West Wing 2×13: Bartlet’s Third State of the Union

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Allison Abner, and Dee Dee Myers | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 02/07/2001]

“They’ve been giving you some pretty decent style points.” – Abbey

There are certain settings in the world of storytelling that seem right at place in a broadcast network series. Take school, for example. The typical American school year runs from September through May, the same as the typical network series. Thus, a series like Buffy, Veronica Mars, or Community can comfortably fit each season’s timeframe alongside its characters’ school year, from start to finish.

The setting of The West Wing has its own annual punctuation mark, but it comes in January, rather than during the summer. I’m referring to the State of the Union address, the yearly speech given by the President to inform America about… well, the state of the Union. The timing of this address, meant to serve as a reflection on the old year and a heralding of the new one, does not fit comfortably with the scheduling necessities of a broadcast network. You may think this would lead to problems with story buildup and momentum. (And it eventually will, which is why the last couple of seasons feature a change-up in the show’s timeframe, and series events no longer line up precisely with the time of year they air.) But Sorkin and his team have found a way to use the timing of the address to their advantage – as it invariably will occur roughly halfway through the season, it can function as an important turning point. Last season, we got the magnificent “He Shall, From Time to Time…” [1×12] to fire things up, and this time around, we get a fantastic two-parter that perfectly sets up Season Two’s home stretch.

The straightforwardly titled “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” represents the first half of what is essentially a single 90-minute episode. And in spite of that title, the episode actually does not spend much time showing the President’s address, apart from a few recorded snippets shown during and after the event. The focus of the episode is on the aftermath of the address, and it’s quite an interesting aftermath to behold.

“This was almost a good night,” Leo muses at one point during the episode, and it’s easy to understand his sentiments. The idea of having a purely “good night” by any standard has been eluding the Bartlet administration for a while now, and now, an evening which was meant to herald a world of change for the country becomes fraught with complications. Hardly anyone in the administration has much of a good night following the end of the address.

Take Josh, for example. Miles away from the Capitol for much of the episode, Josh spends the evening at a polling facility, beginning the night by sternly lording over the phone operators, and growing increasingly frustrated as results fail to pour in. Josh’s extreme obsession with getting the job done is made infinitely more frustrating by the fact that he must spend the night around the only two women he knows who are able to get under his skin. The scenes with him interacting with Donna and Joey are funny (if a bit repetitive), but they also mark the first concrete suggestion that the relationship between Josh and Donna has more-than-platonic implications.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of “will they or won’t they?” storylines, and my feelings toward the whole Josh/Donna romance are nothing short of mixed. But Season Two does a remarkable job of slowly advancing the two past their initial stages of bantering and bickering, with this episode standing out as a particular prime example. By playfully toying with the possibility of a Josh/Joey romance, and likening Joey to Donna in how they each relate to Josh (the way they both find ways to mess with him after the power outage always leaves me laughing), this episode is the strongest signal yet of The West Wing‘s most affectionate screwball comedy-style romance. (Or second-most affectionate, if you prefer the quasi-romantic quirkiness of Toby and CJ.)

But the Josh/Donna material is very much tangential to the core of the episode, which, as I’ve said, is focused on the aftermath of the State of the Union. This it accomplishes by channeling thoughts and feelings through Capital Beat, a poli-talk show first seen in “In This White House” [2×04], headlined by the news-hungry Mark Godfrey (played by Ted McGinley, making a rare appearance in something that doesn’t suck). The use of a politically scrutinizing outlet like Capital Beat is an excellent means of putting the White House under a microscope, and as CJ, Toby, and Ainsley get their turns in front of the camera, it becomes evident that there’s a level of unease (not to mention a significant lack of pants) among the administration’s staffers. And the root of this problem (the unease, not the pants) may lie in the conflicting solutions.

As I said, one of the things that makes “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” so potent is the fact that it arrives in middle of the season. The Bartlet administration is shifting gears, moving away from the prospect of risking everything in order to push forward their mandate, and instead moving toward a line of work that will get them a second term. But transition is anything but painless, as this episode spares no expense in showing us.

Consider, for example, its portrayal of Ainsley Hayes. Ainsley was hired back in the beginning of the season, when the “running into walls” policy was at its peak. Having a Republican on staff was a risky gambit, but that was the point – it served to show us how far Bartlet and his staff were willing to push the envelope.

