[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 02/14/2001]
“…and in the process, we hope the people force us to do good things.” – Bartlet
If you sat down with another West Wing fan and asked them to name their favorite Season Two episodes, chances are you’ll get a rather unsurprising list. Most will mention the two-part premiere, “Noel” [2×10], and “17 People” [2×18] (though some may go for broke by collectively listing the last stretch of episodes as a single entry). And of course, you’d start worrying profusely if their list didn’t include “Two Cathedrals” [2×22].
The sheer power of Season Two’s finest outings is emphasized by the quality of its near-finest outings. Were an episode on the level of “The War at Home” to air in a relatively weak season, it would likely be celebrated as an emotionally charged masterpiece. But in Season Two, the show’s most remarkably consistent and plentiful year, the episode almost feels like a second cousin to the other powerhouses. Nevertheless, it’s an episode worthy of much discussion and dissection, and it’s now about to get just that.
Directly bridging off from the events of “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” [2×13], “The War at Home” offers up an impeccable showcase for the series’ lead character. Bartlet, as I mentioned in my last review, is currently riding on a wave of confidence, assured that his methods are the right ones, even if they don’t always get the fully desired results. It’s this level of self-reliance that has boosted his spirits to more idealized stages all season… and it’s also what’s about to cost him dearly.
As I mentioned way back in my review of “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part I)” [2×01], Season Two is all about how power can be used idealistically. This has been displayed in two ways: Through the brash “running into walls” policy, and (more recently) through the “Committee to Reelect the President”. These two sets of principles may have different endgames in mind (for the former, reelection isn’t even part of the equation) but they encourage the finest qualities of the Bartlet administration in equally optimistic ways.
And then “The War at Home” comes along, and puts a painfully unoptimistic spin on both of them. It pushes Bartlet into a narrower corner than ever before, making us wonder if there’s in fact any way by which the administration can ever hit a successful stride.
The very first scene of the episode is a telling hint to the mindset Bartlet is currently in. The episode opens with him smoking on the Oval Office balcony – because he can’t do it indoors. Bartlet’s annoyance over this fact – however humorous it may be – tells us just how thoroughly he has come to embrace the power of the White House. It seems almost ludicrous, after all, that from behind his desk, he’s able to declare war on another nation… yet not able to light up a cigarette.
We see the tension lines on Bartlet’s brow increase further at the end of the teaser, when he makes a pivotal decision regarding a group of American hostages in Columbia. And faced with a choice between negotiation with terrorists and forceful extradition, Bartlet opts for the more immediately riskier choice.
As was briefly glimpsed when the hostage situation first came up in “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” [2×13], Bartlet’s first and foremost concern is American safety. (“Do you care?” Leo asked in response to Bartlet’s inquiry regarding the number of terrorist casualties. “No,” was the President’s response.) And still armed with the strong feeling that his administration has worked well by taking risks, Bartlet decides to take his precarious policy to a new level by forgoing the “negotiate with terrorists” bit and sending in the troops.
Bartlet’s brief, incredibly tense pause before giving the word to the military leaves us with a quiet, lingering feeling that not all will turn out well. But Bartlet himself does his best to keep up a cheerful air around the building… before the news finally hits.
And then we get one of the most emotionally disquieting scenes in the whole series. Bartlet was prepared to hear that the hostages had been killed, but he is caught completely off-guard by the news that his stealth team had blundered into a trap. What makes the scene especially uncomfortable is that it actually takes him several seconds to comprehend the idea that nine American soldiers have been lost (as opposed to Leo, who reads the somber lines on the reporting General’s face almost immediately). This is a sign, once again, of Bartlet’s unabashed optimism, never thinking any mission could go so horribly wrong.
Martin Sheen sells the emotion Bartlet feels in this scene to the limit, and it’s difficult to watch as he tries to grapple with the idea of how easily his people have been tricked – not only was the whole mission an aching failure, but he was responsible for sending nine good men to their graves. The early seasons of The West Wing rarely feature such dark and heavy material, so Bartlet’s rant on the White House balcony (where a rainstorm adds to the unsettling mood) hurts all the more due to our unpreparedness for it. What we’re witnessing now is a man struck by tragedy – tragedy of which he no doubt holds himself responsible.
One of the most remarkable things about “The War at Home” is the manner in which it evokes Bartlet’s reaction to the events without overtly exploiting things. The tragedy has, no doubt, dealt a major blow to Bartlet’s idealistic policy. But the episode finds several ways to channel this sentiment without being overtly blatant, making for some incredibly textured subtle storytelling.
