[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/18/2000]
“Any time we have the opportunity in the future to screw you, count on getting screwed.” – Sarah
In the cold open of “The Midterms”, CJ fields advice from several of her fellow staffers while on her way to a press briefing. Josh, Sam, Toby, and Leo all lend their two cents in order to ensure that she avoids any slipups. When she reaches the podium, CJ remembers the words she received from Sam, Toby, and Leo, but forgets Josh’s bit on exchanging “psychics” for “physicists”. At home, while watching the brief on TV, a frustrated Josh pounds his head against his bed’s headboard.
At home? Yes, Josh was communicating with CJ via the phone, as his recent operation has left him bedridden. Unlike Sam, Toby, and Leo, he was not in the White House, and although his advice was perhaps the most crucial of the lot, it ultimately went unheeded. The difference of location is quietly portrayed as essential – those inside the White House have a better chance of being heard than those outside it.
Taken on a figurative level, the reason for this point is obvious: the White House represents the most powerful people in the country. But although this prospect, when taken at face value, could seem like a positive, the cold open shows us that it comes with one of several drawbacks – one could be so caught up in paying attention to those inside the building’s hallowed halls that they’ll end up disregarding those residing on the exterior.
“The Midterms” is an episode about the drawbacks of the White House, which gives it a particularly interesting vibe. In featuring several characters failing at their goals, it’s not without company – last season’s “The State Dinner” [1×07] also focused on such events. The difference, however, is in the context. “The State Dinner” [1×07] featured its characters failing despite their vaunted power. “The Midterms” features its characters failing because of their vaunted power.
Witness Sam, for example, as he tries to get a friend of his elected to a Congressional seat, promising the White House’s full support. As Election Day nears, however, the candidate receives no support from the President or his establishment. The reason – said candidate was part of an all-white fraternity in college – may seem ludicrous, but in light of the recent supremacist shootings, the White House stood a chance of looking bad if they supported someone whom the media could purport into a racist. The power of promotion could easily boomerang on them, and for a building that influential, the results would be especially damaging.
Another example of how power has its drawbacks comes retroactively, in Charlie’s side-story. Charlie has been rather distressed as of late, after learning that the gunmen who shot the President were actually targeting him. He’s avoided Zoey, now nervous of what would happen if he continues to date her. But a talk with Andrew Mackintosh, a black computer technician – and his precocious young son – gives him a new perspective on that horrific night in Rosslyn. “If they’re shooting at you,” Andrew says, “you know you’re doing something right.”
Again, it may seem ridiculous, but as history has proven on four separate occasions, getting shot is a potential risk that comes with inheriting the White House. Charlie has been frightened by it, and understandably so. But Andrew has explained to him exactly why the shootings commenced in the first place – the supremacists were not intimidated by a black man dating a white girl. They were intimidated by a black man dating a white girl who happened to be the daughter of the leader of the free world. In reminding Charlie of this information, Andrew reminds us of just how precious and honorable Charlie’s position is. Equipped with this note of inspiration, Charlie is able to carry on in his relationship with Zoey, no longer intimidated by the threat of sharpshooters.
Oh… did I not mention? Emotionally, “The Midterms” is built around the aftermath of the shootings, and how many of the characters cope with them. Toby’s reaction in particular is interesting, since Toby is by nature an emotionally dissonant character. For as long as we’ve known him, Toby has been one to put his work above any personal issues. And what we see here initially appears to be Toby returning to his work, having successfully fought off any lingering effects of the attack. But in the world of The West Wing, nothing is ever that simple.
When CJ approaches him to discuss reporters’ questions about how staffers are coping with the shooting, he waves her off with a sensible reply: “We’re not the story.” He believes that directly putting the White House in the crosshairs is just asking for trouble – but that doesn’t mean he can’t cope with it indirectly. Toby tries using his resources to crack down on white supremacist groups, attempting to disguise his personal stress over the subject with professionalism, but his increasingly hostile attitudes around the office concern his fellow staffers. Toby’s anger, which stems from his own increasing frustrations over the lack of effort that organizations like the FBI have put into eradicating white supremacy, is a byproduct of working in an environment where you come to expect things to be accomplished immediately, due to the near-boundless amounts of power at your disposal. Toby’s high expectations of the White House, compounded with his own thinly-disguised stress, give us another example of power coming equipped with its own liabilities, tying nicely back into the theme of the episode.
