[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 04/04/2001]
“We weren’t counting you.” – Toby
Aaron Sorkin’s television career has its roots in film: He likely never would have conceptualized The West Wing without his prior success with the similarly-themed The American President. (Yes, I’m aware that The West Wing was not his first show, but he initially pitched it to John Wells months before creating Sports Night.) And Sorkin’s film career has its roots in theater: His first film, A Few Good Men, was an adaptation of the play he first wrote in 1989.
Sorkin’s career all began with playwriting, and despite all the work he’s done in other genres since then, I don’t believe he’s ever quite let that part of himself go. And in no place is this more relevant than in the masterpiece known as “17 People”.
This episode is an incredible tour de force for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that by rights, it never should have existed – or at the least, not existed in the stirring capacity it does. We can thank the NBC executives for this – concerned about the series’ massive budget (the average episode reportedly cost a whopping $6 million to produce), they requested an episode filmed entirely on preexisting sets and featuring no prominent guest stars. Yet the result is an episode that, despite its low price tag, should be labeled as anything but “cheap”.
By definition, “17 People” is a bottle episode. And that branding alone grants it excellent company: Firefly resonated marvelously in the tightly-contained atmosphere of “Objects in Space”, while Breaking Bad found both pathos and humor in the simplistic setting of “Fly”. Mad Men‘s expert technique for subtle storytelling was on full display in “The Suitcase”, and Homicide‘s “Three Men and Adena” may be the greatest episode of any drama in the 90s. As these episodes are widely beloved, so is “17 People” among The West Wing‘s most widely celebrated achievements, among fans, critics, and television scholars alike. And, given that I fancy myself as some strange hybrid of those three personas, it should come as no surprise that I adore the episode, too.
“17 People”, as I’ve implied, is less an episode of television than it is a stage-produced play. In addition to its minimal use of sets, the episode employs little music and adopts a confining camera framework. This last attribute comes courtesy of Alex Graves, the greatest mood-setting director the show ever had. Graves’ ability to trap his characters inside the four borders of the TV screen and make us feel as though they have no escape can be witnessed in the dramatic tenseness of “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10], “The Two Bartlets” [3×12], “Posse Comitatus” [3×21], “King Corn” [6×13], and “Here Today” [7×05]. Thomas Schlamme may have set the directorial tone for the series with his ambitious visuals and lengthy tracking shots, but no one captured the littlest aspects of the series quite like Graves.
Graves’ talent marries Sorkin’s affinity for scene-setting from the very first shot. The episode begins on the same night as “The Stackhouse Filibuster” [2×17], and although nearly a week passes within the span of the teaser, we remain cognizant of its initial moment. The brief indicator of direct serialization keeps us tied to the events that unfold over the next several days, with Toby’s bouncing rubber ball an innocuous yet hypnotic transitive device, right up to the moment that the montage of silence reaches its denouement: “What’s going on, Leo?”
What, indeed. We the viewers have been aware of what’s going on for over a full season now, yet the show has never directly focused on the weighty seriousness that accompanies Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis. But with “17 People”, the issue is given center stage, with a meticulously close scrutiny that leaves no denying of how serious the ramifications of the President’s disease actually are.
Within the close confines of the episode’s narrative structure, we intimately witness the conflicting ideals of two individuals – one seeking the truth, one ignoring it – and those of a third caught between them.
It may seem odd to declare, but Leo may in fact be the most important character in “17 People”. He serves as a method of communication between Toby and Bartlet, acquiescing to the concerns of the former while trying to tone down any harm that may come to the latter. He is also a stand-in for the audience, as he has both prior knowledge of Bartlet’s MS and a subconscious worry of what that disease means for the White House, and the country as a whole. But despite Leo’s crucial role in the episode, “17 People” is really a standoff between two opposite ends of a highly delicate spectrum.
For as long as we’ve known Toby, two things have been evident: He holds the good of the country above all else (even more so than his fellow coworkers) and he puts a great deal of stock in his intellect (again, more so than his coworkers – even Josh, whose faith in intelligence often results in overconfidence and error). It’s a combination of these two factors that keeps him bouncing that damn rubber ball for six straight days, wondering if there’s something – anything – he may have missed.
