West Wing 1×03: A Proportional Response

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Marc Buckland | Aired: 10/06/1999]

Although these West Wing reviews are intended to focus chiefly on the TV series, I may take the occasional opportunity to talk about Aaron Sorkin’s 1995 film The American President. This highly entertaining technical marvel was the precedent and inspiration for the later series, and its influence can be seen beyond the shared Fifth Avenue setting. Both film and show portray a highly idealized government, filled with likable politicians who coexist in an energetic environment. Both contain vast amounts of sharp, humorous dialogue. And both feature a President who at first feels conceived as a pure liberal fantasy, but is later revealed to be all-too-human.

In fact, the early West Wing episodes feel very much in tone with the movie which inspired it. On rare occasions, in fact, the series directly draws material from the film. And one of the most notable of these occasions occurs in “A Proportional Response”.

In both the film and the episode, the President is faced with the decision of ordering a military response against an overseas attack by a foreign military base. Both seem primed to give an order, but they also question the value of a “proportional response”. Here, the show diverges from the film’s setup: Whereas Andrew Shepherd quickly agrees to comparative retaliation, Jed Bartlet wants to fight back with extra power, to show the attackers that America means business.

It’s this breakaway from the earlier form that establishes Jed as a more personable and potentially interesting character. His decision, spurred on by the fact that Morris Tolliver, an associate of his, was a victim of the unprovoked attack, is one made of bitterness and frustration. But it’s also made on the notion that he is the most powerful man in the country, and he can do something to avenge Morris’ death.

This trait defines more than any other who Jed Bartlet is, and we’ll see him fight for and against it many times throughout the show. (Compare his desire to dole out punishment in this episode to his later actions in “Twenty Five”.) It’s a battle of Bartlet the man vs. Bartlet the President, made extra-intimidating b the fact that the victor can affect the entire shape of the country. This early installment cools the flames pretty rapidly, but it lets us know that the door may be open to a different outcome.

In this episode, the task of setting Jed straight falls to Leo, in a scene that gives us our first in-depth look into the relationship between the President and his Chief of Staff. The climactic scene between Jed and Leo reveals some tension between them, while also clearly establishing them as the closest of friends. Jed is a go-getter, fueled by an idealism that drives him to his (sometimes over-the-top) goals. But should he ever get carried away, Leo is there to rein him in and ground his idealistic views into a hard reality.

When Jed begins comparing present-day America to centuries-old Rome, projecting his hopes that Americans will someday walk the world unharmed, Leo is quick to remind him that no single country – not even the world’s greatest superpower – has that luxury anymore. Leo minces no words in setting Jed straight, either. “You can conquer the world,” he says, “but you better be prepared to kill everyone. And you better start with me.”

We know from “Bartlet for America” just how deep the friendship between Jed and Leo is, and that knowledge intensifies the drama of this scene even more. When the tension between the two melts away and they turn to more lighthearted conversation, we see that despite the seriousness with which the two will enforce and defend their own beliefs, their relationship is ultimately built on mutually friendly ground.

Now, Jed isn’t the only character in the episode to have his personal feelings conflict with the state of the White House. Sam has issues of his own, trying to regain his footing as a respectable staffer while hoping the story of his night with Laurie the call girl will simply disappear. CJ, however, knows the media better than this, and reprimands Sam for not informing her of his actions.

It won’t become fully apparent until “Lord John Marbury”, but CJ is not quite as “in the loop” as some of her fellow staffers. Her job is to put a face on the White house for the reporters, and in turn, the public, which paints her as the link between the inside and outside world. She will slowly grow out of this role as the series progresses, becoming more ingrained in the inner affairs of the Bartlet Administration. But at this early stage, her job is to make the White House look good – and as such, she’s understandably upset by what Sam has done.

