Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Season 1, Episode 20: "Mandatory Minimums"

Plot summary
: A newly energized President Bartlet bucks tradition and throws down the gauntlet when he names two campaign finance reformers - to the Federal Election Commission despite threats from his political opponents to introduce embarrassing legislation that would dare him not to sign. Early reactions to his announcement are not encouraging, especially from top-notch pollster Al Kiefer. However, Kiefer's arrival means his attractive cohort, Joey Lucas, accompanies him, and she again draws a smitten Josh's attention.

Toby agrees to seek out his ex-wife, a breezy congresswoman, to gauge her response to any future narcotics legislation that would emphasize prevention over enforcement. Leo, uncomfortably aware of his own brush with drugs, agrees to be the Chief Executive's front man for positioning the high-voltage issue of revising the drug laws.

Click here to watch "Mandatory Minimums"

Av --

"Let me say this: this is not a place where one's personal things, where things among people, this is not a place... let's... this is a place where work is done, and nothing else." -- Josh Lyman

Given the typical season structure to this point, I'm not used to seeing one episode's political discussion continue into the next one, so it was kind of nice to see a key storyline extend into another episode. (I was also pleased to see - or hear - the "energy" musical theme for a second straight episode. It's a shame an original score album wasn't ever produced.) And speaking of unexpected developments, in a series that has for the most part avoided mixing the main characters' personal lives into the story, we got bombarded with the personal brushing up against the professional, with a variety of results.

I suppose the most harmless personal sidebar belongs to Josh and his less-than-subtle thing for Joey Lucas. With their last interaction in Los Angeles ending with her crushing him, it was nice to see Josh begin to get somewhere with her, almost in spite of himself. (I've gotta say, for someone as politically smooth as Josh Lyman, he shouldn't have this much trouble with the ladies. After all, what's the dating scene, especially at the start, if not a mirror of politics? Feeling out the other side, jockeying for position, friendly debate, trying to gauge response. Also, say what you want about Mandy, but I don't see how someone like her could have the patience for the romantic doof Josh we see here.)

Despite my being on record here as being tentative about Danny and C.J. and the myriad of problems their relationship creates, I actually think the story here, despite being grouped in with the other personal stuff, is actually more of a professional one. What happened with Danny could happen to anyone, regardless of personal relationship: reporter has story, press secretary wants to quash story, reporter prints story, press secretary freezes out reporter. It probably happens regularly, even to people that haven't shared a kiss, although that admittedly adds a layer of complication here. In my heart of hearts I think C.J. here acts mostly out of professional anger, though the fact that she feels let down by a "friend" probably didn't help Danny's case. What should have helped Danny's case is the simple fact that he was right. I mentioned it last episode, and Bartlet thankfully calls C.J. out on it in this one. And while we're here, I agree with Bartlet about Mandy, too. No question it's hard to accept her and have her in meetings after they learn what she "really" thinks, but C.J.'s complaint from "Lord John Marbury" rings true here: "Either I’m a trusted member of the communications staff or I’m not."

Though the directing on "The West Wing" is usually quite good, Robert Berlinger's work in this particular episode's was so good it actually got me to notice it. For one thing, two scenes were shot with a particularly nice touch: C.J.'s conversation with Josh about her press briefing gaffe and Bartlet's patronly speech to the staff conducted from his bed. But what really made a mark were some quick shots used as narrative devices. When Mandy walks into the Oval Office, there's a succession of quick shots: Bartlet, then C.J., then Toby, who starts walking to the door. Though it's almost imperceptible on first viewing, those shots were a conversation, the end result of which is Mandy being told not to participate. And earlier, when Josh is talking about Joey with Sam and Toby, Sam goes on a mini-rant about women. As he gets up to the part about how they "take your heart, throw it on the floor, and stomp on it with their big high heels," there's a brief shot of Toby, who quickly tilts his head, scratches his nose, looks down, raises his eyebrows, grasps his beard, then looks up almost surprised. The shot is maybe three seconds, and at first seems meaningless, but when we finally see our first glimpse into the personal life of Toby Ziegler, the shot becomes that much more knowing. So Toby was married. To a congresswoman. Who's smart, articulate, and put-together. And who clearly knows how to bring out the best and worst in him. Many questions are left by this brief glimpse into their relationship, not least of which is why Toby still wears a wedding ring (not coincidentally featured prominently in the above-mentioned shot). My interest in this backstory is certainly piqued and left me wanting more, though I feel introducing Andy Wyatt this way and without a full explanation or history was more appropriate for the story.

