West Wing 2×20: The Fall’s Gonna Kill You

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Patrick Caddell | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 05/02/2001]

“I’m rooting for Zurich.” – Charlie

Transition episodes don’t get as much love as the bookending episodes they connect. They exist primarily as dot-connectors, getting a series from one point to another without the emotional highs or shocking twists of the more integral episodes. Naturally, not every episode of a series can deliver the much-coveted “wham” effect (and admittedly, the effect has greater impact if built up to). Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize when a transition episode is done right.

And “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You” is a transition episode done very right. It’s another episode designed to move characters between Points A and B with regard to learning about Bartlet’s MS. But it simultaneously moves at several different speeds, and through several different stages, showing us all phases of the revelatory process in a creative and nonlinear fashion.

There’s a lingering sense that the series is attempting to hold on to a few last vestiges of innocence before diving into the ramifications of Bartlet divulging his secret, as at the start of the episode, there is still one member of Bartlet’s primary staff who has not been let in on the secret. Sam, immersed in writing a crucial budgetary speech, has been kept in the dark for a prolonged period of time so that the information will not interfere with his thought process. (And given how seriously Sam takes writing everything from State of the Union speeches to birthday cards, this is probably a good idea.) Sam is pretty much in a world of his own throughout this episode, completely oblivious to the rapidly increasing seriousness of the situation around him.

And yet Sam’s part in the episode is in no way inconsequential – in fact, his may be the most subtly ingenious role. During a meeting with Progressive Caucus, Sam makes it perfectly clear that he wants to do away with any rubber-stamping. He chides the writing of the speech they’ve prepared, noting one line in particular that “isn’t going to change the mind of anyone who doesn’t already agree with us”. Unlike his fellow MS-obsessed staffers, Sam still puts Bartlet’s bold Season Two policy front and center, forgoing the easy chance to keep the status quo in favor of aiming for something he believes in.

More than any other staffer, Sam is the picture of a young Jed Bartlet, and having him retain his idealistic vision longer than anyone else on staff is a fitting touch for a man who will strive for greater things even before Bartlet’s first term is up. Even as the end of this episode implies that he’s about to join his friends in their concerned and secretive planning, that little extra time spent in the dark has made Sam shine a great deal of light.

But Sam is not the only regular character to spend much of “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You” in old-school mode – it’s a spotlight he shares with Donna. Given the slow build of importance Donna has gained over Season Two, it’s something of a surprise to be reminded that she’s in fact not part of the inner circle – at no point in this episode do any of the other characters consider letting her in on the secret. Donna, for all her inherent wonderfulness, is still just another secretary. (Although “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] will prove the power that one secretary can wield.)

So Donna spends much of the episode fretting over a satellite on a collision course with Earth, giving us one of the show’s more overtly ironic subplots. Poor Donna isn’t well-versed enough in world news reports to know that satellite crashes are common – and never fatal. The more superficially intimidating of the episode’s two threats is treated as a joke, almost an afterthought, in the face of the increasingly foreboding MS plot.

Josh deserves some of the blame for Donna’s concerns, doing nothing to assuage them while doing everything to keep her and the rest of the White House in the dark. Simultaneously, in what serves as the antidote to the proposed love triangle from “The War At Home” [2×14], he enlists the help of Joey Lucas in breaking The News to the public. Apart from a brief comment about the handsomeness of her substitute interpreter, there’s no romantic – or even playfully cynical – banter between Josh and Joey this time around; they’re both all business. Although Joey will make appearances in all of the show’s remaining five seasons, she and Josh have by now lost any real opportunity to exist as an official “couple”. (But don’t worry. We’ll have Amy around soon to fill the third spot in that aforementioned triangle.)

The Josh/Joey scene is among the episode’s more emotionally stimulating ones, but the true dramatic core of the episode lies in the deposition scenes featuring the increasingly fascinating character of Oliver Babish. This episode sees Babish interrogating both CJ and Abbey, and the results are nothing short of riveting.

