West Wing Recaps: S1 Ep4 “Five Votes Down”

Episode Four of The West Wing Recaps! Apologies for not posting yesterday. Lazy blogger is lazy and didn’t get it edited before bed-time last night. Thank you for your patience!

This episode sets up some major character developments and also delves into a perennially relevant topic for the U.S., I.e. gun-control. It’s a little less frenetically-paced than previous ones. We’ve already introduced all the important characters, so now the writers are free to slow down a bit and focus on fewer story-threads in each episode. Anyway, here we go, and don’t forget spoilers abound, so read at your own risk.

This episode begins on a Monday (noted on title card as the sound fades in) while President Bartlett is giving a speech. This is a swanky, black-tie affair with champaign and a (presumably) expensive dinner for the guests. The President’s staff watches from the wings, while he delivers a speech encouraging people to write to their Congress-person because “children are dead” (we don’t know more than this yet). We fade out of the speech and to Leo and Josh getting the news that they’ve lost 5 votes for something. They immediately go into damage-control, finding out who they are and what they want for their vote. Meanwhile, Toby is listening to the speech and worrying. He’s clearly invested in the words and their delivery, and no wonder since it is soon made clear that he is the primary architect of the speech. He needn’t worry as Martin Sheen in the role of President is an excellent orator, but Toby is a worrier and a perfectionist. He has difficulty accepting praise, and turns it into criticism of the President’s delivery, which leads to some amusing back-and-forth between Toby and Bartlett as they exit the venue for the motorcade. As a side note, it seems the President always exits through the kitchens, but the reason for this is never explained. One has to wonder why though. During the exit, Charlie, under orders from the First Lady, reminds the President to take his back medicine. Bartlett argues “those damn things make me goofy”, Charlie insists, and the issue is left unresolved as they enter the waiting cars.

At any rate, they make it back to the White House at last, where we find the staff eating Chinese-takeout and conferring on the Congressmen they need to strong-arm in the coming days before the vote. The President is not present for these discussions, but rather Leo is leading them. They name a few names, one of which surprises and dismays Josh. Josh adamantly refuses to believe Congressman Wicke is one of the “no” votes they’re attempting to track down. It’s made clear there is a time-limit, and they want to avoid publicity on the process. As Leo puts it;

“There are two things in the world you never want to let people know how you make ‘em, laws and sausages.”

In order to avoid public attention, they determine to distract the press with the financial disclosure reports. These are apparently reports showing the income, including gifts and investments, of the White House employees. They also discuss enlisting the aid of VP Hoynes in the fight, but Leo adamantly refuses, though no reason is given.

Eventually Leo decides to go home, citing the lateness of the hour (2 AM), and we follow him there. He pulls up to a darkened mansion. Inside the foyer, he encounters his wife, Jenny, on the stairs. This is our first view of her, as she is berating Leo for his lateness. It’s not much of an introduction, but it soon becomes clear that her ire on this particular occasion is justified. It seems Leo has forgotten their anniversary, neither remembering to come home early nor even getting her a gift or understanding why she has a gift for him.

Tuesday dawns, and we return to the White House where Toby is talking with a woman about owning stock. The woman, Lela, is a lawyer questioning him about his single stock purchase which subsequently rose dramatically after a friend of his testified in front of Congress about something. The implication being, of course, that Toby was involved with insider trading. He vehemently denies either doing so, or even being capable of understanding how to do so.

The camera transitions to Josh and Sam exiting the Oval office discussing what they’re going to do to get those five votes back. In the course of this, it’s revealed that these hold-up artists are fellow Democrats, holding out for better deals in exchange for their support on this mysterious-but-important floor-vote. Josh expresses outrage at their duplicity, as well as needing to prove the White House’s toughness in a “victory” for “their” position. They enter the cubicle-farm outside of Josh’s office where they’re greeted by rather mocking cheers from the employees there. Donna explains (something to do with the financial disclosures and the gifts Josh had received), giving us an amusing sidebar between the two of them. Toby rushes through to carry off Sam for advice, and we are handed off to Leo as he enters the foyer with his assistant Margaret. He’s giving her instructions regarding a fancy dinner to be ordered for his wife (and him) to make up for forgetting their anniversary. Leo’s wealth is reinforced again, not only by the elegance and extravagance of the supper, but by comments from Margaret regarding his income. Several of the characters, even the top-level advisors such as Toby, are implied to be if not destitute not exactly rich either. Leo is clearly not in this category, however.

