[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 11/03/1999]
In the final scene of “Mr. Willis of Ohio”, CJ boasts to her friends that she knows all there is to know regarding the US Census. Immediately, Bartlet asks her, “How many people live in the United States?” Despite the extensive study she has gone through with Sam, CJ has no answer. So much time has been spent thinking about the politics of the situation without thinking about the people involved.
Obviously, a show about the White House needs to be focused on the political aspects. But though we may love the characters in this series, it can sometimes be difficult to relate to the setting. So thankfully, once in a while, the show turns its microscope onto the more ordinary members of the population. And one such instance is “Mr. Willis of Ohio”, an episode that plays in minor key, but plays it quite well.
Joe Willis, for all intents and purposes, is an ordinary guy. He may be filling a Congressional seat for his late wife, but at heart, he’s just a simple eighth-grade history teacher. He has very little character depth or personality. Mr. Willis is the kind of person you might pass on the street, without giving him another look. And therein lies the beauty of his character: He’s just like us.
Toby is prepared to debate the Republican Congressmen over the Census bill, but Mr. Willis consents after hearing the first major argument, even as he acknowledges its imperfections. “It’s okay by me,” he asserts. “So long as it’s not the same people who decide what’s on television.”
Viewing this show, it’s hard at times not to think of every American as a staunch, assertive loyalist who will strive to any length to support what they believe in. “Mr. Willis of Ohio” reminds us that the people in America are just that – people. Many of us are less concerned with the political state of the country than we are with our own personal lives (though whether this is a good or bad thing is a debate for a different time).
Toby, for his part, is surprised by Mr. Willis’ straightforwardness and honesty. Toby’s own view of political argument involves lots of debate and little compromise, preferring tactics over tact. (When Skinner calls him out for sneaking the bill through the back door, Toby straight-facedly responds, “It got through whatever door was open to me.”) When Willis agrees to let the bill go through, Toby is caught off-guard, and even seems a little ashamed of his policies. But Willis assures him that personal beliefs can in fact be swayed and even changed by a strong argument.
It’s a humanizing moment for Toby, whose political viewpoints have up to this point been generally been painted in black and white. When Toby watches Mr. Willis cast his vote at the end of the episode, he does so for the sake of confirmation, but also out of respect for a man who has the strength – not the weakness – of playing fair.
Complementing Joe Willis nicely in this episode are some of the less politically-minded White House staffers and attendees. The dividing line between the government and the people can make for some pretty sharp comedy, as evidenced here by Donna’s complaints regarding the budget surplus. Donna gets very little development in the first season, but she works as an often hilarious comic foil to Josh, offsetting his smug, egotistical persona with her own dry perspective. Here, she serves to poke some sly fun at the government she works for, with Josh not so much countering her argument as he does cheerfully acquiesce to it. This side-plot doesn’t have much depth to it, but it’s amusing to watch, particularly as it sees the show taking a rare jab at liberal government.
But there’s also a serious aspect to mixing the respective political and pedestrian worlds, and this episode makes sure to focus on those as well. This is does through Charlie and Zoey, who, following a brief but adorable “Meet Cute” scenario in the previous episode, are now slowly developing their relationship.
With the exception of Leo, Charlie is perhaps the show’s most vividly human character. At the start of the series, he’s just an ordinary young man who happens to be brought on board as the President’s personal aide. Charlie’s strong ties to ordinary life are what make his behavior around Zoey so interesting. He lacks the suaveness of Sam or the assertive nature of Josh – around a cute girl, he gets nervous, forming cracks in the professional visage he’s trying to maintain. (Props go to Dulé Hill, who really starts to come into his own beginning with this episode.)
Zoey, meanwhile, is the most famous girl in the country, and despite the popularity that comes with her position, it should come as little surprise that she sometimes yearns for an ordinary life of her own. This appears to be the spark of her attraction to Charlie – he’s the most ordinary guy she’s seen around the White House. (It also may explain their apparent falling-out in later seasons – once Charlie becomes a more ingrained member of Bartlet’s staff, he loses a lot of that “ordinary” vibe.)
The gang’s “night out” projects the two young characters in an interesting light. Zoey naïvely plays along when the barflies flirt with her, but doesn’t give them her real name, trying to distance herself from the Presidential label. Charlie, meanwhile, is quick to come to her defense, a sign that he’ll soon be breaking out of his timid stance. Granted, Zoey comes equipped with her own Secret Service agents, but it’s still nice to see a more dynamic side of Charlie, someday the guy who will angrily lash out at Jean-Paul for putting Zoey in danger in “Twenty Five” [4×23].
Speaking of “Twenty Five” [4×23], it’s moderately unsettling to watch Jed reprimand his daughter for potentially putting herself in danger, delivering a story which eerily points toward future events. More crucial, though, is to notice that Jed’s anger is spurred on by love. The average father’s relationship with his daughter is filled with concern and worry – how much more so when said father is the most important man in the country.
I began this review by talking about the final scene of the episode, and just to show how extra-unpredictable I am, I’ll end it by talking about the opening. During the teaser scene, Jed plays cards with his personnel, testing their knowledge – and their patience – all the while. Even when the White House is placed under a security alert, he continues to press his staffers with obscure trivia questions. Josiah Bartlet sees his staff as his children, in the sense that it’s worth taking the time to impart wisdom to them, and also chooses to stay calm during a time of potential threat. It’s a point also made in the final scene of “The State Dinner” [1×07], as well as many other instances – Bartlet keeps everything on a basic, relatable level, not to dumb things down, but to soothe the concerned minds of others. And that can actually make the White House a very relatable place indeed.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Donna wanting her money back.
+ Donna wanting to buy a DVD player.
+ Donna making her point with sandwiches.
+ Donna existing.
– Mallory acting like a bubbling girly-girl when asking Josh to invite her to the bar. It works for Zoey, but seems out-of-character for Mal.
* In addition to the disturbingly prescient finger the Bartlet/Zoey scene points at “Commencement” [4×22], there’s also a nudge at “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22] when Zoey points out that the Secret Service should be concerned with the President getting shot.
* Bartlet’s straightforward retort to his friend’s marital crisis – “Fix it, Leo” – is a sign that he means to keep his relationship with Abby as uncomplicated as possible. However, it won’t always work out that way…