[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Allison Abner | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 11/07/2001]
“Green Bay lost. She was nine years old.” – Bartlet
The West Wing is not, nor will it ever be mistaken for, an antihero drama. (That is, unless you happen to be a super-right-winger.) In a fact that’s become more clear in recent years, it is an exception to most great 21st-century great dramas, which focus on the darker aspects of humanity, and where even the more optimistic shows (Deadwood, for example) are executed with a harsh and brittle edge.
So when I refer to the third season of The West Wing as the show’s darkest, I’m still not putting it on the same level of gloom and disturbance as Breaking Bad. (Heck, I’m not even putting it on the same level as some of Joss Whedon’s darker work.) But it’s important to notice the shift in tone the show undergoes this season, between its more unsettling plots and yes, more unsettling character turns.
Consider what “War Crimes” does with many of the people we’ve come to admire in the first two seasons. For starters, Bartlet and his staffers spend a good chunk of this episode gambling on football statistics. Granted, that’s not a crime worthy of condemnation, but watching the leader of the country devote his free time to betting on teams with the most Notre Dame players is the teensiest bit disconcerting, and eases us into the more unsettling story threads of the episode.
“War Crimes” is a story about how the simplest personal temptation can flummox one’s entire process of decision-making. The titular thread, for example, features Leo arguing for the moral importance of war crimes trials… until he learns that, by way of a military operation he partook in decades ago, he could be liable of a war crime himself. We know Leo as the White House’s most grounded character, but thanks to Season One’s alcoholism arc, we also know how vulnerable he is. To learn that the Chief of Staff is guilty of a crime is one thing, but to see how easily he relents upon learning that his argument veers on hypocrisy casts a dark shadow on the seemingly moral Administration he’s helped construct.
The series has toyed with the idea of characters making questionable decisions based on their personal motives before, of course, but it’s never been quite so dark or thorough as it is here. When Bartlet, in response to the tragic shooting of a young girl, requests Hoynes to say a few words on his behalf, the Vice President accuses him of using the opportunity of the shooting to garner some votes in one of the Red states. It’s an ugly accusation, but it’s one that’s unfortunately used quite a bit in the real world’s political climate whenever tragedy strikes. Hoynes is definitely going too far, but the idea of using the shooting as a campaign-booster unearths some buried feelings between him and Bartlet that have been simmering since late Season Two.
It was Hoynes, after all, who knowingly led Toby into discovering the President’s secret in “17 People” [2×18], and Bartlet wants to demonstrate that, MS or no, he is still the one in charge of the country. Hoynes, opposingly, is still looking out for his own campaign, and doesn’t want to bow to any Bartlet demands that could sabotage his own path to the Presidency. It takes a long and hurtful conversation, but the two finally realize that they must ultimately support each other in order to win their next election.
Much of the interpersonal drama in “War Crimes” is stimulated by pressure-heavy situations that seem tailor-made for negative outcomes. No one gives any real thought to Donna’s upcoming deposition – she has nothing to hide over Bartlet’s MS, and thus nothing to incriminate them. But, nervous while under oath, she lies in answer to one question, throwing the Administration’s moral standing in jeopardy. The problem is patched up by the end of the episode, though even the resolution is unsettling, as Josh resorts to blackmailing Cliff Calley to ensure that Donna emerges from the situation unscathed. (Or perhaps Josh is just threatening Cliff because he’s secretly in love with Donna and doesn’t want another guy sweeping her away. But let’s not dwell on that.)
Whether it’s the characters acting thoughtlessly or simply being accused of acting thoughtlessly, “War Crimes” doesn’t balk at showing the darker side of the Bartlet Administration. But that’s not to say it reserves the trait merely for the Oval Office, or even politicians in general. Selfishness is a universal characteristic, and it shows its public face in the most unexpected and unusual of ways. In the episode’s lightest storyline, Sam researches the supposed worthlessness of the penny, only to discover that the only state where the coin has any substantial value is Illinois – Lincoln’s birthplace. It doesn’t matter that this single-cent coin may have put a dent in the entire US economy – they’re going to keep it around because it boasts a picture of their most important President!
(Apologies to any Illinois residents reading this. Anything I say in this review is merely in the way of studying the messages of the episode, and not as a “Take that” to any of our country’s fifty wonderful states. If it helps, I think Chicago is pretty cool.)
Still and all, this is The West Wing, and there is brightness to be found – in this case, from a most unlikely source. After a comment he made regarding the President’s chances in the election (which nicely touches upon the Bartlet/Hoynes material in the episode) is leaked to the press, Toby is faced with the idea of a traitor the White House. But surprisingly, instead of calling out the leaker – or even going the “second chance” route that Leo took with an intern in “Take Out the Trash Day” [1×13] – Toby decides to prove that he is in fact a pretty decent guy. Based on recent events, it’s not all that surprising to see him adopt a perfectly civil attitude – he’s been through quite a grind with the reelection preparations, and doesn’t want the added headache of seeking out another loose thread. But his actions still speak highly of his character, and they are a reminder that the Bartlet administration can still do good when the odds are stacked against them.
And in what almost feels like a reward for Toby’s actions, the reporter who received the information chooses not to leak it. As he demonstrates to CJ (who has just come off a bad experience with another reporter in “On the Day Before” [3×04], and thus has little faith in this one), not all the bad guys the Bartlet administration faces are in fact all that bad. Although he’s a reporter by name, he understands that the news does not need to exist on context-free comments that accentuate the negativity of the political world. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this reporter went on to work for Will McAvoy.)
And if “War Crimes” seems to accentuate the negativity of the political world, it’s only to show us how difficult circumstances are even for our admirable protagonists. The episode continues the season’s early momentum, and provides us with a fair deal of dramatic developments to mull over, even as we may be put off by their implications. The West Wing is not an antihero drama… and somehow, that fact just makes some of the developments of Season Three all the more disturbing.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Bartlet emulating Sinatra.
+ Sam reciting a whole slew of penny-based facts.
+ The continuity reference to Dr. Griffith in “Ellie” [2×15].
+ The long tracking shot of a depressed Toby walking through the hallways.
– Will’s story about how he was indoctrinated by a native tribe and made their god is mildly funny, but it goes on much too long.
* Bartlet and Hoynes part here as mutual acquaintances, but not as friends. Whatever leftover resentment they have for one another will form the basis for “Stirred” [3×17].