As the President predicted in the premiere, the weeks and months following the attack at Roslin leaves more victims in its wake than just those with the bullet holes. Our flashback recap of the second season of The West Wing continues this week with “The Midterms,” and not everyone is holding it together as well as they seem.
“What’s next?” Let’s bitch it out after the jump…
On the surface of this episode, everything would appear to be moving on and moving forward. It’s titled “The Midterms,” and the stories are grounded in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections in November. The staffers are all focused on taking back the House and installing a few more Democratic senators and governors. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is calling up contributors for donations, and Sam (Rob Lowe) in particular is helping an old law school friend win a House seat in Ohio. The whole opening of the episode belies a return to normalcy– a fantastically directed oner by Alex Graves following CJ (Allison Janney) through the offices into her daily briefing suggests that the only chaos remaining is the usual chaos of working in the White House.
But even in the first meeting, the long-term impact that this trauma is having on our characters becomes apparent. Toby (Richard Schiff), ever the freedom-of-religion-and-speech stalwart, is proposing membership disclosure and searches without warrants for any group deemed a hate group by the Attorney general. Even stoic Charlie (Dule Hill) is swearing at the President in the Oval Office. Brute frustration is growing from being victimized, and in an open, civil society where people cannot simply beat or bomb their aggressors, they direct it against their friends and family members and their work.
It’s why the pontificating in this episode works better than it did in the season premiere. The episode better establishes that the self-righteous outbursts may come from a principled place but are fueled by fear and frustration. The audience is better able to understand where the characters’ anger and frustration is coming from, even if the objects of their frustration are not well established. Look at President Bartlet’s speech at the end of the episode. On it’s own, it’s a pretty enjoyable smackdown. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take out their rage on the smug, leggy blonde disrespecting them in their own house? Martin Sheen delivers the speech perfectly, with a steady voice but a thinly veiled fury behind his eyes. And of course Sorkin writes an intelligent and passionate speech like no one else can. But what could have again been a self-indulgent declaration of how biblical objectors to gay marriage are all idiots is nuanced by the context of the episode. Other than a few stray remarks about Dr. Jenna Jacobs, the audience really has no reason to think Bartlet’s reprimand of her and her beliefs is earned. However, we know that he’s just as confused and hurt by the intended attack on Charlie by the West Virginia White Pride, and so we sympathize with him. It’s an eloquent expression of very real inner turmoil.
- This episode provides us with definitive proof that Sam and President Bartlet are smarter than computers: While they may know what ‘acalculia’ means, my copy of MS Word doesn’t even recognize it as a word.
- CJ is so powerful when she delivers one of her memorable monologues, and it’s often easy to forget what an important character she is when she isn’t on fire. In this episode, she’s acting as the voice of reason grounding the rest of the team as they fly off the handle. She’s the one who’s able to see past the behavior to the psychoses. She also delivers the most profound, even if it’s not the most eloquent, insight in this episode: “In a democracy, oftentimes other people win.”
- Speaking of great lines from CJ, she also get’s the cheesiest, yet still the funniest, joke of the episode. Josh (Bradley Whitford) asks CJ to lead her press briefing with an announcement on the “Theory of Everything,” to which she responds: “Is it comprehensive?”
- Sam, however, gets the best follow-up that undercuts a profound moment. Only Sam could walk up to Dr. Jacobs after the President’s demolition of her, stare her down, and announce “I’m just going to take that crab puff.” And actually take the crab puff off her plate and walk away.
- “Before they were Stars, West Wing Edition” continues this week with appearances by James Denton (Desperate Housewives) as Sam’s friend Tom Jordan, and Rebecca Creskoff (Hung) as Tom’s wife Sarah.
Time for you to take over in the comments section below. Do you think that the series is handling the aftermath well, or is it still too preachy? Or maybe too rushed? In an emotionally-heavy episode, what was your favorite comedic reprieve? And did you know what “acalculia” means?
Join me next Wednesday as I recap the next two episodes, 2×04 “In This White House” and 2×05 “And It’s Surely to Their Credit,” or the two episodes that introduce us to the delightful Ainsley Hayes.