Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Season 1, Episode 4: "Five Votes Down"

Plot summary
Leo needs five more House votes to pass a bill restricting the sale of automatic firearms, but the cost might be too high, especially if he has to go to the unpredictable vice president to help put them over the top. The staff's annual financial disclosure statements prove to be thorny for Toby, whose innocent technology stock purchase last year proved to be wildly profitable, which raises eyes due to his association with an expert in the field. In addition, Leo's long hours on the job cause an unforeseen crisis at home, and the President unintentionally mixes up the potent medications he receives for his ailing back.

Watch "Five Votes Down":

Av --

It's time to talk about the "Walk and Talk." Though it's often done in a subtle way, the style in which a show is filmed can be an indicator of what kind of show the creators are trying to put forth. (Consider the purpose of the documentary-style filming of The Office. Is its existence only serving a narrative function, or does the cinematography subconsciously make us feel like we're watching real people at work?) I've read that when filming Sports Night, director Thomas Schlamme (who directed 16 episodes of the show) began using the "walk and talk," presumably because of the nature of the setting's work environment. (There have been enough SportsCenter "behind the scenes" shows by now to know he made a great call.) And so Schlamme, who directed the pilot of The West Wing and served as an executive producer for 5 years, brought the style to this Sorkin show as well, giving their setting the fast-paced, frenetic energy it so richly deserves. Coupled with Sorkin's dialogue, it's simply a joy to watch. I can already see the "walk and talk" on this show has become part of its essence, so much so it's even a subject for self-mocking: "Where are you going?" "Where are you going?" "I was following you." "I was following you." But to me, the ultimate achievement in this style is what they - episode director Michael Lehmann, director of photography Tom Del Ruth, and camera operator Dave Chameides - managed to pull off in the opening to this episode. In one single camera shot - no edits, no cuts - Bartlet leaves the stage, and the entire cast (with dozens of extras) walks through the bowels of - and exits - the hotel, the camera staying with them for three entire minutes. That's 3 minutes, 11 characters speaking (I'm counting the Josh fangirls as one), down stairs two separate times, through narrow corridors (on location, mind you, not their usual set), with filming starting in front of characters, then moving behind them, then back in front of them, while everybody in the main cast shuffles in and out of frame. It's a cinematic feat nothing short of remarkable. (The fact that someone like me, who tends to concentrate more on narrative and less on scenery, noticed it is a clear sign of that.) The audacious shot wasn't even necessary for the story; the fact that the cast and crew dedicated half a night to shooting a three-minute scene whose greatest import was an aesthetic one is a sign of how committed the people who worked on this show were to making it as good as it can be.

But enough about style; the substance of this episode belonged to Leo McGarry. The point Leo's story calls to attention is clear: we've been watching these people hard at work for a few episodes, but we have to remember that they are people who have families, and who once had lives outside of work. What struck me, though, was something else: is being on the White House staff the only job with insane hours? Of course not. Millions of people work harder and longer than they would like, and their families have to find a way to cope. What makes Leo different? Two things. For one, he only came to this crazy job later in life, long after he and his wife had settled into their routine. While it's certainly hard to be married to an 80-hour-a-week worker in your 30's, it's undeniably harder when the life you've become accustomed to is suddenly altered dramatically. The other, more important difference is that Leo believes his work (for the time being) is more important than his family. While he may be right, you can't blame his wife for not appreciating that sentiment. It's terribly sad that it came to this for him, but I think he realizes it's a situation he can't really solve. The effect of being a senior staffer on a personal life is something we're going to have to think about as we see other staffers foster new or current relationships. As for Leo, he'll be OK. We saw that his personal situation does not affect his work (yet), and now he has a support group to make sure he doesn't turn to self-medicating. (By the way, I love Sorkin's reasoning that this kind of AA meeting exists: "I have to believe that with 545 congressmen and senators, agency directors and White House staff, there have got to be a bunch of people there who are recovering alcoholics, and it wouldn't shock me at all if there were such a meeting.")

