West Wing 2×09: Galileo

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Kevin Falls | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 11/29/2000]

“When we run for reelection… I’d vote for somebody else.” – CJ

Know what? I love Allison Janney.

I loved her in Juno. I loved her in American Beauty. I even loved her in that one really stupid episode of Lost. And of course, I love her on The West Wing.

Know what else? I’m not alone. The Television Academy loves her. Just last month, they gave her two Emmy awards. They’ll sit snugly on her shelf alongside the four she racked up while starring on The West Wing.

Now, I can’t say that I fully agree with the methods to the Emmys’ madness – Janney snagged the latter two of those awards for best-forgotten episodes “The Women of Qumar” [3×08] and “Access” [5×18]. (Yes, “Access” [5×18] won an Emmy. We live in a scary world.) But I applaud them for recognizing her work, especially in Season Two, when she won for her excellence in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part II)” [2×02]… and, more appropriately, in “Galileo”.

Janney dominates every scene she takes part of in this episode, proving to be the secret weapon of “Galileo”. How appropriate, then, that “Galileo” proves the character of CJ Cregg to be the secret weapon of the White House.

Things have not been especially satisfying in and around the Oval Office lately, as the bold policy Bartlet implemented at the end of Season One is now bearing more flies than fruit. As “The Portland Trip” [2×07] showed, the administration is barely scraping by through baby steps, unable to put their personal ideals into play. So it’s a bit understandable that the characters have now begun to recede to their Season One ideals (or lack thereof). There is debate over whether to put a controversial face on a stamp, and there is panic surrounding the publicity of the fact the President does not like green beans (the latter of which is likely a reference to George H.W. Bush’s real-life infamous “broccoli” statement). These issues stem from the potential negative impact they may have on voters come reelection time – not at all different from the mentality the characters maintained in Season One.

The fact that CJ is the one who comes to the rescue at the end of the episode, delivering a “Who cares?” speech that succeeds at being fun without verging on preachy, demonstrates a point that will be crucial to her arc in the later seasons of the show – of all Bartlet’s staffers, CJ is the one with the most pointed and infallible sense of idealism, a power she can use to right the course of the administration whenever it starts falling back on old habits.

The joke of “Galileo”, though, is that the manner by which CJ arrives at the conclusion that the administration should make decisions based on their personal beliefs rather than public sway is through a less-than-admirable experience. At a concert she attends with the President, CJ comes across an old flame that she passed up for a promotion, despite the fact that he may have been the most qualified man for the job. Although no specific explanation is given, we’re led to believe her rejection of him came about due to their bad breakup. It’s perhaps the least glamorous example of “personal over political” in West Wing history, but that just makes it all the more potent: CJ comes away from her conversation with her ex with a renewed sense of what the White House she works for should be all about.

Now, CJ can’t take all the credit for the re-ignition of the Bartlet administration’s sense of purpose in this episode. The ball itself first begins rolling thanks to a couple of secondary characters who are slowly gaining importance to the show: Donna and Charlie. Donna lobbies for the controversial postage stamp, and Charlie was the one who spilled the beans (figuratively) about the President’s distaste for beans (literally), because as he concisely explains it, it’s not the biggest problem they need to worry about.

He’s right, of course. This episode features bigger problems for the President and his staff to contend with, namely a potentially hazardous Russian missile test and a space satellite that inexplicably falls off the radar. And through both of these events, we get a keen sense of why the administration’s idealistic policy has been rather shunted as of late.

When Bartlet and Leo meet with the Russian ambassador, they have but a single thought to project on her: Why didn’t her country ask for America’s help? Bartlet has aided foreign nations in the past, and this has given him a good sense of when troubles in other countries have the distinct whiff of international incident. And through his experiences, he’s come to think of himself not only as a leader and friend of America, but of the worldly majority, capable of helping anyone if given the opportunity. (Recall the toll it took on him when he failed to help the unfortunate Kundu leader, Nimbala, in “In This White House” [2×04].)

But in chewing out the Russian ambassador, Bartlet’s helping hand stretches a bit too far. Although he has a right to be concerned, he skims the line between open-armed comrade and angry paternal figure. He does not consider the idea of Russia being able to take care of itself – which the ambassador assures him they can, thanks to their experiences with “a long, hard winter”. (The post-Cold War vibe occasionally brought up in the first two seasons may not have as much resonance as they did before the War on Terror diverted everyone’s attention, but at the time of its airing, “Galileo” was likely calling back on those America/Russia tensions.)

But it’s the segments revolving around the titular space probe that really shed light on Bartlet’s predicament. The launching of the satellite Galileo V is touted as a major event in the White House, thanks not least to the President, with whom the craft resonates not only through its ambition, but through its very namesake. The real-life Galileo was a revisionist who challenged the stone-set rules of gravity and the sciences, reshaping our perspective of the world as we know it. As of this point in Season Two, Bartlet finds himself wanting of a similar path, and he sees the launching of the Galileo probe to be a metaphorical commentary on the launching of his Galileo-like aspirations.

But then Galileo drops off the radar, and the metaphor garners a cruel edge. Bartlet pictures his vision, and perhaps even his Presidency, going down the very same path that the ill-fated probe took. That the loss of an inanimate satellite would affect Bartlet so deeply should leave us with no mistake of how much he has connected with it.