The scene shifts to an outdoor meeting between Josh and another man, with the Capitol building as a backdrop. Josh is urging the man, apparently a Congressman, to vote yes in the upcoming bill. We finally are given some hints to the contents, which is a ban on certain weapons. The Congressman is reluctant to vote yes as he fears the power of the NRA to cost him his job in two years, despite apparently agreeing with the bill personally. Josh essentially tells him to vote yes, or the Democratic party will ensure he can’t run again. We are given the impression of Josh as President Bartlett’s bully-boy for Congress. He’s a little bit of a bad-ass, complete with the big sunglasses and expensive suit.

Back in Toby’s office, Sam is counseling him about his financial/legal difficulties. Sam tells him he’s in no “actual trouble” as he didn’t technically do anything wrong. Except, of course, that it appears he did which is all that truly matters here. In this instance, the appearance is more important than the reality. To make matters worse, Toby has to endure some unmerciless ribbing on the subject from his fellow federal employees.

We get another glimpse of CJ’s briefing style, which is calmly professional with just enough snark to get laughs from a room-full of jaded reporters. She’s playing the distractions for all she’s worth, and apparently succeeding admirably. We transition back to Josh who has a meeting with a young and fairly clueless Congressman Wicke. Wicke is basically the most stereotypical college-age “dude-bro” which is frankly a little terrifying to contemplate in one’s elected officials. But this is all fiction, so it’s ok, right? Right? In any case, Josh takes him to task for opposing the bill, pointing out the Congressman’s complete ignorance of its contents and spelling out for the audience (and Wicke) the weapons banned. These include assault weapons with slight modifications to squeak in under previous bans and other weapons such as grenade launchers. Wicke comes back with complaints that he’s taken for granted by the White House. Josh goes rather easy on him, agreeing to his really rather modest demand for a solitary photo-op with the President. He ends with the admonition that being yelled at by the Deputy COS (chief of staff) is nothing compared to being called on the carpet by the President in the Oval Office.

At this point the staff have corralled 4 of the 5 votes needed, but the last (Tillinghouse) is a tougher nut to crack and Josh says they need “a Texan” to convince him. Leo still refuses to entertain the idea of asking Hoynes for help, and proposes another plan. He also has an outdoor meeting with a Congressman. Congressman Richardson is a tall, clearly astute, black man who accurately assesses the reason for Leo’s meeting with him in the first few seconds. Leo basically begs him to vote yes, and Richardson refuses. However, this is not a man who is afraid of the NRA, or trying to score political concessions. He is standing on principle, opposing the bill not because he disagrees with the idea but because he feels cheated by the bill itself. He demands better regulation in a stronger bill, and implies Leo doesn’t really care about the issue enough. Leo attempts a classic little bit of ‘white-splaining’ and Richardson scoffs in his face.

Leo: An entire generation of African American men are being eaten alive by drugs and poverty.

Richardson: Well I’m encouraged to discover the White House has realized there’s a drug problem in this country. I mean, your penetrating insight is matched only by the courage displayed in the authorship of this bill.Not the three-inch grip, but the two-inch grip. With the forty-gauge barrel and the thirty round clip, not the twenty round clip. With a three-day wait to run a check to see if you’re crazy, as if wanting the gun weren’t a pretty good heads up in the first place. No, this is for show. And I think it’s an unconscionable waste of the taxpayer’s money to have it printed, signed and photocopied, not to mention enforced. No, I want the guns Leo. You write a law that can save some lives. I’ll sign it. In the mean time, please don’t tell me how to be a leader of black men. You look like an idiot.

