[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Pete McCabe | Director: Bryan Gordon | Aired: 03/14/2001]
“He’s a curmudgeon. A grouchy old crank.” – Bartlet
“The Stackhouse Filibuster” is an episode so sly and savvy that one may not latch onto the sheer extent of its craftiness until a third or fourth viewing. And repeated viewings of this episode are well worth it – not merely to further enjoy the general content, but to realize just how fully Sorkin and Co. have played us for all-day suckers.
Let’s recap, shall we? At the start of the season, we were watching a revolution within the White House walls. Bartlet and his staff were surging forward, running into walls at – you guessed it – full speed, and rarely looking over their shoulder to see whatever debris they may have left behind. It was about as shining a form of political idealism as television had ever seen. But lately, the administration’s optimistic policy has lately fallen by the wayside. The staffers are now in reelection mode, anxious to gain points with the public, even if it means forming bipartisan relations and forsaking their more personal goals.
The season has played this transition out with extreme subtlety, carefully moving characters from one mindset to the other. And “The Stackhouse Filibuster” continues to play things out with that selfsame subtlety. That is, unless you’re following the episode with a keenly analytical eye. If that’s the case, “The Stackhouse Filibuster” kicks you in the groin and runs off laughing.
To summarize the setup in broad terms: A certain uncontroversial bill is set to be voted upon, with the safe assumption that it will be passed. Up steps one seemingly weak-willed politician who attempts to attach a controversial rider to said bill. Naturally, he gains no support, but he refuses to back down, and to get his way, he demonstrates a herculean feat of willpower that leaves onlookers speechless.
In some previous episode, that politician would have been Jed Bartlet, or another one of the show’s starry-eyed regulars. But no, here it’s Howard Stackhouse, an aging Senator who goes against all odds and starts a lengthy filibuster as a means of staving off the vote. And here it’s Bartlet and his administration who scoff at the attempts of a man who makes the attempt to be politically daring. Without anyone consciously realizing it, the White House has suddenly regressed to a field of hypocrites.
Once you’ve got a firm grip on the slippery tendrils of the story, it’s just so easy to get caught up in the way this episode gleefully knocks down its characters’ idealistic tentpoles as a means of setting up the final arc of Season Two and the major themes of Season Three. And the subversive nature of the Stackhouse thread doesn’t end with the setup. Consider the resolution: When Donna figures out that Stackhouse’s true motive in attaching the rider to the bill is the fact that he has an autistic grandson, the Bartlet administration immediately springs into action to assist him.
To the naked eye, Bartlet’s actions at the end of this episode are fueled by a simple need to get Stackhouse to kindly shut the hell up. But at a deeper level, Bartlet wants to assist Stackhouse, not as a fellow politician, but as a fellow grandfather. This is the episode’s biggest slap in the face – after spending nearly an entire season touting political values over personal interests, Bartlet helps Stackhouse in holding off the vote, simply because he learns that Stackhouse has a personal stake in all this.
Something that will become significantly more apparent in later seasons is just how powerless Bartlet is to his personal whims. Even when he believes he’s doing the right thing, his decisions are ultimately clouded by his own personal emotions. “The Stackhouse Filibuster” lays this truth out for all to see – Bartlet shows no love for Stackhouse (see the quote at the top of this review) and even when he comes around to helping him, he still refers to the old Senator as a “grouchy old son-of-a-#####”. Yet help him he does, because for the first time since Stackhouse lobbied for his rider, Bartlet realizes that, were he in that position, he would have done the very same thing.
In other words, this new development puts an entirely new spin on Bartlet’s set of priorities. And it’s a new spin necessitated by the huge developments of the arc that’s about to ignite. Bartlet is about to be faced with his toughest decision yet, one that toes the very fabric of the line between personal and political. Only with the help of “The Stackhouse Filibuster” do we see the true extent of how deep his emotional ties to the job go.
And, true to this episode’s keenly self-deprecating nature, Bartlet is not the only character to have his emotional state calculatingly deconstructed. Consider the side-stories of the episode: The ever-growingly capable C.J., for all the backbone she’s amassed over the last two seasons, can’t work up the nerve to tell Bartlet that she broke an ancient Egyptian statuette, while the sophisticated political expert Sam is out-maneuvered in a debate by a teenage intern. The characters we’ve come to admire as steely and intellectual beings now spring leaks from the unlikeliest of places, making us wonder if they’re as fully competent as we’ve credited them.
The only character in the episode who appears fully on the political ball, in fact, is John Hoynes. While Bartlet has been doing his best to avoid thinking about the next election, Hoynes’ mind is on little else. We watch as he attacks the oil industry, despite his reputation as one of its supporters. Again, “The Stackhouse Filibuster” presents us with a seemingly unbelievable situation, and asks us to accept the impossible. And again, the impossible is actually more possible than it seems. Hoynes knows all about Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis, and seizes the opportunity to stick his foot in the doorframe just as the public is priming itself for the next major election. When Hoynes responds to Toby’s question regarding his change of positions (“The total tonnage of what I know that you don’t could stun a team of oxen in its tracks”), Toby is left, for one of the very few times that we’ve seen him, completely speechless.
If “The Stackhouse Filibuster” were content to draw the line at its subversive storytelling there, I might not view it as quite the devious specimen it is. But the episode drops a cherry atop its mouth-watering sundae with the addition of a tidy little narrative device. The events of this episode are told in flashback, in the form of letters (or more appropriately, emails) written by Josh, Sam, and C.J. to their respective parents. Whatever pains you may think this episode goes through to deliver a story that’s Big and Dramatic and Important swiftly evaporate when saddled with this framing device. The beginning of an arc that changes the President and those closest to him as we know them? Nah, it’s just a sweet little series of letters to Mom and Dad. Ha ha. Oh, and would Mr. Cregg mind not turning 70 just yet? Great, great. What a cute little way to end a cute little episode.
Except, of course, this isn’t just a cute little episode. “The Stackhouse Filibuster” is all-too-aware of its placement in the season, and, with the exception of “King Corn” [6×13], it may be the most fiendishly clever thing the series ever gave us. It’s easy to view this episode as well-made drama; you only need to appreciate what a mess it is.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Stackhouse reading a cookbook. Isn’t that just the kind of screwed-up scenario that fits right in with this episode?
+ Continuity with “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” [2×16] as Sam writes to his dad. Of particular amusement is his first try at an opening: “Dear Jackass…”
+ Josh falling down while trying to break in his new shoes. Who says C.J. is the only White House staffer who does classy pratfalls?
+ Bartlet and Leo dining by candlelight. I just know someone’s written a fanfiction about this.
+ Donna raising her hand in the Oval Office.
+ The collective narration at the end of the episode, building up to the climax, is pretty cool.
– However, the narration which ends the episode’s opening teaser (“I gotta tell ya, this doesn’t seem like any old filibuster”) is wincingly cliché.
* This episode gives us our first look at the relationship between C.J. and her father. This relationship will be further explored in… “The Two Bartlets” [3×12]. (What, you thought I was going to say “The Long Goodbye” [4×13]? Yeah, right.)