[Writer: Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr., Patrick Caddell, and Aaron Sorkin | Director: Michael Lehmann | Aired: 10/13/1999]
When crafting a new TV series, you can almost always expect some bumps in the process. True, there are some shows in the medium that open with strong first seasons, but the majority of television needs at least a year or so to find its feet. (This may not turn out to be a bad thing in the long run – better to start small and slowly build in quality than to open with a bang and spend the later seasons struggling to match those initial expectations.)
This sort of slow, experimental buildup is reflected by the first season of The West Wing, not just in the overall quality (it’s a strong season, but not by any means perfect), but in the characters and situations themselves. The Bartlet administration plays things on the cool side during the early episodes, using its power only to the extent that it doesn’t have to stir up any flames. This, it should be pointed out, is a good thing. On my initial viewing, I enjoyed the first season, but found it to be moderately uneventful when compared to most of its successors. That criticism still holds to some extent, but I now understand and appreciate how this slow buildup fits into the grand scheme of the series. The President and his staff have a great level of power at their disposal – they only need some time to realize how to use it.
So it is that “Five Votes Down” finds our characters trying every backdoor method they can think of to pass a gun control bill. The field of politics is ripe for negotiation, but there’s no instance in this episode of the Bartlet staffers trying to go head-to-head against Congress. They stay on the sidelines, rising only to try and gain support from congressmen whose votes they’ve lost. Why? Because at this point, their perception is that doing their job means winning. They’ll push the bill from any angle they think will attain them victory, but they’re not yet bold enough to try just for the sake of trying.
What’s most interesting about the staffers in these early outings is the way they set their standards and view their goals. As the flashbacks in the Season Two opener will reveal, they were all brought together under one roof by Bartlet and Leo, who offered them a chance to spread their idealism beyond the barriers of their relatively menial day-to-day jobs. If the more reserved stance they now take seems to contrast sharply with their earlier opportunism, it’s partly the lofty post – and the hefty level of power that comes with it – that keeps them at bay. There’s a lot of passion and dedication involved in trying to get elected, but even after inauguration, it will take time to adjust to the intimidating new environment.
But the real meat of these characters – and the major reason that they spend much of the first season in the shallow end of the pool – goes beyond the House in which they reside. The important thing to glean from this development is that the Bartlet staffers care about and look out for each other. The friendships and overall family they’ve created within these marble walls are more important to them than the work itself, and they’re unwilling, at this point, to jeopardize personal bonds by taking a bold step forward in their political agendas.
When Toby faces indictment charges of manipulating the stock market, his coworkers discuss the best way to handle the situation without causing a ruckus. At various points they actually joke about Toby’s predicament. The Bartlet administration is held together not by business, but by banter, which makes the characters unique and intriguing, as well as a lot of fun to watch. (Especially fun is Toby’s take on the situation – he maintains an outwardly subdued expression while letting his bitterness stew in the form of dry and morose comments.)
“Five Votes Down” does a good job of affirming the White House staffers as the close, domestic group of people they are. In addition to establishing Sam, Josh, CJ, and Toby as a group of unrelated siblings, it doles out prominent familial roles to the President and his Chief of Staff as well. Bartlet is the father of the group – wise, caring, stern, and always capable of tying everyone together. When he accidentally takes both his medicines and takes part in an Oval Office meeting in a (hilariously) delusional state, the other characters do their best to make him a serious part of their discussion, even as he’s clearly not in a capable enough shape to discuss anything. Their courtesies are not solely out of respect for the President, but out of respect for the man who bears that title. Their attempts to rectify the Toby situation without the Bartlet’s assistance lead to a rather half-baked solution – further proof that the President’s personal wisdom is a necessary factor of their administration.
But if any character in this little family deserves mention in a review of this episode, it’s Leo. The relationship between Leo and Jed often makes them feel like brothers – which makes even more sense once you consider that Leo feels a lot like the uncle of the group. The younger staffers – and Josh in particular – often approach him for personal advice, matters they couldn’t directly bring up with the President himself. Leo’s more down-to-earth nature makes him easier for them to relate to than the more idealistic Bartlet. In fact, with the possible exception of Charlie, Leo himself is the show’s most outwardly human character.
