Thursday, January 28, 2010

Season 1, Episode 22: "What Kind of Day Has It Been"

Plot summary
: In the season finale, President Bartlet prepares for a town hall meeting with college students while the U.S. military races to find a downed American pilot in the Iraqi desert before the Iraqi military captures him. C.J. doesn't relish the notion of misleading the press over rescue preparations. Likewise, Toby tries to ignore updates from the distressed orbiting space shuttle which includes his brother, a payload specialist aboard the craft which cannot close its cargo doors. Meanwhile, a huffing Josh is dispatched to run down and convince the wayward vice president to re-think his position on campaign finance reform.

Click here to watch "What Kind of Day Has It Been"

Av --

I'm going to put the shooting aside for a moment.

There was a whole lot to like about this episode, the finale to the first season. In fact, in some ways I felt it serves as a kind of bookend to "Pilot," as parts of this episode were reminiscent of the series premiere. Bartlet can't get minor staffers' names right, much like Leo messed one up in his classic opening walk through the corridors. Then, a situation existed which the White House was monitoring closely, though unable to control - Cubans heading for Florida. Now, the space shuttle - with Toby's brother aboard - is in peril, a similar situation the White House can't control, but only monitor. Then, Josh gets in trouble because he can't resist going for the cheap but enjoyable one-liner instead of being diplomatic. Now, he gets in less trouble, but still angers Leo by gleefully telling Vice President Hoynes, "If we bring this pilot back home alive, that’s another 10 points." Then, Toby is mopey, Donna annoying, Sam optimistic, and President Bartlet the provider of great wisdom. Now... well, you get the idea. (Though the dollop of wisdom dropped here, borrowed from Woody Allen, was more prolific, as it became a calling card for the show: "Decisions are made by those who show up.")

At the same time, seeing similar quotes and storylines emerge here that we've seen earlier in the season provides a great opportunity to reflect on the growth that has occurred. Charlie came aboard as the new guy, the only member of the team that wasn't with Bartlet since the campaign. He's now close with the president, to the point that he can needle him about getting excited to watch girls' softball. That's changed. But even though he spends almost every waking minute with the president, he still gets excited by the president using information in a town hall that he recommended. The feeling referenced in "A Proportional Response," the one he had "never felt before," is blessedly still there. C.J., who has been managing two complicated relationships - professionally, with Leo, and personally/professionally, with Danny, seems to have reached a comfort level with both. With Leo, months after being left in the dark over India/Pakistan, an incident still fresh in both their minds, she's finally reached the point where he can trust her to lie to the press. (And it wasn't an accident, either. When she asks, "Is there a rescue mission?" Leo pauses a beat, clearly thinks for a second, then decides to clue her in.) With Danny, she realizes she unfairly made him look bad by having him ask the question she responds to untruthfully, and pays him back with the inside scoop on the safe landing of Columbia. And the president, who early this season felt intimidated by the militaristic responsibilities of his job ("every time I sit with the Joint Chiefs, I feel like I’m back at my father’s dinner table"), is now at ease in the situation room and with Chairman Fitzwallace. (I enjoyed their small talk in the Oval Office, though someone should clue them in to the fact that the notion of the eagle facing the other way is not accurate.) All in all, this episode really measured up as one of the best of the season, and that's even without the shooting.

Right. So that happened. I think there are three things worth examining here: the shooting as a story, using it as a cliffhanger, and its narrative presentation in the episode itself. Regarding that last one, I think I could've done without in media res here. While the shooting came as a complete shock, the surprise was somewhat muffled by the fact that we were teased almost right away that something terrifying was going to happen. I suppose it comes down to whether our viewing the events of the day (another similarity to "Pilot": the episode takes place within a single day) is enhanced or detracted by knowing how things will turn out. Personally, I would have gone with not knowing. "What kind of day has it been"? Nobody asks the titular question specifically, though it's certainly something that we can envision someone bringing up. Grading the day seems to be part of the presidential jargon: "You had a good day today, John." ("20 Hours in Los Angeles") "You all had a good day." ("Mandatory Minimums") They were having a good day: Bartlet made a good call on the Iraq rescue mission, and they just received great news about the space shuttle landing safely. With that news we could even start to believe that just like the administration was making a conscious decision to change philosophy, the luck that had plagued them to this point ("what kind of luck have we had, Ginger? Bad luck.") was finally starting to turn. And then it all would have been quickly forgotten, good feelings dissipated by a hail of bullets. This isn't to say I didn't enjoy watching the episode unfold the way it did, but I wonder what it would have been like structured naturally.

