[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Paul Redford | Director: Scott Winant | Aired: 01/10/2001]
“We can’t put a forkful of waffles in our mouth without coughing up the ball.” – Leo
Given the inherently fickle nature of the television business, it’s not too surprising that several major-league producers have occasionally taken up the process of “recycling” their actors. After Firefly was cancelled, for example, Joss Whedon brought Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, and Adam Baldwin aboard to play other characters on his other shows, Buffy and Angel. But the strange thing in this case was in their usage on the latter shows. As any proficient Whedonite can attest to, the Firefly protagonists did a relative about-face when they shifted shows, taking on decidedly villainous roles.
There’s a bit of that moral flexibility to be found on Aaron Sorkin’s part in “The Leadership Breakfast” as well. Eight months after the cancellation of Sorkin’s first series, Sports Night, one of that show’s stars, Felicity Huffman, appears here as Ann Stark, the Chief of Staff of the Republican majority leader – who ends up fiercely antagonizing the White House.
You’d think there was a set-in-stone rule surrounding actors appearing in multiple shows from the same creator, but that’s not quite the case. (Heck, fellow Sports Night star Joshua Malina will later join The West Wing as a regular protagonist.) Here, Stark doesn’t bare any horns until the end of the episode’s third act. Up till that point, she’s portrayed as a kind and level-headed Republican (more humanly than even Ainsley Hayes), which gives you the impression that Sorkin has introduced a character who can go head-to-head with the show’s heroes while still retaining our sympathy.
Oh, you poor, misguided soul, you.
Stark’s turn from reasoned opposition into full-on enemy comes as a surprise not only to the viewer, but to Toby as well. At this point in the season, Toby seems to be the only staffer who still has full faith in the Bartlet administration’s bold policy. Even after the relative failure to implement the policy in “The Portland Trip” [2×07], he still believes changes can be helmed – although they may have to come from new angles.
Watching this episode, we get an idea of how far Toby has come since his stoic days in early Season One. So unwilling was he for political compromise in “Mr. Willis of Ohio” [1×06] that he was genuinely surprised when that episode’s title character simplistically acquiesced to his demands. And now, just a little over a full season later, the barriers opened by the administration’s political strides have made him confident that they can do far more than was initially conceived – and they’ve even made him believe in the idea of political compromise.
Such sentiment is not shared by his fellow staffers, many of whom do not have the fortitude that Toby has displayed in harnessing his beliefs time after time. As CJ presides over the seating arrangements for the leadership breakfast, it becomes clear that she and the concept of political co-ops are a world apart. “It’s a breakfast to trumpet a new spirit of bipartisanship, cooperation, and understanding in a new year,” she says dryly. “No one’s going to be listening to each other, anyways.”
The differing viewpoints between Toby and CJ raise the episode’s internal conflict to a boil. The leadership breakfast, as Leo puts it, is a simple publicity-driven photo-op, designed to satisfy stomachs more than agendas. Even the President is more concerned with the maple syrup served than the potential issues that could be explored. But Toby sees an opportunity, and he sticks a firm foot in the door to get it. The often-playful, flirty banter between him and CJ gives way to an icy coldness as the two argue the merits of moving her press conference to the Capitol’s turf, ending in Toby uttering a barely audible yet perfectly discomfiting “Do it.” Richard Schiff saves his best performance of the season for “17 People” [2×18], but he’s in top form in this scene. And he’s even better in the scene where he – and by extension, his fellow staffers – realize that Stark has played them for all-day suckers. You can practically see the grief etched into the man’s face as his idealistic vision is brought to a grinding halt.
The fact that Toby’s wishful house of cards has come tumbling down is frustrating, and not mainly for in-story reasons. Try as I might, while I respect this episode for the way it pretty much seals the deal on the failure of the “running into walls” policy (more on that later), the way in which the events are executed feels rather limp.