Sam, for his part, thinks that CJ is overreacting, though his feelings are partially influenced by a need to ease his own conscience. He tries to justify his actions, skating around the fact that, as CJ puts it, “none of that matters on hard copy!” His comment that she doesn’t have the courage to stand up for the White House strikes a raw nerve, however, which suggests that CJ occasionally feels powerless at her job, simply delivering the news without editorializing it. (Still and all, it should be stressed that straightforward briefings are the most preferable kind – CJ’s personal public rant in “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” will cause more harm than it’s worth.)

Yet despite the fierce stance she takes against Sam’s position, CJ actually uses his very argument when approached by Danny. She’s caught smack-dab between a reporter and a story, and her only hope is to quell the flames with whatever she can muster up. (To Danny’s credit, he allows the story to sit for a while in order to cut CJ a break – an early sign that he has feelings for her.) In time, she will begin to shed her ultra-safe skin, becoming the more headstrong character we’ll see in later seasons.

Which indirectly brings me to the episode’s quiet yet significant introduction of Charlie. Though he was quickly written into the series due to a complaint from the NAACP, Charlie manages to fit into this episode without feeling too shoehorned. The character himself is not instantly engrossing (Dulé Hill takes a few episodes to grow into his role) but his effect on the show as a whole clicks instantly.

Josh’s worry that the public will react negatively to a black man working as the President’s personal aide is the least interesting point of the episode, as the issue isn’t especially developed and the outcome is easily predictable. Better is Sam’s reaction to Josh’s scrutinizing of Charlie. Sam is pretty sore over the idea of the press delving into the personal life of White House staffers, and he projects his frustrations onto the interview process, before Josh manages to set him straight.

But it’s during the chaotic climax that Charlie himself begins to find a footing. Amidst the rough day that the President is having, Charlie offers a suggestion as to where he can find his missing glasses. Although Bartlet’s initial reaction is frustrated (“I don’t have time for new people!”) he is soon calm enough to greet the young man in his signature friendly manner. The Bartlet/Charlie relationship – tangential to that of a father and the son he’s never had – is ignited here.

Charlie’s line at the end of the episode – “I’ve never felt this way before” – is that of an unassuming everyman who’s just entered a palace of grandeur. And it’s a welcome perspective for a series generally built around characters that are used to working within the cavernous halls of the White House. After all, despite the characters’ well-formed sensibilities, it’s sometimes a bit difficult to relate to people who chat daily with the leader of the country.

Equally as integral is Josh’s follow-up line, on which the episode draws to a close: “It doesn’t go away.” In a similar vein to The American President, these early West Wing episodes are marked by a sense of wonder and awe. The first season actually feels a bit lightweight when compared to the others, which, as we’ll see in my coming reviews, usually works in its favor. But despite the relative buoyancy of these early outings, episodes like “A Proportional Response” are sure signs that the show is capable of bold dramatic weight.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Josh and Donna’s banter just keeps getting funnier.
+ CJ waiting in Josh’s office. “Wow, are you stupid!”
+ Sam is prompted to apologize to CJ after he and Toby write a speech which features three words that all mean the same thing. It’s these little touches which give the show its greatest texture.


* Toby’s outrage toward Congressman Coles’ position (“He was a Democrat!”) is a sign of his staunchly adherent belief in the dividing line between the two major political parties. This becomes more of a point in “Mr. Willis of Ohio”.
* Jed to Leo: “When I think of all you did to get me elected, I could pummel your ass with a baseball bat.” This amusing line becomes even funnier – and just a tiny bit moving – when you factor in the events of “Bartlet for America”.


Next Episode: Five Votes Down

13 thoughts on “West Wing 1×03: A Proportional Response”

  1. [Note: Brachen Man posted this comment on January 9, 2014.]

    I just wanted to say up front that regardless of how many times I post my contradictory opinions or grades, I think these reviews have been completely stellar so far. Seriously, keep up the good work.

