Monday, December 15, 2008

Season 1, Episode 3: "A Proportional Response"

Plot summary
Still seething over the downing of an fully loaded American jet in the Mideast, a vengeful President Bartlet overrules the joint chiefs' plan for a "proportional" military strike and demands a more severe attack that would result in thousands of enemy and civilian casualties. While Leo and other advisers try to cool off the Commander-in-Chief, Press Secretary C.J. scolds a wayward Sam over his potentially explosive private crusade to rescue a well-known call girl from her profession. Feeling overlooked during the hubbub surrounding the military options, Josh interviews a shy African-American teen as a potential personal aide to the President.

Watch "A Proportional Response":

Av --

More and more I'm starting to hope that Dee Dee Myers was well compensated for her work on this show. I recognized her name when I saw her listed as a "consultant" in the closing credits after "Pilot," and I assume as a former press secretary in a real administration, she made a lot of calls on the set as to what could "work" and what couldn't. An episode like this one could not have been made without the knowledge and counsel of someone who directly experienced these situations. I thought this episode was amazing, a thought which only struck me in the last minute, when Bartlet began addressing the nation. It all crystallized for me at that moment: we, the American people, only see the finished product. We see the shiny TV graphic telling us, "This is an NBC News special report," we see an anchor introduce the situation, then we go to the Oval Office and see the president directly address us. That's all we see. But what goes into making that happen? That is what we just saw. On a small scale, we saw literally what makes it happen - Toby and Sam hurriedly and exhaustively writing and re-writing the actual speech. But on a larger scale, we saw a president having to deal with his first major decision in his role as commander-in-chief.

I'm sure this concept has been covered extensively, but it is fascinating to consider the notion of the president as, literally, the commander-in-chief. Granted, there have been many generals and military veterans we've elected to the presidency, but often the man in charge has no real qualifications for being in charge. He may be qualified as a chief executive which serves him well in other capacities, but leader of the armed forces? How did that happen? That's the central issue here, and it's one that's particularly humbling for President Bartlet. He admitted in the last episode that the only experience he has in this field is being in charge of New Hampshire's National Guard while serving as governor there. Now he finds himself having to decide between what is accepted as standard operating procedure - retaliating with a proportional response - and what he perceives to be a more fitting punishment. The question I asked after the last episode, the one about how much of Bartlet's attitude is based on his personal loss, is addressed head on, with Bartlet assuring Leo that he feels the way he does because Americans were killed, not just Morris. But as you said, the issue was less about why he felt the way he did, and more about separating the man - who felt the need to avenge American lives - from the office - which has to behave a certain way in the world. That realization, which Bartlet only came to after an intense conversation with Leo, is a tough one for a new president to stomach, since the idea of there being a specific "fine" that's accepted for taking American lives can run counter to the natural patriotic feelings of the average American, especially those who dedicate their lives to public service.

In a sense, the Sam storyline runs somewhat parallel to the main one, in that here, too, what constitutes a "proportional response" is the issue on the table. C.J. believes that there's no place for a senior White House official to have any kind of relationship with a woman who is a part-time call girl; Sam believes cutting off all contact is a disproportionate response - it's more important to be good than to look good. For the record, Sam is completely wrong here. I understand and respect his conviction and commitment to caring more about the reality of the situation than the perception (even C.J. does), but it shouldn't be just hitting him now that in his position, perception goes a long, long way. Everybody else gets it, why can't he? The importance of perception is brought up again when Josh tells Leo that the only reason he has not to hire Charlie as Bartlet's body man is the perception of the young black man holding the door for, or carrying the bags of, the older, stately white man. And Leo's answer is that the perception does matter, it just won't be perceived the way Josh worries it could be.

Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one other proportional response in this episode I enjoyed: C.J.'s comeback to Josh after being called a "paranoid, Berkeley, shiksa feminista." I don't know who has more fun, Sorkin writing these lines, or the actors delivering them.

-- Binny


Binny --

There you go again with your astute title analysis and how it relates to the themes of the entire episode. As I mentioned in our correspondence on "Pilot," one of the most enjoyable aspects, for me, of Sorkin's writing style is the way he ties together the entire episode by implanting common themes into unrelated storylines. I'd like to expand on the theme that you touched upon that runs throughout this entire episode.

In each of the three plots that you mentioned (Bartlet's response to the attack, Sam and C.J.'s discussion about Laurie, and Josh's concerns about Charlie), one of (or a group of) the characters is on the "how does it look/feel" side and the other is on the "what is it really" side. In the latter two subplots, C.J. and Josh are concerned about perception, while Sam and Leo (backed up by Admiral Fitzwallace) focus more on the facts and reality of the situation. Similarly, in the main storyline, Bartlet is preoccupied with how such a minor retaliation, in his opinion, looks and feels. Blowing up some satellites doesn't feel in proportion to him for the human life that was lost. Further, he argues about how it looks: that our failure to act in the past has induced further attacks. Leo and the Joint Chiefs take the more sensible, yet somewhat unfulfilling side of things: it is what it is. It doesn't feel right or fair and certainly doesn't do justice to the human lives that were lost. As Leo explains, "It's not good; there is no good. It's what there is." That's reality. Which brings me back to my point from last episode and the lesson that Bartlet learns in this episode. Last episode's Bartlet didn't feel violent towards America's enemies; this episode's Bartlet wants to retaliate with "total disaster." But by the end, he retreats to the sensible, "proportional" middle. He realizes that even though sometimes you have an idealistic vision of the way things should be, more often than not that vision is defeated by practicalities. Nobody, including Fitzwallace, sees the "virtue" of the proportional response and this endless cycle, or "cost of doing business," as Bartlet calls it. But, for now, "it's what there is."

