Flashback review – The West Wing 2×13-2×14: ‘Bartlet’s Third State of the Union’ and ‘The War at Home’

Courtesy of NBC

Oh Stockard Channing, you coy seductress! These episodes are supposed to be about affairs of state and the re-election campaign, but with just one tearful smile as Abbey Bartlet ,you own these episodes!

“What’s next?”

Find out after the jump…

If you just look at the plots of these two episodes, they aren’t particularly memorable, especially considering the other stories that come up on this show in this season alone. The staff basks in the glow of a successful State of the Union Address, they try to rouse support for their initiatives, and the President (Martin Sheen) confronts a hostage situation in Columbia. But – as is usually the case – it’s the details that distinguish this episode from any other. And the success of these episodes, at least in terms of delivering an emotionally compelling two-hours of television, is entirely dependent on Stockard Channing. Everyone bow down…

Sorkin has said in commentaries that he hadn’t really created a backstory for Abbey Bartlet beyond her role as a licensed doctor, as well as First Lady to the President and mother to their daughters. Regardless of this lack of development, Channing crafts a rich inner life for Abbey and shows her complex relationship with her husband with a look and a simple line read. When the President finds her in the kitchen eating after the speech, she’s sitting so stiffly, as if waiting to pounce on him, and yet there’s an unspoken sadness in her eyes, especially as she won’t look at him. Channing delivers the line “You kicked off your reelection campaign and I’m sitting here eating a sandwich because we had a deal!” with all of the intended anger, yet her voice quivers with hurt and disappointment. It’s painful to watch, but it helps to put a human face on the real life effects of his possible decision to run for re-election.

And putting that human face on the decision is important, because as I mentioned last week, the campaign is sapping the humanity out of Toby (Richard Schiff). The way he talks about the changes to the speech with Abbey is downright robotic. He practically chills the air as he dispassionately dismisses her legitimate complaints about removing from the speech an “absolute” promise to protect social security and retirement benefits. And I actually found myself thankful that Senator Gillette (played by an always welcome Ed Begley Jr.) called him out on being patronizing and for downplaying the liberal base’s concerns in the speech. Toby may be an expert campaign advisor, but what has always set him apart has been the passion he feels towards public service hiding behind his scraggly goatee and gruff demeanor. Someone needed to remind him of this here.

Courtesy of NBC

Other Considerations:

  • All right. So while I’ve been hyper aware lately of women being portrayed as unprofessional uber-Romantics on Sorkin’s shows lately, I have no intention of denying how funny the Ainsley (Emily Procter) dance is. Her absolute horror at being caught by the President wearing her bathrobe and dancing to “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” as her Pink Squirrel flies through the air is priceless. It also helps that the scene is perfectly set up throughout the whole episode, from her fear to meeting him, to the bench with the wet paint in the sculpture garden acting as a frequent culprit. And the way that Bartlet delivers Sam’s (Rob Lowe) line is perfect: “You know, a lot of people assumed you were hired because you’re a blonde Republican sex kitten, and… well… they are obviously wrong. Keep up the good work.”
  • Who hasn’t recited Josh’s (Bradley Whitford) lament about being on hold after watching this episode? Josh: “I’m on hold. I’m on hold. I’m on hold. I’m in some hellish hold world of holding. I’m on hold.”
  • While I usually enjoy Marlee Matlin’s Joey Lucas – and her appearance in these episodes isn’t any different – I am a little disappointed that her only real purpose here is to point out that Donna (Janel Moloney) has a big ol’ crush on Josh. Matlin deserves better material than this. The woman is an Oscar winner, for crying out loud!

Now it’s your turn. Is Abbey Bartlet tonight’s MVP or does a drunken de-robed Ainsley steal the show? Does this darker side of Toby make him more interesting or do you wish for the passionate public servant? Sound off below!

Next week we’ll discuss how badly fathers ruin their children as I review “Ellie” and “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.” See you next Wednesday!

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