Thursday, December 3, 2009

Season 1, Episode 15: "Celestial Navigation"

Plot summary
Sam and Toby are dispatched to Connecticut for some damage control and to secure the secret release of President Bartlet's primary choice for the Supreme Court, who has been jailed for alleged drunk driving and resisting arrest. Meanwhile, Josh is a guest lecturer at a college class to talk about working for the President and he recounts the previous week's flare-ups, which include his feeble attempt to fill in as the White House spokesman at a press conference where he promises that the President has "a secret plan to fight inflation," and the media glare that engulfs the African-American HUD secretary who publicly labeled a prominent Republican as a racist.

Click here to watch "Celestial Navigation"

Av --

I almost feel like this episode was written on a dare. Sure, I picture Sorkin being challenged, you can write an episode for a show about the White House when the plot involves a crucial House vote, or preparation for a State of the Union address, or an international conflict. But how about you try to capture a "boring" day for the senior staff? Leaving aside the reality that presumably no such thing exists for the real West Wingers, why don't you just write an episode about a typical day in the White House? It's ironic, in a sense, because the obvious conceit of the show itself is to portray a "typical" presidential administration; the issues and events that are dealt with by this staff are meant to represent those that can confront any staff. But to try to capture a "typical" day? What an atypical "West Wing" episode.

There's a powerful scene in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, where a main character is injured in a gruesome car accident. The beautifully-constructed sequence illustrates how the accident would not have occurred if one of several small, random things, some of which didn't involve the accident parties themselves, had happened even slightly differently. This confluence of events, this notion that, as Benjamin puts it, "sometimes we're on a collision course and we just don't know it," is a known truism of life, to be sure, and applicable to every person every day on some level. But here we get a glimpse at just how magnified this theme can be in the White House. Had one of several different things happened (or not happened), as Josh points out to his audience, the typical day would have been just that. (My personal favorite "argh, if only...": why couldn't Sam leave C.J. and her teeth alone!) While it certainly would have been preferable for the staff (and less exciting television) had the day gone as planned, I couldn't help but sense the realism in the way things unfolded, in that watching the way actual presidential politics operate, you just know it's always going to be something. There is no move the president or his administration can make, no matter how minute it may seem, that won't bring about the requisite analysis, assessments, scrutiny, and criticism. (Yes, there must always be criticism. Even when the president picks a dog, there must be criticism.) Point being, even if Deborah O'Leary had backtracked on her calling a Congressman a racist, even if Bartlet had not taken Danny's bait on that subject, even if C.J. had not had a root canal, even if Mendoza had played the role of dutiful Supreme Court nominee, something else would happen. The day just can't go off as scheduled. Josh's way of framing the O'Leary/inflation episode as a story with a beginning, middle, and end is cute, but the most significant thing he said was all the way at the beginning: "There’s a schedule and there’s a structure to be sure, and to a certain extent it starts out as a 9-to-5 job, but you can pretty much count on it being blown to hell by 9:30." As much as they want to, as Sam says, "control the news cycle," more often than not the course of direction is out of their hands, seemingly controlled by unknown forces. Call it, say, celestial navigation.

At the same time, one way to stay in control is to assign responsibility to people you know won't lead you off-course. Three failures of people to stay on course were showcased here, to varying degrees. On the one hand you have Secretary O'Leary, who falls into a political trap despite her good intentions, and Josh, who leads himself into a complete media mess with nothing but smug and condescending intentions. They made mistakes, sure, but after receiving their rightful admonishing, they can be trusted not to make them again. (Well, Josh is bound to let his arrogance get the best of him again, but at least he will be sure not to - or, I should say, won't be allowed to be in a position to - make that mistake again.) The case of Roberto Mendoza, however, is a different one. We learn that he has a history of going off-message, of speaking out, of basically doing everything the administration needs him not to do. The culmination of this is the stubbornness he displays when Toby tries to free him from his presumed racially-provoked arrest, insisting on proving a point by letting the system do its work. Toby's clash with Mendoza in that cell was intriguing: here are two wise, good-hearted political idealists, except one "gets it" and understands how the perception game needs to be played, and the other either doesn't get it, doesn't care about it, or both. I'm glad Mendoza gets on board in the end, though if his noble, unaffected way of looking at his status as a potential justice is at all changed, it will have been a shame.

One final note: I know I like comedy, and I know I find comedy, well, funny. But I'll admit that the science, the conceptual analysis of comedy, is something I wish I knew more about than I actually do. I'm especially fond of television comedy, and though I can tell you why I find certain shows funnier than others, my ability to fully explain it is still a work in progress. This is all my way of saying that one of the most enjoyable aspects of "The West Wing" thus far has been its ability to amuse, and this specific episode was no exception, yet it somehow felt different. My inclination is to say that the core comedic elements of the show to this point have been sardonicism and sharp, incisive wit, while in this episode they went for more traditional, sitcom-y jokes (I was half-expecting a laugh track during some of the fun at C.J.'s expense) and a running, irresistible gag involving Allison Janney speaking with a mouth full of cotton balls. And damn if that wasn't just flat-out funny.

-- Binny


Binny --

It's interesting that you saw this as an atypical episode you "suggest" Sorkin wrote "on a dare" because while it may be atypical in practice, I feel like on some level this was precisely the type of episode Sorkin envisioned when he first conceived the show. He wanted to do a show that focused on the president's staff more than the president himself and that dealt more with what goes on behind the scenes than with the forefront. This episode did exactly that. The president barely appears or plays a role in the plot and the storyline focuses on seemingly minor staff issues and reactions rather than major policy initiatives. Obviously, in order to be consistently interesting as a series that model would have to be abandoned, but I feel like "Celestial Navigation" was exactly the type of episode Sorkin always had in mind.