The seeds for Toby’s behavior in this episode were planted well over a year ago, back in “The Crackpots and These Women” [1×05]. There, we got our first understanding of the strengths and weaknesses that come with Toby and Bartlet’s relationship. Both men consider themselves smart, but their intellects are seemingly doomed to forever clash – Toby was hired to be smart, smarter perhaps even than the President, and Bartlet, ever one to flaunt his own knowledge to his staffers whenever the opportunity arises, doesn’t quite take to the idea of one of his employees gaining free use of this label. Toby is not above showing Bartlet just how much he knows, either – he may not be aware of which commandment “Honor thy father and mother” is, but he will rattle off all fourteen punctuation marks in the English language if the President challenges him – and as we’ve already seen in “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10], his strive for intellectual superiority can cross into moral territory as well.
Fans who decry Toby’s actions in Season Seven as being out of character should recall just how precariously the relationship between him and the President has always been perched, and how often it gets provoked even in the show’s early seasons. Naturally, the idea that the President he served at the pleasure of was harboring a dangerous and potentially inoperable disease doesn’t sit well with Toby. But, the episode pointedly asks, is it the potential ramifications this revelation could have on the country that troubles him? Or is it the fact that he spent three years at Bartlet’s side and never even suspected that the President was harboring such a huge secret?
Bartlet is the one who poses this question, and it’s certainly not without fair point. But although Toby can be faulted for letting his ego fuel his judgment, he’s not the only one. For much of this episode, Bartlet is flippant, coy, and elusive, doing his best to avoid the topic of MS entirely. When first confronted by Toby, Bartlet tells him, in clear, unmistakable terms, the specifics of his disease, but once that’s over with, he doesn’t speak of it at all, turning back to the more immediately pressing matter of a national security breach.
For as long as we’ve known Bartlet, two things have been evident: He cares deeply and passionately about his work, and he puts a great deal of pride in the Presidency. As was the case with Toby, it’s a combination of these two factors that keeps him focused on his work in this episode even after he’s revealed his secret, although it takes a bit of time for us to realize this. Bartlet’s attitude for much of the second act is fairly light in comparison to the heavy circumstances surrounding the episode, which understandably heightens Toby’s concern for whether or not the President truly understands the seriousness of his situation.
But despite whatever he’d like to think, Toby just doesn’t get it. Yes, his Sherlock-level intellect was able to deduce that all was not right in the White House, but when it comes to analyzing psychological human motives, he’s nowhere near as competent as he’d like to think. The scene where he yells at Bartlet for the alleged “coup d’état” that occurred following the shooting in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part I)” [2×01] is uncomfortable not only because it’s the first time we’ve seen one of the President’s staffers speak to him like this in the Oval Office (not counting the PTSD-stricken Josh in the flashbacks of “Noel” [2×10]), but because of the way Toby is so wrapped up in the political underpinnings of the situation that he completely ignores the human factor of the equation. Bartlet understands the gravity of the predicament he’s been placed in, but he’s too angered over Toby’s complete lack of concern for his MS to respond in a respectful and reasoned way, and instead hits Toby in his logical center: “Your indignation would be a lot more intimidating to me if it weren’t quite so covered in crap!”
As I explained earlier, there would be no way for Bartlet and Toby to see perfectly eye-to-eye if not for the presence of Leo. He is the one who cools the flames, who knows the law well enough to know that Bartlet hasn’t broken it, who understands that there will be massive consequences in letting the public in on the secret (even as he thinks Toby’s “impeachment” theory goes a bit too far). And he’s the one who assists Bartlet and Leo to patch things up in the end.
But never has any “patching up” come with such ominous attachment. At first, Bartlet refuses to apologize, acknowledging that although Toby’s argument was sound, his lack of human empathy is inexcusable. But then the episode delivers its biggest payoff – in response to the claim that he is the 16th person to learn of Bartlet’s MS, Toby corrects the President once again in saying that he is in fact the 17th. Again, it’s a logical mindset that drives him to that perception, but it’s one that has underlying emotional resonance – resonance that Bartlet can’t fail to acknowledge. He’s let a very small circle of people in on the knowledge of his multiple sclerosis, but he’s never considered himself among them. Only now, after a harrowing episode filled with ever-rising temperatures of emotion, does he fully acknowledge that he, too, bears the full brunt of this knowledge, and must carry it just as responsibly as his 16 confidantes. Only now, to the incredulity of even Leo, does he apologize to Toby.
