Plot summary: While President Bartlet and his staff debate the appropriate response to a controversial new sex education study, there are fears that the parents of a murdered gay teenager should be excused from attending the signing of a hate crimes bill because of the father's embarrassment about his son's homosexuality. Josh and Sam meet with an appropriations subcommittee which is investigating Josh's lack of cooperation in the White House staff drug probe - all of which is designed to expose Leo's former substance-abuse problem. Toby relishes his verbal duel with some congressmen who have held up the newest appointments for the Public Broadcasting Corporation. C.J. is advised to save a few embarrassing stories for release on Friday to blunt the effect on the media over the weekend, but she also finds time to continue her frisky flirtation with a White House reporter.
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A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine decided to forego their usual format and, instead of their standard features and articles, publish 52 portraits of "Obama's People." These were up-close, personal pictures of the incoming administration, intended to capture, in this moment, "portraits of those whose character and temperament and bearing may well prove consequential in the coming months and years." Going through the magazine then, I remember thinking of those 52 people - some I had heard of, some I was meeting for the first time - as teammates. These people - diverse as they are, be it through race, gender, or political party - are unified in their political goals, brought together by the vision of their boss - one Barack Obama. What I failed to internalize, though, was that while these people no doubt are in line with the president's agenda on a broad scale, they are still individuals with their own worldviews and opinions, many of which probably don't line up with the administration's. Until I watched this episode, I admit I was blind to the role of personal opinion outside the Oval Office - and its ramifications. This episode presented that issue nicely, examining opinions at four distinct levels.
The lowest level, the opinion that is least relevant to the administration, is that of the average citizen. (This is not to say the people's voice doesn't count; on the contrary, citizens are the driving force of a democracy. However, on an individual level, one man's opinion won't carry that much weight with the White House.) The Lydell family was brought to Washington as a symbol of hate crime violence. Their presence was meant to enhance the legislation the president was signing. Once it emerged that Mr. Lydell did not support the president because of his "weak-ass position on gay rights" (great scene, by the way), his presence was no longer necessary. While his attitude is justifiable, even respectable, there's no room in the White House for this citizen and his opinion running counter to the president's.
More complicated is the opinion of the low-level White House staffer, as we see with Karen Larsen. While her opinions on issues are probably treated like those of any other ordinary citizen, she's in a position to act on them. In truth, it's an unenviable position. We, the viewers, have come to love Leo McGarry. We respect him. Karen Larsen doesn't know him like we do. She sees a personnel file, sees a drunk and drug addict in the chief of staff office, remembers growing up with an alcoholic for a father, and risks her job to do what she thinks is right. Despicable as we're supposed to find her act of treachery - and believe me, I do - Leo's not wrong when he calls giving him up to Klaypool "a little brave." (So is taking her job back, by the way. Good luck being trusted by your bosses and being respected by your peers after all this.) It has to be a fine line to walk, working in a place where you have access to much more than the average citizen, but have to balance how much you believe in your bosses versus speaking out when you feel they are truly in the wrong.
Working our way up the ladder, we see the problems that C.J. has when her opinions matter less than others'. (Though she didn't get a writing credit, this storyline seems to have Dee Dee Myers' fingerprints all over it.) It certainly has to be frustrating to be on par with people like Josh, Sam, and Toby in many ways, but have her voice count less in many others. Last episode, Toby called a meeting with the president to get a phrase - and philosophy - change in the State of the Union. Granted, he's the communications director so it's his domain, but he was able to change the president's mind on an operating principle of his administration. C.J., on the other hand, is told that certain stories are "trash," and her responsibility is to treat them as such. The fact that she thinks the government has a responsibility to change their approach to sex education is less important than avoiding the debate in order to win a political favor. The fact that she thinks Jonathan Lydell's voice should be heard is less important than avoiding a potential embarrassment with the media. It's undoubtedly a difficult position to be in, though I suppose I should be fair and credit Danny for not letting her frustration come at the expense of her professionalism. (3:59 into the clip.) By the way, I think it is to Sorkin's credit that I see C.J.'s emotional reactions to these situations as being well-defined points of her character, and not simply think, "oh, she's a woman, of course she's emotional about it." After all, a male press secretary is fully capable of often being at odds with his boss.
Finally, there is that inner circle in the West Wing (and The West Wing) whose opinions count the most. I'm sure that Leo will take some flack from his colleagues (presumably off-screen, since this issue appears to be over) for bringing Karen back. (As a matter of fact, Sorkin himself was taken to task by White House officials for that decision.) But ultimately, it's Leo's decision to make. By virtue of the position he's in, unless the president himself disagrees, Leo is empowered to have his opinions count more. And if the man who was given a second chance by everyone he knows wants to give one to someone else, well, that's just the way it's going to be.
Your thoughts on this episode have allowed me to see it in a different light and upgrade it from one that I considered very poor to one that was simply mediocre. You see, my biggest problem with this episode is that it was all over the place and it seemed to lack direction but the overarching theme that floats throughout it adds a level of focus to it that I failed to observe. How frustrating it must be to be the lone voice of dissent in a place where the ultimate decision belongs to the most powerful person in the world. Watching different characters deal with this frustration was indeed an interesting part of this episode.
