West Wing 3×11: 100,000 Airplanes

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: David Nutter | Aired: 01/16/2002]

“Everybody cares about motive, Mr. President.” – Joey

To call The West Wing a descriptively written series would be not merely an honest observation, but a near-criminal understatement. Aaron Sorkin loves descriptive writing, and whether it’s a character firing off his own lengthy résumé or reciting the history of an obscure national monument, it seems as though every episode contains an encyclopedia’s worth of detailed trivia.

The devil may well be in the details, but in “100,000 Airplanes”, there are times when the details feel uncharacteristically subdued. Opportunities for grand description, explanation, or argumentation are repeatedly replaced by a single and rather flavorless placeholder. Right before the teaser ends, Sam responds to Lisa’s pressing interrogatories by stating that what happened was “just one of those things.” In response to an angered accusation from Josh, Toby simply states, “I’m just the guy who does the thing.” Towards the episode’s end, a defeated Bartlet shrugs his shoulders and asserts that “we just do our thing.”

Something doesn’t feel right about these people – on a normal day, they’d at least try to come up with more colorful and well-worded responses to the troubles that face them. But ah, this isn’t a normal day for the Bartlet administration – they’re stumbling about, attempting to find the right words to fix their situations, and they’re often coming up short.

Picking up a trick from the season premiere, “100,000 Airplanes” employs a flashback structure that allows it both to immediately follow up on the events of the previous episode and fast-forward to a pivotal moment a couple of weeks later. The episode’s sense of dramatic urgency is thus diminished, to an extent, but it still comes off with surprising effectiveness.

I say “surprising” because a large part of the strength in this episode can be credited to Sam, a character who has never been the show’s most memorable or engagingly written. Sam, as I’ve mentioned in the past, was originally conceived as the show’s central character, before the arrival of Martin Sheen turned him into a side player without the extra nuance the “Pilot” [1×01] had afforded his peers. Since then, much of his character’s material has involved his befuddlement and awkwardness around members of the opposite sex.

“100,000 Airplanes” initially looks like it’s going to follow this trend, as we are introduced Sam’s ex-fiancée. But rather than fuel their scenes with awkward quasi-romantic banter, the episode unexpectedly portrays their relationship as fairly acquiescent. There’s no lengthy stressing over their romantic past (apart from a running gag about the fiancée’s potential married name being “Lisa Sherborne-Seaborn”) – instead, the show actually uses their association as a way of genuinely digging into Sam’s character.

Sam, as earlier episodes this season have hinted, is the closest any of the staffers can attest to as being perfectly in step with Bartlet. (Unsurprising, once you consider the aforementioned protagonist bait-and-switch of the “Pilot” [1×01].) And when Bartlet, having just agreed to be censured by Congress, sees an opportunity to get back in the public’s good graces – a proposed cure for cancer that may or may not ever see the light of day – Sam is the only one of the staffers to lend his genuine support.

I should pause and note that the other staffers don’t entirely dismiss Bartlet’s all-too-eager willingness to get back on the political bandwagon; they simply aren’t as motivated to take such a leap. Josh quells his friends’ fears shortly after they learn that Bartlet will accept the Congressional punishment, reminding them of their President’s ironclad will. “When he walks into the House chamber, they’re all gonna stand up,” he asserts. “Anyone here not believe this President can take it from there?”

Josh’s words do the trick, but only at a surface level. The characters all believe in Bartlet’s ability to set things right, but their confidence is rooted solely in their respect for the administration – they have no specific plan to set things right. (Later in the episode, Josh proves how confidence based on confidence alone can prove one’s downfall – he’s so eager to impress Amy that he grabs the first bit of information he finds that could sour things between her and her boyfriend, not considering that this very information can and does indirectly insult her.)

That Josh, CJ, Toby, and even Leo all feel themselves on shaky ground when Bartlet first delivers his “cancer cure” proposal is testament to how little they know of which direction to take the administration next. Bartlet’s plan, given the timing, sets them on edge not because it feels too optimistic, but because it comes off too much like a grab for attention in light of recent events. Whatever the source of their feelings, it’s clear that the MS scandal has left our heroes damaged and dulled in their idealistic views.

