[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Paul Redford & Aaron Sorkin | Director: Jessica Yu | Aired: 02/28/2001]
“The wolf is always at the door.” – Don Henley
It pretty much goes without saying that the six-episode stretch which caps off Season Two is one of the most game-changing periods in The West Wing‘s history. We’re heading towards yet-uncharted territory, and things will not be what Bartlet and his staff consider “normal” for quite a while. So it’s appropriate – almost necessary – for the show to take a pause and savor the good times.
That pause takes on episodic form in “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail”. It is perhaps the closest thing Season Two has to a standalone episode, and most everything about it is designed to make it jut slightly out from the sculpture of the season. From that extremely long title (so time-consuming to type out that I will henceforth be referring to it in abbreviated form) to the circular use of “New York Minute” (from which said title is derived) to the fashionable reprise of Big Block of Cheese Day, this is an episode that wants your attention, for you to stop and enjoy the last moment in the Bartlet administration’s history when things are genuinely uncomplicated. And that it does in highly entertaining fashion.
There is an air of familiarity surrounding SGTESGTJ, beginning with the aforementioned Big Block of Cheese Day. First introduced in “The Crackpots and These Women” [1×05], and making its second (and sadly final) appearance here, this designated day is used here as a callback to one of the show’s earliest, most purely amusing episodes. The saying goes that familiarity breeds contempt, but here, it breeds wistful nostalgia, reminding us of how much fun this show can often be.
The familiar nature of this episode doesn’t stop there, at least on a subliminal sense. Consider the running emotional storyline of this episode, in which Sam discovers his father has been secretly carrying on an affair for the last 28 years, and loses himself in work to take his mind off it. As many Sorkin fans know, this premise is an almost word-for-word repeat of events that happened with Jeremy on the Sports Night episode “The Sword of Orion” two years earlier. Again, those familiar with these events will be more open to the accessible predictability this low-key story brings. (For an added irony, Jeremy was played by Joshua Malina, whose Will Bailey would later essentially replace Rob Lowe on The West Wing.)
And even if you’re not familiar with Sports Night lore, this storyline keeps in tune with the episode’s accessibility by keeping things simple. Sam is crushed to learn of his father’s infidelity, but he refuses to go home and rest, throwing himself into his work with more gusto than ever. And when a woman approaches him with a request to exonerate her long-dead grandfather of his alleged crimes against America, Sam makes every effort to assist her. But when he ultimately discovers the accusations were in fact justified, he at first refuses to keep the information from her. Sam’s decision to reveal the truth to the woman about her grandfather is fueled by personal passion – given the experience he’s just gone through, the idea of long-buried family secrets revolts him. It takes some wise, careful words from Donna to talk him down from his angered stance, and remind him that his personal sentiments should never fuel his work.
This is not the only example this episode displays of decision driven by emotion. While Sam is sorting through old FBI files, Toby is assigned to speak to a group of people protesting the WTO. Now, given how little patience Toby already has for the civilized, well-argued people who disagree with him, we can easily understand his complete lack of interest in even attempting to deal with a bunch of screaming, sign-wielding youths. But a little persuasion from the crowd-control cop on duty is enough to tweak his perspective on the matter – as she points out, who better to communicate with these people than the Director of Communications? Like Sam, Toby initially lets his personal emotions drive his decisions, but a few choice words from the knowing policewoman convince him to alter his perspective.
If it seems strange that both Sam and Toby have their views positively changed by women – well, remember that little tidbit the next time someone accuses Aaron Sorkin of only being capable of writing female characters in unflattering stereotypes. Oh, and also remember the CJ-centric side-story, which is not only the most purely entertaining portion of the episode, but also another fine showcase for the best female character Sorkin’s ever written. (Yes, much as I love Donna, I’ve more or less made a decision.)
Remember CJ’s role in “The Crackpots and These Women” [1×05]? She was assigned to speak with a group of environmentalists about saving Pluie the Wolf and Bonnie the Grizzly Bear, a task she went about with as much laughter as you would likely expect. But careful character development has changed her outlook since the last BBOC Day, and while a meeting with the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality may seem to be even more ludicrous than her last assignment – and despite some initial reservations toward this assignment in question – she handles it with an open mind, determined to let these people have their say.
More than any of her male coworkers, CJ has come to embrace the idealistic thinking personified by Bartlet all on her own. We’ve watched her grow slowly since the show’s early days, from a relative White House outsider to perhaps the one most keenly aware of its inner mentality. So willing is she to hear the OCSE out that they don’t genuinely lose her until they flip the whole map of the world over. (And honestly, I think most of us would’ve shown them the door by that point.)
Gather all these threads together, and what do they represent? Well, nothing too major. This show has demonstrated back since “A Proportional Response” [1×03] that letting personal feelings get in the way of critical decisions is a bad idea, and it’s not like that’s a message we needed to have dictated to us, anyway.
But SGTESGTJ is not an episode meant to be bursting with originality. It is a quaint showcase of the show’s youthful days, meant to lull us into a sense of comfort and satisfaction. This it does with the help of a familiar air, some fun storylines, and a sweet, simple ending accompanied by a catchy background song. It may seem strange for such a flamboyantly-titled episode to end up such an overall simplistic outing, but that’s just part of its subversive appeal. Especially because now that we’re all smiling and secure, the last six episodes of the season are going to yank the rug out from beneath us.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Margaret shaking her head.
+ Margaret nodding her head.
+ Toby’s conversations with Sachs = Comedy Gold.
+ The entire Peters Projection map scene = Comedy Golder.
+ I love Nancy’s no-nonsense demeanor. And no, she does not have a bizarrely androgynous voice.
+ “Sam’s the man.” Awww.
– The exposition in the first Sam/Stephanie scene is pretty clunky.
* The brief exchange between Leo and Bartlet at the end of the episode (“Mr. President, is there anything we need to talk about?” “Not yet, okay?”) is about as foreshadowy as they come.