[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 09/29/1999]
One of the great strengths of the first few episodes of The West Wing is the smoothness with which they set up and build characterization. At this early stage, we should by rights know very little about the central characters, yet the show never misses a beat to tell us something about them. “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” is a good example of this. Rather than slacken the brisk pace set by the “Pilot” [1×01], the episode builds on the momentum, integrating new story threads into the already well-to-do series.
Throughout the first season, the characters’ primary concerns are self-image and the fear of failure. This episode’s titular phrase, which Leo translates as “After it, therefore because of it,” verbalizes both worries nicely. Human nature dictates that when something goes wrong, we look over our shoulder and worry about figuring out just what could have caused it, and just how it will affect us.
The most direct of these examples of “post hoc” anxiety in this episode occurs with CJ, who spends the early part of this episode concerned that Bartlet’s “Texan hats” joke caused them to lose points with the Lone Star State. As Press Secretary, CJ acts as the conduit between the Oval Office and the media surrounding it, so she’s understandably worried about bringing a good impression to the table. And as we see from the deftness with which she handles press briefings, she’s quite good. (And her constant banter with the press stands as one of the minor recurring highlights of the series.)
But despite her quick mind and professional demeanor, CJ is still new to the world of professional and political mistakes. She perhaps goes a bit too far with her worries over the joke, prompting Bartlet to admonish her with the episode’s titular Latin phrase. Later, when she confronts the Vice President over an uncalled-for comment, only for him to casually ignore her, she chooses to keep the matter to herself, not realizing that the Vice President’s effrontery, unlike a wisecrack over ten-gallon hats, is in fact a problem that Bartlet should be concerned with.
Sam’s concern is more personal, but it also touches on the problem of just how much reaction each action deserves. His brief romantic fling with Laurie now teeters on the edge of being labeled a one-night stand, yet despite the complications his affiliation with her could cause, he still wants to try making things up with her. Despite fears from both Toby and Josh that he might actually be trying to “reform” her, Sam is adamant in his reasoning that Laurie, like any other human being, deserves proper courtesy and respectful closure.
Sam has a lot of girl trouble during his tenure on the series, and Laurie is a terrific foil for his often scatter-brained Sir Galahad. His determination to make peace with her is not so much to convince her into turning over a new leaf, but to soothe his own male ego. Upon finding out that the woman he slept with was a call girl, Sam went from suave ladies’ man to damaged victim, fearful that he may have become just another of Laurie’s late-night entertainers. The concern is one of a jilted lover trying to blindly grope their way to the light switch, not one of a Presidential staffer who engaged in a one-night fling. Watching him try to set things straight with her outside the diner, you get the feeling that Sam, not Laurie, is the one who needs “saving” – why else would he go to such great lengths to patch things up with a girl he hardly knew?
Yet there’s something touching about his attempt to form a genuine friendship with this woman. This is due not only to his own charming naïveté, but to the fact that Laurie is pretty well-rounded and sympathetic herself. At first apprehensive of what she suspects to be Sam’s attempt at another night of fun, Laurie eventually decides to let down her barriers and engage in honest conversation with him. There’s never a point where she appears to learn a “lesson”, which gives the story a genuine emotional tinge – the moment where the two of them walk off as friends, nothing more, hits just the right note of humor and satisfaction.
Compared to the Sam/Laurie relationship, the Josh/Mandy interaction doesn’t fare too well. Josh’s adamant stance against Mandy is pretty amusing, particularly his constant declarations that “She answers to me, and she answers to Toby!” But their relationship doesn’t have much substance, and it doesn’t make for a whole lot of interesting material.
For that matter, Mandy herself isn’t all that interesting a character. Her storyline here – in which she mostly laments the loss of her job, before Josh offers her a spot at the White House – is tangential to the others and not especially effective. Whereas the other characters all play seamlessly off the others from the get-go, Mandy feels out of place and, during her scenes with Russell and Daisy, almost like a part of a different show. I’m not quite sure what Sorkin was trying to accomplish by adding her to the series, but I don’t mind the fact that she’ll soon be written out.