"Why couldn't Sam leave C.J. alone," you ask. What type of person is really "nuts for dental hygiene"? Probably the same type of person who in response to a rhetorical, "How does a person do that" (drive from Canada to Washington D.C. when summoned to the White House), takes it literally and responds with his best guess of the route Justice Mendoza will take.

Your point about how all the "if only's" are kind of moot because there would have been something else for people to pounce on is spot on. This is even more true nowadays, as the media has progressed over the last decade in this regard. Once something starts, there is virtually no way to walk it back without doing something that someone will crush you for.

Things I liked in this episode:

1. More examples of college girls being enamored with Josh. Realistic? Maybe not. Hilariously fun, though? Absolutely.

2. The first usage (I believe) of the in media res narrative device. Given that Sorkin used this in virtually every episode of "Studio 60," I can only assume we'll be seeing more of this here.

3. It made me like Josh as a real person. The same way when Jed Bartlett delivers a speech in the show it makes me think "man, I would love to hear that guy speak," this episode made me think "man, I would love to attend a panel that Josh Lyman was on." Maybe our friends can let us know if there are any coming up.

4. It was damn funny. My favorite moments: a) Toby interjecting “‘of course not,’ she answered wisely" as C.J.reads the section of the transcript where Wooden asks O’Leary if she’s calling him a racist; and b) the president taking Josh to school in front of the staff, asking him, “are you telling me that not only did you invent a secret plan to fight inflation, but now you don’t support it?”

And this wouldn’t be Blogging "The West Wing" if we didn’t broach our favorite theme: pragmatism vs. idealism. We see this struggle in two separate conversations. First, Leo tries to convince Secretary O’Leary that she has to apologize. Her argument is “I called it like I saw it” and even challenges Leo for not taking a stronger stance, wondering “when are you guys gonna stop running for president?” Leo understands that her apologizing is the “cost of doing business” and the only way to fix the problem and end the story. Similarly, Toby and Mendoza butt heads over the very same ideas. Mendoza knows that was done to him was legally and morally wrong and he wants to let the justice system sort things out the way it’s supposed to work. He doesn’t want help and he doesn’t want special treatment. Toby knows better. "There’s nothing about this that doesn’t stink,” he admits, sympathizing with the justice’s situation. But there’s “nothing about it that wouldn’t be better if you were a Supreme Court Justice,” he explains. Said simpler: keep your eye on the prize. In both situations, in the battle between idealism and pragmatism, it is pragmatism that carries the day.

-- Av


Av --

While the persistent battle between idealism and pragmatism has been covered quite extensively both on the show and in our correspondence to this point, your bringing it up here made me realize something else. You mention two examples of people we see going through the usual struggle with having to put aside being in the right in order to "play the game." And Deborah O'Leary's story is in line with several we've seen already. But Roberto Mendoza is different for a very basic reason: he comes from a different branch of government. If confirmed, he will be in a position where he doesn't have to answer to anyone - no re-election to worry about, no political party forcing his hand, no special interest group he needs to worry about pleasing. A Supreme Court justice is blessed with the ability to go with idealism every time. Mendoza's refusal to fall in line with the Bartlet administration has been frustrating for them, no doubt, but it also re-enforces why he'd make a terrific jurist. I think the point Toby tries to get across is that he admires this quality of Mendoza, but needs him to just put it aside until after he's confirmed, the last time politics should get in his way.

Your belief that this episode represents the original Sorkin prototype is interesting and kind of ironic. Interesting because you may be right - for a show conceived around a behind-the-scenes look at the White House, this episode couldn't have met that ideal any better. (Here's proof: though it wasn't as strong an episode as "Pilot", from a narrative standpoint this could have worked as the first episode of the series.) Ironic because you note that the goal was to create a show more about staff and issues, less about policy initiatives and major presidential storylines, but that the show became what it was "in order to be consistently interesting as a series." So when we see O'Leary's and Toby's pragmatism winning out over idealism, are we seeing an extended metaphor for the show's modus operandi?

-- Binny

1 comment:

  1. Cool blog. I just started watching the series for the first time as well. I'm up to this episode and am curious about its interpretation.

    I know this post was from a while ago, but - unless I'm missing something or this is obvious from the start - I think both of you may be overlooking the very end of the episode, when Josh says that there's another part of the story he'd like to tell the audience, but he just can't, or at least not until Mendoza is elected.

    Josh's last words are intentionally ambiguous, but they certainly hint at the fact that Mendoza might very well have been drunk. Consider that:

    There's no other reason for Mendoza to have refused the breathilizer; the first time we hear about Mendoza's hepatitis is in the police station, and Sam can lie on the spot; at the beginning of the episode, Sam only says that Mendoza doesn't drink heavily; Mendoza was on vacation with his family before a stressful part of his life; is upstate NY/Connecticut racist?; getting arrested for a DUI in front of your son is embarrassing too.

    When Toby talks to Mendoza in the cell, the atmosphere is strangely dark. The alternate take is that their conversation is not about pragmatism vs idealism. It's about using power and rhetoric to break the law for what some believe to be the greater good. My guess is that Toby knows this, as does Mendoza, the police officers, and Sam, and it all reinforces Toby's point, albeit much stronger: "There's nothing about this that doesn't stink"