[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Kevin Falls, and Laura Glasser | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 11/01/2000]
“Took two years.” – CJ
A quick rewind to remind: Last week, I dipped my spoon in the somewhat controversial pot of liberalism and its portrayal on television, despite the fact that I made a silent pact to myself that I wouldn’t be addressing politics directly in my reviews. (My excuse: the episode was begging for it.) Well, that apparently wasn’t gutsy enough, so this week, I’m going to slowly stir the pot again as we talk about another topic that more than occasionally crops up in the news: feminism!
Aaron Sorkin has been called (among other, ruder things) a sexist by many of his critics, and his image as such has only worsened in recent years. (The Newsroom was the subject of a particularly virulent firestorm when it first premiered a couple of years back.) The emergence of stronger, more willful female characters in modern television (helped greatly by Joss Whedon and many of his WB/CW followers) has made the idea of writing women as two-dimensional and clichéd not merely lazy, but offensive. And while I don’t think Sorkin is quite as bad at writing female characters as some of his detractors paint him to be, the case to support him is not helped by the shallowness of such creations as Dana Whitaker, Natalie Hurley, and (sigh) Harriet Hayes.
I’m telling you all this because “And It’s Surely to Their Credit” is an episode focused on women, and much of its deeper impact will depend on your own feelings toward Sorkin’s representation of the feminine mystique. Personally, I feel the women of The West Wing are miles ahead in characterization than those in Sorkin’s other projects, and although the execution of this episode isn’t perfect, it manages to be smooth, entertaining, and, at many points, highly effective.
Let’s begin with CJ. She is arguably the best female character on the show, and this episode features one of her most crucial developments in the second season. CJ has spent the latter part of Season One, along with the early episodes of Season Two, coming into her own as a vital member of the White House staff. She has become increasingly self-conscious about what she believes to be a very fragile occupation (as was just evidenced in “In This White House” [2×04]), but that nervousness has in fact not hindered her in doing her duties. Instead, it has given her opportunity to open up and show a bolder, stronger side of her personality, a side that first plays a major role in this episode.
Though she was apprehensive of Ainsley Hayes last episode, CJ has come around to the surprisingly respectable and learned attorney. And, perhaps as a means of quelling any lingering feelings of disdain towards the new White House lawyer, CJ begins to dig a bit deeper into the animosity other staffers show towards her, ultimately arriving at the conclusion that they can’t stand the new legal counselor because she’s an attractive woman. This may not be an entirely grounded observation, as we’re shown very few people that actively appear this way (outside of those two crotch-rods who harass Ainsley later in this episode). But it’s the sort of observation a growing White House staffer like CJ would come across in her slow quest to maintain her position and prove herself a worthy addition to the Bartlet administration. And CJ harnesses her anger, channeling it onto an Army general who threatens to speak out against Bartlet. The scene where CJ out-maneuvers General Barrie shows us a new side of her, as she does all but outright threaten him in order to talk him out of speaking to the press. Allison Janney’s cold, collected performance is downright unsettling, and although Bartlet eventually tells her to loosen up on Barrie, we’re clearly watching a new, more interesting CJ Cregg take form.
Donna, the other arguably best female character on the show (I’m sure I’ll settle this debate someday), will need more time for her character to become fully realized. Although the early episodes of Season Two have shown signs of her depth, she is still a minor player in the grand scheme of the White House, as evidenced by her excitement and nervousness when tasked with introducing a gaggle of press photographers to the President. Donna’s attempts at humor fall amusingly flat, while Bartlet is able to spark the group to laughter with the very first line he speaks to them. (I’m not entirely convinced as to the wide gap in Bartlet’s and Donna’s respective abilities to tell jokes, though – would you remain stone-faced if the most powerful man in the country cracked wise?)
Donna has a ways to go before she can prove herself a vital member of the White House staff, but hers will be a far more gradual climb than CJ’s, and one made despite her (admittedly low) position, rather than because of it. The fact that she’s now being called upon as a tour guide, though, is a sure sign that she’s moving on up.
Then there’s Abbey, a woman who does not technically have a White House position, and yet may be the most important woman who resides there. “And It’s Surely to Their Credit” gives her a storyline that could be construed as discriminating to women, yet is actually just as “demeaning” (and I use the term loosely) to men. Jed Bartlet is too distracted to focus on the Presidential business at hand, simply because he’s… well, horny. And through his constant attempts to make it out of the Oval Office in time for a nighttime meeting with his wife, we see a lighter side to the Jed/Abbey relationship than was portrayed in “The White House Pro-Am” [1×17].
But despite the sitcom-like premise (delivered, in strict West Wing fashion, through relatively PG storytelling), there’s more to this story than just simple laughs. In his urgency to do the deed, Bartlet unwittingly changes his perception of his wife from a beloved spousal figure to a sexy object of lust. This is an occasional staple of many husband/wife relationships, and Bartlet shouldn’t simply be looked down upon for it. But as we are already well aware, Abbey is not the type of woman who will tolerate being objectified. And although she goes along with her husband’s urges, she will not tolerate them when they distract him from the importance of her own feminist work.
