West Wing 3×08: The Women of Qumar

[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.


Foreshadowing

* 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.)


[Score]

D

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17 thoughts on “West Wing 3×08: The Women of Qumar”

  1. [Note: Ethan posted this comment on August 24, 2015.]

    I always felt this way about this episode, especially because it proved how useless Sorkin’s good intentions could be. In all seriousness, I’ve come to attribute these lapses in quality and common sense to the cocaine. It certainly explained how the man was able to write 88 episodes of television in the first place.

    Just wait till you get to The U.S. Poet Laureate. As an aspiring script writer, Sorkin occupies a murky spot on my list of heroes because he would often make public cop-outs like “hey, I’m just writing my little stories” (that’s a quote) as if he’s a kid in a kindergarten class making chicken scratch whose work’s impact won’t extend farther than his parents’ fridge. An artist who deliberately takes on themes such as these should take a bit more responsibility.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 24, 2015.]

    “The US Poet Laureate” is probably the best platform to discuss Aaron Sorkin’s writing in regards to his relationship with the public. And I will be doing just that when I get there.

    (Truth be told, I’ve always admired his ability to stir up flames and withstand the backlash, but “The Women of Qumar” is entirely too transparent in its attempts.)

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  3. [Note: Ethan posted this comment on August 25, 2015.]

    It’s ironic you say that because I think Laureate is the best example of his INability to withstand the backlash, and react with petulance and hypocrisy. Maybe that’s what you meant–sorry if I misinterpreted.

    Looking forward to that one!

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  4. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 25, 2015.]

    Is “Laureate” the one where Josh makes a sockpuppet and defends himself on the Josh Lyman fan forum? Because I can’t imagine that plot synopsis leading to anything good.

    I’ll admit that I skipped ahead and read this review just to see what you had to say about it. As I said in “And It’s Surely To Their Credit,” Aaron Sorkin is kind of awful at handling women’s issues, so an episode called “The Women of Qumar” has to be awful by definition. If your words are any indication, it is. Lucky for us, you review godawful television with the same level of deftness as you review brilliant television.

    It all feels like a segment of “Can You Top This?” if the challenge centered on tossing darts at a photo of Gloria Steinem.

    I literally could not stop laughing after I read this.

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  5. [Note: Iguana-on-a-stick posted this comment on August 25, 2015.]

    I’m afraid I largely stopped reading these since I never got past season 2 of West Wing, but here I have to jump in and note that Bartlet was not talking about Theoddoseus, but about emperor Theodosius. The first, presumably, though from the context he could well mean the second.

    I’ll also note that Bartlet is quite right. Amazing period of history, though a bit thin on the sources. The Visigoths had a fascinating legal system, evolved from Roman law-code of the second Theodosius. Justinian too is remembered for taking Theodosius’ law-code and improving it to the point where it would later form the basis for just about all European civil law-codes. See? It all hangs together!

    Uh… you can carry on now talking about American politics and Gloria Steinem.

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  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 25, 2015.]

    Yes, that’s the one. It’s helped greatly by the fact that the fansite is called “LemonLyman”.

    (Incidentally, this episode features the lowest score I’ve yet given to anything I’ve reviewed for CT. The only thing that comes close is my very first review for the site, that being of Angel‘s “Just Rewards”.)

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  7. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 25, 2015.]

    I actually copy and paste those quotes from a transcript site (which you can find on the Links page). I’ll just fix up that little typo.

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  8. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on September 21, 2015.]

    I mean, this isn’t the worst episode of television I’ve ever seen, but it’s still kinda terrible. The highlight (if you, like myself, are inclined to use “highlight” as a sarcastic synonym for “nadir”) is the godawful scene between Nancy and CJ. “They’re beating the women!!”

