West Wing 1×02: Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

[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.)


Foreshadowing

* 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].


[Score]

B+

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21 thoughts on “West Wing 1×02: Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc”

  1. [Note: Brachen Man posted this comment on January 6, 2014.]

    “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” was one of the better second episodes I’ve seen. Most shows don’t pull off a good second episode because they’re usually trying too hard to establish what the series will be like while at the same time repeating the pilot. One of the reasons I love The West Wing is because there isn’t really an identifiable ‘status quo’. The tone can shift wildly from week to week (Sometimes in the same episode), and the stories never really fit a pattern other than ‘working in the White House’.

    Consistent characterization (for now) is also one of their greatest assets. The West Wing is rarely overtly serialized, but the character arcs flow very well. This becomes especially apparent on marathon viewing.

    SPOILERS follow: I don’t think connecting this to “Full Disclosure” works at all. That episode was just dreadful character assassination, probably one of my least favorite Season 5 episodes (and that’s saying something).

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 7, 2014.]

    Remember that when reviewing any episode, I’m taking the events of the whole series into account. “Full Disclosure” may not be a great episode, but the backstory it reveals needs to be taken into account in regards to the interaction between Hoynes and CJ in this episode. This show is one long seven-year story, and I’ll be reviewing it as such.

    Also, character assassination doesn’t apply to Hoynes. Have you ever heard of someone assassinating the Vice President? No. You know why? ‘Cause it’s never happened. Will it ever happen? No. Because… who cares?

    (Sorry. I just love Ben Stiller.)

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  3. [Note: Sam L posted this comment on January 7, 2014.]

    Apparently, that line I thought was in the pilot was actually in this episode. Oops. Good catch, Jeremy. I knew it would be too funny not to include. Another excellent, in-depth review.

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  4. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on March 20, 2014.]

    I have now watched “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc”. Suffice to say, I was impressed.

    Perhaps it was because I was reeling from the Sorkin dialogue, but it was hard for me to form a concrete impression on “Pilot”. I enjoyed it, of course … I would watch it again with a friend, and I’ll probably see it again at some point. However, I couldn’t tell you what score I would give it, or even whether I thought it was CriticallyTouched worthy at all.

    Not so for this episode. I know the characters, I went in fully prepared and so I came away satisfied and with many of my expectations exceeded. Some niggles persist (the music that plays when Bartlet gives his last words to Morris), but on the whole it was very enjoyable. I’m also interested to see how the next episode will resolve the situation given to us at the end.

    So far, I like everybody, although my favourites would have to be Josh (because, loath as I am to admit it, I see myself in him) and of course Bartlet, who is simply fantastic. Hoynes also appears to have potential – I hope to see more of him in the future. Even universally-despised characters (see, Mandy) have yet to irritate me.

    So, fantastic. I liked it better than the “Pilot”, although on rewatch that may well change. Still, it’s a strong start to the series … I hope the rest of it can live up to this promise.

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  5. [Note: Kirinin posted this comment on February 10, 2015.]

    “Reeling from the Sorkin dialogue”… haha, I know exactly what Freudian Vampire means, there. The first time I saw ‘Pilot’, it was almost as though I didn’t know what to make of it, and part of that was due to how fast-paced the episode is.

    However, repeated viewings showed how skillfully Sorkin creates this empty space where the President should be – the characters talking about him, referring to him in their stories, but he’s never present. You never know how seriously they are in their commentary either, but it’s certainly true that the person they speak of in the first 80% of the episode could be a very unpleasant man. Then you meet him, and that entire impression is shattered.

    For that alone, the episode deserves some serious kudos.

    -K

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  6. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on July 25, 2015.]

    Oh, and I watched this episode too.

    I rather liked the Mandy stuff! “We’re on the stairs drinking wine out of paper cups.” Ha. (Not as good as “Did you trip over something?” but then again, what could be?) The dumb rock music persists, but her dialogue is reasonably funny and I don’t find her behavior any more cartoonish or grating than CJ falling off the treadmill. Still not sure why she comes first in the credits since she’s so unimportant…

    Oh, but she doesn’t come first in the credits, Rob Lowe does. Because he’s a bigger star than Allison Janney, I suppose. I can’t stand him, even if he looks like Alexis Denisof when he puts on those glasses. I mean, I can stand him, but I don’t like him to the extent I like the rest of the ensemble and I can’t believe he was supposed to be the protagonist at one point. I like how it’s incredibly obvious to every single person that he wants to “save” Laurie– perhaps I haven’t gotten far enough into the series to see ample reason to disagree.

    (MINOR NIGGLE: Margaret being distracted by some random photo of some random dude’s baby comes off as “look at this woman and her hardwired maternal squeeing.”)

    The scene where Bartlet has to explain to his staff what the title quote means– Josh sort of getting it but needing Leo (?) to come in for the clutch– felt artificially prolonged and a little pretentious, like they needed to justify the title card in some way.

    The Morris scene was great, though. As was the Leo/Hoynes showdown. I dig it.

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  7. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on July 25, 2015.]

    FIRST DRAFT OF STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S HIT MUSICAL “VICE PRESIDENTIAL ASSASSINS”

    PROPRIETOR:

    HEY PAL,
    FEELING BLUE?
    DON’T KNOW
    WHAT TO DO?
    HEY PAL,
    I MEAN YOU!

    (PROPRIETOR gestures towards CZOLGOSZ.)

    YOU WANNA SHOOT A VICE PRESIDENT?

    CZOLGOSZ:

    Um… no?

