[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Paul Redford, and Nanda Chitre | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 10/31/2001]
“Well… we’re afraid of everything.” – Josh
“On the Day Before” centers around a reception at the White House. No, seriously. Watch it again.
It’s weird, given that episodes like “The State Dinner” [1×07] and “The Midterms” [2×03] have already shown Bartlet and Co. taking part in gala events, but the function that “On the Day before” is focused on is never shown at all. In fact, the episode distances itself at several points from the celebratory nature of the event, such as when CJ changes out of her formal dress into more conservative clothing.
The message is subtle, but apparent: This is not a time for us to focus on celebration. The Bartlet administration, for all the confidence it’s acquired as of late, is regressing. They’ve had their teeth filed down by the MS scandal, and thus have to resort to backdoor politics in order to get their way. The trouble here is that they don’t even fully realize this, and even as they surge forward, they’re only further pushing themselves into an inescapable corner.
So we’ve got Sam and Toby trying to gain the confidence of some House members in order to prevent Bartlet’s first veto from being overridden. Their first shot involves negotiating with a farm-based constituent about grazing rights – and indeed, it could have worked out. But the Congressman lobbies hard, and faced with the prospect of looking even weaker than they already do, Sam and Toby decide to take a bigger risk and appeal to a Republican representative who could carry more weight.
At the surface, there’s nothing terribly unusual about the prospect of a mutual party deal, but the scene where Toby and Sam meet with Robert Royce hints that our heroes are not quite on the firm footing they think they are. “Do you even know who your friends are anymore?” Royce asks, pointing out how uneasy things currently are between the President and the Democratic Party. The fact that Bartlet’s people are forsaking a deal with one of their own in favor of someone from the opposing party is indicative of how difficult their playing field has become.
But at least Sam and Toby have a clear justification for their urge to negotiate. Josh doesn’t nearly qualify. He’s tasked to meet with a governor who wishes to challenge Bartlet for the Democratic primary… and has more than enough of a clean health bill to succeed. Josh isn’t fighting a battle to raise Bartlet’s power – he’s just trying to make sure Bartlet stays in power. And it doesn’t help his case that Governor Buckland has a point – why would people elect a President who could suffer a stroke at a most crucial moment?
Watching Josh try to coax Buckland into accepting a Labor Secretary position, it’s almost as though we’re seeing one of our beloved Bartlet staffers making one of the unsavory political maneuvers this show originally set out to subvert in its crafting of political protagonists. We came into this season knowing that the fallout of the MS reveal would have its consequences, but the way our characters are responding to these consequences is even more eye-opening than anyone could have anticipated.
That said, it’s not as though all our heroes are engaged in underhanded politics. CJ has the most emotionally satisfying story of the episode, in part because her situation doesn’t deal with party-swapping maneuvers and political gambits. No, it focuses on her troubled relationship with an entertainment reporter who has made her way into the press room.
Sherri Wexler is a vapid and shallow antagonist, but she’s not a political one, so it’s easy to sympathize with CJ against the woman who interrupts a press briefing to ask about her dress. CJ has been gaining greater confidence in her stature in recent episodes, and Sherri – who, after mocking her on live TV, is pretty much asking to be shot down – is the perfect specimen for CJ to exert her power over any detractors. That’s not to say that Sherri is a truly bad person, but at this juncture, the Bartlet administration just needs their opponents to be bad enough for them to confidently gain an edge.
There’s an uncomfortable negativity surrounding the themes of “On the Day Before”, but not everything proves to be quite so dour. Charlie, a character more out-of-the-loop than CJ ever was, nevertheless feels honor-bound to the President and chooses not to accept the immunity offered to him before the deposition. So willfully does he believe in this decision, in fact, that he exercises the restriction granted by the law and chooses not to talk to any of the staffers about it, for fear that they’ll try convincing him to change his mind. (Charlie was never the show’s most developed character, but this episode demonstrates how well he can be used in a background role.)
And of course, we can always rely on Jed Bartlet to instill the show with a glimmer of hope. (At this point in the season, anyway.) After a suicide bombing occurs in Israel, Bartlet and his Situation Room associates must work quickly to cool tempers between that country and Palestine. It’s the most dramatically serious thread of the episode, especially given its global implications, and as such, it’s also the most moving.
Following their various methods of political manipulation throughout this episode, the staffers are torn over the death of two Americans in the bombing, and debate how best to break the news to their parents. Their arguments in the final scene, however, are politically motivated, inclined to help them save face in the eyes of their public. It is Bartlet who reminds them all of the humanity involved in the situation at hand, doing so in a most unusual way: By referencing the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, and how the law decrees that people must ask forgiveness of people before they can ask it of God.
The meaning here is twofold: First, coming from a man who only a few episodes ago cursed God without restraint, it’s a sign of healing: Bartlet is taking it upon himself to ask people for forgiveness, a prelude to his amending things with God. Although “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] left him wounded, Bartlet is slowly beginning to climb out of his most difficult pit.
And, more appropriately to the theme of the episode, Bartlet lets his staffers know that there are people involved in each decision they make even in their most desperate times. So he apologizes to the parents of the two lost American souls, even drawing his own personal connection to them: “I have three daughters. I really don’t know what to say.”
It’s a disquieting end to the episode, because, for all its seriousness, “On the Day Before” is pretty light on emotional material for most of its duration. This, I presume, is intentional – the more belabored the buildup, the more profound the payoff. And if at any point, the episode feels like it’s cramming in too many stories at the expense of giving emotional scrutiny to any single one, that final scene gives us something to ponder, and lifts things up an extra notch. Its so-called plotting flaws are merely by design – and yes, that includes the fact that the audience wasn’t invited to this week’s White House party.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ CJ complaining about her seating location at the party.
+ Toby’s reactions to the increasingly strange grazing demands.
+ Charlie immediately responding to CJ’s “I’m going to change my clothes” line with the deadpanned “I’ll watch.” Oh, Charlie, you creepy yet lovable soul.
+ Anything involving table salt.
* Royce’s “Do you even know who your friends are anymore?” line paints him as a man with a keen eye for inter-political upsets. This, along with the ease in which he appears to steer the Bartlet administration in his direction, comes to a head (and proves his undoing) when he sides with Haffley in “Shutdown” [5×08].