West Wing Recaps: S1 Ep3 “A Proportional Response”

Hello again! Time for the next episode of The West Wing! I hope everyone’s enjoying these as much as I am. As always, the greater part will be below a cut due to length and spoilers. So let’s dive in, shall we? If you remember, last week’s episode ended with President Bartlett’s personal physician being shot down near Jordan while on his way to a teaching hospital. The President is taking this very personally, so now we’re ready to find out how he handles it (hint: not at all well to start with!).

This episode opens with Josh arriving at work to Donna warning him that CJ is looking for him, with the implication that she’s mad at him. This is quickly confirmed when he discovers CJ waiting for him in his office where she proceeds to yell at him for hiding the situation with Sam and his Prostitute Problem. She is considerably more worried about it than Josh is, seeing only the PR problem it presents. The confrontation quickly turns ugly (Josh uses the word ‘feminista’ as an epithet), and yet their relationship remains somehow cordial afterward.

We move on see how well President Bartlett is coping with his anger. As I said, not well. He’s hostile and impatient to visit retribution on Syria, clearly in revenge for what he feels is a personal tragedy. He has also lost his glasses (I promise, that’s actually important) and no one can seem to find them. Mind you, this is three days after the event, and he’s still fuming and not exactly behaving rationally about it. Just so we’re clear, these were military personnel not civilians, and they were flying in a difficult and sometimes unsafe region, so it’s not exactly like this attack, tragic though it might be, is unprecedented. All of this goes to show the President’s lack of experience militarily, which is a major theme throughout the show.

The next scene is the senior staff-meeting, where the upper-level staff (also known as the main cast) discuss events and responses to them for the day. There’s one of these in nearly every episode. Sometimes they provide background or introduction to plot-threads developed later in the episode and are a good way to provide information to the viewer without being trite. However, this particular one is more about character development. We see Toby getting righteously furious over some public statements made by a Senator about the President, while the others variously egg him on in his fury or try to calm him down according to their natures. We also get one of Toby’s rants, which are often a highlight of this show¹. Mostly though, they begin preparing for their public spin on whatever the military response will be to the attack.

Now it’s Sam’s turn to get yelled at by CJ. It’s important to note that her issue is two-fold. First, she’s upset about the possible PR disaster of a high-ranking White House employee spending time with a high-priced sex-worker. But more importantly than that, she’s furious that she was kept out of the loop by her colleagues. This is often a theme in the early seasons. CJ has to struggle for acceptance in her job, both from her colleagues and from the press. She’s a woman in what is traditionally considered a man’s job, and the sexism is subtle but still apparent. CJ never sits back and accepts it though. She always calls people out on it, or points out why she needs their cooperation in order to properly do her job. In this case, she points out that she always needs to know about these things so she can properly advise and protect the White House and the President from the media-circus. This scene is more important than just showing CJ’s struggles though. It also points out the hypocrisy of our society that because of his job Sam could get into trouble for being friends with a sex-worker. It’s sad that a woman who chooses to do this particular job is suddenly some sort of pariah, and they point this out subtly in the Laurie storyline. Unfortunately, this scene also ends with a great deal of acrimony when Sam calls CJ a coward for not standing up to the media in the face of the hypocrisy.

In the Situation Room, the President is briefed on the possible response scenarios prepared by the military. Bartlet likes none of them, feeling that a proportional and balanced response isn’t good enough, that they must instead mete out retribution on a grand scale. This scene is also our first brief introduction to Admiral Fitzwallis, affectionately known as Fitz. He acts as a sort of military mentor to President Bartlet quite often, and this situation is no exception.

Our next new character is Charles Young (played by Dule Hill). He’s waiting nervously in the Roosevelt Room for Josh, who is vetting him for the job of personal aid to the President. Charlie had applied for a different (much more menial) job and was recommended as a good candidate for this instead. For the entire interview he is confused, unsure, and extremely humble. He keeps trying to leave, feeling there’s some sort of mistake, while Josh keeps telling him to sit back down. We do get a bit of background right away. Charlie is apparently very, very bright, and just recently out of high-school. He and a younger sister are alone in the world because his mother, a police-woman, was killed in the line-of-duty a few months previously.

We return to the Situation Room where Fitzwallis demonstrates to the President the injudiciousness of a disproportional response (bombing the civilian airport in Damascus) and explains the reality and perception such an action would engender. Fitz makes the President understand that, as the leader of a super-power, he isn’t at liberty to let his thirst for revenge run away with him. Reluctantly the President agrees to one of the previous plans. His inexperience shows again in an awkward pause after which he asks Leo “How does this work?” meaning how does he set the plan in motion. The President leaves the room, clearly still disgusted with this plan but acknowledging he has no choice.