The other theme in this episode is quickly becoming a recurring one: that of perception vs. reality. The fact that this is an issue they keep coming back to works for me for three reasons: 1) it's just interesting; 2) the show focuses on the communication staff, so it's a consistently relevant issue; 3) they keep presenting the issue in new ways. While Toby's sticky stock situation (try saying that three times fast) is basically the Sam/Laurie issue with different details (a fact not lost on Sam), the more fascinating storyline in terms of perception and reality is when the Bartlet staff gets a "win" - the anti-weapons bill passes - but it feels like a loss. And it's no secret why. While publicly the bill was presented as an important piece of legislation, privately the staff knew the real battle here was making the White House look strong, a fact which Josh and Leo readily admit. The fight to get 802 passed was a fight to show the White House as having some muscle, a fight they were on their way to winning, until the vice president came in and stole their thunder. Thus, while they won the "reality" portion of the battle, they lost the more crucial one - the VP got the credit for the win. (And why did Josh feel that confronting Hoynes about the credit swipe would do anything other than make him feel worse?) Meanwhile, it's obvious that the POTUS/VP dynamic is one worth watching. I don't find it implausible that the president and vice president have different staffs, different offices, and occasionally different agendas. But can this amount of dysfunction exist? The relationship as is between Bartlet and Co. and Hoynes cannot be good for either's future, nor the future of their party. Somehow I think we haven't seen the last of this.

-- Binny


Binny --

I won't focus on your cinematic analysis of this episode, as you have done a more than adequate job attending to that already. I will, however, expo
und upon your final point on this subject as I think it is a big part of what made this show so successful: namely, the commitment and dedication of everyone involved with this show to make it what it became. Achieving the attention to detail and realism of scenes like this necessitates Sorkin/Schlamme being able to get every member of the cast to buy into their vision of the show and understand the importance of getting it exactly right. I remember hearing Sorkin/Schlamme explain in the DVD extras that in an upcoming episode (I don't remember exactly which one, and no, there are no spoilers of any sort coming up here) there is a scene where C.J. is having a conversation with someone (I think Josh) in the foreground and if you pay attention, you can see that in the background Toby is having a conversation with a random staffer. This latter conversation was totally irrelevant to the plot and would probably not even be noticed by most viewers, but Sorkin/Schlamme believed that this added an element of realism to the scene because, after all, that's how offices work; the press secretary and communications director would often find themselves in the same room, even if they are not meeting with each other. The kicker here is that adding this little nugget of authenticity to this scene required Richard Schiff to come in for filming on a day when they wouldn't be filming any other scenes that he was actually "part of," a level of commitment that seems out of line with typical Hollywood stereotypes.

I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Leo's behavior in this episode because being married yourself, you are in a far better position to understand the depth and ramifications of a man declaring to his wife that something else is more important than their marriage. (Quick marriage advice from someone who knows nothing about it: don't try to make this argument to her about the Mets; it won't work.) When I think of couples that split despite lengthy relationships, even when the "reason" is about prioritizing things of importance in their lives, it is usually more likely attributed to a waning of the loving feelings that they once shared. However, here that doesn't seem to be the case; it appears that Leo still dearly loves his wife and I don't think it would be unreasonable to suggest that his marriage to her is the second most important thing to him in the world. It's just not number one and they disagree about whether that is acceptable. (Although an argument in his wife's favor could be Leo's unrelated words later in the episode that "if the White House isn't strong, it doesn't really matter what number two on my list is.") This reality is both depressing and heartening because while it surely is demoralizing for people like Leo who find themselves in situations like this, it would be encouraging to believe that his real-life equivalents share that level of commitment to serving our interests.

Which brings me to
the central issue of the episode: guns. I will attempt to avoid getting on a soapbox and launching into a tirade against the lunacy of the way our society and the courts have interpreted the second amendment. Instead, I will merely echo Josh's sentiments during his spirited conversation with his old buddy, Congressman Chris Wick: "we can all get together on the grenade launcher, right?" There are assault weapons out there that legally infiltrate our streets that serve no purpose other than killing human beings. They are not used for hunting and they are not necessary for self-defense. They are used to murder people. That's all.

