Plot summary: A crucial banking bill is at risk when political rivals of environmentally sensitive President Bartlet attach a land-use rider to it that would allow strip-mining some of the Montana wilderness while C.J. tries to stamp out rumors -- however true -- that the Chief Executive chastised the Vice President during a cabinet meeting. An overworked Leo isn't too keen on his independent daughter Mallory dating the handsome Sam. C.J. continues to fend-off the romantic charms of a perceptive reporter with a knack for sniffing out juicy stories. Former lovers Mandy and Josh clash over the administration's attempt to jettison the land-use rider that might ruin passage of the more important banking bill.
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I don't know if it's the absence of Sorkin as a credited writer (first time that's happened so far), but this episode seemed to lack a certain unifying theme or penetrating insight that the others seem to have. That said, there are still bits and pieces worth talking about. Back in "Five Votes Down," we discussed the ramifications of winning the actual battle but losing the PR one. This episode deals with that as well, the difference being that this time the staff is divided over when to concede, and at what cost. While Sam, Mandy, and ultimately Toby are willing to deal with the fact that House Republicans attached a rider to a bill just to rankle the administration, Josh is unable to let it go, and vows to find a way to "win." Then we're left with a conclusion that has Josh re-considering his motivations and admitting to the president that he feels their motivations in these battles has skewed towards vanquishing political enemies. The question I'm asking myself: is that such a bad thing? Granted, if Josh's entire agenda is solely competition-based (as Mandy would have us believe), he'd be hindering his boss's ability to legislate effectively. But within this "ulterior motive" couldn't there just be a desire to not have the White House look weakened (the importance of which is driven home in "Five Votes Down")? In fact, Josh always seems to have that exact principle on his mind: "I do give a damn about hanging a sign outside the White House that says, 'hey, Republicans in Congress, feel free to slap us around anytime you want just to show that you can.'" Josh may be incapable of accepting this kind of loss, but if it's for the right reasons, he shouldn't feel like he has to re-evaluate these feelings.
Still, there were some fun parts, including Leo using Sam (without his knowledge) to teach Mallory a lesson. Most striking was Leo's comment to Mallory that he "widowed" her mother the day he took the job. It seems like he has finally come to terms with what happened to his marriage and why, and seems remarkably comfortable with his decision. Watching the president's two chief speechwriters - and architects of his public message - struggle over a simple birthday card was lots of fun as well. It furthers the human element that these characters all share: sometimes the talent is just not there on a given day. Most of all, I enjoyed watching the more informal, somewhat playful interactions between the president and others in this episode, be it Josh, Charlie, or Mallory. I'm not sure I could get used to a relationship that allowed me to make jokes to someone about dumping his dead body but still required me to address him as "sir."
I once posted on a message board in response to this episode, observing that it was interesting that Hoynes takes credit for delivering the South for Bartlet when we know from "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc" that they did not carry Hoynes' home state of Texas (although not because of the "hat joke," according to Bartlet.) Obviously, stuff like this happens, but it's still somewhat unusual, I think.
It's not a birthday card; it's a birthday message.