West Wing 2×21: 18th and Potomac

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr. | Director: Robert Berlinger | Aired: 05/09/2001]

“It’s the smell of freedom… and the chemicals they treat the dashboard with.” – Bartlet

The West Wing is home to a supporting cast that’s rather wide but not too deep. Numerous secretaries, assistants, and reporters make recurring appearances over most or all seasons, yet very few of them gain actual significance beyond their basic roles. Ed, Larry, Carol, Bonnie, Ginger, Chris, Katie, Mark, Steve, Nancy… even Margaret, for all her lovable goofiness, still remains depthless enough that the later seasons could make jokes about her romantic preferences without it feeling out of character. One could almost envision a “Lower Decks”-style West Wing episode that focused exclusively on the show’s supporting members (even as I hold that the show more than compensated by providing plenty of excellent development for its main ones).

Dolores Landingham was never a prominent feature of the series, and, apart from a brief emotional moment in the sun in “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10], she never developed much as a character. Yet there was a gravitas surrounding her, a sense of place that made her more integral than most of the other secretaries in her profession. She was the sweet old lady who sat outside the President’s office with a pair of granny glasses and a jar of cookies, a lady whose simple demeanor masked a sharp wit that countered the President’s while simultaneously respecting him. From the moment the “Pilot” [1×01] ended (“Mrs. Landingham, what’s next?”) she had proven herself to be a duty-bound and diligent White House employee, prepared to support Bartlet and his White House on any day.

There are many reasons that it’s hard to think of “18th and Potomac” without thinking of Mrs. Landingham, but let’s try to focus on one of the less obvious ones: This is a serious episode, continuing the intense drama that was introduced in “The Stackhouse Filibuster” [2×17] and has been ratcheted up in every episode since. And Mrs. Landingham’s role provides the episode with its one source of good, clean humor.

“Mrs. Landingham doesn’t know,” Toby remarks at one point in the episode, referring to Bartlet’s secret. It’s true: while the other characters are growing increasingly worried over the impending MS scandal, Mrs. Landingham spends her time buying a new car. Much time is spent on this lightweight subplot, as we learn that she prefers the car without accessories or accoutrements, and that as a White House employee, she’s duty-bound not to accept discounts as gifts. Even as we understand the weightiness of the show’s current season-ending arc, we bask in the pleasantness of Mrs. Landingham’s little escapade, a gentle reminder of the sweet little things we’ve come to love about the series.

And then she gets in her car. And dies.

It may be the cruelest moment in the entire series, an event at Whedon-esque levels of devastating emotion. But as much as we mourn the loss of the show’s resident sweet old lady, we slowly come to accept how much her tragic end fits with the episode.

The title “18th and Potomac” refers to the intersection where Mrs. Landingham was hit by a drunk driver. Subtly, though, it represents the most fitting metaphor for where the Bartlet administration is this episode: at a crossroads. The characters are divisively torn over how to go about revealing the all-important news to the public, and their actions only emphasize how unprepared they are for the troubles to come.

There’s more secrecy and discretion than ever – the staffers hold meetings in a secret room in the basement, complete with stationed guards and a codeword. News executives are brought into the White House through concealed entrances. Even Kenny’s presence alongside Joey Lucas earns him a suspicious glare from Bartlet. This is not the West Wing we’re used to, nor will it be for a while.

What we witness amongst the characters – even beyond their increasingly agitated attempts to formulate a clear and foolproof plan – only adds to the stress. Sam, in questioning the First Lady, learns much about the medical ramifications of multiple sclerosis – but perhaps most integrally, that he isn’t nearly knowledgeable enough to discuss the medical ramifications of multiple sclerosis. Josh, ever looking to keep his own ego untarnished, seeks out a target in the tobacco companies and decides to make them pay for deceiving the public. Josh is clearly angry at what his Administration will have to answer to, so he quells his own fears by attempting to prove that other powerful administrations share similar responsibilities. (It’s much like his self-absolving interview in “Celestial Navigation” [1×15], only far more serious.) Through all the trouble, Toby and CJ fret relentlessly. Only Donna, the latest to receive the astounding information, remains cool and collected. (It’s a good sign that she’s the first among the secondary staffers to learn the secret, and another step up her developmental ladder.)

Bartlet himself has no time to concern himself with his own approaching moment of truth. He’s busy concerning himself with a crisis in Haiti, one that has some rather uncomfortable parallels to his own. The Haitian President has been forced into hiding by his less-than-supportive public. That so much of the episode is spent discussing the ensuing events in Port-au-Prince (particularly in the case of reporters) only stresses how unprepared the public is for the medical bomb the White House is about to drop on them. But it also provides a disturbing example of the consequential damage that a President can wreak upon himself if conditions dictate it – and at this moment, that’s the last thing Bartlet wants on his mind.

