[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Paul Redford | Director: Paris Barclay | Aired: 11/15/2000]
“There isn’t going to be a change.” – Toby
A lot happens on The West Wing. The show’s breakneck pace allows each episode to cram major amounts of story and development into the space of forty-two minutes. Characters talk fast, but more to the point, they act fast, and the show deftly sustains drama week in and week out, without ever exhausting itself in the process.
A lot happens in “The Portland Trip”. Even by normal West Wing standards, this episode is packed with the kind of rich character and thematic insight we’ve come to love the series for. A great debt is owed to the setting where much of the episode takes place – specifically, an airborne plane.
“The Portland Trip” is the first West Wing episode to feature a large chunk of action on Air Force One, and it proves what an ingenious setting the President’s plane is. As I’ve discussed previously, this is a series famous for the “walk-and-talk”, a device which spruces up the dialogue-heavy scenes which pepper the show. This episode takes things a step further by employing a “fly-and-talk” – the whole episode features Bartlet and his staff en route to an important Oregon event, and so even in scenes where the characters remain physically immobile, the show lends us the subconscious effect of the story “moving”. It’s an ingenious storytelling device, keeping us entertained even during the episode’s few slow spots. (And whoa – what happens when the characters on the plane start walking-and-talking while they’re flying-and-talking? I’m just saying.)
And the lengthy plane ride works its magic in-story as well, because, as Josh tells us, Bartlet likes long plane rides. The serenity of the air allows the President to reflect on his tenure. It allows him to loosen up and lightly tease CJ about his affiliation with Notre Dame, the alma mater which very nearly deterred him from a political career. It allows him to bask in the magnificent views below – assisted by a late departure time – and peruse the furthering of his bold new policy.
And what of that policy? As this episode demonstrates, it’s not working out quite to the extent that he had anticipated at the end of “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19]. That’s demonstrated when Leo, ever the pragmatist, reins things in when it looks as though a smuggling boat is cutting through the waters, hesitant to employ Bartlet’s admittedly faulty plan to take it down. (Leo’s own pragmatism has overall loosened, however, as he no longer applies it as much to his personal life – the scene where he assures a worried Margaret that his divorce will not generate any major conflicts is a sign that Bartlet’s constant friendly advice from last season has paid off.) It’s further demonstrated when Josh, in a meeting with a Republican Congressman lobbying for a gay marriage bill, begins to seriously ponder whether the best thing to do would be to hold off on the bill for the time being.
To this effect, Josh’s meeting with Congressman Skinner is one of the episode’s more pointedly insightful threads. Josh quickly deduces the most impulsive line of thought – in supporting the gay marriage bill, Republican Skinner must himself be gay. When Skinner confirms it, it looks as though the episode is portraying another facet of Republican politics as shamelessly one-note. But thankfully, that’s not what happens. The ultimate message is a curveball, pitched with the kind of underhanded smoothness that makes up for some of the mucky conservative stereotypes we saw in “In This White House” [2×04] – Skinner may be a Republican for most turns of the compass, but in this one area, he disagrees with his party’s politics. It’s an effective statement to Josh, whose own perception of the political field has been relegated to two unflinching, deep-rooted parties, set against each other in all major areas of debate.
It’s a more level-headed side of Josh than we’re used to seeing, but perhaps his PTSD is giving him a greater field of cogent thought. Unlike Leo, however, Josh’s cogent mindset does not extend toward courteous pleasantries, as the witty barbs he aims at Donna seem to sting a little more sharply than usual. Donna herself grows a bit disconnected this episode, as Josh fails to provide her with the refreshing backboard she always uses to keep a level head. She even begins to fret when Josh asks Ainsley to do some work for him, and rather humorously ponders whether or not she and Ainsley look very much alike. Clearly, Donna’s work for Josh has become very personal for her, and she can’t bear the idea that he may have lost interest in their repartee and is “replacing” her. “The Portland Trip” features arguably the first real sign that the relationship between Josh and Donna is more than simply platonic, icing the cake with the rather obvious moment at the end of the episode when Josh finally loosens up and tells Donna that she looks good in her dress. (Which she does. I’m just saying.)
The Josh/Donna thread is one of the more lightly amusing of the episode, rivaled only by the stressed-out night CJ has trying to keep her coworkers on Air Force One happy. She acquiesces to wearing a Notre Dame hat for Bartlet, even posing with him for a photo-op, and she can’t catch a break when Danny refuses to surrender the first draft of Sam’s script when he’s told it’s been recalled. Danny, making his last appearance until “Holy Night” [4×11], seems at first to be paying CJ back for her breakup with him last episode, but he ultimately turns out to be messing with her just for the heck of it. And so is Bartlet, for that matter. CJ is still rather concerned over her position in the White House, and she isn’t too thrilled over the way the men around her joke about it. But Bartlet and Danny only mess with CJ because they respect her, and because they see that she could stand to loosen up. Judging by the smile she gives Bartlet at the end of the episode, it looks as though she’s finally beginning to learn that.
Sam, meanwhile, continues to show signs of becoming the son Bartlet never had, as many of his character nuances are telltale signs that he is slowly being crafted in the President’s own image. Case in point: We know from “Enemies” [1×08] that Sam is a perfectionist when it comes to speechwriting, but “The Portland Trip” demonstrates that his constant strive for good writing does not have its roots in obsessive-compulsiveness. Rather, it is a byproduct of his deep-rooted desire to follow Bartlet’s example, by honing his beliefs to a clear, admirable level which he can then project onto the public at large.
Toby has always prided himself as being a sounding board for the President, and with Sam now slowly turning into Bartlet, Jr, he has his hands full in keeping unbridled concepts in check. When Sam suggests the Portland speech contain a quote from Mao Tse-Tsung’s Little Red Book, Toby is the first to balk, even as Bartlet points out the wisdom of the phrase. At the episode’s end, he finally voices his own thoughts, supporting a solution from Charlie (who also shows signs this episode of following in Bartlet’s footsteps, due to his newly idealistic line of thinking), and gives a bit of the wisdom Bartlet has come to expect from him.
Bartlet himself is stuck in neutral for much of the episode, forced to spin wheels for both the smuggling ship and the Marriage Recognition Act. When he agrees to Toby’s suggestion, it is only with reluctance: “It’s a start, I guess.” The idea of a “running into walls at full speed” policy seemed so fresh and good when Leo suggested it back in “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19], but it’s turning out to be much harder that the President could have anticipated.
It’s this ambiguous note that closes “The Portland Trip”, an episode that hits all the right notes, providing a clearly defined thread for nearly every one of its characters, and featuring no major missteps. Although the season has been something of an inconsistent burn since its excellent two-part premiere, this episode marks the moment when it hits its stride. From here on, there are a couple of brief bumps in the road, but for the most part, we’re treated to a taut, engaging, and all-around excellent run of episodes that build right up to the finale. A lot happens in “The Portland Trip”, but there’s a great deal more to come. And no, I’m not just saying.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ CJ in that Notre Dame cap. For the whole episode.
+ Margaret trying (and hilariously failing) to offer Leo support.
+ Bartlet asking CJ to sing the Notre Dame song.
+ Sam getting fidgety over Charlie’s writing.
+ Ainsley’s overheated office. Poor Ainsley.
* Bartlet tells CJ that at one point in his life, he wanted to be a priest. This alludes to Bartlet’s backstory and personal ties with Catholic school, which will be explored in – you guessed it – “Two Cathedrals” [2×22].