West Wing 1×06: Mr. Willis of Ohio

[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.


Foreshadowing

* 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…


[Score]

B+

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11 thoughts on “West Wing 1×06: Mr. Willis of Ohio”

  1. [Note: Brachen Man posted this comment on January 19, 2014.]

    This was a great showcase for Toby, and that alone makes it excellent. Hammy though it may be, I always get that warm fuzzy idealistic feeling when Toby watches Mr. Willis vote at the end.

    On another note, can anyone tell me why so many people love Donna? She’s quite hilarious on occasion, but on so many other occasions I’ve found her character consistently annoying. Maybe it’s just me.

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  2. [Note: Iguana-on-a-stick posted this comment on January 19, 2014.]

    I’d be one of those. Donna’s probably my favourite character on the show. She’s extremely funny, indeed. But more than that she’s a great foil for Josh as Jeremy points out. Without her constantly deflating him, Josh would be insufferable. At the same time she humanises him because their relationship is so very… intimate is the word I’d use, but in a familial rather than romantic way. (Although it also works for old marrieds.) The way they’re so very much aware of but don’t mind eachother’s foibles and flaws makes them much better characters together than they’d be apart.

    In a more general sense, Donna is a good antidote to the very “serious business” atmosphere that pervades the series. I can see why you’d find her annoying, but even on those occasions where she -is- annoying I like it, since… well, when everything is about politics and alliances and polls and life-and-death decisions over millions, it gets to be a bit much at times. Donna manages to care about those same things and about the people who care about them, but in her own inimitable way that is very much -not- serious business all the time. The show needs that.

    Jeremy: Don’t think I’ve said it before, but you’re doing a great job with these reviews. I’ll never love the West Wing as much as you do, but I can’t argue with the points you make and the views on the characters you put forth.

    This wasn’t one of my favourite episodes in the first season, perhaps because I never really warmed to Toby, but you make a good point about the value of the outside perspective. Which nicely ties back in to the Donna bit I started with, since what I find appealing about her is that she manages to offer an outside perspective while being on the inside. Or perhaps just an oddball perspective.

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  3. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 19, 2014.]

    One thing I’ve always loved about Donna (apart from the things Iguana mentioned) is how she starts off as a minor comic-relief type and then slowly becomes incorporated in the larger ensemble. Seriously, her character growth from Season Two on is amazing.

    And her screwball comedy banter with Josh never fails to make me smile.

    Thanks, Iguana!

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  4. [Note: MrB posted this comment on January 19, 2014.]

    This is an episode about being human – and who can do that well and who can’t. Mr. Willis brings that out of Toby (sort of), Josh is Josh and can’t completely break out of the political, Zoe and Charlie are human before political, and Bartlet has the best and needed balance – though it does not appear so at first glance.

    Put the scene with the card game together with the scene with Zoey. That gives a picture of the intersection of the personal and political in Bartlet.

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  5. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on June 23, 2015.]

    Is it just me, or is CJ’s ignorance about the census a bit much? Despite being such a high-level White-House staff member, she apparently needs someone to explain to her the basics of what the census actually is and why we need it. I mean, yeah, she’s the Press Secretary and doesn’t make political decisions like the other characters do, but still. The scene where Sam explains it to her like he’s teaching a 6th grade class seemed really off to me.

    On the other hand, I liked everything else about this episode. Josh and Donna’s sparring about the tax issue, Charlie getting to shine at the bar, Leo and Bartlett’s fight being contrasted with Bartlett’s own family issues at the end, etc.

    (I’ll probably stop reading these reviews soon, so as not to run into too many spoilers before finishing the series, but I couldn’t help but read the first few.)

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  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on June 23, 2015.]

    The early episodes make an effort (perhaps too much of an effort) to let you know that CJ is not as politically savvy as some of her coworkers. You’ll see why later.

    (The “man explaining things to woman” trope is one that Sorkin unfortunately tends to employ in many of his works, but The West Wing handles it better than the others.)

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  7. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 2, 2015.]

    Okay, there’s one thing I really did not like about this episode– the barflies. The one-dimensional Republicans on this show are one-dimensional, but they have a clear political viewpoint, hamfisted as it may be.

    But the frat dicks. They start out as plain old assholes hitting on a girl, too stupid (or drunk) to realize said girl is the President’s daughter. But then Charlie interferes, and they become racists (albeit very tame ones– “LL Cool J” is really the most biting thing Sorkin could come up with?), and then they finally become homophobes before the Secret Service arrests them. What are they but designated antagonists? This strikes me as very lazy writing.

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  8. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on December 16, 2015.]

    Yup. You nailed my biggest complaint with this episode. Honestly, other than that this may be my favorite episode so far. The thematic yarn of political tactics taking precedence over honest integrity is a tragically honest parable, and the final scene is a moment of quiet but excellent introspection. An episode that demonstrates the underlying cause (among others) of government dysfunction, and is able to represent that in a relatable human character on the show as a subtle awakening was quite delightful. Also despite the bar jerks being terribly written, it did inject some momentary tension into the show…before they opened their mouth that is.

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

    Very good review. I never really connected the census being something that’s supposed to be about the ordinary citizen and connecting it to the the very ordinary Mr. Willis, and the up to the point he got this job, ordinary Charlie. And then that ties to Peggy’s, errr…, Zoe’s desire to be ordinary.

    Also, the Donna stuff this episode was such a great gag. I don’t trust Josh to spend the change from the sandwich properly either.

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  10. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 6, 2016.]

    On that note, how adorable is teenage Elisabeth Moss?

    I assume it will take you a while to not think of her as Peggy Olson.

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

    It’s funny that she’s really only playing a year or two younger than Peggy at the start of Mad Men despite this airing about 8 years before.

    And I already see her as a different character. Elisabeth Moss is a good enough actor that there’s almost no recognizable Peggy in this performance.

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