[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Allison Abner, Kevin Falls, and Aaron Sorkin | Director: Paris Barclay | Aired: 11/21/2001]
“There’s absolutely nothing I can do for you.” – CJ
Straw-men. Mustache-twirlers. One-dimensional. These words and more can be justifiably used to describe many of the antagonists Bartlet and company face on a regular basis. I’m not even singling out the Republican characters here – even the battles between the left and the far left only tend to give one side any sort of human credibility.
It’s a recurring problem on The West Wing (and one that has become even more prevalent in the wake of the double sucker-punch that was Studio 60 and The Newsroom) that Aaron Sorkin has trouble carving out three-dimensional villains. The protagonists of the series are about as fully-formed as one could hope, but their opponents tend to be shallow and reprehensible. Ainsley Hayes is the exception that proves the rule – the show’s great interest in her as the “token Republican” makes its treatment of other potential White House combatants look especially undernourished.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, to be fair – using political opposition as the means to a thematic end can make for some straightforward yet very compelling drama. The trick is not to overdo it – cut too many of your villains out of cardboard and you risk losing serious dramatic impact.
With that in mind, notice how “The Indians in the Lobby” does something unusual by earlier series standards. It takes a step back and asks us: “Who is right?”
Is CJ right when she debates with a pair of Native American scholars who protest the robbing of their ancestors and the continued disrespect the country shows to their culture? Is Sam right when he argues with a woman lobbying to change the poverty measurement line? And is Josh right when he tries to convince the Italian Chargé d’Affaires to lift the diplomatic screen on a young murderer so that the boy can be tried in the USA?
Answers don’t come, at least not definitively. CJ, for her part, truly wants to accommodate the Indians, but their wounds have long since been scarred over by centuries of American progression – and she has no luck getting anyone else to take time from their Thanksgiving vacation to help out. Sam isn’t so much interested in studying the fairness of poverty measurements as he is making it look like there are fewer poor people in the country during an election year, but he must concede that the woman from the OMB also has a point. And Josh – well, being Josh, he wants to win at any cost, but he has no argument strong enough to level against the Italian legal system.
The foundation on which “The Indians in the Lobby” is built also proves to be its structural flaw – because it crafts three patently unsolvable problems with the intention of demonstrating their difficulties, its story threads don’t lead to particularly satisfying conclusions. The titular storyline is particularly egregious in this respect: CJ is caught so helplessly by the two White House lobby crashers that the story digs itself too deeply into its conflict – it feels akin to a laundry list of the many wrongs committed against the Native Americans, sacrificing substance in favor of excessive preachiness. Better is the poverty storyline, which allows Bruno to voice his concerns with the current state of conflict resolution (which will become a more serious problem as the season wears on), and better still is the death-penalty thread, which features Josh so desperate to achieve some semblance of victory that he actually resorts to bribing a District Attorney. (That’ll look great alongside your blackmailing Cliff Calley in “War Crimes” [3×05], Josh.) Still, the muted nature of these plots diminishes the return on our emotional investment.
Once again, it is Bartlet who carries the heaviest emotional baggage. But it’s not through his charismatic optimism and penchant for his staffers on how to approach their ideals this time. No, Bartlet actually comes off as pretty cynical in this episode (a sign that the grueling events of “Gone Quiet” [3×06] are still eating at him).
In fact, Bartlet may be portrayed in a more unfavorable light this episode than any of the other storyline-heading characters. Unlike CJ or Sam or Josh, Bartlet is painted as almost entirely wrong as he gripes about the way that “Where should the President spend Thanksgiving?” is now a polling question. “My family is off-limits,” he tells Bruno angrily, seemingly ignoring the fact that he has been using familial relations to make political points numerous times in the past, back since his very first scene in the “Pilot” [1×01].
But the Bartlet of this episode is not the one we met a little over two seasons ago. He doesn’t bother listening to Bruno’s argument, even casually dismissing it in a later scene. Since Mrs. Landingham’s death, he’s been doing his best to separate his political life from his personal one – and to distance Bartlet the President from Bartlet the man.
This fact is playfully illustrated in the humorous scene where Bartlet dials up the Butterball hotline and adopts a false name in order to have a completely objective discussion about turkey preparations. Bartlet’s attempts at aloofness are both awkward and unnatural – he can captivate the country with speeches about a promising new direction, but he can’t hold down a conversation as an Ordinary Joe without looking befuddled.
Abbey has an easier time at mixing the personal and the professional; she’s willing to go along with public polls, and has made Thanksgiving plans based on their preferences. As First Lady, she’s spent more time associating with the public than her husband has – but more significantly, she’s very involved in way the personal aspects of his life reflect on the political ones, particularly where multiple sclerosis is concerned. And now she’s giving up her medical license, which cements not only her loyalty to Bartlet but her willingness to sacrifice her non-political life to for the sake of her husband’s political one.
Bartlet can’t afford to make any real sacrifices on his own, especially given the scandalous position he’s currently caught in. So even as he pegs Abbey as “wrong” in this scenario, he has no real defense against her. No one ends up happy, and this story – like all the rest in the episode – ends on a quietly neutral note.
Again, that is both the great strength and flaw of “The Indians in the Lobby” – the deadlocked arguments continue the season’s theme of difficulties stemming from idealism, but so very little of it sticks with you beyond the closing credits. Add to that the fact that the one storyline here that everyone remembers is too preachy and self-indulgent for its own good, and you’re left with a Thanksgiving turkey that feels not so much overstuffed as undercooked.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Mark’s Canadian? Man, CJ can’t get seem to get anything right this episode.
+ Although Sam’s awkwardness with women has grown tiring by this point in the series, I can’t help laughing at his attempts to be friendly with Bernice.
+ Bartlet makes a show of calling the Butterball hotline… only to be answered by an operator.
+ Bartlet telling the Butterball lady that he’s from Fargo. That’s a right thing, you betcha!
+ Toby requesting to hit Sam with paintballs.
– Maggie Morningstar-Charles has a university degree! And here we all thought she was just a clueless Indian woman. I’m so glad Sorkin inserted that line into the episode so that we could better comprehend the idea of an Indian woman having some form of human intelligence.
* In the teaser scene, CJ vents her frustrations with Bartlet to his face. Although the scenario here is played for comedy, her penchant for seeing the President’s faults and informing him of them without restriction will play an important role in “The Women of Qumar” [3×08], as well as in several future episodes and seasons.