Monday, December 22, 2008

Season 1, Episode 5: "The Crackpots and These Women"

Plot summary
: Josh is troubled when he receives a special card informing him of where to safely go in the event of a nuclear attack - a privilege denied to most of his White House co-workers - while Leo instructs the senior staff to meet with various special interest groups, some of whom have wacky agendas. Prior to an important press conference, Toby voices strong opposition to many of President Bartlet's plans for an upcoming California trip and later checks out the rumor that he was not the chief executive's first choice for the job. The president, meanwhile, virtually orders his staff to sample his prized chili when he arranges a reception for his Georgetown-bound daughter.

Watch "The Crackpots and These Women":

Av --

The more I think about what to write about this episode, the more I realize it is the least substantive to date. While the first four have a central storyline in terms of government operations, this one's "serious" themes (leaving aside the comic relief provided by the fringe elements getting rare face time with the senior staff) are more about the workplace relationships. I still found it interesting, though, because I think the relationships the staff have with the president are fascinating. They've known Bartlet so long, and work with him so closely, that even though they address him as "sir," Bartlet can still be seen by them as the guy they play basketball with. (Speaking of, terrific work by Juwan Howard in that scene. He almost made me believe someone would pay him $105 million to play basketball.) Sometimes they have to be reminded that he's not just their friend and boss, he's the leader of the free world. Though it was played for laughs, I found it insightful when Bartlet has the staff look down at the presidential seal in order to have them respond with appropriate enthusiasm to his dinner invitation. The message is clear: I'm the president; try to keep that in mind that once in awhile.

Interestingly, the person least in need of this reminder is also the member of the staff most willing to vocally challenge the president. The tension between Toby and Bartlet was hinted at in the previous episode, when they gently sparred over the president's changing part of a speech on the fly. But the tension escalated, and we're to believe this isn't the first time. In our correspondence about the first episode, you made reference to Toby's "stoic passion and idealism," and his battles with Bartlet, I think, are extreme manifestations of this passion and idealism. (Not so much on the stoic, though.) He clearly wants to seize the opportunity he has in this administration. He grasps the unique position he's in to effect change, and refuses to compromise it in any way. Bartlet, on the other hand, is in a position where he needs to consider every ramification of every decision he makes, and thus he has no choice but to compromise even his own views and ideals. We saw that firsthand when he was forced into responding to the terrorist attack a specific way. What was touching to see was the mutual respect these two have for one another despite their differences; the scene where they admit the faults they see in each other and express their mutual admiration was particularly poignant. In terms of personal relationships with the president, I think Toby's only trails Leo's as the one I'm most looking forward to seeing develop.

Everything else in this episode seemed to be missing something, be it the "crackpots" that the staff was forced to meet with (though score one for the casting department; the UFO guy and the wolf crew were spot-on), or the random discussion at the end about the quality women that work in the West Wing. Even Bartlet's speech at the end, though well-articulated (and apparently well-received by fans), seemed a bit all over the place. The only thing worth discussing, other than Toby, is Josh's noble decision to not accept an NSC card which essentially proclaims him "more important" than his co-workers and friends. I'm glad they explored the root cause of that decision (the visceral feelings of guilty abandonment he still feels after he ran out of his burning home while his sister didn't make it), because otherwise it really doesn't seem like a big deal. So you're all in this group and consider each other equals, except you officially have a more important title and thus are treated differently in certain situations. Who cares? I suppose the fact that Josh does makes an already likable character that much more likable.

-- Binny


Binny --

I agree that we do not find that much in the way of substance in this episode, but this episode is pure fun. Indeed, I think that it is very likely the most fun episode in the entire series. This episode's main function is to serve as a springboard in setting up future character developments and relationship dynamics. For me, knowing what I know about these character's personal and professional futures, seeing them interact in these ways was fascinating. Be it Toby's frustrations with the president or Josh's fear that everyone he gets close to will die and leave him alone riddled with guilt, watching these scenes in light of future events gave me all the more appreciation for the way Sorkin developed these characters, but more importantly the subtlety with which he did it. I'm sure that when a writer has grandiose visions of where he wants characters headed, it is very tempting to jump right into that immediately. But instead, here, he merely lays the groundwork, giving us a hint of what is coming ahead.

