[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Kevin Falls, and Laura Glasser | Director: Michael Engler | Aired: 02/21/2001]
“You’ve been the king of whatever room you walked into her entire life.” – Dr. Griffith
Well, we’ve arrived at what is probably the weakest episode of the whole second season. (Though given that, as I’ve stated, the second season has no bad episodes, that’s a pretty light criticism.) “Ellie” is an episode with some good ideas, some semi-good ideas, and some rather unfortunate misfires. Would that the other seasons could have a low point at this level of quality, but that doesn’t change the fact that “Ellie” is just that: a low point.
The main story is built upon some themes that, while not out-of-place, aren’t especially insightful. Following the hell Bartlet went through in arranging for the release of a captive drug lord in exchange for the safe return of some American hostages, “The War At Home” [2×14] emphasized that the White House had effectively lost another battle in the War on Drugs. So it’s understandable that when the Surgeon General, Dr. Millie Griffith, makes a few comments that could be construed as supporting the legalization of marijuana, Bartlet and his staff are set on edge. But that’s nothing compared to when the idea that Bartlet would ever fire Griffith is denounced… by none other than his own daughter, Ellie.
This is the sort of development you’d expect to be developed in a meaningful and likely emotional way, as we watch Bartlet contend with yet another female family member whom he doesn’t quite see eye-to-eye with. But unfortunately, it isn’t. And “Ellie”, whatever its intentions, never succeeds the way it should.
Let’s talk basics. The success of dramatic storytelling is not something that can be successfully obtained by trotting out a series of tropes that build to a logical finish. Success must be achieved organically. The parts of the story must amount to a considerable whole. If any components feel forced or manufactured, cracks and holes can appear in the narrative, draining out the genuine drama until all we’re left with is a hollow shell of a story.
The key dramatic component of “Ellie” rests on Ellie herself. The success of the episode in question rests on the understanding that the viewer will buy into the idea that the relationship between Eleanor Bartlet and her father is worth not merely exploring, but building an entire emotional climax around. The problem here should be obvious: Ellie has never appeared on the series before, and has only been oh-so-casually mentioned in the past.
So the episode attempts to explain away her absence: Unlike her sisters Zoey and Liz, Ellie has never been a part of her father’s Presidential life. Instead, she’s stayed in the background and focused on her more docile medical career. That’s all fine and serviceable, but it brings up another problem: Elizabeth – as far as we know – hasn’t been an integral part of her father’s Presidential life, either. Whereas Zoey has been highly visible, frequenting visits to the White House and even dating her father’s personal aide, the most important role Liz has played thus far in the series is giving birth to the granddaughter Bartlet refers to in his introductory scene in the “Pilot” [1×01]. Zoey and Liz exist at radically different points on the character spectrum, yet they’re suddenly lumped together so that the show can squeeze some dramatic material out of their sister.
The entire storyline rests on the emotional base of Ellie as a character, and how she relates to her father. That the episode cuts corners to achieve this base is already a sign of undermining the drama. But to make matters worse, Ellie herself is barely even in the episode! She shows up only long enough for us to get a sense of who she is (medical student with a strained relationship with her dad) before disappearing, only to return for the Touching Moment at the end when she and Bartlet reconcile. In the interim, we have Bartlet speaking at great length about a lack of a relationship with his daughter, with much of the emotional material vocalized, rather than felt. And just when you think the episode can’t one-up itself when it comes to contrived drama, we get the abrupt, out-of-the-blue revelation that Ellie is Griffith’s goddaughter. This point is hastily brought up, hastily dispensed with, and never mentioned again. Whatever emotional relevance it may attempt to gain evaporates just as quickly as any of the other storytelling tricks this episode pulls.
In short, the entire main storyline of “Ellie” is a dud, built on so many machinated story developments that there’s barely a shred of genuine emotion left. Even in retrospect, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what Sorkin was going for here. This is Ellie’s one and only appearance in the show’s first four seasons, and although she’ll have a significantly larger role in Seasons Five and Seven, that’s largely a product of John Wells taking advantage of her character and allowing for a bit of background development. (The moment in “7A WF 83429” [5×01] when Ellie is shown to be the only Bartlet woman who stands by her father is, in some ways, more subtly intriguing than most any of the material Nina Siemaszko is given in this episode.)
To the story’s credit, however, it does draw an interesting parallel between the Bartlet administration and Dr. Griffith. Griffith, when asked about marijuana, spoke her mind not out of spite for anti-drug laws, but out of honesty. Josh tries to counter that there are different levels of honesty for people of different statures, but she bats away that argument with the simple fact that the more important you are, the more stock people place in your words, and thus the more truthful you must be. Bartlet, as we’ve been so painfully reminded of last episode, has lied to the American people by omission, not informing them of his multiple sclerosis, and we’re led to ponder the comparison: If the Surgeon General prides herself on complete honesty, shouldn’t the President hold himself to the same or an even higher level? (Interestingly, when Bartlet’s MS cripples him in “In the Room” [6×08], who’s on call to help him? None other than Dr. Griffith.)