But between all the hits and occasional misses in the episode, one character rises above the rest. With only five minutes of screentime in the “Pilot” [1×01], Bartlet proved to be a likable and intriguing character, but was not saddled with a whole lot of depth. “Post Hoc” gives him more to do, and establishes the President as something more than just a face to put on the country.
Dr. Morris Tolliver drops by the White House once a week for Bartlet’s check-up – and that’s all he’s there for. As leader of the free world, Bartlet has many conflicts to deal with, and weekly medicals would appear to be a nuisance. Yet Bartlet will take the time to talk with Morris, to treat him as more than just a cog on the Presidential wheel. And building off the spirit of doctor/patient confidentiality, he can allay some of his own personal concerns as well. (Though it’s unclear whether he’s told Morris about his multiple sclerosis.) In these few minutes when Bartlet talks to Morris, he makes the man feel appreciated, while maintaining his own well-rounded sense of humor.
And so when Morris’ plane is fatally shot down by a terrorist group, the President is hit hard. Bartlet will lose several friends over the course of the series, many of them closer to him that his doctor was. But Bartlet still held Morris in high regard, and his hurt, angry reaction shows just how personal he makes of even the most marginalized relationships – if his bond with his doctor is so strong, how much more so is his relationships with the senior staffers.
Bartlet is a strong advocate of peaceful relations, but Morris’ death has hit him personally. “I am not frightened,” he tells Leo. “I’m gonna blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder.” It’s easy to sympathize with Bartlet’s plight, but also a bit frightening to realize that he is in fact capable of carrying out his threat. Bartlet’s reaction at this early stage in the series is one of frustrated man who wants nothing more than to fight back. It will be some time before he develops a more even and rational outlook when it comes to terror situations. Leo’s concerned look after hearing the President’s threat is a sign of his impending conflicts with Bartlet – occasionally, the former will have to reel the latter in from making a terrible mistake.
Bartlet’s plight is the epitome of the “action and reaction” theme which runs through the episode. The other side of this issue will be examined in the next episode, “A Proportional Response” [1×03]. I’ll naturally discuss it in my review of that episode. (As an aside, how awesome is it that the show is using cliffhangers this early on?)
“Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” feels in many ways like a second pilot. This is not to say that the first “Pilot” [1×01] didn’t work as such – not at all. But this second episode, following the setup of the first, fits more in line with the standard West Wing formula that the series will use. Though I suppose “standard” is a weak word to use for a series as good as this.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Though I dislike most of the Mandy material this episode, I admit I do find it a little funny to watch her drive her car up on the curb before yelling at Russell, “Are you crazy?!” as well as her “I’ll kill you with my shoes!” line.
+ Margaret fawning over the picture of Morris’ baby.
+ Josh making a quick reference to the bicycle-in-the-tree incident from the “Pilot” [1×01].
+ The debut of Hoynes. He’s easily one of the show’s best recurring “villains”, and this episode wastes no time in making him a character you love to hate to love.
+ Sam telling Toby that he accidentally slept with a prostitute by directly stating “I accidentally slept with a prostitute.”
+ Leo setting Hoynes straight (for the moment, anyway).
+ Easter Egg for Buffy and Angel fans: Gunn and D’Hoffryn are both members of the VP’s staff.
– While certainly not “bad”, the title music sounds awkwardly different from the bolder theme that will come into use later this season. (Though it does fit well with the comparative buoyancy of the first season.)
* Hoynes’ indifference to Bartlet and Leo’s threat to ruin him if he neglects to support the Office are factors that hint at the many conflicts that will soon come between the two of them.
* While talking with Morris, Bartlet hints that being around the Joint Chiefs makes him feel like he’s back at his father’s dinner table. Bartlet’s father issues become a focal point in later seasons, particularly in “Night Five” [3×13].
* CJ’s anger towards the Vice President, and her hurt expression after he casually brushes her off, are pretty interesting if you put the episode in context with “Full Disclosure” [5×15].