But now, Ainsley appearing on Capital Beat and openly bringing some of the President’s recent actions into question feels like a risk the administration isn’t willing to take. So Sam makes the attempt to integrate Ainsley more fully into the folds of the White House, beginning by having the President inform her that she wasn’t hired to be the “blonde Republican sex kitten”. As heavily self-referential as this narrative point is (to the point that even TV Tropes has picked up on the phrase), the episode knows just how to one-up it, by having Ainsley’s historic first meeting with Bartlet occur while she’s drunk, in a bathrobe, and dancing to “Blame it On the Bossa Nova”. (Oh, like that doesn’t happen to all the girls…)

Ainsley’s night takes an embarrassing turn, but CJ still may have her beat as far as stressful evenings go. Having spent the better part of the season attempting to gravitate into the administration’s inner circle, CJ is no longer quite as buddy-buddy with the reporters as she once was. So naturally, when news begins circulating about a disgraced cop being snubbed by the President, CJ’s first instinct is to defend the White House’s reputation to the press. But there’s more to the story than meets the public’s eye. In one of the episode’s most emotionally painful scenes, CJ speaks to the officer (played commendably by Richard Riehle) and realizes that breaking the story could do plenty of unwarranted harm.

Still, as with many of The West Wing finest non-Christmas-themed episodes, the best emotional material is reserved for the President. In delivering his third State of the Union, Bartlet covers all the bases, signaling great things yet to come – but there’s more to his speech than the standard hopeful promises. No, Bartlet’s address is stitched together with the subtle motivations of a man preparing to run for reelection. So subtle, in fact, that Bartlet himself doesn’t realize it even as he delivers the speech to the Congressional crowd.

Since the end of the first season, Bartlet has strongly implied that he’s unconcerned with the idea of a second term. He has realized his potential as the President of the United States should be effected to make his own changes, rather than rubber-stamping the majority opinion. Since that time, he has taken several bullets (figuratively, though in one case literally) to boost his ideals, but he refuses to back down. And without knowing it, he’s become his own biggest problem.

The mentality of a trailblazer is by nature self-assuring – a person thinks he’s doing something right just because he’s doing something bold. And that’s exactly the trap that Bartlet has let himself fall into. His attempts to profoundly change things haven’t been quite successful, yet he continues to soldier on. Sure, there have been times when he acknowledges the flaws of his policy – “The Portland Trip” [2×07], for example. But his pride and fierce devotion to his ideals prevent him from changing course… unless his best friend and closest confidante gives him a push.

In “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19] Leo kicked things off with a hastily scrawled four-word message on a notepad. And here, he sparks the President’s reelection campaign with a few last-minute alterations to Bartlet’s big speech. Subtle changes calculated to gain more votes, even as they push several agendas forward. (The bipartisan “Blue Ribbon” program mentioned in the address is but one example of how to court approval from the voting opposition.)

Bartlet may not notice the difference these changes make, but Abbey certainly does. “The White House Pro-Am” [1×17] may have been our proper introduction to the First Lady, establishing her as an independent political figure who won’t stand for any interference from her husband’s field, but “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” is essentially when Abbey becomes an integral member of the main cast. Here, she banks on Bartlet’s speech to be a catalyst for her feminist campaign, only to see the issues shunted aside in favor of talk about school uniforms. And Bartlet, who’s always been content to let his wife accomplish her own objectives while he tends to more global crises, has no idea of how personally Abbey takes her cause for justice. (And although he doesn’t quite consider her political crusade to be a nuisance, he clearly prefers that she stay out of his affairs as well.)

The last few minutes of this episode are surprisingly hard-hitting and emotional. When Abbey confronts Bartlet, he’s at first surprised at her accusation that he’s now preparing for a second term. But that’s another factor of the trailblazer mentality: It takes someone else – someone who has the capacity for both devoted attention and brutal honesty (traits that a spouse will have by the barrelful) – for him to wake up and smell the reelection campaign.

Things are moving into place now for Season Two’s final arc, with Abbey’s “We had a deal!” invoking the circumstances surrounding Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis, and the potential ramifications of a second term. But Bartlet hasn’t time to analyze the implications of his third State of the Union address right now. He has a far greater crisis on his hands, one that we’ll discuss in far greater detail during the next review. To be continued…


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ I was going to make a comment about how much I hated the sexist joke about how the White House women keep sitting on a freshly-painted bench and need to remove their pants. But then I noticed that this episode was storyboarded by a couple of women. So I’m going to make a comment about how much I loved the hilarious joke about how the White House women keep sitting on a freshly-painted bench and need to remove their pants.
+ Look at the magazine Josh is reading before his conversation with Donna about Joey. It’s Vogue. No wonder Josh is so well-informed.
+ The blackout at the polling base never fails to make me chuckle. Although I’m concerned about Josh, who will probably find it much more difficult to read Vogue.
+ How about Bartlet’s first meeting with Ainsley? As I alluded to in my review, his verbal revocation of the “blonde Republican sex kitten” label is a nice way of making fun of the divisive fan reaction towards her. And watching a drunk Ainsley dancing to the “Bossa Nova” song leaves me with the strong feeling that she will someday end up on the cover of Vogue.


[Score]

A-

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