Then there's the story itself. And with it, the first real question of whether Sorkin allowed himself to let the fact that this is a television show impact what kind of story gets presented. Put another way: the climactic moments of drama on this show have been organic to the political nature of the series; is this shooting true to that nature? I'd argue it is. For one thing, it had only been 18 years since a sitting U.S. president was shot and wounded, along with three others. It's not a far-fetched storyline at all. Sure, putting it in the season finale is overly convenient, from a theatrical standpoint, but there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Further, it would appear this wasn't an assassination attempt at all, rather an attempt to kill Charlie and/or Zoey. The signaller, the creepy-looking guy on the ground, seemed to be a skinhead, and there were already pre-existing threats towards the couple. (Unless the attempt was on the president himself for condoning the romance, which is possible, but I'm thinking that's not the case.) So one could make the case that Sorkin wasn't going for the sexy storyline of a presidential assassination attempt, rather the completion of a more realistic storyline (sadly), that of mindless, race-based hate. (One important nitpick: I can buy "realistic" for this story except for the two shooters somehow being free to sit armed in a building overlooking an open area which the president would be passing through. No way that building isn't swept thoroughly, and probably guarded heavily.)

Finally, it's hard to objectively judge the merits of a cliffhanger when I plan on watching the next episode quite soon, and don't have to wait five months to learn the answer to the season's final line, "Who's been hit?" From what I've read, the cliffhanger was met with near-universal scorn, mostly because Sorkin had elevated the show to something that was expected to defy conventional television tropes. As the Newark Star-Ledger put it:

The slo-mo finale smacked of a desperation that usually doesn't surface in a hit network drama until season three or four. Ronald Reagan... was wounded by a would-be assassin mere months into Reagan's first term, but art doesn't have to imitate life - especially if the art is written by "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, who has such a knack for dialogue and characterization that his conversations are more exciting than most car chases and fist fights.

An understandable sentiment, though Sorkin's defense that summer is also reasonable:

"I will tell you that I think the season opener, which begins just moments after the season finale, may go somewhat towards helping you a little bit with the last two minutes of the season finale... I promise you that moment in the show happened for the exact same reason every moment on every show happened: I thought people would like it."

If that's the case, I suppose I'll have to reserve judgment. Sometimes a cliffhanger can be only be truly evaluated after its resolution is learned. And given that, as I mentioned above, the story itself works, I think people would have been more forgiving had this occurred mid-season and not end-of-season. But watching the show now, without the restrictions of the network television schedule, I see it as an incredible, breathtaking final scene, capping a terrific episode which itself capped a wondrous season of television I'm grateful to have seen.

And on that note, as we finish the opening season of this blog, a brief word of thanks. To you, Av, for bringing me into this fantastic show, for putting your veteran experience with it to use in our discussions both published and unpublished, and for your endless enthusiasm in pushing me to keep this project going when I hit periods of weariness. And to my other viewing partner, my dear wife Shani, for keeping me company as a first-time viewer, who patiently waits after each episode for me to write, putting up with "we can't watch the next one yet, I don't want to be influenced by information in future episodes" as an excuse to break between episodes. My first discussion of every episode is with her, and it's undoubtedly had a positive influence on my writing.

-- Binny


Binny --

What an exhilarating end to a tremendous first season. I’ll get my thoughts on the ending out of the way at the outset so that I can move on to the rest of the episode.

I thought the ending was perfect both in conception and execution. You mentioned that you didn’t like using the in media res technique in this episode. You also quoted critics who didn’t like the fact that Sorkin resorted to a cliffhanger, twist ending that many thought was the type of cliché plot device "The West Wing" had transcended. Yet you didn’t make the connection that I think is evident and addresses both complaints, which I believe are inextricably linked. Sorkin wanted to leave us with the ending he did, but he didn’t want to conform to normal finale clichés. As director Tommy Schlamme explained in an interview with The Detroit Free Press, "It was never designed as 'a cool cliffhanger,' as a 'Who Shot J.R.?' way just to get more viewers. Our intent was to open a storytelling avenue." If they had employed normal linear storytelling, when the shots start firing, we would be shocked at a plot development that came out of nowhere from the perspective of this episode’s plot arc. It would be what a cinema buff would call a “twist.” And that wasn’t something he wanted to do. The in media res storytelling gives us a glimpse of the final scene and lets us anticipate where the story is heading for the next 40 minutes, thus downplaying the severity of the twist, cliffhanger ending.

