[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Felicia Willson, Laura Glasser, and Julia Dahl | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 11/28/2001]
“You wanna get hit over the head?” – Amy
It’s with no small amount of displeasure that I sit down to write about “The Women of Qumar”. Not every West Wing episode up to this point has been great, to be sure, but even the weaker ones have managed to work on at least a few substantial levels. Not so in this case. “The Women of Qumar” is the worst of the 86 West Wing episodes with Aaron Sorkin’s name on it, and ranks as one of the weakest episodes of the entire series.
Those of you who felt I was too easygoing on “Isaac and Ishmael” [3×00], the fandom’s most popular option for “Worst Sorkin Episode”, need only compare that episode to this one to understand my reasons. For all the preachiness and didacticism present in “Isaac and Ishmael” [3×00], it at least had the courtesy to be straightforward about its intentions, and was ultimately inconsequential to the series at large. “The Women of Qumar” has neither of these saving graces. It’s a sludgy, heavy-handed mess of an episode, one that casts a negative light on the episodes around it.
“Women of Qumar”, by and large, is a commentary on post-9/11 America, and its usage of metaphorical commentary is neither clever nor insightful. A rundown of the storylines? Well, there’s debate over a Pearl Harbor memorial that shows sympathy to the attackers. There are also fears over a viral disease that could spread across the country, causing nationwide panic. Oh, and at one point, Bartlet speaks out against people who are exploiting the grief of a woman whose husband was killed so that they can gain political points. (In a line that somehow actually made it to the airwaves, Bartlet says that these people “should be horsewhipped with a horsewhip”.)
Worst of all is the titular story, centered on the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Qumar. The country is a thinly-veiled reference to the ones the USA was waging war on at the time the episode aired, but it’s not associated here with terrorism. Instead, CJ is shown to be distraught when the White House makes a weapons deal to pacify the Qumari government… because Qumar abuses its women.
Somewhere along the way, “The Women of Qumar” sheds its post-9/11 sensibilities and becomes a case study in feminism gone horribly off its rails. CJ, usually one of the show’s most reliably interesting characters, is reduced to a one-dimensional purveyor of women’s rights, protesting over a faceless nation of which we barely receive any information, other than the fact that “They’re beating the women!” It’s bad enough that this story is flat and emotionally manipulative, but the way it turns CJ into a hollow stick-figure of a character is just awful. When she barges in on a meeting between Toby and a group of World War II veterans in order to compare the Qumari people to the Nazis, I actually found myself wincing in pain.
It’s bad enough to see one story misappropriate the concept of global women’s rights, but “The Women of Qumar” isn’t content to stop there. Meet Amy Gardner, a feminist who has a thing or two to say about the term “forced prostitution”. Watch as she and Josh have a torturously long argument about the morality of prostitution that contains about as much subtlety and nuance as an economy-size sledgehammer. Watch as the notion of a romance between Josh and Amy is introduced into the fold with even less subtlety and nuance. Oh, and just for kicks, watch Amy throw a water balloon at Josh while he’s standing in the middle of a public sidewalk. It all feels like a segment of “Can You Top This?” if the challenge centered on tossing darts at a photo of Gloria Steinem.
And it’s the complete mishandling of these feminist themes that gives the episode’s slap in our faces its greatest sting. CJ has already proven herself, time and time again, to be an excellent character, and Amy will soon show herself to have more layers than we might think. But nothing about their respective roles in this episode demonstrates any real sign of respect for their characters. No fewer than three women are credited with the story of this episode – would you think any of them satisfied with the way the final script turned out?
And that script itself… oh, my. Dialogue is often Sorkin’s strong suit, even when his stories meander, but the lines in “The Women of Qumar” range from stiff and clunky to downright painful. (See the aforementioned “horsewhipped” line for just one example.) Sparks of wit are fleeting, lost in the sea of uninspiring and ham-handed messages that get repeated over and over and over again.
The one saving grace of the episode (and by “saving grace”, I mean the thing that keeps it from slipping down to join the ranks of the very worst Sorkin-free episodes) comes in the form of the occasional bits of long-term relevance thematic depth. “The Women of Qumar” isn’t especially deep, but it doesn’t fly in the face of Season Three’s earlier messages, either. Bartlet doesn’t want to stir up trouble over the anthr – I mean, the mad cow disease, and so he elects to have a lower-level officiate spill the beans to the public. Although most of his staffers support this idea, given their already precarious position over lying to the public, CJ isn’t comfortable with Bartlet once again keeping the whole truth from the people he’s protecting. (I would almost say that CJ comes off as the most reasonable person in the White House this episode, if not for the fact that she spends the rest of its running time acting like the exact opposite.) That, coupled with the retrospective importance Qumar will play in the series down the line, as well as the introduction of Amy (haphazard as it may be), just raises this episode above the mark of “abject failure”.
But that’s still a pretty low compliment. “The Women of Qumar” is a preachy, messy yawner of an episode, a raw blemish on an overall great season. The more I talk about it, in fact, the more frustrated I become, so it might be time to end this review and move on to “Bartlet for America” [3×09].
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Bartlet, ever the show-off, flaunting his knowledge to Charlie.
+ Bartlet referencing Mrs. Landingham again – and demonstrating that he’s accepted the meaning of her “God doesn’t crash cars and you know it” line.
– Rushed, humorless, and overly expository teaser sequence.
– “Say, Donna, you’ve worked as a prostitute.” That may well be the most awkwardly phrased introduction to a hypothetical that I’ve ever heard. Though to be fair, the phrasing is only part of the reason that the line isn’t even the least bit funny.
– Why does Amy refer to Josh as “Special J”? On second thought, I probably don’t want to know.
* Abbey’s vocal support of Amy comes into play in “Red Haven’s on Fire” [4×17], when she hires her to be her Chief of Staff. (Which is in itself a political maneuver against Josh.)