[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Peter Parnell, and Patrick Caddell | Director: Laura Innes | Aired: 04/26/2000]
When it comes to television, originality garners most of the praise. In an age where countless crime, legal, and medical procedurals dominate the primetime schedule, we look to shows that offer the fresh air of innovation. And yet… even the most original writers on television are bound to a certain level of formula. JJ Abrams builds his shows around mythological mysteries. Bryan Fuller gives a quirky vibe and stunning visual design to his every series. Even Joss Whedon laces all his shows with a distinct sense of meta-humor that stamps it as one of his own.
Aaron Sorkin’s formula is readily apparent if you take all his shows into consideration: He loves backstage life. Sports Night focuses on the behind-the-scenes drama at a sports talk show. Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip highlights the backstage goings-on at a sketch comedy show. The Newsroom centers on the people who work at a national news show. These three shows are all about the action that goes on when the cameras are turned off.
But then there’s The West Wing. Here is a drama executed on a far grander scale than anything involving Dan Rydell or Will McAvoy. The main character is one of the most recognizable people in the world, to the point that you’d hardly even expect anything he does could be considered low-key. And yet despite its massive spectacle, The West Wing is still a behind-the-scenes drama – Jed Bartlet is known to most people through their various news outlets, and the real drama for him and his White House occurs in between his National Addresses.
It may sound strange on paper to write a show about the President and rarely focus on the people he influences, but the results onscreen are marvelously effective. Bartlet is trying to do well in the eyes of the public, and his efforts turn increasingly suspenseful when we don’t see how said public responds. We’re spectators, watching the most powerful man in the country do his job, and we’re left to decide whether or not he’s in fact doing it well.
This philosophy shifts in perspective in later seasons, particularly after Sorkin exits. Season Five features numerous instances where Bartlet attempts to help America by directly and personally connecting with its citizens. A lot of things have changed for him and his administration by then. But in Season One, Bartlet’s still trying to do right from a quiet, background perspective.
That is, until now.
“Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” is to The West Wing what an episode like “Innocence” is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It takes a show that has already been naturally progressing towards a major turning point and thrusts it right into the levels of maturity. What’s most remarkable about the episode’s feat is that it accomplishes its goal without feeling abrupt or contrived.
I’ve heard criticisms that run counter to this line of thinking – how, some may speculate, could Bartlet’s approval rating drop five points in a single week? How does that not feel contrived? But as I’ve already argued, we’re not meant to fully rationalize the public’s reaction to Bartlet, since we’ve never really gotten a glimpse of their side of the story. The fact that the President’s drop in approval feels so sudden puts us right inside the heads of Bartlet and his staff, since it surprises us just as much as it does them. (Readers of my Freaks and Geeks reviews may recall I used a similar rationalization in analyzing “We’ve Got Spirit”.)
Once we learn of Bartlet’s lagging ratings, we can reflect on how much things have slowly but surely changed over the last 18 episodes. Back in early outings like “Five Votes Down” [1×04] and “Mr. Willis of Ohio” [1×06], the primary goal of the administration appeared to be finding the shortest distance between two points. They were less concerned with changing the country than with keeping their own personal priorities in check. As time went by, we watched as each character slowly began to grow past their initial reservations and discover a level of gratification in pushing forward, as minute as many of their efforts have been. Josh, Sam, Toby, CJ, and even Charlie have all matured over the course of this season, to the point that they’re primed and ready for a major change.
In fact, there’s only one character who hasn’t shown a definite incentive for progression. And no, it’s not Bartlet.
Leo McGarry, from the start, has been the most grounded of all the characters, not to mention the most pragmatic. Let me once again refer to his exchange with a White House security guard from the “Pilot” [1×01]: “It’s a nice morning, Mr. McGarry.” “We’ll take care of that in a hurry, won’t we, Mike?” Leo feels that the world is not an idealized place, and can never fully be made so, and although he is just as dedicated to his job as the other staffers, his objectives are more realistic than theirs.
We know that Leo was the one who first inspired Bartlet to run for President. He recognized something in the simple New Hampshire governor, a spark of optimism that could ignite a forest fire of idealism. Leo is smart, kind, and capable, and one could easily imagine him running for President himself. Yet Leo was also wise enough to recognize that he was not strong-willed enough to change the country. Better, then, to set Jed Bartlet out of the gate, and stand beside him as he ran for President.
The aspect of standing beside Bartlet was especially important in this regard, and not merely for personal reasons. Leo recognizes Bartlet’s optimism, but also recognizes his over-optimism. His potentially groundbreaking ideas would translate difficultly into realities, if they had a chance of translating at all. So Leo set himself with the job of reining Bartlet in – just a tad – when the President’s plans would take on an all-too-large life of their own. When Bartlet’s passions transmuted as violent retaliation in “A Proportional Response” [1×03], it was Leo who calmed him down and convinced him to make his disproportional response… proportional.
There was, however, a tactical error in Leo’s overall plan. When Bartlet was given the keys to the Presidency, he subconsciously did a little “reining in” of his own. The occupation of Commander-In-Chief is an intimidating one, to be sure, and Bartlet’s fears of fumbling the ball muted his optimism to more sizable levels. He was more concerned with keeping things stable than risk shaking things up in a fight for his favor.
