Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S07E06 – The Al Smith Dinner

In the sixth episode of the seventh episode of The West Wing, both candidates struggle against a pro-life attack ad run by an independent organization that hurts them. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

Trigger Warning: Just in case, we’ll have to discuss pro-life issues, but it’s not going to be super detailed.

Yeah, so this episode was GREAT. I have no problem admitting that, and I think it handled an inherently complex issue brilliantly. I mean, we’ve got two pro-choice candidates running against one another, so it was inevitable that they’d have to deal with this. But gods, THAT DOESN’T MEAN I EXPECTED THIS TO UNFOLD AS IT DID. Let’s discuss!

Will Bailey!

I spent most of his scenes in “The Al Smith Dinner” feeling bad for him. As frustrating as it was to watch him stumble through his briefings, I do understand why C.J. essentially let the worst happen to him. I get why she hired him and why she refused to let him be briefed on White House counsel. It didn’t make Will’s situation any better, of course, but she had to draw a line. By throwing Will to the press as an ignorant party, it enabled him to do his job (albeit poorly at times) without having to worry about the ethical struggle that may have come about if he’d been at all briefed about Toby.

That’s not to say that none of Toby’s legacy lived on, and Will was briefly haunted by what he was inheriting. Obviously, he had to face Toby’s action when the press absolutely trounced him twice in one day. Which I get, too! I expected them to ask difficult questions. I expected them to treat Will as they did because he was the only source of information they had. (That got me thinking. Now that Toby has named himself as the source, does that mean Greg Brock was released from jail? Or is he still in there?) And in at least the first press briefing, Will handled himself well! But he’s returning to the West Wing amidst a terrible scandal, taking Toby’s old office (complete with the same ball that Toby used to bounce off the wall), and thrust in front of a hungry press corps who aren’t exactly forgiving of the Director of Communications, given what just happened.

Here’s to hoping that Will finds his footing! Despite that I hate how Toby departed, I admit that I’m eager to see more of Will Bailey on The West Wing.

Donna Moss

As if my words had the magical power to summon my queen, DONNA MOSS IS BACK. Her appearance here is glorious for a number of reasons. It was a goddamn treat to fall victim to that deliberate misdirect that the writers gave me, since I could not have expected that she’d be the spokeswoman that Lou hired. AND THEN SHE’S ON MY SCREEN AND JOSH IS FREAKING OUT AND LOU IS QUIETLY PLEASED BY THE WHOLE THING AND IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL. FRAME THIS MOMENT AND STICK IT IN A MUSEUM, THIS IS PRIZED NATIONAL ART.

But Donna’s return to the show is glorious because it is a vicious and fulfilling growth for her character. She’s given the chance not only to demonstrate how much she learned while working under Will Bailey, but in doing so, she proves to Josh that she is not his assistant. And it’s absolutely vital that this is established as it is, because Josh can’t deny it. He can’t wiggle away from it, he can’t ignore it, and he has to accept that Donna’s growth in politics IS NOT BECAUSE OF HIM. He held her back, and when she finally got away from him, she became a better person, she found her passion, and SHE FOUND OUT SHE WAS REALLY GOOD AT POLITICAL STRATEGIZING.



The bulk of this episode, though, chronicles the deeply complex struggle that the Santos and Vinick campaigns have when an extremely negative pro-life ad runs against Santos. I love that the writers are openly acknowledging the strangeness inherent in what they’ve created, since we all just assume that a Republican candidate will be pro-life and will intentionally court pro-life voters. With only a slight disagreement between them, both candidates are actually strictly pro-choice, creating a strange political vacuum. Neither wants to attend the Al Smith dinner and address their stance on abortion; neither wants to be the first to run an attack ad; neither wants to drag out the debate about the actual debates.

This is an intentional choice by the writers, and it’s so fascinating that they’re showing us how Vinick and Santos are actually much more similar than usual. I’ve commented on this before, but they’re clearly not making this easy for the viewers. I like both candidates, and while I’m certainly pro-Santos until THE END OF ALL TIME, I’m not exactly going to be devastated if Vinick ultimately wins. Both candidates love being a part of politics, but they’ve been trying to fight against the cynical machine that would suggest that they both “pummel” one another. And then it comes down to either pandering for votes or sticking to their own morals. It’s a complicated conflict, particularly for the Santos campaign. They’re still trailing Vinick, which was one of the justifications for the mass firings in the previous episode. (Does that mean we’ll see more new staffers in addition to Donna?) Here, they’re dealt another potential disaster: the biggest women’s group is thinking of endorsing Vinick instead of Santos. It’s an absurd situation because why on earth would a women’s group endorse a Republican? Of course, it speaks to the strangeness of this election, too, since it might be far more pragmatic for them to support a pro-choice Republican who actually has a better chance of winning.

At the heart of this, though, are two men who, for their own varying reasons, believe that the government shouldn’t be mandated what a person does with their body. There’s a lot of parallel storytelling in “The Al Smith Dinner,” and truthfully, it’s one of the things I adore about the way the writers are composing this election. We get to see both campaigns deal with these issues concurrently. So I think it’s incredibly powerful that after Santos and Vinick have spent time debating this complex issue with their own staff and pondering whether or not they should compromise what they believe for more votes, they stand opposite one another backstage at the Al Smith dinner. I mean, neither one of them was going to attend the dinner initially, and yet, here they are. The campaign is unpredictable, and here’s the best evidence of it. Even if Santos and Vinick started off their campaign trading awkward barbs with one another, I saw two men who desperately wanted to run an honest campaign realizing what they’d turned into. Santos and Vinick deeply respect one another, and I love the fact that there isn’t any animosity between them. So it makes sense that when faced with the prospect of more bickering (which brings them ever closer to becoming a part of the Washington machine of negativity and hatred), they mutually agree to cast aside all the cynicism and nonsense and pageantry, and THE DEBATE IS NEGOTIATED FOR A FEW DAYS LATER WHICH MEANS THAT I AM FINALLY GOING TO GET MY DEBATE EPISODE. OH MY GOD. IT’S HAPPENING. IT’S HAPPENING.

I admit that another reason I enjoyed this episode was because it was a liberal fantasy: two candidates who are both men who are staunchly pro-choice, to the point that they’re willing to defend the right of women to choose. The West Wing has provided us with an alternate version of how the world can work before, so this is nothing new. And granted, I have to acknowledge that Vinick still appears to be going onto that stage to talk about his own limitations against abortion, which I don’t personally agree with. But it is unfortunately surreal to think about a presidential election where both candidates believe that Roe v. Wade should be the law of the land. That’s the sort of world that The West Wing has given us.

The video for “The Al Smith Dinner” can be downloaded here for $0.99.

Mark Links Stuff

– If you would like to support this website and keep Mark Does Stuff running, I’ve put up a detailed post explaining how you can!
– Please check out the All Mark Watches videos for past shows/season are now archived there!
– My Master Schedule is updated for the near and distant future for most projects, so please check it often. My next Double Features will be: Band of Brothers, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and then Farscape.
– I will be at quite a few conventions and will be hosting events throughout the US, Canada, and Europe in 2014, so check my Tour Dates / Appearances page often to see if I’m coming to your city!
– Inspired by last year’s impromptu event in London, I am taking Mark in the Park on the road! You can see all currently planned dates and pitch your own city here.

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
This entry was posted in The West Wing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.