It is Toby's "feud" with the president, in particular, that I found most interesting. He takes the president to task on the basketball court for compromising his principles because of his "obsessive need to win," a further extension of the tension between idealism and pragmatism the president constantly has to struggle with. He introduces the concept of there being an inner battle between a president's angels and demons, which struck a chord with me, having just seen Frost/Nixon, which chronicles Nixon's self-destruction despite lofty expectations. What a concept: the greatest obstacle standing in the way of a president and greatness is his own humanity, his own personal flaws.

Which bring me to the crackpots...and these women. The notion of the White House opening its doors, even for a single day, to these groups who would never ordinarily be able to have this kind of access, is a noble idea, even if purely symbolic. I greatly enjoyed the line that the staff, in this case Sam and C.J., flirt with while meeting with these fringe organizations, between respectfully listening to their presentations and taking them seriously and overtly mocking them. C.J.'s reaction to the information that the wolves-only roadway would cost the taxpayer "only $900 million" is priceless: "C.J., if we're gonna do this, why not do it right?" "We're not gonna do it." "Sure, there are other things we could spend the money on." "You think?"

Most of all, this episode is about the triumph of people who, as the president puts it, live "in a world that tells [them] to sit down and shut up." This is the case with the women in their lives who are dedicating themselves to public service and succeeding in a man's world, but is even more true with respect to the so-called "crackpots." These groups are, by any objective standard, crazy, but there is something truly admirable about them. Having that much passion and dedication to a cause that you believe in, particularly one for which they are surely ridiculed on a regular basis, is inspirational. Honestly, I think Leo's little "big block of cheese" exercise is more for the staff than for the groups because despite their kookiness, there is a great deal to be learned from them. As Josh puts it in his touching conversation with C.J. in his office, "do you think you have to be crazy to create something powerful?" Maybe you do.

-- Av


Av --

To answer you and Josh, no, I don't think you have to be crazy to create something powerful. I think it's just one of those "lines" that Josh says which seem, dare I say it, clichéd. (He had one in "Five Votes Down," too - "President Bartlet's a good man. He's got a good heart. He doesn't hold a grudge... That's what he pays me for." - but I think the look on his face as he walks away shows he reveled in how clichéd the line was.) Then again, I guess it depends on how you understand the word "powerful." Many people, fully sane, create powerful things on a daily basis. If power is defined strictly by potential negative global consequences, then I'll concede that maybe you do have to be a little crazy to create something powerful. However, that doesn't mean people who are passionate about "crazy" things, the "crackpots" visiting the White House, are sources of inspiration. Their crazy/power relationship hasn't reached a relevant level. I think the point Leo wants to communicate to the staff is not necessarily to admire the populace's passion for their causes, but rather to embrace the notion that the government should be accessible to all Americans, not just those representing the "big" issues. I do agree, though, that passion is their key to get in the door, as Leo says: "I assure you that listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one, and surely not the peoples' servants."

-- Binny


  1. Binny touched on it but I never understood the end of this episode at all.

    Two things always threw me off:
    1) Smallpox? Touched the face of god?
    2) "Here's to absent friends... and the ones that are here now." Last words of the episode.

    Why? Suggestions, guys?

  2. 1) Earlier in the episode, Josh was obsessed with smallpox, our limited ability to vaccinate it if necessary, and thus the potential for an unprecedented medical emergency if a dose of the virus was ever used against us as a biological weapon. So, I guess he shared this concern with the President at some time. "Touched the face of god" is a quote from Reagan about the Challenger astronauts. So, Bartlet is saying that the abandoned satellite is a reminder of the days of the Cold War when 2 great nations (us and Russia) raced into space to "touch the face of god."

    2. My best guess is that he is referencing those who are mentioned to have died but not forgotten in the episode: Josh's sister, Mrs. Landingham's sons. Also, his wife is away in Pakistan. So, "to absent friends," who we wish were here to enjoy a good time with us; "and the ones that are here now," all of us in this room lucky enough to share this time together.

  3. First "TWW" scene I ever caught, in first run, was the president telling his staff he'd be making them chili. "What the...?" I thought and moved on. Four years I wandered in the desert until realizing what I was missing, via Bravo and then DVD.

    Congrats on the blog. Congrats on finding and refinding "The West Wing". Better late than the unimaginable alternative of never.