West Wing 3×12: The Two Bartlets

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Kevin Falls, Aaron Sorkin, and Gene Sperling | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 01/30/2002]

“He kind of inherited the family business.” – Sam

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the underlying theme of “The Two Bartlets” – in fact, it may well be one of the most straightforward themes the series ever scrutinized. To wit, the episode examines and explores the often difficult task of separating one’s personal life from their professional one.

It’s common recurrent ground for many workplace dramas, even decades before The West Wing premiered. (And speaking as someone who’s read a few thousand superhero comics, I can tell you it’s not a subject limited to television.) Heck, the Wells seasons will take advantage of this theme almost to a fault – unsurprising, as John Wells’ work on ER was it its best when it contrasted the doctors’ personal lives from their professional.

How is it, then, that “The Two Bartlets” manages to stand so confidently above so many other examples of its ilk? What is it that makes this episode such a starkly resonant representation of this well-worn theme?

Put simply, “The Two Bartlets” commits. This episode makes things deeply personal, and hits no brakes in showing how deeply intertwined the two halves of our characters’ lives are – right down to the most minute example.

In this case, that example would be Bob Engler, Space Command employee and UFO enthusiast. When last we met Bob, as a White House guest in “The Crackpots and These Women” [1×05], he was little more than a punchline, one of the episode’s many humorous exhibitions inspired by the “Big Block of Cheese Day” story. His conspiracy-minded demands were treated comically, and we all prepare for a similar flight of fancy in his return appearance.

But that’s not how things turn out. Bob’s head is still up in space, but he’s not portrayed simply as a hapless loon. “I’ve lived with this attitude my whole life,” he tells Sam. “My father lived with it, too.” Bob’s pursuit of the extraterrestrial unknown is motivated by a personal stake – a need to continue the work his father devoted his life to.

It may seem silly to go on about such a minor character, particularly one who never makes an appearance on the show again. But the fact that even a character this seemingly inconsequential is given depth here shows just how far and wide the blanket of “The Two Bartlets” is.

Family plays a key role in unraveling the theme of the episode. Our characters have had their share of difficult family relationships over the course of the show, going back to Leo’s strained marriage in “Five Votes Down” [1×04], and “The Two Bartlets” offers one of the series’ most discomfiting looks at their personal lives yet. CJ’s attempts to be cheery and jovial on Air Force One are a mask against the hurtful realization that her father has become afflicted with Alzheimer’s. (This is why her jokes are more awkward than ever – the “dada of dada” line stands out particularly, as she tries to avoid thinking about her relationship with her own “dada”.)

Josh’s familial bonds are a bit more emotionally wide-reaching than CJ’s, which isn’t too surprising once you consider his family history. Having lost two of his closest relatives, Josh treats the emotional relationships he has managed to form over his life very seriously – which means that when a friend of his leads a protest over national security, his first impulse is not to help the military put a stop to it. He argues in favor of the protestors, encouraging Leo to appoint him to settle things in a peaceful, personal manner.

Josh, as we’ve seen lately, has been trying to up his romantic life by wooing Amy Gardner, in attempts that have toed the line between charming and oblivious to his professional life. Here, though, the added effect of having a friend at the center of the military protest is enough to redirect his head back into the political game, and has him cancelling his plans for a trip with Amy to Tahiti. Still, it wouldn’t be Josh Lyman if he didn’t make an honest attempt to have everything, and so we get a charming scene in which he turns his apartment into a South Pacific island and invites Amy over for some Tahitian-style romance. Cheesy? A little. But it’s a fine representation of how motivated Josh is at balancing his two lives. (Contrast his example with that of Donna, who spends this episode attempting to get out of jury duty. This is a case of the least politically-minded character on the series shunning her extra professional duties. Commenting on her apparent indifference to the US judicial system, Josh points out the more humanly-appealing, voyeuristic side of the equation: “If you don’t do it, you don’t get to complain about the O.J. verdict.”)