As you may have guessed by my little aside earlier in this review, I’m not too pleased over the “revelation” that Ann Stark is wallowing in dirty politics. Just when you think Sorkin has crafted an interesting, three-dimensional conservative opponent for the Bartlet administration, she turns into a sly, sneering villainess with a hidden agenda, tossing any of our potential goodwill out the window. Even worse is how half-hearted the lead-up is – at several points, this episode alludes that Toby and Ann have had a past relationship, but the details remain so fuzzy that nothing in their final confrontation succeeds in sticking at a personal level. Instead, it just feels contrived and writerly.
I’d like to say that the episode’s other running storyline fares better with character nuance, but that’s not quite the case. The Karen Cahill plot is a comedy of errors of the sort we saw in “Celestial Navigation” [1×15], with about a fifth of the running time and a tenth of the humor. (Though given the sheer volume of humor in “Celestial Navigation” [1×15], that may not be such a major criticism.) What begins with Leo worried that he offended a female journalist by making a joke about her shoes ends with Donna receiving an envelope containing the panties she inadvertently left with said female journalist. If any part of that previous sentence struck you as offensive, congratulations: You have the slightest bit of respect for women.
Casting aside the only intermittently funny and overtly sexist plot itself, this storyline does manage to prove its worth simply because of the introspective light it casts on Leo, a character who takes an important turn in this episode. Leo, as we all well know, was the man who stepped up to bat in “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19] with the slogan of the same name. It was his idea for the administration to plow ahead, unencumbered by fear of failure or losing reelection.
But over the course of the first half of Season Two, this mandate has proven progressively harder and harder to maintain. And in this episode, it hits an all-time low. Now Leo is fretting over offending a journalist with a light-hearted comment. He may attempt to treat it lightly, sending Josh as a messenger to off-handedly apologize, but the idea of losing public favor is now eating at him.
And even though Toby’s bipartisan plan turned around and bit the White House on its collective posterior, it’s opened Leo’s eyes to a problem he’s lately come to consciously ignore. The opposition – or the enemy, or whatever he chooses to call them – has an agenda of its own, and they’re sure as heck not going to sit back and watch as the White House does its thing.
The “running into walls” policy, for all that it basically stood for, has all but failed. But that doesn’t mean the sentiment behind the policy is extinguished. No, it should simply be harnessed through a different lens. In the episode’s final scene, Leo and Toby realize that their idealistic sense of power should, at this stage, exist not to exploit it, but to maintain it. It’s time to run for reelection.
The final scene marks the beginning of a major thematic turning point, one which maintains the overall idealistic nature of the season, while tackling it through a different lens. And the second half of the season – all the way up to the very end of “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] – will expand on the season’s themes from this new angle, and prepping us for the even headier themes in Season Three.
With so much potency invested in that final scene, it seems strange to think of the episode itself as one of Season Two’s weakest outings. Yet for all its character-related shortcomings, “The Leadership Breakfast” is far from a true disappointment. (And Season Two, unlike all other seasons of The West Wing, has not a single episode that I actively dislike.) Thematically, it’s another taut and effective hour, and it’s one that leaves us primed for the back half of this excellent season.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Lots of minor pros in watching Josh and Sam trying to light up the fireplace, including Sam finding some kerosene, Josh asking Donna to get some dry leaves, and Charlie waking up the President because… well, the White House is on fire.
+ Also, I never cease to be amused by Sam’s lack of knowledge about the White House itself, such as the fact that the fireplace they’re using has been welded up since the 19th century.
+ Brief bit of follow-through continuity in the scene where Josh snaps at Leo, and we see he’s still getting over his PTSD.
+ Sam getting worked up over his slip-of-the-tongue while speaking to Karen, only to learn she wasn’t really paying attention at the time.
+ Although I’m not a fan of the “panties” moment, I do like how Donna makes a snarky joke about not knowing what’s inside the package, shortly before she actually finds out.
+ CJ referring to Josh and Sam as “Fred and Ethel”. Which is which? You decide.
– This episode is clearly setting up Ann Stark to be a serious threat to the Bartlet administration, but we never see her again. So much for all that build-up.
* Leo mentions that the reason Bartlet has been so light-hearted lately is that he’s trying to avoid thinking about reelection. Bartlet’s own concerns toward running for reelection are a major factor in the last few episodes of this season, and the first few of the next.