West Wing 2×06: The Lame Duck Congress

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. | Director: Jeremy Kagan | Aired: 11/08/2000]

“We play with live ammo around here.” – Sam

You could make a case for short deadlines, executive meddling, or ad-libbing actors, but for my money, a scriptwriter’s biggest enemy is “exposition”. Every dramatic plot worth its weight in setup comes equipped with niggling details that the writer must share with the audience so that they can follow the story without jumping onto Google every five minutes. Good writers can deliver this exposition deftly, in a smooth and uncontrived manner. (Joss Whedon memorably used Giles to convey information to the Scoobies on Buffy, in a manner which worked mainly because American viewers always find information more interesting if it’s delivered in a foreign accent.)

The West Wing features an abundance of complex plots that dig into the most obscure details in US government, so naturally, it needs to explain things every now and then. This usually happens through the time-honored device of an informed character explaining it to someone uninitiated. The early seasons often employ Josh and Donna to fill these respective positions, although several variations have been used. (“The Stackhouse Filibuster” [2×17] has CJ explain to her father via email precisely what a “filibuster” is.)

“The Lame Duck Congress” is an episode about, fittingly enough, a lame duck congress. Yet there is no point in the episode where any character stops to explain what an injured mallard (or whatever) has to do with the legislative branch of the US government. Characters speak of the possibility of a lame duck session and its effects, but never actually elaborate on what it is.

Perhaps Sorkin felt that this knowledge was inherent for his viewers, but I believe it goes beyond that. By not coming out and directly explaining this political gambit to us, Sorkin forces us to pay extra-close attention to how it fits into the series and reflects upon the characters. We come to notice, then, that the lame duck congress (the process) makes “The Lame Duck Congress” (the episode) one of the most important thematic outings in the first half of Season Two.

Bartlet is still on an idealistic streak, and the prospect of a lame duck session tempts him. It’s a potentially risky maneuver, but if successful, it can gain even more ground for him and his administration. But ah, there’s that “if”. Is it too risky, even for an idealist? The underlying theme of “The Lame Duck Congress” is about just such a question. There are times when the most idealistic thing you can do is not push forward with a risky agenda – sometimes, it can be backing down.

The theme is summarized in an enjoyably succinct manner through Sam and Ainsley, who are beginning to develop more of an understanding with one another, even if they’re still far from the perfect couple. (And Sam doesn’t seem willing to admit that they’re any sort of “couple”.) Ainsley begins to really come into her own in this episode, and we gain an understanding of how right Bartlet was in hiring her. She sticks to her guns, but she does so out of personal beliefs, rather than the need to prove the other guy wrong. She’s also very adept at distinguishing between these two motivations – when she accompanies Sam to Capitol Hill, she accuses the officials they meet with of simply wanting to win their argument in order “to beat the White House”.

Ainsley believes in her politics, but she leaves everything non-political off the table, even politely asking one of her opponents if she can have his muffin. Compare this to Sam, who takes his political life and its ramifications so seriously that he “punished” Laurie in “The State Dinner” [1×07] by assertively stealing her sandwich. The difference between Sam and Ainsley is what makes their disagreeable relationship interesting to watch, but it’s the one-eighty near the end of this episode that turns it fascinating.

Ainsley argues passionately against Sam’s opinion, even going so far as to rewrite his official statement for being “wrong”. She believes he is so swept up in his own beliefs that only a hard-copy hanging of opinion can convince him otherwise. But she – and by extent, we – have Sam pegged wrong. He’s not a man deluded by the need to spread his liberal beliefs to the four corners of the continent. He is, at heart, a passionate politician, who understands that even the most fervent of positions can be swayed – not by force, but by honest-to-goodness debate. Ainsley is a little surprised when she convinces Sam to change his position, but he’s merely following the example set by his role model, Bartlet.

Bartlet makes what can be perceived as a rather un-Bartlet-like decision at the end of this episode, given his more outgoing position this season. But he’s really just following that age-old adage: “It takes a strong man to win a battle – but an even stronger man to lose one.” Although he has his staff examine the opportunity from all angles, Bartlet finally arrives at the conclusion that this is not a fight he has any conceivable chance of winning. And, commendably, he accepts this is a natural part of the Presidential process. (It helps that, minutes before he reaches this crucial decision, he scored some points with a difficult-to-negotiate-with Ukrainian diplomat, reaffirming that some problems can be solved – or at least diluted – even if others can’t.)

Less accepting of the unsatisfactory results is Toby, who operates under the impression that any battle, if fought hard enough, can be won. When a Congressman whom Toby thought of as a friend politely tells him that he sees no merit in supporting the lame duck session, Toby is frustrated beyond words, venting his anger at a poor White House tour group. By the end of the episode, Bartlet has calmed him down, appealing to Toby’s more intellectual side, but “The Lame Duck Congress” gives us a taste of how deeply – and hazardously – Toby’s personal connection with the work he does is rooted.

The episode also gives us a taste of CJ’s personal connection with her work, and what we see continues to attest to her growing involvement with the inner mechanisms of the White House. Earlier episodes saw CJ trying to balance her Press Secretary career with her quasi-romantic relationship with Danny, but now that things have begun to get more serious on both fronts, she is forced to make a choice – and does. Danny has speculated that CJ’s problem with their relationship revolved around the security issue of a Press Secretary dating a reporter, but CJ has proven herself capable enough to avoid any unwarranted leaks. No, when she breaks things off with Danny, it is because of her growing dedication to her job, and her equally growing unwillingness to let anything like a serious personal life get in its way.

This, then, can be viewed as CJ’s own personal acquiescence of this episode. She understands now that, in the struggle to maintain a balance between her two lives, she must concede one of them to the other. Keeping in tune with the theme of the episode, she understands that her best chance of succeeding at her job must come through admitting – both to herself, and to Danny – that there are some things she simply cannot have. It’s at once a touching moment and a liberating one, laying the emotional icing on an intricate and entertaining episode. “The Lame Duck Congress” aims to show us the virtues of failure – and ironically, it winds up a huge success.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Donna owns this episode in her every scene, from her futile quest to rid the White House of carpal tunnel syndrome to her use as a “plant” for Bartlet’s meeting with Konanov.
+ Bartlet asking Charlie for some aspirin and a weapon of some kind to kill people with.
+ Do we ever learn if the woman with Konanov is a bodyguard or a hooker? (If we did, don’t tell me. It’s funnier that way.)
+ Toby finding Konanov seated in his office.
+ Leo getting his message across to Margaret simply by having her look at his face.
+ The facial expressions of the White House tour group members as they watch Toby ranting.
+ Ainsley asking for Sam’s donut. Gotta love Ainsley.
+ Leo referring to Konanov as “Dr. Zhivago”.


[Score]

A-

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