It is CJ, playing one last card from her optimistic deck, who returns him to earth (figuratively). Now armed with a good sense of what the administration should strive towards, she encourages Bartlet to see the loss of Galileo not as the failure he makes it out to be, but as a stepping stone towards the prospect of future success. In classic Season Two tradition, “Galileo” turns a negative story development into a positive one, furthering the season’s theme along effectively, and all through the outwardly simplistic message of “try, try again”.

As it wraps things up, “Galileo” leaves on a closing note that places a thematic little bow on this well-rounded episode. Bartlet raises his eyes skyward and, in a low, lilting voice, pleads, “Talk to me.” The implication is twofold – he could very well be holding out hope for the missing satellite, but more likely, he could be directing a plea toward the heavens. Bartlet has continually found himself in an unenviable position as of late, and has yet to truly utilize his policies to the fullest. Always a man of faith, he now attempts to speak directly to God, in the hopes that He will help him find the proper path. Watch this scene retrospectively, knowing that by the end of the season, Bartlet will receive a message from God, one that will change him in the most unexpected and permanent of ways.

Then, acknowledge the fact that at one point in this very episode, Bartlet mentions that the real-life Galileo, whom he draws inspiration from, had his greatest epiphany while sitting in a cathedral… and feel that chill go up your spine.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ The side-story where Sam and Mallory put a cap in their relationship (such as it were) is light, but entertaining. Especially nice as this is the last time the series ever brings it up.
+ Bartlet showing off his knowledge about the solar system. Cool, but does he know there’s “Life on Mars” [4×21]?
+ Toby getting an assignment from Leo… and immediately handing it off to Josh. (“Well, that happened fast.”)
+ Go over to one of your friends and tell them you think that philately is fun. Be sure to let me know their reaction.
+ It’s nice for once to have Donna explaining something to Josh, rather than vice versa. (See, Sorkin’s not really a sexist.)
+ Margaret is still awkward and finicky around Leo’s visitors.
+ Bartlet criticizing modern-day music.
+ Sam dropping his wine glass into a trash bin, and attempting to be casual about it.
+ CJ making her grand proclamation about her in-bed skills, causing other men to turn toward her. (Okay… maybe kind of a sexist.)

– This isn’t a fault of the episode itself, but what’s with all the side characters dropping off the grid lately? Zoey, Danny, and Mallory won’t appear on the show again until Season Four. This problem of characters disappearing and reappearing at random will only get worse as time goes on, and you can bet I’ll be bringing it up again.


* Toby doesn’t want to get involved in either the green bean fiasco or the stamp issue. This is telling of his desire to stay above the more ludicrous incidents to affect the Bartlet administration, which is itself telling of the great pride he takes in his job… which is a major damaging factor to his character in the last few seasons.



12 thoughts on “West Wing 2×09: Galileo”

  1. [Note: Mike posted this comment on October 9, 2014.]

    “You didn’t say it right” and then a bit later… “*light smack* He said it right.” And then finally to close out the episode? “You said it right that time.” Just love it.


  2. [Note: Michael posted this comment on May 5, 2015.]

    Kind of annoyed with some of the fact-checking on this one. I really could not care less about the Mars stuff, but Sorkin really should have done his homework on the formation of Icelandic names. Olafsdottir is a perfectly good second name (they have no surname), but for a GIRL, not a guy. It should have been Olafson (maybe Olafsson, not sure how spelling works).

    That just adds to my annoyance that Toby continuously says “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less.


  3. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on September 20, 2015.]

    I was going to post a comment about how Allison Janney won yet another Emmy this year, but I figure if I did that this episode would have a thousand comments by the time you finished your reviews.


  4. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on September 20, 2015.]

    See, I’m assuming you’ll finish them by the end of the lustrum, so since the Television Academy gives Allison Janney approximately 229 Emmies a year, she’ll be up to a thousand by the time you’re done with the show.


  5. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on January 1, 2016.]

    “Although no specific explanation is given, we’re led to believe her rejection of him came about due to their bad breakup.”

    Uh…we are…I certainly didn’t see it that way. She rejected the idea that she rejected him due to personal reasons and I believed her.


  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 1, 2016.]

    CJ (referring to their breakup): “That was six weeks, five years ago.”

    Her position looks considerably less credible after that.


    1. Also the response to the question of what he should do differently to get the job being “vote for someone else” is kind of showing it wasn’t actually a meritocracy.


  7. Another good review Jeremy, I always read these reviews to see if you can bump my assessment of the episode up a point or so and you did here. Didn’t see the metaphor of the Galileo to the administration I must say. I’m really losing my touch in my TV watching ability, aren’t I?

    I meant to make a comment in the last review about Charlie getting the president’s knife and you reminded me by mentioning Zoe. I thought I missed an engagement or something that would cause that. Zoe disappearing for seasons really stymies Charlie’s main plotline and his relationship to the president. What a confounding decision.


    1. Yeah, Charlie’s relationship with Zoey is a crucial part of his arc, and his character is a lot less interesting without her around. (Then again, I’m not a fan of how they bring her back, either. Eh, I should just learn to go with it.)


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