The camera returns to Charlie’s interview, which Sam interrupts to ask Josh a question. A very confused Charlie witnesses Sam having a, to him, incomprehensible fit about Josh asking questions about his (Charlie’s) personal life. Josh, as a good friend, escorts Sam from the room and tries to talk him down. They’re interrupted by the news that the retribution plan is in motion. CJ is briefed by Leo, and then he and Josh have a small discussion about race and appearances. You see, Charlie is a young black man being considered for a job that is something like that of a valet. Josh is concerned about the appearance of racism this might promote. This isn’t an unreasonable concern, given the history of this country using black bodies for service. However, Leo’s response is that if Charlie is the right guy for the job, then screw the visual aspect, they’ve got more important things to worry about. He ends on a hesitant note, and a few minutes later appeals to Chairman Fitzwallis, who is also black. Fitz says this:

Leo: You have any problem with a young black man waiting on the President?

Fitz: I’m an old black man, and I wait on the President.

You gonna pay him a decent wage?

L: Yeah.

F: You gonna treat him with respect in the workplace?

L: Yeah.

F: Then why the hell should I care?

I’ve got some real honest to God battles to fight, Leo. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.

On the one hand, I agree. I hate fighting the cosmetic battles, I feel like it’s a waste of time. However, I know that sometimes the cosmetic issues aren’t just superficial. Sometimes they’re indicative of, or caused by, deeper issues of institutionalized racism, sexism, etc. So, I’m glad that the show asks the question at least, even if in this case they dismiss it as not a problem.

The scene shifts to images of people scurrying around getting ready for the bombing and the subsequent press release and Presidential address. In the midst of this, Sam apologizes to CJ for his earlier behavior, mending that fence finally. We follow CJ through the halls, and now we’re introduced to Danny, a member of the White House Press Corps. He lets CJ know that he knows about Sam and Laurie. CJ, to her credit, immediately jumps to Sam’s defense and backs Danny off of this story. She actually uses the same logic Sam and Josh had both used with her, I.e. adults shouldn’t be judged on the friends they have, no matter what their job is. Danny agrees to drop it, and in gratitude CJ gives him a head-start on the news of the recently completed military action. We begin to see the sort of relationship the two have, a sort of friendly foe dynamic. Neither can completely trust the other because their jobs require a certain antagonism, but they like each-other and help each-other when the situation allows.

The scene shifts to Josh giving Charlie a tour of the West Wing. The reality of the new position, that it’s not a mistake he’s been chosen, is beginning to sink in a bit with Charlie, but he’s still a bit shy and overwhelmed. Most especially when Josh takes him to meet the (still quite grumpy) President. The Oval Office is full of rushing people preparing for a televised Presidential address in a few minutes. The problem is, Bartlet’s glasses are still missing from the beginning of the episode, and no one can seem to find them. Without his glasses, he is unable to read the speech to sign off on certain sections, and shouts about it quite a bit. It’s Charlie who figures out where they must be, and Josh urges him to speak up himself to tell the President, who is impatient with his hesitancy and abrupt with the poor guy. This is the last straw for Leo who takes the President aside and basically tells him to cool it the hell off, he’s being rude and unreasonable. This is the sort of behind-the-scenes thing no one EVER sees, unless someone writes a book. It’s easy to see how important the relationship between Chief of Staff and President is. The CoS must be strong enough to tell a very important man off when necessary, without simultaneously burning bridges. In this case, there appears to be a prior close personal relationship at work, aiding Leo in his duties.

On the subject of Charlie, this is our first glimpse of his intelligence. We’ve been told that he’s bright, but here we see that he’s clever enough to figure things out which no one else in a room full of intelligent people could. It’s not enough to be told these things, it’s important to see it in action. The President, once he’s talked out of his fit of pique by Leo, takes to him immediately and turns on the charm, personally asking Charlie to come work for him and formally introducing himself (this is the first time we hear his first name, Jed). Standing in the room while President Bartlet gives his address. Leaning over to Josh, he whispers:

Charlie: I’ve never felt like this before.

Josh: It doesn’t go away.

I think this is an important sentiment. It’s sometimes lost in the battles, and banter, and drama, but every one of these people is dedicated, hard working, and feels honored to be doing the job they’re doing in the White House. I think this is something we often forget about the employees of the government (I don’t mean the elected officials, though this applies to them quite often as well). They work hard and they do it out of a sense of patriotism and a desire to work toward a better country and community, and a desire to serve their fellow citizens. This may not be true for every single employee, because sometimes people are people, but I think it’s true for most of them, whatever their ideological background. Maybe we don’t agree with what they’re doing, or how we perceive their efforts, but it doesn’t mean they’re not trying to do what they believe to be best.

That’s it for this week’s episode. See you next week, and thank you for reading along!

¹I tried desperately to find a clip on Youtube of this scene, as I’m quite fond of it, but had no luck. If I have some luck later, I may update this post with it.

 


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