West Wing 1×04: Five Votes Down

[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?


Next Episode: The Crackpots and These Women

15 thoughts on “West Wing 1×04: Five Votes Down”

  1. [Note: Brachen Man posted this comment on January 12, 2014.]

    It’s genuinely interesting to see contrasting viewpoints on your favorite TV shows. For me, The West Wing was solid enough for the first couple episodes, but I wasn’t really engaged yet. This episode is the one that really hooked me, due in no small part to the tremendous acting abilities of John Spencer and the deepening characterization of Leo. I decided after this episode that Leo was my favorite character, and I don’t think that changed over 7 seasons.

    Hoynes receives depth here as well. He was positioned in episode 2 as an antagonist, but I like that the writers went deeper than that. I said this in a previous comment, but Hoynes is probably my favorite supporting character on the show, a more ambiguous counterpoint to the idealism represented by the President and his staff.

    The Jed on drugs scene was also a fantastic bit of comedy. I absolutely loved the apparent appeal that resignation holds for the President. If I were the leader of the free world, it would certainly cross my mind in a wishful thinking sort of way.

    I’d also like to mention how much I’m looking forward to reading your take on “He Shall, From Time to Time…”. If ever there was an episode that demanded as in-depth a review as possible, it’s this one and “Two Cathedrals”.


  2. [Note: MrB posted this comment on January 14, 2014.]

    Throughout the series, the Jed-Leo relationship is not discussed in terms of Brothers and Father/Uncle. It’s blatantly discussed as a political marriage with Jed and Leo as the parents (mom and dad) of Sam/Toby/CJ. Who was mom and who was dad would change from situation to situation.


  3. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 14, 2014.]

    Well, that would certainly explain some of the stranger Jed/Leo fanfics I’ve seen around the Internet…


  4. [Note: MrB posted this comment on January 15, 2014.]

    The main reason that these folks form a family is that they have to. The level of commitment it takes to operate on the stage on which they perform (the White House for the leader of the Free World) precludes them from having a normal family life. It is their choice, but it still is like being stationed at the North Pole in regards to being able to keep up familial contacts.

    Bartlett has the best family life in the show because in the US, we pay for the family along with the President. Not so much with everyone else. Leo sums this up in his conversation with Jenny:

    I’m sorry about the anniversary. I just…

    It’s not the anniversary. It’s everything. It’s the whole thing.

    This is the most important thing I’ll ever do, Jenny. I have to do it well.

    It’s not more important than your marriage.

    [emphatically] It is more important than my marriage right now. These few
    years, while I’m doing this, yes, it’s more important than my marriage…

    We WANT this in our White House staff. We kind of demand it. This is a “Jenny” problem as far as I am concerned. I am married to a retired USAF Lt Colonel. I knew that I may have had to put her on a plane, say goodbye for a while and have her know in her bones that everything was going to be alright. The West Wing understood that these people had to have the same level of commitment and families be damned if they could not survive the ordeal.


  5. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on March 22, 2014.]

    I’m going to fall on the side of Brachen Man on this one and say that I thought this was easily the best episode yet, if only for the moment when CJ asks Toby is she can borrow 120,000 dollars to buy lunch.

    Other than that, I really felt for Leo, liked the way they developed Hoynes and found the gun story to have some sort of balance – Tillinghouse actually makes a very good point. ‘As long as these people have guns, I want my daughter to have a gun.’


  6. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on July 27, 2015.]

    This was good.

