Flashback review – The West Wing 2×04-2×05: ‘In This White House’ and ‘And It’s Surely to Their Credit’

Courtesy of leavemethewhite.com

You know you’ve got a special heroine when she recognizes quotes from Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and speaks in iambic pentameter when nervous. This week The West Wing welcomes Emily Procter’s Ainsley Hayes, one of the series’ most memorable guest stars.

“What’s next?” Find out after the jump…

Say what you will about how heavy handed West Wing episodes can be (and I’ll say a few words on it later), but these two particular episodes are incredibly watchable, if only for the fantastic interactions between Ainsley and the rest of the senior staff. Ainsley’s the new girl in the ‘Wing, who is hired after President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) watches her eviscerate Sam (Rob Lowe) on the morning talk show Capital Beat. Leo (John Spencer) explains that he hired her because “the President likes smart people who disagree with him,” and this is precisely why her character is such a positive addition to the series.

Ainsley is one of the first fully developed characters on the series to maintain entirely opposing ideological principles. For once, she is not a menacing caricature for the staff to overcome with righteous fury. She’s a peer who’s perspective can bring to light shortcomings that the at times myopic inner circle of the President cannot see themselves. In “In This White House,” Sam rants about how blindly obsessed some Republicans are with the Second Amendment and the right to own guns. Yet Ainsley finds the real message beyond his words: “You don’t like the people who do like guns. You don’t like the people. Think about that.” Who else amongst the staff would be able or willing to point out his hostility towards some of the citizens he works for when they all share his view on that issue?

As equally important as her ideological difference is to the mix of characters on the show, what’s more entertaining is the nervous energy she brings and how she plays off the other staffers in their interactions. Her scenes with Leo in these two episodes are some of my favorite scenes from the entire series. Ainsley’s excitable lawyer is the perfect counterbalance for Leo’s even-keeled former soldier, and so their dialogues are hilariously awkward.

From ‘In This White House’

Ainsley: Mr. McGarry. (stands up)

Leo: Where’re you going?

Ainsley: Nowhere. I’m standing up, which is how one speaks in opposition in the civilized world.

Leo: Well, you go girl.

Courtesy of leavemethewhite.com

The problem with these episodes is just how on the nose the writing is at times. CJ (Allison Janney) declares at the top of “It’s Surely To Their Credit” that the way Ainsley is being viewed as overly ambitious and suspicious is sexist. Sorkin all but has her state directly to the camera, “THIS EPISODE IS IMPORTANT PEOPLE! We’re talking about sexism in politics and governance.” And accordingly, throughout the rest of the episode are instances of sexism: Ainsley is sent a bouquet of dead flowers with a card that simply calls her a “bitch,” and the President unwittingly dismisses Abbey’s (Stockard Channing) attempts to promote the honoring of American women in history. But since sexism is bad and must be scorned, the former offenders, two mustache twirling evildoers heinous speechwriters who work for Sam, are fired, and the President gives his weekly radio address on the need for more statues and honors for American women. And all the progressive-thinking liberals lived happily ever after, the end.

That’s not to say that sexism shouldn’t be addressed, or that it is always this bluntly handled in the episode. Sam is mad at Ainsley for speaking to the two speechwriters about a mistake they have made in their testimony to the House of Representatives. When she tells him she wanted to do well on her first assignment and decided to take the initiative to speak with them, he calls her “spunky.” It’s an interesting character beat – we all know that Sam in principle isn’t sexist, and yet this dismissal of her is a subtle way to turn a colleague into a young, cute girl out of her league. It’s just unfortunate that more of the episode is focused on the more obvious instances and their easy fixes.

Other Considerations:

  • Does anyone else now refer to making the beast with two backs as “A special meeting… of the government” like President Bartlet?
  • Another character detail that was interesting in “In This White House” was about President Bartlet. At the top of the episode, he understood a reference made to the contribution by Norman Borlaug to agriculture, but only knew the bare minimum. By the end, he could thoughtfully discuss the advances of high-yielding dwarf wheat and its impact on starvation in Asia. It’s one of those subtle observations that Sorkin can write well, showing us that Bartlet is a man committed to improving himself and becoming a better president.
  • Informal Poll: Is Sam’s being the recording secretary of Princeton’s Gilbert and Sullivan society adorkable or has it crossed the line into sad?

Now it’s your turn! Are you excited to relive the golden days of Ainsley Hayes? Did you find the discussion of sexism insightful or tired? Sound off below!

Join me next Wednesday for the review of 2×06 “The Lame Duck Congress,” and 2×07 “The Portland Trip.” And don’t forget about the series premiere of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, this Sunday on HBO at 10 EST!

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