By giving us something to chew on that will be more intriguingly explored in Season Two’s final stretch, the primary storyline of “Ellie” is not a complete loss. And thankfully, there are other aspects of this episode which boost its quality as well. There is, for example, some interesting development on the part of Toby, who is having trouble implementing his plans to get Bartlet reelected. The idea of courting right-wingers with a bipartisan policy did not sit well with Democratic Congressman Seth Gillette last episode, and so Toby must turn to another Capitol member to help convince the Senator otherwise. And that member, of course, is none other than his dearly ex-beloved.
Toby and Andy have one of the show’s most wildly inconsistent relationships (something that will become increasingly apparent in later seasons), but “Ellie” is a quiet example of why they have such great onscreen chemistry. Toby can flirt with CJ like a drunken lout, because the two have no real romantic feelings for one another. But around Andy, he puts on his sternest face, immunizing himself from her jovial attitude as a means of keeping his distance. As I mentioned while discussing “Mandatory Minimums” [1×20], Toby still has feelings for Andy, but, ever the professional, he’s trying to push them to the very back of his mind.
“Ellie” also introduces another of the many facets that serve to enhance Toby’s character – namely, the rubber ball. Small and pink and instantly associable with childish fun, the ball in fact serves both as an extension of Toby’s emotions and a creative means of enhancing production. We see the first of these two functions during his frustrated discussion with Andy, during which he angrily bounces the ball against the floor repeatedly as the unsolvable nature of his problem dawns on him. And we get a taste of the second when he gains Sam’s attention (and annoyance) by bouncing the ball against the window partition between their offices.
Sam’s story thread, incidentally, is not nearly as developed as Toby’s, but it thankfully doesn’t get enough screentime to cause real harm. We watch as he talks down to the producer of an inappropriate movie who called out the President for decrying said movie, in a scene which basically amounts to Sorkin delivering a “Take that!” to the cheap voyeurism and exploitation that the more controversial factions of Hollywood often thrive on.
Now, to Sorkin’s credit, this accusation isn’t really hypocritical from a writing standpoint. (The West Wing was only ever really controversial on a political level, refraining from all the sexy, edgy stuff that riles up the Parents Television Council.) But the same can’t be said from an in-story standpoint. Because at the same time that Sam is busy chewing out the Hollywood exec for resorting to underhanded tricks in order to garner popularity, Toby is doing much the same thing. He decides that the only way to convince Gillette to get onboard with the White House’s new policy is to announce to the public that Gillette has gotten onboard with the White House’s new policy, thus forcing the Senator into accepting the position or risk looking unpatriotic.
It’s a side of Toby we haven’t quite seen before, yet it feels fully in character. Toby has never been a man willing to make political compromises, but he’s never quite resorted to cheating gambits, either. But with the election now on the horizon, he is immediately perceptive to the fact that things need to change. (The moment when he tosses his rubber ball to Sam, throwing in a “Good job” along with it, can be read on several levels. For one, he’s agreeing not to bother his Deputy anymore with that incessant bouncing. For another, he’s having a bit of an Obi-Wan moment, humorously passing the torch to his protégé. But at its most subliminal, this moment shows how oblivious Toby is to the potential harm of the political game he’s playing, or how he and the film producer are actually now more alike than he’d care to realize. On another note, am I actually finding more to analyze about the rubber ball in this episode than the Bartlet/Ellie relationship? That’s troubling.)
“Ellie” is, above all, a conflicted episode. It features too much manufactured drama and not enough sensible emotion to back it. Despite some good material on the subplot field, the main storyline never truly catches fire. It’s just as well, then, that the episode ends on Bartlet’s quietly intrigued words: “Here comes the good part.” Yes, we’ve had a lot of memorable stuff this season, but the best is yet to come. And just as soon as we get past the slightly fluffy “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” [2×16], it’ll be time for the very, very good part.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Everyone frantically trying to figure out when the President will return from Japan.
+ Charlie, on the plane from Tokyo, greeting Sam on the phone in Japanese.
+ Griffith giving Josh a lollipop for visiting her. Now that’s a doctor.
+ CJ constantly threatening to quit throughout the episode is quite amusing.
* CJ constantly threatening to quit throughout the episode is more than amusing, though. She has pent-up frustrations over the way her coworkers constantly saddle her with absurd or controversial briefings, and her emotions will be directly addressed in “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You” [2×20].
* Okay, I feel weird bringing up the ball again, but that little pink sucker will play a key role in underscoring Toby’s emotions during the important transitional moments between “The Stackhouse Filibuster” [2×17] and “17 People” [2×18].