    PROPRIETOR:

    Oh. Alright then. Hinckley? You wanna kill the vice president? No? Okay then. Squeaky? Sara Jane Moore? Come on, kill Nelson Rockefeller! That’ll make a statement.

    (Everyone walks away.)

    Shoulda thought this through better, huh?

    CURTAINS. BOWS.

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  8. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on July 25, 2015.]

    See, it’s funny not only because it’s a reference to Stephen Sondheim’s greatest and most underrated contribution to the musical theater, but because Leon Czolgosz assassinated Bill McKinley, who was by all accounts a totally forgettable president; and more to the point, his vice president was quite possibly the most popular and influential American politician of all time. Please lavish attention all over me, I’m lonely now that Mike deleted my 30+ comments on “Noel.”

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  9. [Note: Noah posted this comment on July 26, 2015.]

    I have to say that I think Franklin was more popular and influential than Teddy.

    I also have to say that I find it somewhat implausible that the White House would hire a woman who ran her car up on the sidewalk and then started a loud public altercation with somebody. Then again, Bartlet will later have the attorney general personally admit a prostitute to the Bar…

    By the way, great description of the Laurie/Sam dynamic, Jeremy. I enjoyed their interactions a lot. They do a good job with introducing the recurring Sam-and-the-administration’s-idealism-versus-a-complicated-world threads in the series. They want to help everybody, but some people don’t want/don’t need it, even when Sam thinks they do. But you add more complexity to it than that. They also have personal reasons for their ideals, motives that aren’t selfless. I wish the show had examined that a bit more deeply than it ultimately did, to my memory at least. That’s the kind of character trait/philosophical theme that could make some great tragedy. (I haven’t seen seasons 5-7, so they may well have done that and I don’t know about it!)

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  10. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on July 26, 2015.]

    I have to say that I think Franklin was more popular and influential than Teddy.

    Surely, neither of them were more popular and influential than Garret Hobart.

    As for Sam and Laurie, after watching their entire story play out, I’m a bit confused about why she puts up with Sam for so long. I like Laurie, and I like that she isn’t treated like trash by the story just because she’s a prostitute, but why would someone as confident as her be so enamored with a guy who puts her down so much, even if he thinks he’s doing the right thing?

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  11. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on July 26, 2015.]

    Noah: I think there are actually numerous instances throughout the series of characters doing things for selfish reasons, even if said decisions have the side benefit of promoting their ideals. Though admittedly, it’s only in the last season or two that personal motives really overtake political ones.

    Zarnium: I’ve said my piece about Laurie and about how her arc is dragged out far too long. It’s more of a problem in Sam’s case, since the writers didn’t do a great deal with him on the series that didn’t involve girl troubles.

    Bosc: Rob Lowe is in the credits first because he was the most well-known actor at the time the show premiered (apart from Sheen, who gets the coveted final credit). All the other actors are credited alphabetically, from Kelly to Whitford.

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  12. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 8, 2015.]

    But that doesn’t explain why Moira Kelly comes before both Dule Hill and Allison Janney when she is (to my knowledge) not a high-profile actor. But that’s not why I’m here.

    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.)

    I figured out why the theme sounds so wimpy in the first few episodes. Snuffy Walden had an orchestra come in about five times each season to record his score live, and he used synthesizers for everything else. The orchestra didn’t record the theme song live during the first session, so the theme you hear up until “The State Dinner” is played on synthesizers.

    There’s some difference in orchestrations as well– there aren’t any bass drum hits, and the eighth-notes that segue into the last bit of the main melody are played staccato on this tinny woodwind rather than on those lush strings.

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  13. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 8, 2015.]

    Whoops. Got the alphabet mixed up again.

    Here’s the thing about Kelly. During the Nineties, she was a quasi-movie star, having had prominent roles in a handful of movies, including the Twin Peaks film, Chaplin, and The Lion King. She had also previously worked with West Wing exec producer John Wells on a Dorothy Day film (where she costarred with Martin Sheen). Hence, she was famous enough to get the second credit in the title sequence.

    But she hasn’t done much work since appearing on The West Wing (apart from One Tree Hill) whereas prior unknown actors like Allison Janney and Bradley Whitford have gone on to much bigger things.

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  14. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on August 11, 2015.]

    I thought that Mandy was ok. But that’s her problem; she’s only ok. In a show full of colorful characters like CJ and Toby and Donna, Mandy never really gained much personality or importance besides being “that lady who brings up uncomfortable political realities sometimes.” I think she was originally intended to be a foil for Josh, but Donna filled that role so much better that Mandy’s only defining trait became redundant.

    (That’s sort of a running theme in the show, actually. There are multiple characters who initially appear in order to drive Josh up the wall, but most of them are bland or irritating, or they don’t come into their own as a character until they stop being defined by their relationship with Josh. The only “opposite-Josh” characters that really worked were Joey Lucas and, of course, Donna.)

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  15. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on November 26, 2015.]

    God the intro is hilariously cheesy. Good episode though, not as strong as the pilot imo which is about as strong as a fast-paced involving pilot could ever be.

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  16. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on November 26, 2015.]

    I’m glad you loved the pilot. I think it’s great, too, although as far as fast-paced, involving pilots go, I’d put it behind a couple of others – particularly that of The West Wing‘s spiritual predecessor, ER.

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  17. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on February 24, 2016.]

    That’s a great point about Sam, that his concern seems to have very little to do with Laurie at all, and more about him not wanting to let go and resign himself to be a “fling” person.

    I just can’t get myself to care about it though because he’s just so stupid and clueless in the way he goes about things.

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