[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Arlene Sanford | Aired: 01/12/2000]
Here lies an episode rich in texture, dazzling in development, and abundant in detail. “He Shall, From Time to Time…” is such a fascinating tapestry of an episode that each viewing brings forth new insights, leading to an ever-deepening look into the complexities of the themes and characters of this show. More than any other Season One episode, even the affecting masterpiece that is “In Excelsis Deo”, “He Shall…” blends its various elements into a dazzling confection worthy of the accolades the series reaps.
There was a good measure of criticism surrounding the episode at the time it first aired – fans found the sudden reveal that Bartlet secretly has multiple sclerosis to be rather tacked-on. And perhaps they’re right – outside of a fleeting reference to Bartlet’s medication in “Five Votes Down”, the show hasn’t put much emphasis on the President’s health. And yet taken in retrospect of the series, and knowing how well this new detail will pay off in Season Two, it becomes much easier to accept the fact and dive into the episode’s meatier material.
Begin at the end: Just before Bartlet heads out of the Oval Office to deliver the State of the Union Address before Congress, Roger Tribby, the executive official who drew the proverbial short straw, hands him a Latin translation of the Constitution, of which he’s highlighted a specific section. The President translates aloud: “He shall, from time to time, give to the Congress information on the state of the union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Or to put it plainly, the President can do stuff.
Forty-two minutes earlier, we watched Bartlet give a homogenized State of the Union Address before his staffers which appealed to the broadest of audiences and touted only the basest of concerns. Despite taking a good step forward with their nomination of Mendoza to the Supreme Court in “The Short List”, the administration is still hesitant to veer too far off the line and jeopardize its reputation, and their one-year anniversary reflection speech is written to be satisfying without being potentially self-effacing.
But it wasn’t initially written that way. Toby, who has previously shown that he doesn’t mind risking self-image for political mileage the way the others seem to, originally wrote a speech with a more fervent devotion to the policies the administration wants, rather than those the public needs. But things were effectively watered down, as the message Bartlet wants to project to the populace reflects the promise that “the era of big government is over”.
But Bartlet goes through quite an ordeal during this episode, an ordeal which gives him new light with which to shed on the role of government. And it’s precisely this ordeal which forms both the emotional and the thematic crux of this episode.
It almost seems risible in its concept: On the eve of the State of the Union Address, the President unexpectedly collapses, and must be confined to his bed. This is the kind of contrived storyline that seems more fit to the cheap, sensationalistic political thrillers which seem built and poised to thrill audiences with a quick snap of the fingers – hardly the stuff of such a polished, well-crafted series.
And yet noticing how well Bartlet’s sudden fever is worked into the seasonal arc, one can only step back and marvel. Sure, Bartlet may be restricted to his bedroom by doctor’s orders. But all through the episode, we watch as he struggles to his feet, trying his damnedest to return to the worldly matters the President is expected to face. He wants to push forth, to help India, to help Leo, to deliver the annual speech before Congress. The more his fever wears him down, the harder he fights to stand up.
Keeping this in mind, how well we can understand Bartlet’s interest in Toby’s suggestion to change the focal message of his Address by the episode’s end. In trying to fight his own personal battle with the flu, Bartlet has proven that his own personal life is as integral to accomplishing his job as political schematics. Thusly, his own beliefs will now start to play a more prominent role in his governance.
More tellingly than this point, though, this story raises awareness of the episode’s most important detail – Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis. The primary arc of the second season is built around this shocking reveal, and “He Shall, From Time to Time…” handles the initial repercussions with style and assurance.
For one thing, we witness the first real emotional connection between Bartlet and Abby. Abby’s introduction in “The State Dinner” established her as a morally rigid, no-nonsense individual who, when all else fails, is able to give the President that little extra push he needs. Although we won’t see the relationship between husband and wife fully expounded upon until “The White House Pro-Am”, we now view Abby from a more intriguing, sympathetic side – though she tries to keep up her practical demeanor while doctoring her husband, she eventually breaks down, tearfully telling Leo of her husband’s closely-guarded secret.
