In the eighth episode of the seventh season of The West Wing, C.J. is pulled away from planning Ellie’s wedding by a crisis in Kazakhstan, and Santos must deal with the uncomfortable racial tensions in Los Angeles while visiting there. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.Â
Trigger Warning: For discussion of racism and police brutality.
This is an odd episode, and tonally, it’s all over the place. We go from the image of Will holding up wedding dresses to the intensely serious segments involving Santos or Josh/Toby, and it’s a little too jarring for my tastes. There are a few important moments along the way, so let’s discuss this!
The White House
I still don’t know where this Kazakhstan plot is headed, and to be honest, I’m actually surprised it’s come to this. I honestly thought it would fizzle out by this point in the season, but now it’s getting WORSE? I mean, is China really going to march against Kazakhstan? And while that’s an important question to ask, I’m also curious how this is going to pan out for Kate and C.J. They’re both the only characters onscreen (aside from the occasional appearance from Margaret) during these segments, but I can’t see how this develops or grows either them. We just get their immediate reactions, and I can’t see how there’s any story for them at all. It’s very strange because the writers have generally been able to balance to political plots with personal ones, and this one feels entirely political. It’s nice to see that C.J. is in charge, though! I continue to be pleased with her as the Chief of Staff.
Meanwhile, Will is an impromptu wedding planner, and no one is surprised by the fact that he’s not good at it. Oh gosh, this means we’ll have a wedding episode soon, won’t we? THAT SHOULD BE FUN. This entire plot was the only real comic relief in an episode that’s remarkably serious, and I think that’s why it felt so strange at times. I liked it, but it doesn’t fit in with the other three stories unfolding, you know? There’s a lot going on in “Undecideds,” sure, and the show has mixed humor and drama well before. This isn’t new territory for The West Wing. I dunno, this is probably a terrible bit of analysis because aside from this, I couldn’t place my finger on what made me feel off while watching this unfold.
I honestly thought that we wouldn’t see Toby in any substantial sense for most of the remainder of this season, so I was initially very surprised that Josh went to go visit him. And then EVERYTHING WAS EXTREMELY AWKWARD, AND I DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. I understood that Toby’s insistence that Santos wasn’t made of the material to be President was meant to be in our minds right before Santos gave a very touching (and very Presidential) speech to that church in Los Angeles. Otherwise, the entire thing just felt weird as hell, and I’m still struggling to understand why the writers felt it necessary to bring Toby back just for him to yell at Josh and to bring Josh back to Toby’s a second time so that he could yell at Toby. Are we meant to assume that Toby has now become even more bitter than before because of his impending prison sentence? Is he mean to Josh just for the sake of it? Is Josh so concerned about his own ego that he thinks it’s appropriate to come back to Toby’s just to yell at Toby about his candidate? What’s the point of all of this?
This very well might be one of those storylines that makes a whole lot more sense once I’ve seen how the other shoe drops. If Josh really doubts Santos at this point, that seems like a big deal, and that would be an interesting thing to explore in terms of the story. But if this isn’t addressed again, then I don’t understand why it was here. Obviously, I’m biased by the fact that I don’t like what this season has done with Toby, but I also want to try to comprehend what the writers are attempting here.
The bulk of “Undecideds” deals with what the title refers to: the undecided black voters who are still unsure whether or not to vote for Santos, Vinick, or just not show up to the polls at all. This all comes to prominence when a young black boy is killed by a Latino police officer in Los Angeles just two days prior to Santos’s planned speech at a local church.
And look, this is an incredibly complex issue, one that I can speak to to an extent as a one-time resident of Los Angeles. I get that that a 45-minute episode of a television show that’s juggling three other plots isn’t going to be the most in-depth experience possible. Still, this is the most black people we’ve ever seen in an entire episode of The West Wing, and it’s about inner city violence. While I loved the way writers examined Santos’s identity and sense of duty, I was less than thrilled about the fact that this is the way in which the show finally addresses the black community in this election. It’s not that this is necessarily stereotypical or poorly written; it’s that the framing of the story is just very typical.
Which is not to suggest that the issues at hand aren’t important, because they are. Crime in urban neighborhoods deserves attention; so does the plight of police brutality. And watching Santos struggle with what to say and do is fulfilling because it highlights the stress he’s under as a Latino himself. Whether we like it or not, marginalized folks are often thrust on pedestals, pressured to represent their entire community, and it’s absolutely an overwhelming sensation. It sucks, frankly, and it’s even more frustrating to deal with when the majority power never seems to have the same experience. And really, Santos is well aware of the forces that make up the racial tension, and he knows that he can’t solve it by himself. So how is he supposed to speak to the mother of the slain child without being patronizing? How does he talk to the parishioners of that church without being condescending? Is it possible for him to strike a balance between truth and hope?
Along the way, there are some satisfying moments besides Santos’s struggle with his identity. I’m glad the show didn’t invalidate Santos’s anger at Lou for the way she insinuated that it was up to him to solve racial tensions. There are a few beautiful call-outs of ridiculous behavior or comments, like when that staffer said that in his experience, there was never any black-brown tension! LORD. And the writers willingly portrayed Santos’s visit to Brenda Burke’s house asâ€¦ well, a disaster. Because it was. The whole thing felt so wrong because these people were mourning the loss of a child, and it was undeniable that every reason for Santos to be there was self-serving. I get that he couldn’t avoid it, either, and the same goes for the speech at the church. So he ultimately follows his wife’s advice, discarding the speech prepared for him in order to speak from the heart. It’s a touching speech that finds a balance that I thought was pretty much impossible. But he does it. It really did feel like Santos’s unintentional answer to Toby’s claim that he wasn’t ready to be president.
The whole thing was better than I expected from the show, which hasn’t been perfect when dealing with race. And Cress Williams had a guest part!!! Oh, it’s always wonderful to see him on my television. Can we get more of him? THANKS.
The video for “Undecideds” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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