Furthermore, ironically, he was crippled by loyalty to his Chief of Staff. When Leo’s alcoholic past was unearthed, Bartlet’s first thought was to rush to his aid, multiple sclerosis and State of the Union address be damned. Bartlet’s faithfulness to his best friend was put on full display in “He Shall, From Time to Time…” [1×12], as their bond could not be severed.
Leo holds Bartlet back, but at the same time, Bartlet holds him back, and nothing truly satisfactory can be accomplished. But little by little, Bartlet himself has become more flexible to taking risks – whereas the start of the show saw him trying to avoid any real trace of conflict, he has by this point come around to try “dangling his feet in the water”. But he’s only doing this long enough to test the depth and temperature of the water – it will take a push from Leo to make him dive right in.
And “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” features that push. Leo’s dawning realization that the Administration is doomed to repeat its own failures comes from a number of different sources – Sam’s fruitless attempt to allow gays into the military and Josh’s failure to push for campaign finance reform on the FEC, and Toby’s emphatic and achingly true statement that Mendoza was their only true victory. Perhaps the most effective of all the sources, though, is a certain piece of paper that’s going around.
Up to this point, the staffers have treated Mandy as little more than a nuisance. She’s in each episode long enough just to make a “Chicken Little” statement about how any over-optimistic plans can only end in disaster. (And occasionally, to talk about panda bears.) Mandy’s redundancy is perhaps her greatest flaw in terms of character-to-plot, as speaking about conflict is not nearly as interesting as actual conflict.
But now Mandy’s criticisms have translated into an actual concrete threat, namely, the memo she wrote while working for Lloyd Russell. Outlining many weaknesses of the Bartlet Administration, the memo is the latest in a long string of outside forces that could spell disaster for the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. At first, the concern stems from the possible ramifications of the memo, as CJ does her best to dilute its effects. But amidst the various other happenstances which plague our characters this episode, Leo comes to realize the true damaging power of the memo – a lot of what it says is true.
All these events lead up to the excellent climactic scene where Leo finally confronts Bartlet over the direction – or lack thereof – of the Administration. It’s an immensely satisfying scene, not merely for how well the episode builds up to it, but how the whole season at large is structured for the maximum effect. Leo rightfully points out that nearly everything they’ve done while in office has been done to ensure that they stay in office – their job is fundamentally a four-year campaign for reelection.
Perhaps the most significant part of Leo’s argument is the moment when he uses Charlie as an example of boldness in the Administration. Despite receiving numerous death threats, Charlie persists in dating Zoey, and Bartlet himself has been shouldering most of the worry. This point is especially interesting when you consider how the first season finale, “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22], will end: White supremacists will attempt to kill Charlie, only to hit Bartlet, making the President effectively “take one” for what Leo here perceives to be his boldest subject. That the harrowing cliffhanger ending, itself the surest sign that The West Wing is headed into more serious territory, is so fleetingly foreshadowed in Leo’s argument should cast no doubt as to the groundbreaking importance of “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”.
And Leo’s argument succeeds. Bartlet has been struggling with doubts about his leadership policies for several episodes now, and the support from his best friend gives him the last bit of incentive he needs. “This is more important than reelection,” he says. “I want to speak now.” Leo makes him state the line over, which uses Sorkin’s sometimes-annoying penchant for having characters repeat themselves to genuine dramatic effect.
Leo’s new line of thinking is beautifully summed up with the four words, “LET BARTLET BE BARTLET”. It speaks of the personality Bartlet both wants and needs to bring to the Presidency if he wishes to establish a legacy. Leo’s scrawling of the line on a sheet of notepaper becomes an even more effective moment when you keep in mind the flashback from “Bartlet for America” [3×09], where he inspires Bartlet to run for President by writing the titular words on a napkin.
The moment where the various staffers all unite under the immortal line “I serve at the pleasure of the President” never fails to bring a smile to my face. They’ve remained steadfastly loyal to their President from the get-go, and it’s wonderful to witness as they profess this loyalty, no matter to what degree. Kudos especially to composer Snuffy Walden, who does an excellent job scoring the scene and priming us with the adrenaline rush we experience as we prepare to watch the Bartlet Administration run into walls at full speed.
So to sum up? This is an excellent episode, as strong as anything the show has yet given us. It’s given a daunting task in altering the show’s status quo, and priming us for the underlying theme of Season Two. And thanks to strong writing, solid character work, and an inspiring tone, it excels.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Mrs. Landingham remarking that Bartlet should eat more vegetables.
+ An early sign in this episode that the Administration needs adjusting: Bartlet begins his indoor speech – rather humorously – with “As I look out over this magnificent vista…”
+ Margaret’s talk about raisin muffins.
+ Fitzwallace’s speech about blacks in the military is a little on the nose, but John Amos’ delivery really sells it.
– There are a good thirty or forty reporters in the White House press room. But of course, Danny is the one who has the memo. Is he the only one who ever stirs up significant trouble?
* Josh notices when Donna flippantly calls him “baby”. It’s moments like this which hint towards the happier moments of Season Seven.
* Leo questions Toby’s loyalty. It’s moments like this which hint towards the unhappier moments of Season Seven.
* Real-Life Foreshadowing: Toby mentions that, despite winning the Presidency, Bartlet lost the popular vote. Six months after this episode aired, in the 2000 Presidential election, George Bush would lose the popular vote, but would still win the election.