This episode was so good that it didn’t need the cliffhanger (if it had gone to credits after Bartlet closes the meeting with the words “class dismissed,” it would have been a wholly satisfying conclusion), but I think adding it put it over the top, especially the way he uses it to segue into the storytelling he does at the start of next season. As for last scene itself, I loved Jorga Fox in the buildup to the shooting. Her frantic repetition of the words “I saw something,”as she scatters around to locate exactly what it is that she saw, highlights her need and ability to balance her instinct that something tragic is about to happen against creating a false panic that could be equally dangerous. She totally nailed that scene. And as for unrealistic details, how about the shooters waiting until literally seconds before to load their guns? Either that was unrealistic or a remarkable indictment by Sorkin of skinheads’ intelligence.

You wrote a lot about the maturation of certain characters over the course of the season and I agree wholeheartedly, especially regarding C.J. I also loved your point about Charlie’s development from a nervous, shy teenager into someone who can uniquely tease the president of the United States in a way that even the senior staff would never dare to try. The only other person that seems to enjoy this type of relationship so far is Mrs. Landingham, whom we have seen respond to the president at times with her uncanny dry wit, most recently in this episode. Bartlet: “Do you see me walking out the door?” Mrs. Landingham: “No, I see you standing and arguing with a senior citizen.” And while I agree that the president has certainly changed with respect to his newfound comfort with the military leaders, it is ironic that his instinct to overreact to attacks on U.S. soldiers has not changed: “If Fitzwallace has to call this kid’s parents, I swear to God I’m invading Baghdad.” This reaction is hauntingly similar to his response to the news that Morris Tolliver’s plane had been shot down (“I’m going to blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder) at the end of "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc" and his general handling of the use of military force throughout "A Proportional Response", before Leo settles him down.

A couple points on policy issues that were raised in the episode:

First, Josh totally nails on the head a critical point about campaign finance regulations. Giving money to a candidate you support or even to the party you favor can be construed as free speech. But when massive corporations are giving boatloads of cash to both parties, that crosses the line by miles. Campaign finance has emerged as a hot issue recently on the heels of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest step in the Roberts Court’s attempt to whittle away at the restrictions on campaign spending and bolster the rights of corporations.

Secondly, this episode touched with such subtlety on a talking point that is one of my biggest pet peeves: the vilifying of NASA (and to a lesser extent, military spending). Many people have labeled the space shuttle program a "failure" and called for for the gutting of NASA’s budget because they haven’t produced an epic achievement since the moon landing 40 years ago. (Many of the same people call for cutting military spending because “we don’t need more warplanes and tanks.”) What these people fail to realize are the incredible, life-changing byproducts that these two programs have given us. Anyone use a cell phone? Well, isn’t it convenient that there are literally thousands of satellites floating around in space that allows you to get a signal? I wonder how those got there. The list of everyday inventions that are credited to the military and space program are endless: the integrated circuit (used in every device that contains a computer chip), cordless tools, and smoke detectors all came from NASA, while the Internet, GPS, and digital photography all were developed by the military. In our episode, Toby’s brother is in space, not to travel to Mars, but to study the inner ear of newts, which are remarkably similar to that of humans. Sure, this doesn’t sound so exciting, unless of course it leads them to figuring out how to cure deafness or create a breakthrough audio device. So the next time you feel like criticizing the amount of money we allocate for these two programs, consider the incredible contributions they have made to our society that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with their primary mission statements.

And with that we come to the end of season one. Thanks for thanking me. More so, thanks for providing me the impetus to not only revisit this show (because let’s be honest, I probably would have done that anyway) but to revisit it in this manner. It has instilled in me an even deeper appreciation for this show (something I wouldn’t have guessed was possible), opened my eyes to many new points and details, and sharpened my approach to watching television in general. I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of re-watching and re-re-watching these 22 episodes and eagerly await our impending journey into season two and beyond.

-- Av


  1. Really nice job guys.. As another avid fan, I love hearing, or uh, reading your perspectives and comments. Quick comment to Binny - enjoy the ride.. What many of us wouldn't give to go through it again for the very first time! And trust in Sorkin, one of the only writers I've seen to create a season premiere that overshadows even his classic season finale. "In the Shadow.." is as good as it gets. Look forward to following you both here and on Twitter..

  2. Watches with BinnyJanuary 28, 2010 at 1:57 PM

    Binyamin, Av-
    Rewatching the series in 2010, in the age of the constant media res of Lost, How I Met your mother, etc, makes the media res used in this episode of WW seem overused and passe. However, I was trying to come up with a show that preceded WW that made use of this narrative tool and I came up empty. I challenge you to do the same.

  3. I'm enjoying this blog! I also got hooked on The West Wing last year via the DVD's. I didn't mind the cliffhanger aspect of this episode, except that I didn't yet have my season 2 DVD's and had to wait for Amazon to deliver them! I suppose it would have been a little more frustrating had I been watching it live and had to wait a whole summer to find out what happened.