With all the heavily brewing emotions occurring throughout this hour, it’s a wonder that it all occurs inside just that – an hour. Yet that’s precisely the timeframe of this already tightly-contained episode, as we learn from two separate platforms: The sixty minutes Bartlet has at the start of the episode to come up with a decision for a national security breach, and the fact that the remaining staffers have “an hour to find the funny”.
Ah, yes. We haven’t discussed the other staffers yet, have we? Even with such an incredibly deep and complex A-plot, “17 People” finds a way to fit the rest of the show’s main cast in marvelously. It may seem strange for an episode of this dramatic magnitude to devote an entire subplot around comedy, but that’s precisely why the story works. Too often in television, incorporating dramatic and comedic storylines side-by-side causes the two to distract and detract from one another. But in this case, the two stories are so expertly compacted that each actually serves to enhance the strengths of its counterpart. Watching how glib and flippant the secondary staffers are acting just a stone’s throw away from the room where the President is facing the most life-altering decision of his career only heightens our awareness of how unprepared the world is to learn of his secret. And watching Bartlet debate the revealing of said secret with Toby makes us yearn for a bit of comedy relief, if only to escape from the cruel confines of the Oval Office for a few merciful minutes.
The B-plot, like its more dramatic counterpart, never leaves the White House walls, which gives us even more opportunity to appreciate the four-way banter between Josh, Donna, Sam, and Ainsley. And it’s first-class banter all the way, brimming with the snark and surefire wit that Sorkin delivers whenever he’s at the top of his game. Sustaining the momentum is the chain-like flow of the repartee: Josh makes jokes about his “anniversary” with Donna, who takes out her annoyance by drudging up year-old jokes about prostitute-loving Sam, who gets into an argument about the value of an Equal Rights Amendment with conservative feminist Ainsley. In their quest to “find the funny”, the staffers all end up directing their best and bitterest witticisms at one another, saving none for the printed page.
It isn’t until the last act that everything comes together for the speechwriting hopefuls, and most fittingly, they manage to plumb humor from serious situations only after they first plumb some seriousness from the humor. Recall that Josh started the cynical ball rolling with a crack about Donna’s boyfriend breakup, and now watch as, toward the end of the episode, Donna reveals how said breakup had more serious roots than we might have thought.
I can’t call myself a huge fan of the Josh/Donna romance – at a certain point, the “Will they or won’t they?” attitude loses out in favor of the “Just do it already” factor, which pretty soon gives way to the “On second thought, maybe don’t” corollary. But the chemistry between these two in the early seasons was the stuff of the ages, and it peaks in this episode, with one brief, immortal exchange. (“If you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for a drink.” “If you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for red lights.”) Whitford and Moloney make for the rare onscreen couple that plays comedy and drama on the same wavelength and still achieves both distinctively, and however much the later seasons fumbled their relationship, this episode remains one of their very finest.
Once the waters between Josh and Donna have calmed, the rest of the speechwriter’s room follows suit, and they do indeed “find the funny” – right around the same time that things between Bartlet, Toby, and Leo turn more serious than ever. In the episode’s final moments, Graves finally allows the two worlds of the episode to combine, as Toby walks directly from the Oval Office to the Roosevelt Room in a single camera shot that doesn’t even think to pan. The camera then remains transfixed on his face as we hear others talk and laugh around him, while in the background, Bartlet pores over a document while Leo grimly closes the Oval’s door. The secondary staffers pitch jokes to a stone-faced Toby. Sam tosses him his ball, and the screen goes to black just as we hear the first bounce.
Honestly? I don’t want to write too much analyzing that final shot. I don’t want to suck all the fun out of how cool it is, how unsettling it is, and how it’s the perfect close to a pretty near-perfect episode. And yes, that’s exactly what “17 People” is. Slow but never boring, quiet yet perfectly tense, this is about as excellent a bottle episode as you can expect, easily going head-to-head with those other examples I made at the beginning of my review. Most shows would kill to have an episode this good, and it’s not even the best of the season.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The “Nude Olympics” joke. It says something about the seriousness of the A-plot that the funniest moment is a throwaway background line.
+ The series never managed to fully integrate Ainsley into the cast, but her scenes with Sam in this episode are about as fun as two-party political debate on this show can be.
+ Did I mention how great Richard Schiff was in this episode? Because he’s fantastic. (It got him an Emmy nomination, although he lost to Bradley Whitford.)
+ CJ is not in this episode. Want to know why that’s a Pro? Because Sorkin managed to write an episode without one of the show’s very best characters and still made it awesome.