[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Ken Olin | Aired: 01/26/2000]
One of the most common criticisms that non-fans level at The West Wing is that the show exists primarily as a mouthpiece for creator Aaron Sorkin. Many point to the show’s democratic vibe and political messaging as proof that the show is little more than an exercise in preachiness, with some of its more vehement critics negatively dubbing the show “The Left Wing”.
The justifications and implications of these criticisms are worth discussing further (and rest assured, I will discuss them in future reviews), but for now, let’s talk about what sparks this sort of concern in the first place. The media – including television, but also newspapers and the Internet – is a major component in shaping our perceptions of the world. Fundamentally speaking, it’s very easy to have our personal opinions about certain stories swayed by the way they’re depicted in the news.
“Take Out the Trash Day” is an episode about media. And since this show is based around the most potentially newsworthy building in the country, you can bet that there’s a lot for the episode to say.
The titular Day shares the space with every Friday, when the White House chooses to pile together all its less-remarkable news stories and dump them in one go. The very concept behind this day gives us a sense of how news is treated at this place. Information in the press room is a commodity – large news stories are handled and delivered with care, while smaller stories can be bundled together and served offhandedly when the public needs no major sating.
CJ delivers the news, both large and small, with flair and finesse, dominating the press room under even the most demanding of circumstances. She has developed a unique rapport with the journalists, a sort of kind and affable teacher enchanting her class with a slick, smooth lecture. And since her relationship with Danny officially turned romantic, the point has become clearer than ever – CJ considers the reporters to be her trusted friends.
We saw in “Lord John Marbury” how her relatively carefree attitude in the press room has led to a level of uneasiness between CJ and her colleagues. Although the issue was resolved more or less in CJ’s favor, we now wonder – was that uneasiness entirely unfounded? CJ takes pains to assure the press room that the parents of the murdered Lowell Lydell will attend and support the President’s signing of a hate-crimes bill, but we spend much of the episode wondering if she’s letting her personal ideals interfere with the reality of the situation. (Mandy plays a rare useful part in this episode, informing CJ that from an image standpoint, the Lydells’ presence may actually cause more harm than good.)
CJ at first can’t comprehend why such a thing would make for bad publicity, and because we follow the storyline from her point of view, it takes a while for us to catch on as well. But soon, the point made in “Lord John Marbury” comes into light. Inasmuch as CJ wants to consider the press reporters her friends and confidantes, they are in fact neither of those things. While she may support the Lydells’ right to speak out, even after hearing the negative opinion Mr. Lydell has toward the President, the media could potentially turn the opportunity into a feeding frenzy, using his relatively benign statements to cast the White House in a negative light.
CJ struggles with self-doubt after sending the Lydells home, and very nearly ends up leaking the story to Danny. It is he who stops her, with the warning that she’ll end up hating herself and the assurance that he’ll eventually unearth the story anyway. (This is why Danny is such a lovable character – although he has at times tried to manipulate the usually unflappable CJ into giving him a story, he will not take advantage of her while she is in a vulnerable state.)
CJ’s response is appropriately resonant: “No, you won’t. Cause we’ve gotten very good at this.” It’s a resigned acknowledgment on her part that the Press Secretary and the Press Corps, for all the witty barbs and banter they exchange, can never grow too close together. This marks the beginning of a slow development for CJ, where she will grow less attached to the journalists, and more attached to her fellow White House staffers.
CJ’s story is but one example of the way “Take Out the Trash Day” comments on the effects of the media. But it’s far from the only example. Look at how Toby is quick to defend the Public Broadcasting Service because he was raised on Sesame Street and Julia Child. Or how Sam fears a small Georgetown newspaper could potentially cause trouble in the White House by running a story that’s just barely tangentially related to politics. Or how Bartlet chooses to push off a crucial sex-education report for fear of negative reaction, invoking the episode’s title when he tells CJ to “throw it out with the trash”. In each of these examples, the media is presented as a visible presence, and that presence forms the backbone of the respective story.
But perhaps the definitive example of the episode’s theme can be found in its most compelling storyline. The news of Leo’s alcoholism and drug addiction has been causing a media firestorm in the last few episodes, and it now culminates into a smartly satisfying resolution.
We see Josh and Sam do their best to avoid a hearing, but during their meeting with Congressman Bruno, it becomes clear that the young staffers are biting off more than they can chew. As he straightforwardly tells them, there will be a hearing no matter what, because the reporters love a good drug-related story. Bruno’s reprimand, while a little on-the-nose, pinpoints the media as the ultimate cause of the stress brought on by Leo’s admission. As much as Sam and Josh have spent the last several episodes trying to help Leo, they just can’t measure up to the city newshounds.
And neither, apparently, can Leo. When approached by Simon Blye, an old friend of his, regarding how to deal with the fallout, Leo learns that the counselor is attempting to provoke his resignation by speaking out in the papers. Simon means well, advising him that quitting is his best option, but his attempt to stir things up in the Washington Post turns Leo against him. Earlier, Leo himself showed intent to resign, but this sudden turn of events makes the idea distasteful. Leave it to an ill-formed op-ed – by a supposed friend, no less – to return the Chief of Staff to his ideals.
I’ve always been fascinated by Leo’s alcohol-and-drugs arc in Season One. As I’ve argued earlier, Leo is probably the show’s realest character, and we see him here encumbered by its realest, most relatable conflict. This arc also marks the most prominent and visible role Leo will receive in the entire series. As such, the arc fully establishes Leo as a deeply human, deeply caring character, preparing us for the quiet development he will slowly go through over the next six seasons.
And in case one still doubts how well this arc paid off in that respect, I direct them to the episode’s excellent final scene, where Leo meets to talk with the young secretary who leaked the information about his alcoholism and started the whole mess in the first place. Here we learn that the circumstances surrounding the leak were not based in political malice or sabotage, but in honest concern.
“You’re not like what I thought you would be like,” Karen tells Leo after a few minutes of conversation with him. He’s come completely honest with her, detailing his still-lingering thirst (literally and figuratively) for alcohol, telling her of a rather painful alcohol-related family background – and in the process, presenting himself as a human being. When Karen first learned of Leo’s addiction, she saw only the addict, and in turn saw a concern to the country’s safety. Now, she faces the man behind the whiskey glass, and sees him for the honest, well-intentioned soul he truly is.
There are fans who say that Leo was wrong in giving Karen a second chance, that her deeds were too inexcusable to be forgiven. But Leo’s actions are well within his noble character, and right in tune with the underlying theme of the episode. Leo is a man of understanding, the kind who can relate to the mistaken and the generalizing – just as they, in turn, discover that they can relate to him. It’s just a matter of peeling back the layers to discover a person beyond his or her initial appearance.
And if there’s one thing “Take Out the Trash Day” tells us, it’s that appearances – whether they be in a newspaper, or on a television screen, or even at direct face value – can be deceiving.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Josh preferring his hamburger burnt.
+ Toby making it clear that Fozzie Bear’s name is not “Fuzzy Bear”.
+ Bartlet “editing” the sex education report.
– The scene where the secretaries stand around and gossip. Pointless and more than a little demeaning. I’m so glad Sorkin came around to writing female conversation well by the time he penned “Dead Irish Writers”.
* Bartlet refuses to share the sex education report with Mrs. Landingham, “because I’d rather not be in therapy for the rest of my life.” This hints, rather amusingly, that Mrs. Landingham is something of a maternal figure to Bartlet. This point will play a large role in “Two Cathedrals”.