    I found this episode to be (aside from Jed’s great scene with Leo at the end) a little boring actually, building up to the inevitable conclusion straight from the get-go of the President coming to terms with the death of his friend, realizing he can’t level nations to settle grudges, etc. As a rule, I tend not to enjoy the big crisis episodes unless there are twists that makes it truly unpredictable or great character development and banter as well.

    I had no idea that Charlie wasn’t intended as a character from the start, so I guess they did a good job writing him in, however rushed it was. (Behind-the-Scenes trivia is another great aspect to these reviews. I feel like I learn a little more about each episode. Do you have one of those official companion books or something?)


  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 10, 2014.]

    There are a couple of great websites (which you can find in my Links section) stuffed with all kinds of information about the show. Being a trivia lover myself, I enjoy popping in on those sites from time to time.

    There are also a few companion books to the series. I flipped through one, (“Inside The West Wing”) but it only covers the first two seasons, it’s not very well-written, and the author doesn’t really like “Two Cathedrals”, so I’d recommend skipping it.

    Glad you’re enjoying the reviews!


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

    It won’t become fully apparent until “Lord John Marbury” [1×11], but CJ is not quite as “in the loop” as some of her fellow staffers.


    To me, CJ always felt out of the loop and not as respected as other staffers. After whasserface was gone, she was the only women with as much power as Toby, Josh, and Sam, so I was VERY relieved when – well, either her character grew up a little, the writers grew up a little, or one was the result of the other. 😉

    I don’t remember when I began to strongly feel as though she were always being pushed to the side, but it was within the first few episodes – far before Marbury.



  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 10, 2015.]

    I just meant that “Lord John Marbury” was the first episode to directly call attention to CJ’s out-of-the-loop-ness in the story.

    She’s definitely not as involved as the other staffers from the beginning, though. But she does progressively grow in importance over time, thanks to some very well-structured development.


  5. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on July 26, 2015.]

    Charlie is adorable! I can’t believe Dulé Hill was 24 when this episode was filmed, he doesn’t look or sound a day over 18. But enough squeeing.

    I do agree that Josh fretting over hiring a black man as Bartlet’s personal aide is a dumb subplot, and it does come off as an obvious morality tale about racism. (Although I don’t know what the moral would be. “We live in a post-racial world?” That ain’t true in a world where Obama got eight years and it certainly wasn’t true at the turn of the millennium.) Rather, I think it’s an extension of the “image problem” that the entire staff’s been having. CJ thinks that Bartlet lost Texas because not because he was a Democrat in a state that’s voted Republican every election for the past four decades, but because he made a joke about funny hats. They’re nervous, and they’re overthinking how the public will receive everything they do– Josh’s thoughts fit perfectly into that paradigm.


  6. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on March 5, 2016.]

    I didn’t think it was that dumb a subplot, just because of the points you make here. It’s obviously ridiculous that people would have any problem with that, but you can see where there would be some image squidgeeness and the show acknowledging that and roundly dismissing it is probably overall a good thing.

    In regards to the complaint by the NAACP, I can understand where they’re coming from, but they really probably should have been going about things a different way than forcing all-white shows to introduce some tokenism into them. It doesn’t really solve the problem. On the other hand, it does give more jobs to African American actors, so that’s good.


  7. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 5, 2016.]

    Well, the role of CJ very nearly went to CCH Pounder. Had that happened, the show would not have been pressured to add Charlie in the first place. So in a weird way, I’m actually glad the show started with an all-white cast, or Charlie may never have existed.

    Plus, Pounder soon landed a role on another great seven-season drama, so everyone wins.


  8. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on August 15, 2016.]

    Alright this is weird. I haven’t disagreed with a single score of yours yet. This is definitely the best episode of the series so far. It gave me something to think about, unlike the previous 2.


  9. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 15, 2016.]

    This is obviously the best episode of the entire show because it’s the episode with the “paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista” line in it.


  10. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on August 15, 2016.]

    Haha, when I saw that scene, I thought to myself, “OH, so THAT’S where that came from!”. 🙂


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