Consider, for example, Bartlet’s chess game. As President, Bartlet often finds himself tasked with seeing both sides of a conflict, and by playing chess against himself, he not only sharpens his wits, but garners a more open-minded perspective on how to cope with more pressing two-sided situations. Early in the episode, Leo steps in, coaching Bartlet in his game with moves that may initially seem foolhardy, but will pay off down the line. This all sums up the differentiating viewpoints of Bartlet and Leo rather nicely: The former sees pressing situations for their immediate effects, while the latter is more cautious of immediate results, but is cogently aware of long-term consequences. (At the end of the episode, shortly before agreeing to the terrorists’ demands, Bartlet acknowledges his fumbling of a few chess moves that doomed one side of his game even before Leo approached him to help.)
Chess, as any ardent fan knows from episodes like “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14] and “The Hubbert Peak” [6×05], is one of Bartlet’s primary mental coping mechanisms. But it’s not the only outlet “The War at Home” uses to show him working through his current predicament. We also see him attempting to interact once more with Abbey – and it’s here that the episode not only develops the relationship between these two, but puts a discomforting spin on the other administrative mindset.
As I mentioned in my take on “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” [2×13], Bartlet is oblivious to the fact that several of his administrative members have begun to clear a path to a second term, a trend they continue in this episode, even as the President must tend to his own heady affairs. (In some of the more easily digestible storylines of “The War at Home”, we watch as Toby politely tells an irate constituent to go screw himself, and Joey finally convinces Josh to join the reelection mindset of his coworkers by telling him that he should look at the polling numbers as a case of “glass half-empty” and thus concentrate on garnering more supporters.) But Abbey, noticing the way her two cents for the State of the Union ended up on the cutting room floor, is quick to deduce that Bartlet is being preened for reelection, a fact she accuses him of when he arrives to speak with her.
Bartlet’s visit to Abbey’s quarters comes shortly after he receives news of the ambush, and, heart heavy, he wants to allay at least some of the emotional burden of the last few days. But although Abbey is extremely sympathetic to the military tragedy, she still has a point about reelection. For the first time since the start of the season, we are reminded that Bartlet has multiple sclerosis, and in this context, said disease no longer feels like just a minor threat.
Although Bartlet had no thoughts about reelection before this episode, his wife’s words incite him to justify the prospect of reelection. In what is perhaps one of the most true-to-life statements he’s ever made about American politics, Bartlet explains that the process of election is self-sustaining: Officials try their best to get elected, simply so they can have the opportunity to get reelected. It’s a stinging fact, and it’s the first time all season that Bartlet has attested to it.
And in all likeliness, it won’t be the last. As Bartlet continues to debate the idea of whether or not to agree to the terrorists’ demands and free a notorious drug lord, Leo vocalizes the crushing blow: “We lost, Mr. President.” Bartlet’s policy, for all the optimism he’s displayed, has forced him into a terrible predicament, leaving him wondering if the idea of this policy was ever a good idea to begin with.
It’s a disquieting feeling that sticks to the end of the episode, when Air Force One takes Bartlet to Dover to meet the procession of the soldiers’ recovered bodies. Early in the episode, Bartlet mentioned recollections of this sort of thing: Watching the procession as, coffin by coffin, each fallen soldier is carried past the President. Although these recollections were likely via television during the Vietnam War, they become coldly real for Bartlet here, as he stands in stoic silence and watches, each coffin adding to his quiet grief.
Bartlet has indeed lost. But for the first time all season, the prospect of reelection – and with it, the hope of wiser, more successful ventures – has become very real. But looming over it, then, is the impending threat of MS. Should Bartlet make the attempt to run again? Is it even worth the effort?
“The War at Home” leaves these questions hanging. But it’s just as well. This is not an episode about solutions, or at least not about discovering them. It shows us, in emotionally painful scenes, that solutions are not quite as simple as a four-word slogan hastily scrawled on a notepad would have you believe. It’s an unsettling lesson that finishes an unsettling episode, one that remains among Season Two’s finest. Its only real flaw, as I’ve stated up front, is that there are numerous episodes this season that are even better.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ In a nice bit of short-term continuity, the first act of this episode resolves the Sloane storyline from “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” [2×13] – a sign of how closely connected these two episodes are.
+ Charlie and Mrs. Landingham discussing their sleuthing skills in solving the mystery of the uncashed paycheck.
+ Ainsley mistaking Leo’s closet for a bathroom. Yet another sign that she’ll someday end up on the cover of Vogue.
– Toby’s “With friends like these, who needs anemones?” line feels painfully writerly. I honestly don’t think that Toby, of all people, would be cracking jokes about a new policy at a time when he’s trying to seriously implement it.
* Leo regarding the Situation Room Uniforms who listened in on Bartlet’s fateful phone call to the Columbian president: “Those fourteen people keep bigger secrets than this.” The idea of a small group of individuals keeping a closely guarded secret for the President is certainly a delicate prospect, and it’s one that will be further broached in “17 People” [2×18].
* An amusing bit of foreshadowing right here: The Columbian President that Bartlet speaks with regarding the release of an imprisoned drug lord is named… President Santos.