It is Bartlet who finally calls Toby out on his questionable behavior, and responds by allowing him to take a leave of absence… for fifteen minutes. “It’s time to get up off the mat,” he says. Bartlet, unlike his staffers, hasn’t been visibly post-traumatically affected by the shootings – in fact, he wasn’t even very affected when they were wheeling him into the operating room. He understands the event was traumatic, but not moving on would be even more so.
A common criticism leveled at the character of Jed Bartlet is that he is too perfect, too ideal to be taken seriously as a protagonist. But “The Midterms” gets to the heart of Bartlet’s character, demonstrating that he is flawed – just not in the same way as many other television protagonists. While the other characters spend the episode dealing with one form or another of post-traumatic stress, Bartlet’s biggest issue is something relatively inconsequential – his hometown’s school district election is coming up, and he’s not exactly a fan of the frontrunner, Elliott Roush. This is an issue which personally affects him, even as it barely registers as a blip on the country’s radar. Bartlet’s attempts to garner more coverage for this minor election remind us where he stands on the political and personal field. The shooting, as Ron Butterfield pointed out in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part II)” [2×02], was the work of madmen, and their actions only served to remind the President of the durability of his administration. But this little New Hampshire election hits Bartlet close to home (and not just literally), with inherent personal ties that drive him to set things on the path he believes is right. And his lack of success further drives home the theme of the episode – Bartlet is simply too powerful to make a difference on an election so small.
In the end, however, Bartlet affirms his level of power and restores his own sense of dignity in a manner that is both suitably fitting and uncomfortably abrupt. At the reception for the midterm elections, Bartlet verbally deconstructs Dr. Jenna Jacobs, mocking her extreme right-wing beliefs and embarrassing her doctoral status, all because she neglected to stand up for him. In goading her into showing him respect, Bartlet reassures himself that while he is indeed too powerful to get the most minor of deeds accomplished, the extreme level of power he does yield will grant him proper deference. His reaction to Dr. Jacobs harkens to his decades-ago defeat of Roush in the New Hampshire primary, wherein he used the level of power he had at the time to assert himself as the superior candidate. Then, as now, Bartlet makes the most of whatever amount of power he has to make the most of his situation. Or, as he explains to Toby following his verbal takedown of Dr. Jacobs, “That’s how I beat him.”
The scene fits well both narratively and thematically, but unfortunately, its execution isn’t especially well-handled. Jenna Jacobs is introduced and dispensed with almost in the same thought, without any real buildup or background, and as a result, Bartlet’s takedown of her comes off as a little more sudden and mean-spirited than it was probably meant to. Part of this can be attributed to its background – Sorkin wrote Jacobs as a thinly-veiled caricature of Dr. Laura Schlesinger, who had previously decried homosexuality as an abomination. The scene can thus be viewed as a “Take that!”, which justifies its harshness, but also makes it come off as a little too presumptuous. While the scene, as written, works well within the fabric of the story, it rubs off a little too hard in its attempt to make a point – a rarity for Season Two.
Thankfully, the theme of the episode remains intact throughout, and works well within the overall tapestry of the season. After all, in an environment like The West Wing‘s White House, where the country’s greatest power is idealized almost beyond recognition, “The Midterms” serves as a reminder of how absolute power itself can be a drawback as well as a blessing. But hey, it’s not as though the entire episode revolves around this disheartening message. Even Sam, despite his inability to elect a friend of his to Congress, still wields enough power to snag Dr. Jacobs’ last crab puff.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ “Oh, holy interruptus, Batman!”
+ Josh’s frustrated reaction to CJ’s press briefing mix-up.
+ As evidenced during his “tour”, not much has changed about Sam’s knowledge of White House architecture since the “Pilot” [1×01].
+ Sam’s redundant order on Election Night for everyone to be on telephones.
+ The final scene mixes dramatic irony (despite all the huffing and puffing, the status quo of Congress remained the same) with the show’s signature idealism – a suitably sweet combination.
– “How did that bullet not kill you?” sounds a little insensitive coming from Leo, even as a joke.
– The constant time-skips throughout the episode don’t hold up especially well in terms of plot logic, even if the drama of the various storylines remains consistent throughout.
* The harshness Bartlet shows toward Dr. Jacobs’ perception of religion is a sign of his fierce devotion to his own religious views, which makes the church scene in “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] sting all the more.
* The sub-theme of the drawbacks inherent in power plays a crucial role in the final stretch of the season, when the staffers grapple with the moral issues of revealing Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis to the world.