I love Leo, but there are many times when he deserves the set-downs he receives on this show, and this is one of those times. This scene also leads directly to his accepting the urging of his staff to seek Hoynes’ aid.

Leo returns to his house, where a taxi is sitting outside the door. Inside is a suitcase by the door, and his wife informs him she’s leaving. She’s tired of “living like this” which one presumes to mean with someone who is a work-aholic. On the one hand, it can’t be easy to live with a high-level advisor to the President. There’s a reason it seems they’re all perpetually single. They practically live at the office, working at all hours of the day and night, weekends and holidays included. That’s no way to make a relationship work. On the other hand, Leo and Jenny have clearly been married for a long time. One would think she might have the patience to stick it out for 4-8 years while Leo serves his country. In any case, he is clearly rather rocked on his heels but he goes to his next meeting, with Vice-President Hoynes, anyway. To this point, Hoynes has been antagonistic to the White House in general and Leo specifically. But in this case, he immediately notices Leo’s distress and expresses sympathy for the heart-ache of marital separation. He soothes Leo, and then invites him to a private AA meeting. It’s not spelled out (yet), but it would seem both Hoynes and Leo have had issues with drinking in the past. It’s apparently not common-knowledge, so they are circumspect about it. I don’t like Hoynes much, but even the most contemptible character can have a streak of compassion, in the right circumstances. He also cuts short Leo’s attempt to deal and just gives in completely, promising the last vote is assured.

At last we arrive at Wednesday, the day of the big vote. The staff assembles in the Oval, waiting for the President. Leo enters, and everyone asks how the fancy dinner went. Perhaps understandably, he lies and says it was “fine” then turns the conversation to business. The President won’t be joining them, as apparently he’s taken his back medicine and is resting in he Residence. Just at that juncture, President Bartlett appears in the doorway, dressed in sweats. He’s uncharacteristically informal and distracted. He insists that he’s fine and can “roll up his sleeves and get involved” with the discussion of Toby’s financial/legal issues. His behavior is clearly a bit…loopy! Apparently he accidentally took both a Vicoden and a percocet, which are not interacting problematically. The scene is amusing, and not just because of the resolution of Toby’s problem. Toby also gets a hug from the drugged-up President, much to his curmudgeonly dismay! Sheen gives an inspired performance in this scene, but the real giggles come from the dismayed and nonplussed reactions of the other characters.

The scene shifts to Hoynes’ meeting with the elusive Tillinghouse, an old white guy with a slow Texas drawl. He’s laying out his reasons for voting against the ban. They’re much what you’d expect, the “if all the criminals have guns, then I want me and my family to have ‘em too, damnit!” argument certain elements of our population are so fond of trotting out. Nevertheless, Hoynes strong-arms him into voting yes anyway. He essentially trades on his future as President. After the vote itself, Hoynes recieves the credit for the “win”, much to the dismay of the White House. Josh appears especially perturbed, and leaves to have a word with VP Hoynes. Apparently there is some past relationship with him. Josh lets Hoynes know essentially “I saw what you did there, sir” only not in so many words. Hoynes is characteristically smug.

The final scene is Leo entering the Vice-President’s private AA meeting.

There aren’t a lot of plot-threads in this episode, but the main one is important. We are currently struggling with increasing gun-violence and an obviously out-of-touch but politically over-powered NRA in the real world. It’s interesting to see the sort of back-room dealing that goes into these laws, but it’s more important for the way the opposing sides are laid out. This episode points out some of the absurdities of our current gun-laws which regulate things like sizes of grips, but still allow essentially the same weapons out onto the street with minor changes. Our current President is working to tighten the restrictions and halt the unfettered flow of combat-oriented weapons into our schools and neighborhoods. Unfortunately, his reality isn’t being dictated by a team of liberal-leaning script-writers, so he’s having even less luck than President Bartlett in that arena.

As always, thanks for reading. Next week, we get to Episode 5, introducing Zoe, the President’s youngest daughter, as well as some other interesting issues. Most especially, we get plenty more amusing arguments between Toby and the President.


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