The gist, as it were, is that Bartlet comes around to promoting Abbey’s objectives through his radio broadcast, and only then gets to see his wife in her “very special garment”. But while this development gives Martin Sheen the opportunity to display his gift at subtle comedy, it also taints the message of the story, leaving us more than a little confused. Be respectful of women, and… they’ll give you sex? It’s an uncomfortable endpoint to a story that’s part of such a female-centric episode.
And speaking of things uncomfortable, how about that Ainsley Hayes? “In This White House” [2×04] didn’t do the subtlest of jobs with her introduction, which, on my first viewing, left me worried that Sorkin & Co. had made a mistake in introducing her. Fortunately, though, “And It’s Surely to Their Credit” smoothes over the rougher aspects of her introduction, better preparing us for her greater role in Seasons Two and Three.
The episode seeks in part to continue the liberal-versus-conservative angle that typified “In This White House” [2×04]. But where that episode sank under the weight of its own self-seriousness, this one stays in line thanks to a more humorous tone. A good part of this is owed to John Larroquette, whose Lionel Tribbey is so brash and broad that you won’t even mind the fact that the character is being used as a device to make Ainsley appear “better”. Tribbey may not be very deep, but between his hilarious introductory scene and his unfailing (if overbearing) sense of idealism, I’m kind of sad we never see him again. (Though I do concede that the more reserved, psychoanalytical Oliver Babish is a more intriguing replacement.)
Tribbey may work within the story well enough, but the same cannot be said for Steve Joyce and Mark Brookline, two wiseass, arrogant, sexist Counsel employees who are every bit as one-dimensional as the Republican stereotypes from early Season One. They exist solely to make Ainsley look competent, not as a Republican, but as a woman, and the ham-handedness of their characters actively undercuts the feminist themes of the episode. Oh, and the fact that they’re finally cut down by a pair of men (Sam and Tribbey) does not help.
Throughout the Ainsley storyline, the characters frequently bring up Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous “HMS Pinafore”, particularly the finale, “He Is an Englishman”, which indirectly alludes to Ainsley’s insistence that she wants to use her job at the White House to do her civic duty. The final scene of the episode can thus be seen as a rite of passage, as the White House staffers openly accept Ainsley into their ranks by blasting a rendition of the classic song. If I were in a more cynical mood today, I would probably start making the somewhat ludicrous case that the song Ainsley is supposedly inspired by is about an EnglishMAN, which further undercuts the feministic aspect of the episode. But I’m pretty chipper today. That final scene is awesome.
Between CJ, Donna, Abbey, and Ainsley, this episode has plenty going for it in the “strong women” department, even if some of their stories execute the theme better than others. But why stop there? “And it’s Surely to Their Credit” pushes its feminism credo just a little bit further by having Josh, the self-professed manliest man in the White House, act in a most unmanly-like way. Whereas the Josh we knew from Season One was arrogant, rude, and ever-outspoken, the Josh we see here is quieter and more reserved than we’ve ever seen him – he turns down Sam’s opportunity to sue the KKK and in effect “stick it to the man”, choosing not to reduce his traumatic shooting to the level of a petty legal case.
Clearly, something’s come over Josh lately, and it’s something that will slowly build over the first half of the season. “And It’s Surely to Their Credit” does a good job of indicating this, evoking Josh’s inner pain without exploiting it for cheap drama. Credit here goes to Bradley Whitford’s subtle, nuanced portrayal of a man going through post-traumatic stress disorder, which will only continue to dazzle right up until it climaxes in “Noel” [2×10].
This last storyline can be seen as something of a twisted joke about gender roles on the part of the episode, which seeks to put its women in the spotlight, even if the messages it delivers are at times mixed. And within the mixed messages about women and their role in the White House lies the flaw which keeps “And It’s Surely to Their Credit” from achieving true greatness: Even if you ignore this uneven unifying theme and concentrate solely on the individual character development (which is quite good), you’ll be left wondering why Aaron Sorkin chose to riddle an entertaining hour of television with a bunch of awkward sexist remarks.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ To heck with the press line. I actually thought the “Deputy Deputy Chief of Staff” line was pretty funny.
+ Bartlet mentioning what Jack Warner used to call him.
+ There is a miniature bed in Gail’s bowl. Gail is… uncomfortably creepy, in this case.
+ For those wondering why we never see Tribbey again, it could have to do with that hilarious-if-frightening moment when he charges into Leo’s office with a cricket bat.
+ Charlie confusing the recipient of Abbey’s message: “So we can have sex now.”
+ Ainsley’s “office”. Poor Ainsley.
+ Sam actually signing his message to Joyce and Brookline.
– Bartlet briefly jokes to his wife about getting Mrs. Landingham drunk. Knowing what we do about Bartlet and Mrs. Landingham’s relationship from “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], this comment seems not only callous, but a little disturbing.