For all the jokes Josh has had at Donna’s expense, Abbey is well-aware that there is “a giant object hurtling its way towards them at a devastating velocity”. CJ takes it a step further, with a classic Sundance Kid analogy that gives the episode its title. And she has a point: The Bartlet administration can twist and dodge the public all they like, but it’s the fall – a plummet driven by uncertainty, fear, and the ticking time-bomb nature of multiple sclerosis – that’s gonna kill them.

CJ spends much of this episode away from her fellow staffers, emphasizing her distance from them at a time when she’s attempting to come to grips with some pretty earth-shaking news. She fires witty barbs at Babish, but they’re laced with anger, rather than the blithe cynicism she ladles out to the Press Corps. But Babish, who counters with responses like “In my entire life I’ve never found anything charming”, is determined to dig deep into her isolated mindset in a way that intriguingly mirrors Dr. Keyworth’s psych evaluation of Josh back in “Noel” [2×10].

“I’d like you to get out of the habit of doing that,” Babish tells her. “Answering more than was asked.” This may well be the nutshell version of CJ’s problem. The Press Room is her bully pulpit, the one spot in the White House where she has dominant control and free range to talk. And in the past, we’ve seen her talk, doling out information to the reporters like an expert statistician. Understandably, though, that’s not the best sort of policy to adopt on the witness stand. And it becomes especially troubling when we learn that the one bit of information CJ is not keen on is how she prepares for her briefings – is it with “what she should know” or with “what she needs to know”?

Abbey admits to CJ that there are a great other bits of information about Bartlet’s illness she’s not keen on – something she didn’t realize herself until she met the White House’s new Legal Counselor. Babish is perhaps the first character to successfully change Abbey’s seemingly unshakable perspective, painting a clear picture of exactly what the upcoming weeks and months will entail. Abbey has forced herself into self-denial over the signing of Zoey’s health bill; it takes the fiercely realistic mind of Babish to push her to clearer thought.

Abbey’s meeting with Babish continues Season Two’s streak of turning her into a more flawed and relatable character, the better to prepare us for her increased role in future seasons. His meeting with CJ also heralds her continuing rise to prominence, which takes another step forward at the end of the episode. The cynicism she projects during her deposition is fueled in part by her anger at still being outside the elite bubble – she’s still just the link between President and public, and her scenes with Babish do little but remind her of that fact – and she continues to project even more cynicism, episode title-wise, at Josh. But Josh finally voices something that no character has mentioned, but has become increasingly clear in the two years since CJ belly-flopped on her treadmill: She’s one of the people the fall is gonna kill.

Or not kill, as the case may be. But we’ll get to that soon.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Connelly pretty much echoing Babish’s line in “Bad Moon Rising” [2×19] (which was my headline quote for that episode’s review).
+ Sam commenting on how relaxed everyone is about the diminished government budget.
+ Josh’s meeting with Joey is filled with several little touches – the close-up on his face as she reads his lips, his signing the letters “M” and “S”, and him dropping the napkin in his water glass to “destroy the evidence”.


* Babish and CJ don’t get along well, do they? This indirectly sets up the more intense meeting they have in “The Ticket” [7×01].



One thought on “West Wing 2×20: The Fall’s Gonna Kill You”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on September 2, 2015.]

    No comments on this? Wow. This entire end stretch is stellar– I know it’s tempting to lump all the love on “17 People” and “Two Cathedrals,” but everything between the two is great as well.

    The scene with Abbey and CJ, where the latter admits that she knew Bartlet was ill and had deliberately avoided the subject to maintain plausible deniability is the best moment, though the best scene altogether is the Josh/Joey stuff. Now that Joey doesn’t need to be a wedge between Josh & Donna 5eva!!! she’s free to be interesting. Josh signing out MS is the best part though. (Hell, I would have made that the screencap for the review.)


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