Flashback review – The West Wing 2×06-2×07: ‘The Lame Duck Congress’ and ‘The Portland Trip’

Courtesy of NBC

As I’ve been spending so much time with Sorkin’s productions these days, I’ve realized that oftentimes what’s most memorable about the episodes he writes aren’t the ideological monologues or grand gestures, but the more subtle character beats. In these two stand alone episodes, the plots may be forgettable (for the most part), but the moments with the staff stay with you.

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

Now that Josh (Bradley Whitford) has returned with a clean bill of health, and Ainsley (Emily Procter) has been accepted into the family, the office’s equilibrium has been restored. Unfortunately for viewers, this means two rather lackluster episodes focused on calling a lame duck session of Congress to pass the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and a trip to Portland for an education speech. Stances are taken, platitudes are spouted, and Chairman Mao is turned to for inspiration. Just your average Wednesday night at the ‘Wing.

But the motley crew that populates the series saves the day and provides for some interesting moments anyway. What could have been a generic D-story in “The Lame Duck Congress” – like the adoption of OSHA standards in the White House for the prevention of carpal tunnel syndrome amongst the secretaries– becomes a funny opportunity to get to know Donna (Janel Moloney) better. Even as the rest of the staff trivializes her protests – Leo (John Spencer) even dismisses her by telling her to “type slower” – and uses her as a beard for politically taboo guests to meet the President, Donna moves past the insult to pursue her goals. In this case, that means trying to win over a drunk Ukranian reformer on the dangers of repetitive stress injuries caused by typing. It’s great to get these little glimpses of Donna’s passion and as-yet-untapped potential, even in these ridiculous ways.

The plane symbolism used in “The Portland Trip” has the subtlety of… well… any of the speeches a character gives on an Aaron Sorkin show, but having the ideology versus reality message shoved into my face so frequently makes this episode cringe-worthy. Underneath all the references to being “unburdened” by reality as they fly through the night sky, however, is an interesting portrayal of what the creative process is like when it’s not going well. As Sam (Rob Lowe) cries out for a “permanent revolution” in education and a need for more teachers, we see a gifted man struggle with writer’s block. As someone who writes on a regular basis, it rings true to me to see Sam lash out at the people around him and blame uninspiring content, even though he knows he is the one choking and failing. And it’s particularly refreshing that it’s Sam who’s so vulnerable here, since he usually is portrayed as a boy wonder with a few humanizing quirks.

Courtesy of NBC

Other considerations:

  • I could honestly riff on how great Allison Janney is any of these episode reviews. In “Lame Duck Congress” I particularly love how well she shifts from her commanding presence in front of the President in the Oval Office to vulnerable and shy in front of Danny (Timothy Busfield), slouched over like a high school girl who feels stuck after confessing to her crush
  • Tonight’s Classic Margaret (NiCole Robinson) and Leo Moment™: Margaret warns everyone she can throughout “The Portland Trip” that Leo has received his divorce papers and is afraid he might drink. And in one of their sweetest exchanges, after Margaret sighs in resignation when he decides to leave the office for the night alone, Leo smiles at her and says, “You’re a good girl”
  • The director of “Lame Duck Congress”, Jeremy Kagan, makes some interesting choices in this episode, especially with the camerawork. Particularly well thought-out is the way he caps  Sam’s “we play with live ammo” speech to Ainsley with a 360-degree camera pan around the communications office. It’s a clear way to sell her realization of exactly where she’s working and what she’s doing without needing to literally say it out loud

All right, fellow ‘Wingers, it’s your turn. Are you with Team Donna on the adoption of OSHA standards? And can Margaret and Leo be any sweeter? Sound off in the comments below!

Join me next week for Thanksgiving in July as I review the next episode “Shibboleth”. And don’t forget to check out Sorkin’s new series, The Newsroom, which I review each Monday!

Questions for caitlinthedvrslayer or another bitchstolemyremote contributor? Send us an email at grabtheremote@gmail.com or tweet us: @bstolemyremote

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