Monday, December 29, 2008

Season 1, Episode 7: "The State Dinner"

Plot summary
: As that night's stylish state dinner honoring the Indonesian president looms in the background, President Bartlet keeps his eye on a spate of potentially explosive problems: an FBI hostage standoff with dozens of militant survivalists, a Class-4 hurricane bearing down on a carrier group at sea, and an impending national trucker's strike. Behind the scenes, the gracious First Lady prepares to host the dinner, a pushy reporter flirts with C.J., Josh and Toby corner an Indonesian government official to ask a favor, and a surprised Sam spies his call girl friend Laurie at the event.

Watch "The State Dinner":

Av --

I think one of the running concepts that this show presents is the notion of the West Wing as a workplace; these people that we're watching have important jobs, sure, but we're reminded time and again that they are still people working at their offices, and issues that can arise in any other workplace setting can arise there, too. While ordinarily the issue dealt with could be one easily identifiable with the average worker (guy gets yelled at by his boss), given the import of their workplace, the opportunity exists to present common problems with uncommon ramifications. That is what I think was accomplished here, as the Significant Seven - Bartlet, Leo, Josh, Toby, Sam, C.J., and Mandy (Dulé Hill may be in the opening credits but I can't really equate him with the others) - all had to deal with, on varying levels, the challenge of compartmentalization. Any person is naturally going to let professional ups and downs affect him or her on a personal level; an ordinarily challenge for the average man could be not letting a professional setback allow him to damage an unrelated personal relationship. But the challenge is that much greater when your profession involves making decisions that impact whether people live or die. (Come to think of it, this could explain the continued success of TV medical dramas)

As I mentioned, everybody had to deal with the issue of compartmentalizing the personal and professional, but their degrees of success in meeting the challenge varied greatly. The best microcosm (although least significant, from a global standpoint) of success vs. failure in that regard is the Sam/Laurie encounter (clip starts at 1:34) at the dinner. Sam and Laurie's relationship seems to be one where they're on the same page; Sam, though he doesn't like it, seems to be able to have at least a minimal level of acceptance of Laurie's "night job." But seeing her as "Brittany" in action proves to be too much. Laurie, though she genuinely likes Sam, is able to compartmentalize. She recognizes the situation, frowns for about half a second, then puts that smile back on and introduces herself to him. Sam, bless his wounded heart, can't do it. He can't put the smile back on, can't pretend to introduce himself, almost alienates a big donor, and ultimately proves to Laurie (and himself) that her night job is something he'll never really come to terms with.

Meanwhile, we see Leo and Josh able to compartmentalize when it comes to trying to put aside serious and tragic events that are happening if there's nothing they can do about it. Leo advises C.J., then Bartlet, to go back to the party despite the fact that both feel uncomfortable doing so with thousands of Navy sailors in danger of being killed by a hurricane. Josh is able to tell Mandy that the FBI standoff in Idaho ended with an FBI negotiator in critical condition, then turn around and applaud as the president enters the room. Mandy, meanwhile, needs to throw up. Granted, that had a lot to do with the fact that it was Mandy's own plan that was put into effect, but I was left with the feeling that had it been Josh's plan gone awry, he'd still be able to handle it the way he did. And C.J. might be well on her way to having to deal with the ultimate personal/professional compartmentalization issue: Danny the reporter's flirting is getting more direct, and she's getting more receptive. Though she seems like the consummate professional (and if there's any press secretary who could pull off dating a reporter it's C.J. Cregg), I really think this would be a terrible idea. There's compartmentalizing, and there's flat-out conflict of interest.

Finally, the most poignant separation of personal from professional is the Toby storyline. From a narrative standpoint I love how this was done, as we see Toby's insistence on writing a toast that tackles Indonesia's violations of human rights, and only at the end do we discover that his motivation stems not just from, well, being Toby, but because of a personal cause - his friend is unjustly sitting in an Indonesian jail. The reason I think it's a great storyline is because we're indirectly asked to consider whether Toby would've changed the content and tone of the toast he wrote had he known that his request on his friend's behalf would've been met the way it was. (In short: "Go to Hell.") I, for one, don't think he would have. Though he undoubtedly cares for his friend, Toby is not one to let a personal stake interfere with his job serving what he perceives to be the best interests of the country.