    Actually, maybe the real highlight is CJ trying to make an analogy between Qumar and Nazi Germany. Because by all means, if Sorkin wanted to make a World War II analogy, he could have. Surely, he could have drawn an intelligent parallel between Qumar and Soviet Russia– a nation whose human rights violations we could excuse, provided their military was working towards the same goals as ours. But nope, he goes and invokes Nazi Germany, because we need to understand that Qumar is The Bad Guy in this scenario.

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  9. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on September 22, 2015.]

    I don’t know why there’s such an immense psychic compulsion to misspell Bartlet’s name. I did it at first, and even you do it in some of your really old posts. It’s not an especially common last name, so you wouldn’t think one spelling would be ingrained over another.

    …Though maybe I’m wrong about that. This website says that while it’s only the 693rd most common last name in the United States (in 1990, at least), the only spelling it gives is with two ts.

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  10. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on September 22, 2015.]

    It becomes more confusing when you realize that, in the show’s universe, Jed is a direct descendant of the real Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

    “Bartlett” is the preferred spelling even today, so I’m not entirely sure why the show spells it differently.

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  11. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on September 22, 2015.]

    I’ve met writers who deliberately give their characters names with odd spellings so that there aren’t any real people with those names. There’s probably a real life Elizabeth Bartlett among the forty thousand Bartletts in the world; there probably isn’t a real-life Elizabeth Bartlet among the three hundred real-life Bartlets.

    Alternately: this is a show with an Ainsley who was presumably born in the mid-60s, so Aaron Sorkin probably isn’t great with names.

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  12. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on September 22, 2015.]

    I mean, Ainsley as a girl’s name doesn’t even exist until, like, 1980. It only breaks the top 1000 at the turn of the millennium. (Likely due to the popularity of West Wing.) There’s no way in hell a woman born in the American South before 1970 would be named Ainsley.

    (Although that doesn’t drive me up the wall like the Aynsley-with-a-Y born in 1982 on Orphan Black does.)

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  13. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on November 5, 2015.]

    So the thing that makes this episode really, really awful in hindsight is that Qumar is introduced in this episode largely as a proxy for Saudi Arabia, so that Aaron Sorkin can lambast the country immediately following 9/11 without being accused of insulting a U.S. ally.

    But then in “Enemies Foreign and Domestic,” C.J. makes a scathing-but-measured criticism of Saudi Arabia that isn’t as one-dimensional as THEY’RE BEATING TEH WIMMENS! Which makes you wonder why Sorkin even needed to set up Qumar as a Saudi proxy in the first place.

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  14. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on November 5, 2015.]

    The first reason is that, as you said, it was immediately following 9/11, and Sorkin was compelled to make some sort of in-universe commentary.

    The second reason… is that you clearly haven’t finished Season Three yet.

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  15. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on November 5, 2015.]

    I don’t mean “why’d they have to introduce Qumar,” because obviously that plays a big, big role in the Abdul ibn Shareef bits at the end of the season. But those bits would have worked just as well if Qumar was a generic Middle Eastern country. The question is, why’d they have to introduce Qumar as a proxy for Saudi Arabia if Sorkin had no qualms shit-talking Saudi Arabia?

    (And it’s not like Sorkin was getting his righteous anger on Saudi Arabia over its institutional misogyny. I mean, that’s not a bad reason to get self-righteous, but I think there was a much more relevant reason he’d want to point barbs in that direction in the months following 9/11.)

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  16. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on November 5, 2015.]

    You kind of answered your own question with that last comment. In the weeks immediately following 9/11, when “Women of Qumar” was written, Sorkin wisely chose to stay far from the terms “Saudi Arabia” and “terrorism”. By the time he got to “Enemies Foreign and Domestic”, though, it was a little easier to address those terms more directly.

    Beyond that, it’s dramatic license. CJ’s comments about Saudi Arabia play a crucial emotional role in the final episodes of the season, and thus Sorkin chose to use the name of an actual country to make her remarks sound more cutting and controversial to the audience.

    (Incidentally, I notice that you’ve commented on this episode now on three separate occasions. The changes in your attitude toward the episode are slight, but notably intriguing.)

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