In the twenty-first and penultimate episode of the seventh season of The West Wing, C.J., Kate, and Will ponder their futures. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
Found myself at your door
Just like all those times before
I’m not sure how I got there
All roads they lead me here
I imagine you are home
In your room, all alone
And you open your eyes into mine
And everything feels better
Right before your eyes
I’m breaking, no past
No reasons why
Just you and me
This is the last time I’m asking you this
Put my name at the top of your list
This is the last time I’m asking you why
You break my heart in the blink of an eye
This is a love letter to C.J. Cregg.
The West Wing has been an interesting experience for me, and I think it’s fitting that I initially began watching it alongside Friday Night Lights. I was so used to genre shows that I knew it would be a challenge to write about something that was fictional, but set in the real world in a very distinct way. Sometimes, I haven’t known how to address the more complicated political issues brought up over the course of the show, but I got attached to the characters. In particular, I latched on to C.J. Cregg pretty early on, and I didn’t let go. She’s consistently been my favorite character in the show, and I’m pleased, then, that just before The West Wing bows out, we get to study what this character has gone through for eight years.
A lot. She’s been through a lot, and she’s never stopped.
That’s at the core of C.J.’s struggle in “Institutional Memory.” With just a couple weeks left until the Bartlet administration clears out the building, C.J. is thrown a number of miniature crises all at once. But they’re almost all related to coming to an end of an era. No one can seem to get their transition memos done; countless people are offering her ridiculous jobs she has no interest in; and her time with Danny Concannon is complicated by his desire for… well, more. More of C.J. More conversations with her. More chances to listen to her talk. How can she possibly balance all of this at once?
That’s a common issue with C.J., but she’s always handled it brilliantly. First as the Press Secretary, then as Chief of Staff starting in season five, one of C.J.’s everlasting qualities is her resilience. She doesn’t give up, she doesn’t give in, and she doesn’t stop. How many others would have folded under the pressure? Who else saw the testosterone-filled halls of the West Wing and decided to make them her own? Who refused to back down to threats or intimidation every single time?
So what happens once she’s offered two incredible positions? And how do you channel the past eight years into something new? The title of this episode – “Institutional Memory” – feels like a reference to something more than what Santos tells her when he offers her a special position in the White House cabinet. Sure, she does have the institutional memory that would be invaluable to the Santos team. But I felt like it was a bit of commentary on what C.J. relied on. She relied on her own institutional memory of lonely nights and singular goals. I don’t think this episode criticizes her for that, at least not retroactively. Danny thinks that C.J. deserves to do whatever she wants, and he doesn’t denigrate her for devoting her life to the White House for eight years. Instead, he just wants her to realize that she’s allowed to leave it all. Or she can stay! But perhaps she shouldn’t rely on her memory (or her comfort in it) to make decisions that are going to irrevocably change her life.
But what a memory that is. I understood her reluctance to pursue something further with Danny because she wasn’t sure she couldn’t even do it. Over the course of The West Wing, we have seen her flirt with others; she even pursued some sort of relationship with Simon in season three. And if that was intended as a commentary that C.J. couldn’t have ever had a real relationship while working at the White House, then the years that followed only supported that. After getting the Chief of Staff position in season five, she lost any semblance of free time. (As demonstrated by the plot involving Ben, which was… not my favorite thing.) But throughout this all… lord, she’s done so much. She was an incredible Press Secretary. She was often the moral core of the West Wing staff. She navigated a difficult transition to Chief of Staff amidst doubts that she was qualified, AND SHE ABSOLUTELY DOMINATED AS CHIEF OF STAFF.
So how do you resolve a character like this? How do you say goodbye to somehow who stood out so brilliantly in the episodes she was in? How do you give an ending to C.J. Cregg and Danny Concannon? Difficultly, apparently. Despite that we know they end up together and have a child three years in the future, the way “Institutional Memory” is written still leaves a lot up to the imagination until the ending. Does C.J. take the two-year offer from Santos? Or the offer from Franklin Hollis? Does she turn Danny down in the meantime, or is this the start of something more? As Toby tells her later in the episode, she is a woman of options, and she needs to stop looking at these options as if they’re restricting her. They’re not. They’re giving her a world of opportunity. Which world does she want?
By the end of “Institutional Memory,” C.J. finds herself at Danny’s house, uncertain how she can choose a world with him in it. What Danny does here is negate the idea that she’s past her prime, that the “window” for a partnership has passed. So what if she’s never learned how to be committed to someone? Who says it’s impossible right this instant? I love that Danny frames this intimidating future with such immediate (and simple) concerns. He just wants to talk to her. And really, hasn’t that been what we’ve seen over the years? Of course he’s courting her, but ultimately, he is so smitten with her company that he knows they’ll have to start small. And I like that. They can talk through these worlds of opportunity together, which doesn’t mean he’s making the decisions for her.
This is a love letter to C.J. Cregg because she’ll always be the most important part of The West Wing for me. We now know how she ends up with Danny, and this was done in a way that respected her contribution to this show. How can you ever move on to anything else when you’ve set the bar as high as C.J. Cregg has?
You do it slowly.
(I opened this with the lyrics to “The Last Time” because, no shit, it was the first song that came on shuffle after I finished watching this episode, and the lyrics were too on the nose.)
It was nice to see Kate and Will in this episode again, especially we also get the last bit of story missing from his flash-forward scene. So he wins! Oh god, I loved the look on Kate’s face when she realized he was the perfect candidate. I haven’t re-watched the opening scene since the first time I saw it, so I couldn’t tell if Kate and Will were still together. SHE WRITES A BOOK, THOUGH. I want to read it!
I shall also go into denial about there being only one episode left. That’s the only way I’ll make it.
The video for “Institutional Memory” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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