As for Sam, I agree that he's wrong, but I think I better relate to why everyone else gets it and he doesn't. Simply put, a person's judgment is always going to be clouded when he is the one at the center of the situation, particularly when emotions or relationships are involved. I can't even count how many times in my life I have seen people (myself included) ignore the relationship advice that they have given other people when they are the ones with the problem. It is much easier to tell someone to cut ties with a friend or love interest than it is do so yourself, even if the situations in both cases are identical. If Josh had been the one with this problem, I guarantee that Sam would be giving the same speech to Josh that he receives in this episode. However, when the speech is given to him, because he is emotionally involved, he becomes defensive and self-righteous. As an aside, this episode includes a perfect example of the dark, sarcastic sense of humor that Sorkin has given to Toby Ziegler that I love so much. From his conversation with Sam about C.J.'s knowledge of his Laurie situation: "Think she knows?" "Yeah." "Why?" "She told me she knows." Priceless.

I remember thinking that this episode was the first one that I thought was truly phenomenal. It was the first one that left me speechless at the end and I think served as the final hook to get me to fall in love with this show. It is the first episode to feature the classic Sorkin "chill" scene at the very end and like Charlie watching the president, I had never felt that way before while watching a TV show. And in case you're wondering, no, "it doesn't go away."

-- Av


  1. Av-
    How dare you refer to him as "Bartlet"?, int he future lets make it "President Bartlet", or "The President", I believe he's earned it.

    Binny -
    Much to the scorn of my fellow WW watchers, I have always maintained that CJ is my favorite character on the show. While its probably too early on for you too make a call on this, im getting the feeling from your tone that you might eventually fall into my category on this also. Perhaps we'll revisit this when you have more to work with.

  2. It's a true pleasure to get to see what Binny sees when he watches television.

  3. Abe - I feel like that's a reference from a movie somewhere... darned if I can remember which...

    As for the "who's Binny's favorite character" race, the standings are currently: 1. Leo 2. C.J. 3. Toby 4. Josh 5. Mandy. I'll be sure to keep you posted.

    Dan - Thanks!

  4. And you will address this blogger as Av Sinensky, Esq. I'm quite certain I've earned it.

  5. The reason I made the AFGM refernce was because I wanted to get into the following rant, just didnt have the time right then.

    It actually really bothers me when, over the course of the series, many of the characters get all snobby sanctimonious when republicans or others refer or the President as "Bartlet." (Binny, you may not have encountered this yet) To me it seems like a perfectly reasonable way to refer to him when you are a member of the opposite party. Mind you, I am not referring to someone speaking directly to the president but rather to his staff. Now I know that WW writers have much more knowledge of the ins and outs of the white house than me, but this seems to be more of a Sorkin trip than reality, as further evidenced by the AFGM scene.

    Also, for some reason I can't picture Democrats right now referring to Bush as anything but "Bush." I may be wrong but cmon...hes Bush.

  6. You're right, I haven't encountered it yet, but here's my theory: I'm guessing there's a certain code of formality when dealing with the president's actual senior staff. Yes, there's no doubt Congressmen refer to the president as "Bush" to each other, but in a formal situation, especially one involving his people, in his White House, I'm sensing it's a sign of disrespect.

    Oh, and as for AFGM, that's a U.S. Marine Colonel. It's not a stretch to believe he insists on being addressed with full honors.

  7. Moderator, please move this discussion to
    Av Sinensky, Esq.

  8. I am absolutely addicted to this show and I look forward to reading all of the comments/opinions. One observation that I have had since the first episode and it is still puzzling to me at this point has to do with the relationship between the President and his Vice President.

    The first thing I notice and I guess makes sense but does trouble me is how separate and distinct each of their staffs are and the lack of communication between the two sets of staff. Of course this may not be reality as much as it is that it is only a 44 minute show and not everything can be worked in.

    The second aspect I have noticed (and I am sure will be addressed as the series progresses) is the strained relationship between the President and his Vice President. I am curious whether this is often the case in the real White House setting, or whether it is something unique to the show and one of the reasons the show is as captivating as it is.

  9. The west wing tv show is my favorite tv show. i like this show very much. The President Bartlet seeks vengeance for a downed transport plane carrying his personal physician, while Charlie Young applies for a White House job.

  10. but I do not really like the first season of this series. I believe that he is stupid and without sages

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