    • Loved the shots of Bartlet on the televisions towards the beginning. And Toby’s a very good speechwriter– maybe Al Gore would have won if Aaron Sorkin was ghostwriting him.
    • Aaron Sorkin loves his rule of three, doesn’t he? Episode 3 (duh) was a lot more obvious in this regard with the “three words for the same thing” gag that was repeated three times.
    • Toby is a dot-com millionaire! No wonder his big episode is called “Here Today.”
    • I love the VILLAINOUS LIGHTING on Leo when he walks in on the anniversary.
    • BEST LINE: “Do you have $125,000 I could borrow?”
    • The disorienting camera work when Josh badgers Wick. It’s literally circling around him!
    • I thought they did a nice job being bipartisan with the gun debate here– Richardson thinks it’s been neutered, and the other guy (Tillinghouse? Wow) seems geniunely concerned, even if I disagree with him. It’s not “I want guns because I like shooting people, pew pew.”
    • Ooooooh man, I thought Hoynes was talking about strippers at first. And I genuinely couldn’t tell it was an AA meeting based solely on the coffee maker. I’m losing focus.


  7. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on July 27, 2015.]

    I believe you’re the first person I know who referred to “Here Today” as Toby’s big episode. Not that I’m complaining. But most would probably pick Richard Schiff’s Emmy-snagging “In Excelsis Deo”.

    Did you read my reviews before you started watching the series? Isn’t that kind of… I don’t know, disorienting?


  8. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on July 27, 2015.]

    I don’t actually know if it’s his big episode, I just wanted to make a joke about dotcom bubbles…

    See, I’d been skimming these reviews because I enjoy reading your articles, but didn’t really remember anything about these since I half-read them when you first published them a year ago++. I did myself a favor and skipped “Two Cathedrals” because I didn’t want to go into the best episode of the show knowing how it played out if I ever watched it– which wouldn’t happen because you know my policy on binge watching. (Namely, that I don’t)

    But it turns out I have the first four seasons of it on DVD, and as irritating as the DVD sets are (They’re on double-sided discs! What is this, Super Smash Brothers Brawl????) they allow me to watch the show on an actual television, which is fine by me. Now I have the pleasure of knowing what the heck you’re talking about…


  9. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on July 30, 2015.]

    Good news: After Season Three, the DVDs all switch to one-sided discs. (I own the Complete Series set, which consists of 45 one-sided discs, so I don’t have the issue.)

    And it’s good to hear that knowing what I’m talking about is a pleasure. Most people would probably say otherwise.


  10. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on November 27, 2015.]

    I was absolutely shocked at the bipartisan stance on the gun issue. I was worried that the entire show would be as blatantly liberal as The Newsroom. Being mostly liberal (especially socially) I wasn’t overly sensitive to The Newsroom and yet it still kind of irked me when they made heavy handed strawman arguments even for a side I was on, especially when even I can admit the other parties stance has it’s merits. Being sensitive to the issue for a change in regards to guns (I am pretty pro-gun I suppose), I was really sweating that the liberal sensibilities would carry over (as I found it to be a huge flaw in The Newsroom) and I can safely say that at least for now my fears can be set aside.

    I genuinely felt for Leo in the episode and thought his characterization was well-handled. Pretty good stuff so far! (Also i’m only skimming the reviews to avoid spoilers)


  11. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on November 27, 2015.]

    The show has some over-the-top back-patting moments, but its not as blatantly liberal as The Newsroom. This is because nothing on God’s Green Earth is as blatantly liberal as The Newsroom.


  12. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on November 27, 2015.]

    But the blatent liberalness of The Newsroom is cleverly hidden behind the fact its main character identifies as a Republican. Right? Right??


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

    I see I already commented on this review. My work here is done.

    I do like reading the retrospectives though, I’m not spoiler-phobic and knowing that Hoynes isn’t setting up to be a straight villain of the series helps me put that scene with Leo in better context. My initial impression was that Hoynes was trying to relax Leo so he didn’t get worried about what eventually happened, and not because he felt any genuine emotion towards him. I actually like it better knowing that there are more sides to the Veep.


  14. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on September 7, 2016.]

    I just watched the episode. I really enjoyed it, although the main conflict in the episode did hamper my enjoyment a bit. Still, Leo’s plight in the episode was great and really engaging. Plus drugged Bartlet. Best line of the episode:

    Bartlet; Toby, Toby, Toby……lovely name isn’t it?


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