This makes Leo’s own scenes in this episode especially hard to watch. The concept of a husband forgetting his own wedding anniversary, not to mention the idea of one encountering difficulties while attempting to balance out one’s personal life with their professional one, is not new. But Leo, with his relatively pragmatic demeanor contrasting sharply with the wide-eyed optimism of his coworkers, lends this story bold emotional weight.
Leo doesn’t have the personal will of mind that Bartlet does whenever he tries to stabilize his own marriage. Nor does he have the audacity that Toby shows when he re-proposes to Andy in “Twenty Five”. His relatively conservative nature heralds a relatively conservative approach – dinner by candlelight, along with a pearl necklace. Unfortunately, his gestures come off as “too little, too late”. It’s hard not to feel Leo’s pain as he watches his wife walk out the door, following a quiet, uncomfortable parting. (It goes without saying, but John Spencer sells every moment of his time onscreen.)
Perhaps the most intriguing turn of events in this episode is that it’s none other than John Hoynes who winds up aiding Leo. Only two episodes ago, Leo put Hoynes squarely in his place, all but threatening him to back up the President with all his energy. In “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc”, Hoynes came off as antagonizing, and more than a little self-promoting. Yet now when Leo comes to Hoynes, hurt and broken, the Vice President welcomes him with open arms, as well as a promise to help in both personal and political matters.
Despite what initial impressions may yield, Hoynes is not really a bad guy. His worst crime, as we’ll slowly come to learn, is that he’s in over his head. Hoynes is highly confident, to the point of being self-effacing – he ropes a Congressman into supporting him with the statement that “I’m going to be President of the United States one day.” Hoynes is smart, and a strong negotiator – hence why Bartlet chose him as a running mate – but his political intelligence is offset by a need to carve a name for himself above his boss – a conceit that doesn’t jell very healthily when you’re Vice President of the United States.
When Hoynes agrees to help the Administration bag the vote on the gun law, his motives are influenced by the temptation to enhance his own political standing. The bill is eventually passed, but the Vice President gets the credit, leaving Bartlet and his staff victorious but disappointed. “It was hubris,” Leo states, and that’s a fitting way to put it. The excessive pride that Josh and Sam displayed – pride Leo was only hesitantly inspired by – led them to nothing more than a hollow victory.
But despite Hoynes’ glory-stealing when it comes to legislation, he still offers up a friendly hand in personal matters. Hoynes clearly respects Leo – more than he does Bartlet, in fact – and offers him a spot at his own private “Alcoholics Anonymous” meeting. The final scene of this episode, in which Leo gives the guard outside the meeting a sort of secret password and enters the room, gives us a brief but tempting glimpse at the “other” side of politics. Leo, as Chief of Staff, is no stranger to meetings behind closed doors, but he’s now entered one of a more delicate nature than usual – here, his personal and professional lives combine in a highly discomforting way. Leo’s alcoholism is the most vulnerable facet of his past, and it’s quite fitting that he’d be reminded of it at such a difficult time. (The fact that he’ll continue attending these secret meetings right up until at least “Stirred” should leave no doubt as to the pain he feels in this situation.)
For all its strong character depth, “Five Votes Down” is hampered by a few glaring plot issues. Toby’s problem isn’t resolved so much as it jokes its way to a solution (though this does fit in with the lack of boldness the characters display at this point). And the gun vote story remains relatively one-sided, and isn’t developed beyond a few standard liberal ideals.
But it’s like I said – when crafting a new TV series, you can always expect some bumps in the process. And despite its own bumps, “Five Votes Down” remains a pretty smooth and enjoyable ride.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Toby and Bartlet arguing over whose work on the speech was better.
+ Sam and Josh having a walk-and-talk and then realizing that neither of them is going anywhere.
+ CJ (and everyone else) making light of Toby’s situation.
+ Pretty much the whole “Bartlet on drugs” scene, though I save special reservation for the moment where Jed decides that it would be a great idea to resign.
+ Hoynes to Josh: “Welcome to the NFL.”
– The gun-supporting Tillinghouse speaks with a heavy Texan accent. This smacks of cliché.
* While discussing Toby’s predicament, the staffers briefly consider the idea of Toby resigning. Toby will actually attempt to resign a couple of times later in the series, in both “Slow News Day” and “Here Today”. (And, as a joke, in “Liftoff”.)
* So much concern over Bartlet taking his medicine. Is there something they’re not telling us?
* Also, did Josh mention that Bartlet plays chess?