    As for whether it was realistic that the shooters would have had access to the building -- I'd think that would be completely implausible, too. Then again, I'd have also thought there would be no way on Earth the Secret Service would have allowed someone to throw not one, but TWO shoes at a sitting President. Or allow a couple of celebrity wannabes to crash a White House State Dinner. So at this point, I can only say I HOPE that the West Wing scenario would never be allowed to happen in real life.

    Looking forward to your comments on the Season 2 premiere!


  4. I so admire your discipline in sticking to one episode at a time. I have to admit, I'm champing at the bit waiting for you to continue - and I'm not even watching now, and have seen this maybe eight times!

    I'm curious - did you have any knowledge of the events that would occur in the series before viewing? For example, did you know there would be a shooting at all, even if you didn't know when?

    I don't particularly care for the in media res approach. I use it myself in short stories, mostly to indicate something to the reader, to let him know what to remember as he reads the backstory. I don't know why Sorkin did it here. IIRC, he only does it once more, and it annoyed me then, too.

    It's great to see your reactions to things. Every time I watch an episode, I see something I didn't see before, and that's rare in television.

  5. I love you guys!

    Every morning on Bravo, I watch as much of the repeats of TWW as time alows. Invariably, I put the dvd in that evening to finish the episode I started. I can't even guess how many times I have watched each season.

    I remember screaming at the tv, "NOOOOOOOOO! It can't end here!" I knew, logically, that there was no way anyone would die. It all would have followed a different course during the regular season. But it was a stressfull few months to say the least. There aren't too many shows in which Dear Hubby & I get so wrapped up, but this was always #1 on the list to follow every week.

    Your commentary makes me rethink a lot of things. It also makes me reach for the set to make sure I have it "right".

    Oh, Binny. You & your wife are in for a treat with the Season Two opener.

    Pam aka SisterZip

  6. Fantastic job people....Watching this show for the first time(an American show from late nineties is not something which many Indians would be exposed to but better late than, i really believe this is one of the best shows i came across. Am into my second season now and its excellent to have a blog wherein one can read other people's views. Had a few instances where i went back to watch the episodes again after reading your thoughts on it and notice something which i did not happen to before.
    Neways, keep up the good work. Roll on Season 2!


  7. Binny, Binny, where have you gone? Don't you want to know who's been hit? And if you already know, don't you want to talk about it?
    Miss you - hope all's well.

  8. This is wonderful guys, although I agree w/ sloopie! I miss you, and can't to wait to read your thoughts on season 2!

  9. Love the concept of a newcomer and a seasoned West Wing fan blogging through their experience watching the show. I've been watching the show since 2000, when I was in high school, and I fell utterly and totally in love with it - to the point that I've read every episode transcript online at least once, and the transcripts of Seasons 1-4 multiple times (I only recorded the audio of the "Too many angels in heaven tonight" speech, but, like Binny with A Few Good Men, I've listened to it over and over again).

    I just finished getting together the entire DVD collection, and I am also rewatching the entire show. It is WONDERFUL. Looking forward to reading more of your takes on the episodes!

  10. Viewing my way through all seven seasons of
    The West Wing last year (January right up until our own presidential election in November), I remember waiting with great expectancy for the next Netflix disk to arrive in my mailbox.
    Santa knew at Christmas that I was totally hooked on the series, and I received my own DVDs as gifts. So now, I am starting my way back through--still amazed at the quality of the series! And I am really enjoying reading your insights as I go. So, get back to the blog and
    let's wing our way through Season Two.

  11. This blog is a very cool idea, great stuff - very in depth too!

  12. Come on, guys - we're waiting for you to get going again! I can't believe Binny could bear the suspense this long...

  13. Dudes - I'm loving this blog, but I'm wondering where you are, five/six months later. Give me Season 2! (Please?)

  14. Say - does this blog still live? I've just started with West Wing, I absolutely love it, and I'm a great fan of your insightful and thorough analysis. Tell me you haven't gone anywhere, pretty please? The best episodes are yet to come, don't tell me you've stopped blogging without discussing "Noel"!

  15. Yeah, I'm wondering the same thing -- can you at least tell us if you're still blogging?

  16. For all those of us who sometimes also find themselves amped to a particular level of Joshness...

  17. For all those of us who sometimes also find themselves amped to a particular level of Joshness...

  18. I am delighted with this episode. I do not understand why he did not shoot more often. I wish that the series came out more than once in two months

  19. I should say tha this episode is the most breathtking and I recommend everyone to watch this. Have a good day.