[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Eli Attie, and Gene Sperling | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/24/2001]
“We might want to think about putting this fire out.” – Sam
“Ways and Means” is a very busy episode, thanks in great part to the amount of story the previous episodes have saddled it with. Not only does the Bartlet administration have to contend with the ramifications of the MS scandal, but they’re also in the process of launching their reelection campaign. Two major storylines, occurring side-by-side – not to mention the still-aching throb of Mrs. Landingham’s death. Even by the show’s usual bustling standards, that’s a lot for one screenwriter to have on his plate.
So perhaps understandably, it’s a reaffirmation episode, shifting the show back into its regular gear (albeit with a few differences) after the end run of Season Two and the two-parter that opened Season Three. Its themes are nothing especially new, but the tone it sets for the new season will be crucial to the development of the characters and ideas going forward.
Let’s begin with CJ. The double-length “Manchester” saw her hit a low point in her press-briefing career, then rise upward once her urge to quit was quelled by Bartlet’s affirmation that she was a crucial part of his staff. Filled with a new sense of confidence and vigor, the CJ we now witness is more daring and streetwise than we’ve ever seen before.
Late last season, Oliver Babish warned Bartlet that to get through the MS scandal unscathed, he would need to go up against the toughest and most ruthless judging forces in right-wing politics. The reasoning, we inferred, was that the harder Bartlet fought to preserve his reputation, the more appealing people would find him upon his (anticipated) victory. Here, though, CJ sees a silver lining – a tough, ruthless conservative judge might not be easy for the public to warm to, and could generate Bartlet followers even before the court process concludes.
“Ways and Means” is no stranger to awkwardly-written Republican characters, but it at least finds new means of such awkwardness. Clem Rollins is discussed as a well-respected conservative figure, even as the teaser sequence in which he is seen debating with Babish comes close to painting him as another cardboard villain. But hey. I find it pretty easy to accept the morally uncertain Rollins, because he’s a good deal more tolerable than the episode’s other Republican character.
That would be Cliff Calley, a conservative Ways and Means employee introduced as the first of Donna’s many annoying short-term boyfriends. The idea of a Romeo and Juliet-style romance on this series makes me wince at the thought, not least because of the utterly contrived setup and the fact that Janel Moloney (for all her other charms) shares no real chemistry with Mark Feuerstein. Their relationship is meant to convey the seriousness of the Bartlet administration’s current situation (they can hardly socialize with politicians outside their own party), but the setup is bland and irritating.
Only slightly less irritating is the episode’s use of Sam. Here, he’s paired with campaign staffer Connie, in an attempt by Bruno to more closely monitor the administration’s view of the election. We’ve already seen Sam as a failed ladies’ man several times in the past, so when he and Connie meet with a Latino representative to discuss potential support, we know exactly what’s going to happen – Sam will act all self-righteous and be shot down, Connie will make a suggestion, and – wonder of wonders – she’ll be proven right. (It’s becoming clear that, although Rob Lowe is good for a laugh now and then, the show doesn’t have any great plans for Sam in the long run beyond his befuddlement around women.)
So “Ways and Means” takes a few wrong turns, which hurts its reputation overall. But still, the good stuff in the episode is enough to overshadow the bad. Again, return to CJ. She’s growing in confidence, and she proves her mettle this episode by manipulating the reporters in the Press Room into hunting for a Babish/Rollins paper that could give the White House a leg up in their upcoming depositions. The CJ we knew two seasons ago would be too straight-shooting and honest to try such a political trick. But her relationship with the President – as well as that with the press – has shifted, and she’s willing to capitalize on that change.
So where does that leave the President himself? As you might expect, Bartlet is the emotional core of the episode, and the shining example of its primary theme – the White House needs to get back on track, and its direction hinges entirely around its chief resident. In the episode’s simplest yet most emotionally stimulating storyline, Bartlet finds that his jacket no longer comes equipped each day with a pen on the inside pocket – because Mrs. Landingham is no longer around to put them in. (Why he only notices this now, at least a month after her passing, is a question we can bandy amongst ourselves.) The literal aspect of the story point (he’s missing something positioned very close to his heart) segues into a quiet yet powerful moment in which he tucks a pen into his pocket on his own. Already, Bartlet realizes that he must move on, no matter the difficulties and the losses that the last few weeks have brought him.
Such a message is examined on a grander scale as Bartlet struggles to regain his footing in Washington in the wake of the MS scandal. He is pushed by his staffers to make the first Congressional veto of his career, and he takes the risk of letting a large forest fire burn under the advice that “it’s good for the environment”. These risks are indicative of the way Bartlet is trying to get his administration back on track, and thus, they should feel like a return to Season Two’s form.
And yet, interestingly enough, they don’t. Bartlet is treading on thinner ice than ever, so even as we watch him make yet another of his signature idealistic decisions, we’re left unsettled by the thought that his next step could easily slip him up, if not send him crashing down. And indeed, future episodes will reveal just how precarious the position of the White House – and especially the President – currently is.
What we have here, though, is merely a setup episode. It’s hurt by the way it follows up on the major two-part premiere, as well as a couple of meandering side-threads. But when it comes to setting up future developments that will pay off handsomely down the seasonal line, the episode definitely has its ways. And, lest we forget, its means.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ I wish the show had devoted an entire flashback episode detailing Josh’s aspirations as a ballerina. Just think of the ground they could have covered.
+ CJ teaching Ainsley how to act as her own “undercover agent”.
+ Again, I love little continuity tidbits, like a news station broadcasting about the forest fire in the background of an unrelated scene.
– What’s with the zoom-in to the picture of the Capitol at the end of the second act? And the pan up the Capitol at the end of the third act? Did the episode not think we would understand who the “villain” of the story was?