In the fifth episode of the fourth season of The West Wing, the team prepares Bartlet for the upcoming debate against Governor Ritchie, and we’re shown how far the administration has come since the first days of the presidency. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
OH GODS, WHAT A GREAT EPISODE.
Holy shit, an entire plot about how Sam was right, they should have all listened to him, and how racial profiling is bogus? You better believe I kept my whale painting in hiding for all of Sam’s story. And look, I think it’s fair to say that the writing for Sam veers between being a power fantasy for Sorkin and what we get here: a portrait of someone who cares about what his president does in the world. There’s nothing inherently wrong with power fantasies, either! I think that a great deal of fiction (particularly in science fiction and fantasy) relies on this storytelling device because of its escapist nature. Plus, it’s just fun to imagine yourself as someone else. But when Sam starts getting arrogant or misogynist, he doesn’t exactly become the most likable character on the show, you know? So I appreciated what we saw of him in “Debate Camp.” He’s more positive and hopeful than ever, but it never reaches a point where he’s unwilling to grasp the reality around him.
In particular, he properly points out that Cornell Rooker is going to be a problematic piece of work for them if he’s nominated as Attorney General. His views on racial profiling are, frankly, revolting. Bravo to Sorkin and the other writers for being able to convey just how gross this is without beating us over the head with it! I think that scene where C.J. speaks with that right-wing conservative Christian was a brilliant way to pass along the information: If this man enjoys Rooker’s view on racial profiling, then what have they got themselves into? Well, it’s a mess that has ramifications four years later. And I do think that it can be frustrating that a decision made so long ago can still affect what’s happening in the presence, but the staff also recognizes the importance of placing Bartlet firmly on the side of rejecting racial profiling. WHICH IS GREAT. On top of that, I’m totally fascinated by Sam taking initiative with the more ignored Democratic districts. I don’t quite get why he’s doing this, but I am piqued to find out why. Basically, everything about this is great. GREATNESS ABOUNDS. Well, except for this show revealing that characters are dead in CASUAL CONVERSATION. Holy shit.
(Another hill I will die on: racial profiling is racist 100% of the time, and we need to get rid of it immediately.)
You know, I really enjoy Mary-Louise Parker as an actress, and I love the dynamic that she brings as Amy to the show, but I just cannot get into any sort of relationship between her and Josh. I think some of that comes from Sorkin’s bizarre characterization of Amy’s feminism, which is probably evidence enough that we dudes should really not attempt to write shit like this. But it also comes from the fact that their relationship just doesn’t make any sense to me. Oh god, am I being a straight bigot again? IT’S POSSIBLE, I KNOW NOTHING OF THE STRAIGHT WORLD. This whole back-and-forth game? No. The fact that their relationship doesn’t appear to ever go anywhere in the sense of a story? No. The weird ways in which Amy is written into these scripts to provide character or plot development for the men? No! Come on, give me more about Amy herself. I mean, we learn she loves cycling in this episode! That’s awesome! But what’s going on in her life? Why don’t we have the kind of depth to her character that so many others do? Clearly, she affects the plot! She’s the one who comes up with the best answer for the family question that Ritchie will surely bring up. So why not give her more?
I also admit that another part of me is just shrieking for Donna and Josh to make out because COME ON. Donna is the most brilliant foil to Josh ever, and I think the flashback to her first days as his assistant are a brilliant way to convey why she matters to this story. Obviously, the prank is funny, but I believe it establishes Donna’s character as one who will constantly defy Josh’s ego in order to check it. That’s a large part of what happens here! Josh is arrogant and condescending to Donna about her experience and her knowledge, and so Donna flips that around on him to make him an utter fool. AND IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL TO WATCH, ISN’T IT?
I should have stated this earlier, but I was very surprised by the flashbacks in this episode. I think Sorkin and company could have kept “Debate Camp” in the present time, and I would have loved it regardless. It was so exhilarating to see the team outside the White House! New sets! New locations! EVERYTHING FEELS SO EXCITING. (I swear, I am going to explode during the debates. I don’t think I’ve ever anticipated an episode of The West Wing more than that one.)
