[Writer: Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr., Patrick Caddell, and Aaron Sorkin | Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan | Aired: 01/05/2000]
“Lord John Marbury” features one of the strangest cold openings to ever grace a West Wing episode. The episode begins at the Washington Navy Yard, where two radar officers pore nervously over a screen. From there, we transition to the Pentagon, as a group of Army men discuss an impending threat of war. Only after that do we cut to the White House and the lovably familiar bickering of Josh and Donna, where the episode properly begins.
I can see what Sorkin was aiming for when he wrote those first two scenes into the script, as the story needs to set up a situation of potential urgency to run through the episode, but they feel a little forced and out of place with the goings-on that follow. They also strike me as a tad cliché – how many action/thriller films have opened with a shot of some nameless minor character staring with a mixture of shock and awe at a radar screen? This opening gives me the impression that “Lord John Marbury” is trying a little too hard to get its point across. But in all fairness, the point the episode makes is among the season’s more interesting. The episode is centered on information. Or lack of it, to choose a better term.
To scroll down the list: The government is uninformed about the building troubles between India and Pakistan, and is caught off-guard by the very serious possibility of war. CJ is uninformed by her coworkers about said war, and makes a fool of herself during the press briefings. Josh purposely withholds all sorts of information about Leo during his subpoena, effectively digging a potential pit for himself in the Deposition Room.
The concept ties in with the overall theme of the season – when you’re new to the job, a few things are bound to slip through the cracks. It’s a well-executed theme throughout, enough to amount to a good, though not exceptionally remarkable, episode.
This episode marks the first instance of Bartlet trying to cool the tempers of two sparing nations, caught in the middle of a conflict in which neither side is willing to relent. It’s interesting to note Bartlet’s increasingly frustrated reactions throughout the episode. The first sign of trouble comes when he chews out the CIA Director for not recognizing the threat earlier, and it escalates as he tries talking down the respective ambassadors of China, India, and Pakistan. Bartlet is trying to play peacekeeper, but he’s starting to realize that his tactics will need to be far bolder than mere compromises. (He will ultimately adopt Leo’s more forceful solution to the conflict in “He Shall, From Time to Time…”.)
Especially interesting is the way this storyline is juxtaposed with the minor thread of Charlie trying to get Bartlet’s approval to go out with Zoey. As in “A Proportional Response”, Bartlet’s handling of worldly events is compounded by this young everyman who has a few timid concerns of his own. This point functions as a good example of the political-issues-versus-personal-issues theme of the season: Bartlet’s concerns throughout the episode are almost equally divided between the potential international war and the prospect of his daughter dating his aide.
It says a good deal about the characters that the potential Charlie/Zoey relationship manages to be just as interesting as the running war plotline. This is in part due to its subversive nature – what kind of Presidential aide would go out with his daughter? Yet it’s precisely this subversive nature which fuels “Lord John Marbury” on the character front.
The subversion doesn’t stop there: CJ, usually the giver of information and knowledge, here is shown without the proper answers; Josh, typically the first to rise to the occasion with a witty barb, is now tongue-tied. Caught off-guard by the story’s schematics, the characters are left high and dry.
CJ’s constant banter with the press reporters has proven to be one of the show’s most entertaining motifs, but now a more serious light is shined upon it. Through her wittiness, she’s become a little too attached to the reporters, and the other White House staffers have chosen to cut her out of the loop when the crucial story threatens to break through. In being the most nationally recognizable of the senior staffers, she’s also become the biggest liability. This fact is a crucial aspect of CJ’s development in the early seasons. Despite her professionalism, she wants the public to view her as a regular, everyday gal.
Josh, meanwhile, continues to be pushed deeper into his own quandary, as he does his best to defend Leo against a vindictive deposition lawyer. Though Josh’s responses to Claypool’s questions are at first laced with his signature spiky sarcasm, they become less and less assured as he’s pushed further into a corner with questions regarding Leo’s alcoholism and pills. Even with Sam’s help, Josh is in a vulnerable position, the measure of which extends far beyond his usual issues. It’s at this point that we feel the real concern here – Leo is in serious danger, and not even his trusted deputy may be able to help.
“Lord John Marbury” is not an especially emotional episode, but it does feature a good deal of foreboding. Thankfully, it knows how to undercut the sense of dread with the reveal of the titular character. Lord John himself is a brash, forthcoming, hilarious character, and Roger Rees plays him with panache, giving him an air of deluded sophistication. Yet while Marbury may at first appear to be the butt of a rather drawn-out joke, he proves to be the character who steps in at the last minute to save the proverbial day.
Despite all the troubles the characters now have on their plate, there’s always that glimmer of optimism that typifies early West Wing episodes which sets them on the right track, even if it takes an overtly impractical Englishman to remind them. Lord John is bursting with information – he even quotes a passage from Revelations that Bartlet has difficulty recollecting – and proves to be just the right antidote the White House needs.
“Lord John Marbury”, like its title character, supplies some good intellectual material, along with some pretty good laughs, but it also feels a little too aloof and lacking in resonance. The episode feels akin to a sufficiently enjoyable placeholder. But it doesn’t help that it’s sandwiched right between the two greatest episodes of the season.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Josh using Donna as a signing board.
+ Hey, it’s Ed and Larry! I love those two, despite my complete incapability of telling them apart.
+ Toby having trouble apologizing to CJ. So sweet, and so Toby.
+ Everything involving Marbury and Leo.
– Go away, Mandy.
* Bartlet warns Charlie about the dangers of going out with Zoey. Is the President prophetic, or what?