit she did something wrong, even if it hurts her and destroys her. Because my god, she looks so hurt when she tells her husband what she’s going to do. However, perhaps this is how they’ll all get past this. Perhaps this is one of the last episodes where we’ll have to deal with this.

I hope Abbey Bartlet is around a lot more, though. I missed her.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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