And then there’s Leo himself. He, not Bartlet, saddles the episode with its greatest emotional resonance. With the news of his former alcohol addiction now officially made public, Leo prepares to face the press and come absolutely clean. Despite the consequences he’ll undoubtedly face, Leo is adamant in his desire to face them alone – “If I go down,” he says, “I’m not taking anyone else with me.” When Sam and Josh, caring too much about their Chief of Staff to let him take the heat himself, ignore his wishes, Leo is furious at their audacity.
And yet not two scenes later, Leo is relegated to this selfsame role of the outsider, having been kept out of the loop in regards to Bartlet’s MS. Leo is shocked and appalled to discover this news, and even more so at the fact that his closest friend could have kept it from him.
Bartlet’s reason for keeping his secret is instantly understandable, even as we (and he, eventually) acknowledge that Leo would have been perfectly able to work with it. “I wanted to be President,” he explains to Leo. The implication, that Bartlet did not think Leo would have been able to help him win the election if he were consciously aware of his candidate’s condition, is right in tune with Bartlet’s early-stage, uneasy outlook on politics – an outlook that we’ll soon see change.
Over the course of the series, the bond of friendship between Leo and Bartlet will be tested in its depths (“Bartlet for America”) and its limits (“Memorial Day”). But the scene where Leo confronts the President over his secret condition is in many ways an initiator to these trials. It’s a highly affecting scene, as Bartlet expresses his own frustrations at having failed to assist Leo during the press conference. We’re already aware that the link between the President and his Chief of Staff stretches beyond mere office politics, but here, the episode shows just how durable their friendship really is.
We also get a quiet resolution to their conflict, which is first hinted at in the scene where Lord Marbury and Leo outline their respective plans to deal with the India conflict. Marbury’s plan is that of appeasement, while Leo’s pitch is for a more forceful and disciplinary strategy. Although Marbury was brought in as an expert on such a matter, Bartlet ultimately chooses to go with the plan of his most trusted advisor.
The point is echoed in the episode’s final scene, when Bartlet describes the perfect Chief of Staff to Tribby: Your best friend, smarter than you, whom you’d trust with your life. It’s a beautiful sentiment, restating the Bartlet/Leo bond to wonderful emotional effect. (Leo’s reaction upon overhearing Bartlet’s words is the last bit of icing on this already scrumptious cake.)
As I’ve said earlier, Bartlet’s personal beliefs, as well as those he derives from Leo, will from here on play a larger part in his governance. Episodes like “20 Hours in LA” will take this point and run with it, setting the stage for even larger things in “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”. But “He Shall, From Time to Time…” is a crucial episode even on its own, because it’s an episode about moving forward. The theme is well-delivered in every aspect of the episode, right down to CJ moving forward in her relationship with Danny. (This event, it should be noted, is spurred on by the reigniting of a romance between Sam and Mallory, which is itself prompted by Sam’s valiance in helping Leo face the effects of his alcohol addiction. The interconnecting web of storylines in this episode is astonishing.)
But again, it all comes down to that final scene. And it’s a great scene for several reasons, most of which I’ve already listed: The way the theme of the episode is summed up and confirmed so eloquently by a single underlined passage, as well as Bartlet’s words of praise regarding his aide, advisor, and closest friend.
But the ultimate reason that this scene is so effective can be gleaned from what may seem like its most frivolous line: “Roger… If anything happened, you know what to do, right?” Bartlet delivers the line with pure straightforwardness, without even slightly implying the dire implications of a bomb going off in the Capitol. Is the President being too overly flippant?
But there’s a wisdom to this humor, and it’s a wisdom which sums up what makes Bartlet such a wonderful character. He understands his job – every aspect of it, down to the minutest detail. And with this episode, particularly with this final scene, we see him embrace it, showing both a care for his role and a concern for his country. It’s a lovely cap to a lovely episode.
Josiah Bartlet is a fascinating character, the rare kind who stands as a good, admirable role model while also achieving great amounts of depth and development. He’s the kind of character who can inspire much discussion in regards to the themes and the direction of the series. And inspire them he shall… from time to time.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Bartlet flirting with Abby while she tries to doctor him.
+ Bartlet watching soap operas.
+ “Toby, you stopped talking in the middle of a…”
+ There’s a podium in Gale’s bowl. Gale is awesome.
+ Sam’s reaction to Mallory kissing him: “I gotta say, I’m enjoying being a writer.”