This episode also gave us what I thought was a very realistic insight into the way whipping (yes Kramer, because they whip them) votes for legislation works. We are presented with a wide array of motivations for why these Congressmen are voting in a certain way and varying tactics used to lobby their vote. We see a politician threatened by special interests won over through bullying (featuring a wonderful emergence of Josh's inner Rahm), a political stunt to get attention that has nothing to do with the merits of the bill, and principled objections to the bill either because it goes too far or because it does not go far enough. (As an aside, I have always found these "protest" votes particularly interesting because in modern politics they often seem to backfire. In this case, we could expect a future campaign opponent of Congressman Richardson's to run an ad citing this vote as proof that he is "pro-gun.") As Josh explains, the overarching goal is to get back the votes without giving up too much, or as Josh hopes, nothing at all. Lobbying for legislation is all about achieving the goal without sacrificing something that is an even greater priority than the bill in question. So did they accomplish that or did they give up too much? A game of chess with the President? Definitely OK. Having some congressmen upset that they were intimidated? Also probably fine. But yielding credit for the bill's passage to someone else? Taking it one step further and tying it into the episode's other main storyline: what if you accomplish something great, but you lose your wife in the process? Is it worth it then?

-- Av


Av --

Oh right, I forgot to mention the guns. You're right, the issue is a no-brainer, to the point that the producers of the show didn't even try to balance the issue like they do with others: "'All the network has asked us to do is present a very balanced view of an issue, to present both sides,' said [producer John] Wells. 'The only issue we don't do that on is gun control. Frankly, no one involved in the program feels there is a logical reason for streets to be flooded with Saturday night specials and automatic weapons.'" I like your point about the voting, though. So much goes into deciding which way to vote, be it political currency, standing in the party, special interests, the "too far" or "not far enough" attitude, or, oh yeah, how the Congressman actually feels about the issue. Though I suppose it's slightly outside the scope of this show, I hope we see this type of scenario again.

As far as the marriage question goes, I've only been married about two and a half years, though I suppose that's two and a half years more of marriage than you've had. But then, I haven't had the crazy work schedule you either have had or will have soon. Any way we can combine these experiences so we can better internalize the Leo story? In any case, as a married man I will definitely submit that telling your wife there is something more important than her/your marraige is probably among the worst things you can say. (I haven't tried it.) And yes, if the something in question is the Mets, well, I'm at a loss for how that conversation would end, but it would be rather ugly. Even if the fact that there's something more important than the marriage is true or justified (note: its being true does not make it justified!), admitting it is a one-way ticket to splitsville. What makes Leo's case particularly sad is he's justified, I think, in putting his job first, and she's justified in not wanting to live like that. Add to that the fact that, like you said, they still have the same feelings for each other and it was external circumstances that brought them to this point, and, well, you could see why he needs a drink. But while I agree it's depressing, I'm not sold on heartening. Your basis in saying it's the latter is because you want to believe that Leo's real-life counterparts are as committed to serving the public as he is. I'd like to believe that people in that position choose work over family because of selflessness and dedication to the greater good, but given what we know about politicians, I feel like I'd need evidence of that to believe it.

-- Binny

1 comment:

  1. I think that the "walk and talk" is a pivotal part of what makes this show so explosive and expressive. By which I mean, the pace they walk sets the pace - and the tone - of the scene and the episode much of the time. It's not so long ago where television shows were limited by the ways the cameras were used, still and fixed. By opening up to the "walk and talk," Sorkin makes it possible to show how multi-faceted and fast-paced the work at the White House really is (in reality, these 5 people's jobs are held by closer to 75 people, but that's neither here nor there). It worked on Sports Night, as mentioned, and works here. What's sort of intriguing is to wonder why it didn't work on S60. the most obvious answer being that people didn't believe the sense of urgency being attached to that show. West Wing is the perfect place to showcase that urgency. You have to wonder then if Sorkin should have reconsidered reusing this element for the other show and not have been so severely tied down to the way he did it with West Wing, that worked so well. Just a thought.