-- Binny


Binny --

I liked your brief comparison between working in the White House and working in a hospital because I have learned, from watching many episodes of Scrubs and from talking to some real-life medical professionals, that the only way to be successful is to achieve the type of compartmentalizing you spoke of. In short, if you break down every time a patient dies and take it personally, you're never gonna make it. In the White House, the stakes can also be life and death, at times, but even when they're not, the quality of thousands of people's lives are in play with almost everything you do: ensuring people have health care, that their children have proper education, or in this current administration's case, making certain their rich friends have sufficient tax cuts. It is a job that brings with it a lot of passion, and as we see in this episode, requires a personality that enables you to separate your personal emotions at time in order to be successful professionally.

Toby's storyline is particularly interesting to me. First of all, from a comedic standpoint, it was very well-executed, featuring a hilarious scene where two translators are required as middlemen to facilitate a conversation between Toby and an Indonesian official, only to learn than the official is actually fluent in English. But from a more serious standpoint, Toby's relentless commitment throughout this episode (and the past few episodes, as well) to never miss an opportunity to accomplish something is enlightening. Whereas others might view the upcoming fundraiser in California (mentioned in "The Crackpots and These Women") and a state dinner as nothing more than a fundraiser and a dinner, Toby sees them as opportunities to make a statement and effect change, even if a minor one. This passion might be a little misguided at times, because, let's face it, sometimes a dinner is just a dinner, but it is inspiring nonetheless. I was also moved by his conversation with the Indonesian official, particularly when Toby is asked if it's hypocritical for a nation that wiped out a civilization of Native Americans to lecture the world on human rights. Toby concedes that it is, but I think we can tell that Toby has considered this point and believes that it is specifically because of our past that we are in a position to do so.

Finally, I'd like to discuss Bartlet's role in this episode, aided by the emergence of the First Lady as a character for the first time. Bartlet is faced with a trifecta of crises: an FBI standoff, an approaching storm, and a last minute negotiations impasse between the Teamsters and the trucking industry. Ultimately, he chooses the last of these problems to focus on, and does so in an aggressive way that is sure to anger both sides, but will also get the job done. He resorts to this method because as Mrs. Bartlet puts it, "he can't save a gunshot victim and he can't stop a hurricane." Firstly, I think it is great to have a character on board that can give us unparalleled insight into the president's motivations and behavior. Secondly, she raises the notion that as human beings, when faced with a series of problems, we will often focus on the simplest of the problems and ignore the more pressing ones, because that's the one we can fix. This is an idea that I think has a lot of truth to it (I know Stephen Stills would embrace its sentiment) and is one that will continue as an ongoing theme throughout the series.

-- Av


Av --

See, I thought you'd be pleased with Mrs. Bartlet because she seemed to support your theory about the "three fifths of all other persons" being in the original Constitution. You surmised that maybe that phrase is there as "a chilling reminder of the 'original sin' legally inscribed into the founding document of our government." When asked about the potentially controversial vermeil in the White House collection, Abbey remarks, "It's our history. Better or worse, it's our history. We're not going to lock it in the basement or brush it with a new coat of paint. It's our history." Make of that what you will.

I agree it's great to have a character like the First Lady as a regular part of the show, but for a different reason. I don't think she can give "unparalleled insight into the president's motivations and behavior"; after all, Leo knows him just as long, and just as well. What I think she can do, though, is serve as the personal conscience - be there to remind him what's at stake personally, whereas his staff is there to keep him focused politically. I'm also intrigued to see the level of involvement Abby will have in the administration; given who the real First Lady was at the time it, was probably a delicate issue.

-- Binny

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