BUT THEN SORKIN DROPS IN THE UTTERLY HEARTBREAKING BACKSTORY FOR ANDY AND TOBY, EXPLAINING WHY THEY WEREN’T TOGETHER ANYMORE AND WHAT THE HELL. I WAS NOT READY FOR THIS. It’s fascinating to me to think back about how well this story fits in with what we knew of Andy and Toby. I didn’t get the sense that this was a retcon or a hastily-assembled plot. No, I’d say it explains a whole lot of Toby’s disposition, as well as Andy’s. The two tried to have a child, but too many things complicated the process. I got the sense that Toby was frightened and reticent to do so. Sorkin leaves a lot to the imagination, but I think the pieces are there. Toby’s reluctance to continue trying every method to get Andy pregnant coincided with the start of his job at the White House. Is it safe to infer that he took a path similar to the one that Leo did in the beginning of season one? Did he choose his job over having children? That would certainly explain Andy’s separation from Leo.
But, as I said, we’re left to speculate as an audience. Toby asking Andy to marry her at the debate camp was surprising to me because I didn’t even know they were seeing each other. Of course, I was operating without all the vital information, because they were definitely doing more than just seeing one another. Oh god, I NEED SO MUCH MORE FROM THIS. Because the whole Team Toby joke that is lovingly carried throughout “Debate Camp” takes a whole new meaning when it’s revealed THAT ANDY IS PREGNANT. WITH TWINS. OH MY GOD, THEY’RE HAVING TWINS??? I CAN’T DO THIS, I AM A TWIN, AND THERE WILL BE OSTENSIBLY ADORABLE TWIN BABIES ON THIS SHOW AT SOME POINT, AND THIS IS VICIOUSLY UNFAIR.
Shit, I just realized something. Maybe Andy doesn’t want to marry Toby because she doesn’t want a repeat of what happened four years ago. This is my theory.
LOOK AT HER HAIR I JUST WANT TO HUG HER AND BE TEXT MESSAGE BUDDIES WITH HER AND EVERYTHING. One of the great things about “Debate Camp” is the juxtaposition that Sorkin and Co. provide for the viewer. Granted, the team is still struggling to come up with solutions to complicated problems, but they’ve come so far from those first days in the White House. One of my absolute favorite sequences in this episode was when C.J. was nervously preparing for her second press conference. It’s adorable and touching, and my heart was ready to explode into a million pieces. Seeing that development in her talent? It’s immense, and it means a lot to me as a fan. That sort of journey is what I love being a part of in fiction, you know? Characters don’t have to grow positively or astronomically. But watching a change over the course of time like this is just terribly fulfilling, you know?
Also, C.J., I’ve been on a few Hell Prayer lists before. Welcome to the team!
My commentary on character development applies here, too. We get glimpses of Bartlet in those early days, and it is glorious. (Mrs. Landingham also shows up, which is so fucking evil of this show to do to me. I CAN’T MOVE ON FROM HER DEATH IF YOU KEEP GIVING HER CAMEOS. Okay, never mind, never let Mrs. Landingham go. I’m a big fan of denial. What about Mrs. Federer, though? When will she be back?) Gods, I loved that scene where he and Leo are just confused about what they are supposed to do in the White House.
Everything has changed dramatically for Leo and Bartlet, though. “Debate Camp” continues the serialized disaster that was the decision made in the season three finale. Now, the ramifications of the decision to assassinate Shareef have exploded into war between Israel and Qumar. All the while, Bartlet’s got to keep his secret from his staff, and I could tell this was eating away at him. How is he supposed to juggle such stressful roles? Plus, I imagine the fear of exposure must be making him snappier than usual. How much longer can they keep this up? If Israel and Qumar are at war, is it even going to be possible to keep this a secret anyway?
Mostly, though, I’m just eager to see Bartlet debate Ritchie. The fiery glimpses we get of Bartlet here just make me so RIDICULOUSLY EXCITED for what’s coming, y’all. Please, please let the next episode be the debate. I WANT TO SEE BARTLET SHREAD RITCHIE TO PIECES.
The video commission for “Debate Camp” can be downloaded right here.
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