As I mentioned, my main problem with this episode is that, if nothing else, so many parts of it just seemed totally out of place. Whether it was a storyline about Zoey's potentially racist professor that was teased (and even featured in the official episode summary) but never followed through on, Sam obsessively babbling on about a town in Alabama that wants to abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments, or C.J.'s climactic observation that "we could all be better teachers" (I still have no idea what that means), this episode prompted the same reaction in my head over and over again: WTF.
As for Sam's preoccupation with the Alabama town, I have two ideas of what Sorkin could have been going with there, at least thematically. My first thought was that it was included as a commentary on the religious right. The episode features two issues -- gay rights and abstinence-only sex education -- that are highly monitored by the religious right and perhaps they have Sam allude to this asinine policy goal of an Alabama town (and of course, it's Alabama; where else?) to show the absurd logical extreme of legislating based on religious values: abolishing all laws except for the Ten Commandments. Alternatively, this nugget may have been included because of the commandment Sam seems especially focused on, "coveting thy neighbor's wife." He points out the practical impossibility of enforcing such a law because, after all, how can you regulate and inflict punishment for a person's thoughts? A commentary on the hate crime legislation the episode deal with, perhaps? Still, even though there are plausible explanations for its inclusion, Sam's obsession with this story seems way out of proportion with whatever it was intended to accomplish.
The Lydell storyline is a particularly heartwarming one because throughout the episode, I felt myself, like C.J. refusing to believe what the men around her were telling her, namely, that it is, in fact, possible for a father to be ashamed of the fact that his recently murdered son was a homosexual. Despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary, my understanding of what it means to be a parent made this a notion that shocked my conscience and I was truly relieved to learn the truth behind Mr. Lydell's ambivalence. His words on the issues of gay rights ("I want to know what qualities necessary to being a parent/soldier this president feels my son lacked") resonate not only because they are simple, but because they are true. Indeed, society has begun to come around on issues like marriage equality and even the military is beginning to reconsider their position on gay troops (see this morning's NY Times opinion pagefor example.) We don't know what Mr. Lydell's positions were on gay rights before learning that his son was gay, or even before he was murdered for it, but I think we are supposed to conclude that he was previously less tolerant. As Harvey Milk explained in that touching scene in Milk, telling his friends to urge every closet homosexual they know to come out, average people are more likely to support the gay movement once they themselves know someone who is actually gay. For those individuals, it's the kind of thing that they can't understand until there is a real face on the issue, until they can somewhat understand what it's like to be gay.
Kind of like the same way that nobody can possibly understand what it's like to be an alcoholic unless they are one themselves. So explains Leo. I like alcohol. A lot. But I can't conceive of ever having anywhere the level of dependence on alcohol that an alcoholic does. Nicolas Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas is just that: a character. The notion that someone can be so impacted on a daily basis by whether or not they drink is a concept that is totally foreign to someone who doesn't live that life. (Also, maybe I needed to be drunk to fully understand this episode.) Having Leo try to explain this idea to Karen, whose own father was an alcoholic, provided for a nice moment, but like the staffers that e-mailed Sorkin, I agree that there is no way that girl gets to keep her job. Sure, Leo might be inclined to give people a second chance because of all the chances he was given, but I suspect he would give those second chances to people who committed sins less severe than leaking classified secret service files to the opposition party.
One thing that I thought was interesting about the C.J.-Danny dynamic in this episode is that up until now we had focused on the implausibility of the press secretary, especially one as professional as C.J. Cregg, dating a White House reporter, because of the unprofessionalism this would present from the press secretary's perspective. However, in this episode, it is not C.J., but Danny that ultimately exhibits that quality. By passing on a story tip that he would otherwise take if not for his affection for C.J. as a person, he is not doing his job properly. C.J. certainly flirts with, if not crosses, the line here as well, but it is worth noting that she is not the only one doing a disservice to their employer by pursuing this relationship.
Finally, it might be that seeing Devorah's thoughts on the sexist undertones of Knocked Up validated in a recent Slate article about a similar phenomenon in episodes of Friday Night Lights has increased my anti-feminism radar, but the scene in which Donna, Margaret and the other assistants discuss the leak until being repudiated by Mrs. Landginham struck me as very odd. Maybe Sorkin was confused about which Elisabeth Moss show he was writing for, but this scene seemed more appropriate for Mad Men than The West Wing. We are shown a group of women sitting at their desks discussing an issue of extreme importance to the White House, and instead of being encouraged, the most senior member among them labels their behavior as "gossip" and essentially tells them, "get back to your typing and leave the important stuff for the men to handle." Even Josh's quip ("Well, here's a group of federal employees") as the scene continues with his entrance, has a strange feel to it that made me slightly uncomfortable. Again, this scene just seemed more out of place than anything, a symptom that that was pervasive throughout this episode, your thematic tie-in notwithstanding. I wonder if this episode aired in its normal Wednesday night spot or if in a calculated, strategic decision it was moved to Friday night, with the rest of the trash.