In the twelfth episode of the seventh season of The West Wing, I THINK I FORGOT HOW TO BREATHE WAY TOO MANY TIMES DURING THIS EPISODE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
I admit that there aren’t many times these days where I think about the show changing showrunners after season four. Yeah, season five was aâ€¦ challenging experience. It was strange at times. I think season six’s strengths are mostly in story and character choices that Sorkin never would have explored. And thinking back on the experience that is “Duck and Cover,” I feel like this is quintessential The West Wing, so much so that I think Sorkin should be proud that John Wells and company were able to do this.
The show fired on all cylinders during the entire forty-two minute run, and I did not once look to see how much time was left during “Duck and Cover.” This was a thrilling and chaotic story that truly showed us the difficult choices a President sometimes has to face. But it’s not just the President who is stuck between a rock and a hard place. So was Will, who had to navigate the needs of the press with a desire for order. So were Santos and Josh, who had to exercise some patience in the wake of the near-meltdown so as not to seem politically greedy. And there’s Vinick, whose pro-nuclear stance was in the direct line of sight for the entirety of this episode. All of these people had to make monumentally unreal decisions about themselves and the future, and I think the writers handled this brilliantly.
The show set the tone fairly quickly, and my god, it reminded me how well The West Wing executes chaos in the past. It’s actually quite incredible if you think about it because at no point do we ever see the plant in San Andreo. We never see the engineers. We never see anything but news reels and maps and the characters in the White House discussing the nuclear reactor. I think that’s important because that sort of detachment is necessary to paint the picture of the burden these characters face. After Bartlet designates himself the “czar” of this crisis, he must resolve increasingly complex and risky issues based solely on his advisers and staff. He’s not there. He doesn’t know the people involved. He’s halfway across the country.
So I do admire that amidst this, he refuses to keep much of anything a secret, and Will’s coy and playful style as Press Secretary finally and gloriously works. It’s certainly been a strange thing to watch this season, but goddamn, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Like Bartlet, he’s got to find a way to control the flow of information so that there’s concern, so that people in the evacuation zone take the warnings seriously, but he and Bartlet don’t want to cause widespread panic. And that’s a very thin line to walk, you know? So, in a sense, Will becomes a czar himself, making himself the point-man in order to prevent the sort of willy-nilly rumormongering that we witness from many of the cable networks. (WHO WAS SURPRISED THAT THEY ALREADY TRIED TO LINK IT TO “ARAB TOURISTS”? OH MY GOD, that one little detail FUCKED ME UP.)
Meanwhile, there’s even more validation for the writers’ choice to show us both campaigns in detail. Look, I understand it may not be your thing, and I also get that it takes away from time that could have been given to the original staff. (Seriously, where did Charlie go? We have barely seen him this season.) But if we had not spent so much time this season and last with the Santos and Vinick campaigns, I don’t think “Duck and Cover” would have been so suspenseful. That’s particularly true of the Vinick campaign, since we know that Josh and his team have the info on Vinick’s initial support for the San Andreo plant through the licensing. What unfolds here is an unbearable game of chicken, but one that neither side is fully sure the other one is playing. Bruno was so certain that Josh could not resist the chance to slam Vinick that he planned on Josh doing so as a campaign strategy. Of course, we discover by the end of the episode how this eventually backfires on Vinick, but up until that point? LORD. I yelled a lot. A LOT. It’s not like Bruno was off the mark here. LOOK HOW CLOSE JOSH CAME TO HAVING DONNA LEAK THE INFORMATION. It was only by pure chance that the one reporter Donna happened to go to had already figured out that Vinick had pushed to get San Andreo running. JOSH, YOU COULD HAVE RUINED ALL OF THIS.
But he didn’t. Like I mentioned earlier, this episode is overflowing with difficult, complicated choices, and that was certainly one of them. I’m glad that Santos recognized the brilliance in letting the chips fall as they may, and it clearly paid off. But I’ll touch on that big reveal at the end of this. I did want to talk more about how satisfying it was to watch Will, C.J., Kate, and Bartlet work so closely together to make this happen. I am sad that Toby isn’t around, and the original team is now all fractured and spread about, but I’m also a big fan of the current staff in the West Wing. I think the work together better than the staff has in the past two years. (Lord, now I’m remembering how much arguing there was in season five. BLEH.) But holy shit, y’all, Martin Sheen is INCREDIBLE in this episode. The amount of guilt and fear he’s able to convey with that face of his is UNREAL. Look, it’s no surprise that I’m convinced that Sheen could be the goddamn President at this point, but HE IS SO PRESIDENTIAL IN THIS EPISODE. That’s not to say that the writer or Sheen ignore Bartlet’s humanity, either. I spoke of his detachment from the events in San Andreo, but that detachment isn’t necessarily emotional. No, Bartlet takes his job to heart, and as each decision he must make is infinitely more painful than the last, we watch as a little bit more defeat rolls onto his face. It’s hard to watch at times. He’s got to decide whether or not to release radiation into the air, which could get picked up by changing Santa Ana winds and contaminate areas that weren’t evacuated. Then he has to choose to send two engineers into the plant, knowing that they most certainly will get radiation poisoning. AND THEN HE HAS TO DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO ASK THEM TO STAY INSIDE AND TRY AND FIX THE SECOND VALVE, EVEN THOUGH THEY’VE EXCEEDED THE AMOUNT OF TIME RECOMMENDED FOR EXPOSURE TO THAT LEVEL OF RADIATION.
And really, there’s a terrible pall set over the final few scenes of “Duck and Cover” when one of the engineers dies from radiation sickness. We know from past characterization that Bartlet has already internalized a ton of guilt over what he chose. But that sadness spreads and becomes the first sign that Vinick might not actually win the upcoming election. Granted, this entire episode openly addressed the fact that Vinick was not in a good place based on his past support of the San Andreo plant, but now, it seems like half the nation has done an about-face on Vinick. In a matter of 24 hours, Santos has closed the gap on Vinick â€“ by doing absolutely nothing. It’s a hellish thing for Vinick, and even I was surprised by the end result. I figured that Santos might have picked up a point or two in polling or maybe â€“ maybe! â€“ he would get California from Vinick. I actually thought that was the only real possibility, especially since Vinick was going to California with Bartlet. I assumed that would be the twist! NOPE. NOT PREPARED.
I’m still unsure where the show is going with the crisis in Kazakhstan. It’s back to being somewhat in the background, though by the end of “Duck and Cover,” there’s now ANOTHER disaster in the region. And it’s such a huge reveal â€“ that there was election fraud, that protestors are being murdered, that China and Russia are very, very close to going to war, THAT BARTLET MAY NEED TO DEPLOY 90,000 TROOPS â€“ stuck into a thirty-second scene that I’m left wondering why this plot has survived for so long. Is there some end to it? I STILL DON’T KNOW WHERE IT’S HEADED.
Anyway, I loved this episode regardless. Bravo!
The video for “Duck and Cover” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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