West Wing 3×10: H. Con-172

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Eli Attie | Director: Vincent Misiano | Aired: 01/09/2002]

“There’s got to be some way we’re screwing them over.” – Josh

The higher you climb, the harder you fall. That was the thought that kept popping into my mind as I sat down once again with “H. Con-172”. And as a story-encompassing sentiment, it’s not too far off from an actual line Bartlet invokes midway through the episode, quoting a line from The Lion in Winter about whether the way a man falls truly matters: “When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal.”

Aaron Sorkin clearly loved that line (he previously had it quoted on an episode of Sports Night), and he uses it to strong effect here. Bartlet has nowhere to go but down; thanks to the MS scandal, he’s lost face in the eyes of the people and many of his political constituents. The fall may be all that’s left – how will he go about with it?

That’s the kind of question the characters on The West Wing ask themselves often – far more often than ordinary citizens – and they’re faced with it several times in “H. Con-172”. As powerful as they are, that power must come with a price – when they slip up, the fall is far more potentially destructive than it would be for people in lesser positions.

Potentially destructive slip-ups were what Leo grappled with in “Bartlet for America” [3×09], and he continues to struggle with them here. No matter what logical arguments Jordan pitches to him, he refuses to be the keystone that topples the Bartlet administration. But even Leo, for all his staunchness in preserving his best friend’s good name, can’t escape the fact that Bartlet’s back is up against an impenetrable wall.

Bartlet himself, however, has shown hints of recognizing this in earlier episodes this season – his increased discomfort over his leadership position has only added to his personal self-doubt – and in this episode, his feelings reach their climax. Even as he continues to fret over Leo’s difficult position, Bartlet finds himself in what would seem to be a far less compromising situation… that somehow gets twisted into a difficult one. When Charlie presents him with a rare, 300-year-old map of the Middle East, Bartlet is eager to hang it outside the Oval Office – until his staffers warn him that the map, which doesn’t recognize Israel, could cause some controversy.

However dumb and unlikely this little plot thread may sound, it at least puts Bartlet’s all-powerful status in perspective: He can sign bills into nation-changing laws, and yet he can’t hang an outdated map up near his office. The most powerful man in the country is undercut by the way his reputation can magnify even the smallest potential offenses into full-blown conflicts.

With that perspective in mind, we can see just how precarious Bartlet’s position as leader of the free world really is. Now compare the impending “map scandal” with the current MS scandal – how hot does the water the President’s currently trapped in feel now? If the people of the country are apt to pick apart every little mistake he makes, then lying about his physical health feels more calamitous than ever.

Faced with the severity of his actions, and fueled by his still-festering self-doubts, Bartlet commits his boldest move since setting foot in the White House: confessing his culpability. “I was wrong,” he tells Leo in the episode’s most emotionally raw moment. There is no happy ending, no plot loophole here – he chooses to publicly admit his wrongdoing and face the Congressional wrath.

That’s the kind of selfless sacrifice which can only be made by a confident President or a seriously troubled one. As of the moment, Bartlet reflects equal doses of both – and his final decision, while damaging to his stature, demonstrates that he at least understands how important and powerful the authority of the White House really is.

Neither Sam nor Josh fully grasp that lesson. Both of them are constantly challenged with preserving the reputation of the White House, but in “H. Con-172”, one tries too hard, and one doesn’t try hard enough.

Sam is indignant when a former, briefly-stinted White House press reporter announces plans to publish an embarrassing exposé of the Bartlet administration. The exposé in question is filled with troubling information, and Sam can’t be too faulted for taking offense. But CJ cautions him not to turn this realistically minor annoyance into a genuine conflict – should the White House go after this man, he’ll gain credibility from the publicity, and the administration may end up looking foolish by comparison. Those with the level of power our protagonists yield must take care not to overuse it.

Meanwhile, Josh treats the national centrality of the White House as little more than a means to his romantic ends. Interested in getting a date with Amy (who, to the show’s credit, is already being portrayed a good deal more sympathetically than she was in “The Women of Qumar” [3×08]), he digs through the most obscure political files he can find in the hopes of finding a feminism-related conflict that will give him an excuse to meet with her. Josh uses his great power without great responsibility, and we can only shake our heads in disbelief and amusement as we wait for the invariable moment when he trips up.

That moment, chuckle-worthy as it is (Amy sees through his ruse within moments) is followed by the depiction of a more tender side of Josh – upon getting a call from an urgent-sounding Donna, he apologizes to Amy before skipping out on her to rush to Leo’s aid. Josh can be a jerk at times, and his unsuccessful flirtations with Amy paint him as little more than an overgrown adolescent, but we’re quickly reminded that he’s still a noble guy, one who puts his friends front and center even when he seems to be turning the White House into a place of self-mockery. (The kiss he earns from Amy at the end of the episode is perhaps a bit unwarranted, but that’s more an issue of her character still needing to take a few steps into the depth department.)

Despite a few irritating plot contrivances, “H. Con-172” successfully sustains the momentum from “Bartlet for America” [3×09] and continues to push the show’s characters into increasingly darker territory. And the final scene leaves us more than a little discomfited, even as we come to realize the truth: Bartlet has officially fallen – he truly had nothing else left.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Another mental image for the archives: Bartlet and Toby playing mini-golf.
+ Oh, and apparently, while at Carol’s birthday party, the staffers took part in a séance that tried contacting Margaret’s grandmother. Store that away in the mental files, too.
+ The camera panning over to the “BARTLET FOR AMERICA” napkin while Leo sits pensively in the background.
+ CJ telling Sam to “Keep cool, boy.” She got rhythm.
+ Dulé Hill is, quite simply, the master of facial reactions in this episode.
+ Poor Larry. Poor Ed. I can’t tell them apart, either.
+ Also, Bartlet may have worn special underwear at one point in his life. You don’t need to mentally store away that one.



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