Bartlet is granted no peace with the rising unrest in Haiti, and his troubles increase after US soldiers are forced to open fire. In the past, the President would likely be understanding enough of the rules of engagement to accept the necessity of violence – but right now, he’d much prefer to avoid external conflicts, especially when his own internal conflict is threatening to ruin him.

Bartlet does get one moment in the episode where he’s able to shine and be pleasant. It’s the scene he shares with Mrs. Landingham, a scene so sweet and touching and retrospectively cruel that it makes me want to turn the remainder of this review into a nastily-worded tirade against Aaron Sorkin. “18th and Potomac” sets up the Bartlet that will be fully expounded upon in “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] – a man crippled by the need to maintain the peace of the world, supported by a maternal secretary who can go toe-to-toe with him on the best of days.

Was Bartlet planning to tell Mrs. Landingham about his multiple sclerosis? Their last few minutes together strongly imply it. She would have been the first staff member to learn of it for non-professional reasons – merely thanks to Bartlet’s realization that the sweet old lady with the granny glasses and the jar of cookies would make the perfect emotional confidante.

But Mrs. Landingham is now gone. And with her goes any chance of Bartlet gaining an emotional support beam as he rushes headlong into the most difficult challenge of his professional career.

Naturally, I’ll go into a lot more detail about the relationship between Mrs. Landingham and Bartlet, and the full extent of what the death of the former means to the latter, in my next review. For now, however, let us have a moment of silence for one of the show’s great understated characters.

Farewell, Dolores Landingham. And be sure to say hello to Simon and Andrew.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Joey reassuring the staffers that Americans are eating more beets.
+ Ted Baxter reference! Gotta love Ted Baxter.
+ How secretive are the staffers’ underground meetings? They’re so secretive that even the First Lady needs the codeword.
+ Speaking of which, I’ll just say that I like the codeword “Sagittarius”. It’s the kind of codeword you’d expect from Sorkin. It’s far more erudite-sounding than a codeword like “Teletubby”.


Foreshadowing

* All the secrecy, covertness, and discretion displayed in this episode make for the perfect segue into the primary themes of Season Three.
* Abbey is faced with the question of how closely she should stand by her husband in the coming weeks and months. This moral conflict will be a major facet of her development in future seasons.


[Score]

A

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4 thoughts on “West Wing 2×21: 18th and Potomac”

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

    I think part of the reason I’ve never been able to get into West Wing to the extent you have is that I have no idea what the staff is talking about, which means that with a few obvious exceptions (the falling satellite is Bartlet’s MS, get it??) the double entendres go over my head. One of the pleasures of these reviews (beyond your incredibly approachable writing style) is that you can actually parse the parallels between the character drama and the political crises.

    By the way, have I mentioned that I hate the show’s title cards? I’m reminded of that exchange from Family G

    I’m going to cut that paragraph short rather than profane these reviews with a quote from a Seth “We Saw Your Boobs” MacFarlane turd-fest– it’s the one where if Superman needs to save the planet, he’ll need to be Superman IV: The Quest for Peace or whatever.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on September 2, 2015.]

    I had to look that clip up, since I stopped watching Family Guy regularly back in Season Seven. Not entirely sure what you’re referring to, since the “title drop” in general is a pretty common TV/movie device.

    And yes, I definitely understand people who have trouble keeping up with the political plots. (That was a constant problem for me the first time I watched the series.) Much of these reviews are about attempting to clear things up between plot and character, so that readers can rewatch the episodes without getting overwhelmed by the lengthy and complicated dialogues. It helps, then, to write the reviews in what you called an approachable style. (Thanks, by the way.)

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

    No, my problem with the title drops are that West Wing shows you the episode title at the start of the show, so that otherwise poignant bits of dialogue feel like mandatory title drops. Like, Toby’s “we weren’t counting you” moment should be a brilliant “hey I didn’t think of that” moment. Except that Toby and Leo are talking about the sixteen people who know about the MS but we know the episode is called “17 People,” which muffles the impact of the line because your subconscious reaction is “Oh, Bartlet is the 17th person!”

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  4. [Note: etter posted this comment on April 22, 2016.]

    The part where Bartlet reacts to the 3 Haitian soldiers killed getting the embassy staff out: that’s where he passes into pure fantasy, and that’s why I love him. Obama, say, wouldn’t care; we know that. Don’t expect Clinton would care; I’m certain no Republican in living memory would care. It’s not actually the job of the president of the US to care about anyone who isn’t an american. But I wish they would anyway.
    He does.

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