Still, one character who has been finding it more and more difficult this season to balance those two lives is Bartlet, and the two sides of his life are directly addressed in “The Two Bartlets”. (Kind of shocking once you consider the title, isn’t it?) Bartlet has been growing increasingly troubled with his

Presidency as of late – the confidence he built himself up with at the end of “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] is now proving to be his weakness. Things have soured since then, to the point that he expressed doubts about his motivation for reelection at the end of “Gone Quiet” [3×06] – and, in an unsettling end to the MS scandal arc, he acquiesced to due punishment in “H. Con-172” [3×10].

Watching in this episode as Bartlet passes up an opportunity to deliver a strong argument against impending Republican nominee Rob Ritchie, we begin to feel more and more that his increasingly bold actions are no longer fueled by overconfidence, but perhaps by a subconscious urge to undermine his own Presidency. That’s a frightening concept on its own, especially considering that his staffers don’t sense anything amiss.

Or, that is to say, most of them don’t. Toby remains the most internally perceptive of the staffers when it comes to the President, and the one who least fears voicing his thoughts in the Oval. As he did in “17 People” [2×18], Toby channels his frustrations with Bartlet by analyzing his rationale. “There’s always been a concern about the two Bartlets,” he says, referring to the jovial, good-humored face the President wears around his staffers and the more serious, conflicted perfectionist who emerges in moments of crisis. The two sides of the President have never comfortably fit with one another, and they lately seem to be at war.

We’ve come to admire Bartlet as the perfect President – as Toby puts it, “someone for all time zones”. But it wasn’t the bright, cheerful, Latin-quoting side of Bartlet that set him on his political path. As we saw in “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], it was Mrs. Landingham who first inspired him to great tings – and yet, it’s still doubtful she would have succeeded if not for the high bar that had been set by Jed’s father. As Toby deduces, the old Dr. Bartlet used to physically abuse his son, and the anger behind each slap caused Jed to develop an inferiority complex – one that his slow, concentrated rise up the political ladder has helped him try to shake.

Toby intends to be encouraging (“Maybe if you get enough votes, win one more election, your father will…”), but as with “17 People” [2×18], he doesn’t acknowledge Bartlet’s own emotional side of the story in the process. When we leave Bartlet this episode, he’s hurt and angry – and plagued with even more self-doubt about the impending election than before.

Jed Bartlet has built his life around the Presidency, and for a while, it treated him fairly well. But in trying to isolate his professional career from its personal roots, he’s only brought the two more dangerously close than ever.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ A half-asleep Josh putting the empty coffee can back in the fridge… and then realizing his mistake.
+ A slightly more awake Josh not realizing that Leo is on the phone when he lists all the times “they” spent the night together.
+ CJ getting excited over all things butter. Because who wouldn’t?


[Score]

A

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5 thoughts on “West Wing 3×12: The Two Bartlets”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on October 11, 2015.]

    CJ totally outshines everyone else here, imo. It’s genuinely painful watching her talk to her father, even just from her side of the conversation. (I think we’re going to disagree very, very much on “The Long Goodbye.”)

    Well… I’m exaggerating a little. The Bartlet/Toby exchange is genuinely great too, and it’s one of the few times in the series we’ve seen Bartlet genuinely angry, which is obviously mega memorable.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on October 12, 2015.]

    One of the great bonuses in writing these reviews is giving Boscalyn the chance to say things about “The Long Goodbye” which I then get to prove wrong. So, so much fun.

    (And yes, I believe “Angry Bartlet” takes the cake for this episode.)

    Like

  3. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on October 13, 2015.]

    See, here’s what I don’t get. Do you not like “The Long Goodbye” because it’s a bad episode of television or an atypical episode of West Wing?

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  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on October 13, 2015.]

    I don’t have anything against atypical episodes per se. (Some of the show’s very best episodes, like “17 People” or “King Corn”, are very different from the norm.)

    I don’t like “The Long Goodbye” because it’s emotionally manipulative, cliched, and has no lasting relevance on the series as a whole.

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  5. [Note: jgkojak posted this comment on September 6, 2016.]

    I always thought Toby was saying that his father hit him because he was jealous of his intellect, and that the in some “time zones” his intellect doesn’t play well and makes people hate him (want to hit him)… so he plays the absent-minded professor role so people will like him… and doesn’t want to be the intellectual so people won’t be angry with him (like his father).

    But its the intellectual who actually governs.

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