Finally, we get to the ultimate mixing of personal and professional: when personal missteps threaten professional life. Or blackmail, if you want to get technical about it. The staff finds itself brushing against both ends of blackmail. Leo threatens congressional staffers that he'll go public with lenient sentences imposed for drug arrests of their bosses' loved ones if said bosses try to play the "soft on crime" card in the upcoming debate on drugs, while it's believed that Sam is being targeted by Republicans who may know about Laurie, his old friend the call girl. Without getting into a whole debate on personal ethics of politicians, I've always been dismayed with how personal missteps can be exploited for political purposes. We're all human, and we all have our own personal issues. So long as a politician isn't doing anything illegal, unethical, or genuinely damaging to himself or others, his ability to govern shouldn't be seen as compromised because of an issue in his personal life. But at the same time, there's no room for hypocrisy, either. Which is my way of saying Leo's in the right, and Sam's in the right. It's fair for Leo to pre-empt any soapbox speeches about how the government needs to be tougher on drug-related crimes if the speaker used connections to lighten a drug-related sentence. But it's unfair to use Sam's relationship with Laurie as a way to smear him and bring him down. His being friends with a prostitute doesn't change his ability to draft and debate legislation on drugs.

Oh, and on a personal note, hard as it may be, I'll try not to hold Toby's Yankee fandom against him.

-- Binny


Binny --

This episode did so many things well. It was funny, it advanced several ongoing storylines (Sam and Laurie, Josh and Joey, Leo and drugs, Toby and Kiefer, the president's sleeplessness, Danny and C.J.), poignantly touched on a policy debate, and gave us deeper insight into several characters' personae. Truly enjoyable.

I'm glad you noticed and mentioned Toby's wedding ring, because it gives me an excuse to mention this nugget, courtesy of Aaron Sorkin. (I can't remember where I saw it first, but I found it reproduced on a message board.)

When we started shooting the second episode of the series ("Post Hoc, Ergo Proctor Hoc"--One Follows the Other, Therefore it Was Caused by the Other), I noticed that Richard was wearing a wedding ring. I asked Tommy if he'd been wearing it in the pilot and he had. I went to Richard and said, "You know, I don't think Toby's married" and Richard said, "Yeah, I don't think so either." I said, "Well you've been wearing your wedding ring" and he said, "It's not my wedding ring, I got it from wardrobe." I said, "You ASKED for the wedding ring even though you thought Toby wasn't married?" and he said, "Yeah" and I said, "Why?" and he said, "I was hoping you'd figure it out." And that's how Toby got an ex-wife he was still in love with.

As an aside, as I recently mentioned in a comment on our discussion of "Mr Willis of Ohio," while it may have been as early as episode two that Sorkin conceived the idea to give Toby an ex-wife, he certainly hadn't fully developed her backstory, or at the very least, her name by the time episode six came around. The House roll call at the episode's conclusion proceeded directly from from Mr. Willis to Mr. Zantowski, skipping right over the lovely Ms. Wyatt.

I was glad that my thought from last episode - that they had to choose something ostensibly insignificant such as campaign finance to make their move on - was confirmed in this episode. C.J. admits in her press briefing that the reason for the decision was "symbolism." It needed to be something that doesn't inherently warrant taking such a principled stand in order to serve a symbolic purpose and send the message that the White House means business. It's almost as if I've seen these episodes before.

Speaking of C.J., while I agree that her treatment of Danny is wrong, I disagree with your assessment that their personal relationship merely accentuates her wrongdoing. To me, the fact that they are friends (and perhaps a potential couple) is the only thing that makes her behavior "wrong." Danny wrote a story that was embarrassing for the White House and, as a result, the White House Press Secretary is giving him the cold shoulder, choosing other reporters for exclusives instead of him. Rewarding reporters that give positive coverage and "punishing" those that provide negative reporting might not be right or fair, but it's the way things work. It's only because they have a personal relationship that I think she mishandled the situation. If Danny were just a colleague, her actions would just be the cost of doing business; but as a friend, it's petty and immature, which is why Bartlet calls her out on it. He understands that to the administration - and to C.J., specifcally - Danny is not just any reporter; he's an ally and a friend.

Sam, meantime, was in vintage form in this episode. Can a character have a vintage form 20 episodes into a series? Maybe not. But I'll say it anyways. Sam was in vintage form in this episode. As I've mentioned in the past, the flip side of his fierce idealism and optimism is his naïveté and innocence. He comes off as an adorable, callow (Jerry Gallo's dead!) youth (ute? sorry couldn't resist) in at least several instances in this episode: not informing Toby that they had passed the restaurant where the staff was meeting for breakfast because they "were having a nice conversation"; not being able to recognize that he was being manipulated by Steve Onarato and then overreacting and throwing a tantrum when Josh and Toby explain to him what's happening; and referring to Leo as a "hooleelia," a word he admits his mother made up.

There were a bunch of little moments in this episode I absolutely loved, and I'll get to them in a minute. But first, I wanted to touch on one that irked me. I'm probably starting to sound like a broken record since I criticized the way she was used in the previous episode, but I'm only pointing this out because it's a theme that recurs throughout the series and it inexplicably bothers me much more than it should. I am talking about Donna's presence at the breakfast meeting. What was she doing there? This was a meeting between Leo and his senior staff. His assistant being there makes sense because he's the chief of staff and she's his right hand and walking memory bank. But Donna? Why should she be there and not Ginger and Bonnie? I know, I know. Because Donna is a main cast member and they're not. But in real life, she should never be there, her playful ribbing of Josh about Joey Lucas, notwithstanding. But keep this thought in mind as we continue throughout the series because I think you'll find yourself wondering, "Why is Donna there?" a lot.