All, that is, save for Sam. His staunchness is on display now more than ever, as he vocally supports Bartlet and even agrees to commission a draft of the cancer-cure statement for the State of the Union speech. In the episode’s present-day setting, we learn the full extent of Sam’s devotion to his President: His engagement to Lisa didn’t end with her leaving him for his incapability to relate to women, as we assumed, but with him leaving her to serve Bartlet. The work Sam does in the White House is his passionate and creative zenith – nothing but nothing can tarnish his confidence.

And it’s only after he types out the uneasily overconfident draft (“We will cure cancer by the end of the decade!”) that he and Bartlet both realize that the section of the speech is unusable. The censure has indeed gotten to Bartlet’s head, and he was in danger of biting off more than he could possibly chew. To the charge of the other staffers, who continue to assure themselves that it will all turn out for the best, Bartlet and Sam can only cross their fingers and wait for the all-important speech-giving day to arrive.

Even accounting for this season’s darker undertones, it doesn’t feel too un-West Wingy when Bartlet’s latest State of the Union is not poorly received by the public. But it’s still a disquieting moment to watch Sam, who’s saved his draft of the cancer-cure statement up till Bartlet’s address is completed, finally delete it from his hard drive. As driven and unbreakable as he may seem, Sam appears to have found his limits.

Can Bartlet, then, be far behind? The second half of Season Three will get inside the mind of the show’s main character more harshly and disturbingly than ever. And what better way, we realize in retrospect, for the series to transition into such an arc than with an unexpected, episode-long look at the mentality of its original “main” character.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Donna fussing over Josh’s plane ticket expense.
+ Charlie displaying his fascination for sign language.
+ Ed and Larry really are inseparable, aren’t they? It’s kind of scary.
+ Amy smacking Josh in the head. Because guys like him want to get hit over the head.

– As the climactic segment of his speech, Bartlet’s “Enemies of America” declaration makes no real sense in context. It of course parallels the real world of the time, but isn’t the sort of thing that should be dramatically underscored in-universe.



5 thoughts on “West Wing 3×11: 100,000 Airplanes”

  1. [Note: Kevin posted this comment on January 31, 2016.]

    My theory on Sorkin’s use of “Thing” on the West Wing is a strange one, but I like it. His characters create and warp reality with words, they represent the limits of “clever with words.” And yet, every once in a while, they reach a point where what they want to express is not able to be put in words. So they insert “Thing” — in this sense, you know “the guy high atop the Thing” — thing is a mystical reaching for communication beyond words, in pure feeling. Or maybe not. But that’s my theory.


  2. [Note: BK posted this comment on February 27, 2016.]

    I so appreciate these thoughtful recaps. They really are engaging in the way that West Wing is engaging – verbal, thoughtful, nuanced. I came here wondering if anyone else couldn’t get over though a major magazine allowing a journalist to make their ex-fiance their subject ? This was one of those so glaringly incongruent details in a world so ready made to point such things out that it really undermined the structure for me. However, that aside, I so appreciate your pointing out how Sam is like a young idealistic Bartlet and how they find the limits of that together.


  3. [Note: BK posted this comment on February 27, 2016.]

    Also Kevin, this theory really resonates. When the characters give up on their ability to articulate it does feel very intentional to the limits of articulation and also somewhat of Sorkin teasing himself for being the king of words but also willing to give up and say something so vague and helpless in light of fatigue or something being so beyond words. I wonder on my part if that is a side effect/seduction of enjoying Sorkin’s verbal cleverness so- even something poorly said seems really clever 🙂 but I am willing to allow it!


  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 27, 2016.]

    Thanks, BK!

    I agree that it’s a bit strange for a magazine to let Lisa do a piece on Sam. Then again, it’s Vanity Fair. Maybe they thought the relationship aspect added some human interest.


  5. [Note: BK posted this comment on February 27, 2016.]

    Jeremy, good point! I think I have seen Vanity Fair do pieces were the journalist had some complex social relationship with the subject. Ahh that’s helpful to my West Wing peace of mind…thanks :).


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