Now, on to the little nuggets I loved:

  • I said early on that I was going to be on the lookout for Josh/Rahm Emanuel similarities, since Josh was supposedly loosely based on Emanuel. Well we have a pretty blatant reference to that here, as Bonnie teasingly calls him "Rambo", much to the delight of the fellow staffers. Josh could have used a cinema lesson here, however, as his retort, "You talkin' to me?" comes from Taxi Driver, not Rambo.
  • Speaking of Josh's movie references, though it may not have been as good as Shaq's, I loved his Godfather analogy. "I'm James Caan. [to Sam] You''re Al Pacino...Toby, you're the guy who shows Pacino how to make tomato sauce." (It's Clemenza, by the way.)
  • Leo, a notorious substance abuser and addict, instructing his staff to "talk to me about drugs."
  • Margaret, who clearly has severe OCD, as evidenced by the fact that she memorized the names of seven unconnected congressmen because she "couldn't help it," mocking Josh: "You assign your clothes days of the week?"
  • Joey's male translator Kenny (speaking for Joey) shouting, "I'm not sleeping with Al Kiefer anymore," in a hallway in the West Wing of the White House.
  • This wonderful exchange between Toby and his ex-wife:
Andy: Toby, are you upset that I went out on a date? Or are you upset that I went out on a date with someone who plays in the same division as the Yankees?
Toby: Honest to God, I'm not sure.

And for the record, Toby being a Yankees fan doesn't bother me, as although he's a wonderful character, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't ever be friends with him for reasons that have nothing to do with which baseball team he roots for. In fact, it might almost bother me more if here were a Mets fan.

Finally, I will follow your lead from past episodes and play the episode title game. And despite having seen this episode many times, this is a thought that didn't occur to me until this latest viewing. Other than its obvious meaning (the racially unfair policy of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders), I think there is a secondary explanation that emerges from the final scene. As you alluded to, the energy theme (though you meant it musically, it applies to the narrative as well) is still full on from the end of last episode and the president realizes that. As a result, he says that because of the staff's newfound aggressive and energetic approach, he understands that some mistakes will inevitably be made. The goal, however is to "minimize them." What might be a term one can use to refer to the inevitable number of mistakes a staff will make, yet try to cut down to as few as possible? How about "mandatory minimums?"

-- Av


  1. Watches with BinnyJanuary 13, 2010 at 2:25 PM

    If I can have "the patience for the romantic doof" that u are, I think Miss Toe Pick ( - starts at 4:40)can handle Mike "TooCool" Todwell. ( - 0:14)

  2. I love the title game – may I play? I wonder if, as a secondary meaning, it has something to do with Mandy and Danny being "in the doghouse" and being officially released by presidential decree. Albeit one issued in his pajamas. The titles are superb throughout, and I love figuring out how they were chosen. I do some bush-league writing and titles fascinate me.

    I have to admit, I still don't understand why Sam was so angry. Maybe on my tenth re-view I'll get it. I can be slow sometimes.

    Now that you mention it, it really doesn't make sense that Donna is at the breakfast meeting. She isn't even that important in the scene, except to bring in the Tuesday suit thread which could have been done other ways. I don't remember when she was listed in the opening credits, but I don't think she was yet, maybe this was some kind of building up of her role?

    Miss Toe Pick, indeed – that's why Mandy and Josh never made sense to me, whats-her-name just couldn't rise above that role, unlike Rob Lowe who won me over after a while.

    Av, I'm so glad you posted that nugget about Toby's wedding ring. I have to confess, the first time I viewed the series, Toby didn't impress me at all. Maybe because he is much like me (I won't go into the ways which may contain spoilers for Binny). Or maybe because he doesn't have the humor of Sam (who I didn't like much either, but that's a whole different thing) or Josh (who I adored, mostly for his romantic doofiness. ;) Once the series went the distance, I came out of it with a greater appreciation for Toby, and that has grown with every viewing. I love knowing RS's feel for the character.

    A silly aside: I was ill over the summer, to the point of having hallucinations. One of the persistent hallucinations I had was that Toby and CJ were outside my hospital room trying to help me (I was trying to escape, to the dismay of the hospital staff who was trying to keep me from dying). CJ I understood – I love Allison Janney (forgive spelling), she's got nuances that amaze me, and I love CJ. Toby? Why not Josh, whose doofiness makes me weak in the knees, or even the President whom I want to vote for? I think it was Toby's moral center I needed at that point, not the humor and cleverness of everyone else. So I doubly enjoyed the wedding ring story.
    -- sloopie

  3. If it makes you guys feel anybetter I believe Josh is a Mets fan.

  4. I really liked this episode. I think that the problem of avoiding the responsibility can not be solved