West Wing 3×14: Hartsfield’s Landing

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Vincent Misiano | Aired: 02/27/2002]

“Defend your queen.” – Bartlet

“Hartsfield’s Landing” is one of those episodes that’s very easy for a viewer to watch, nod approvingly at, and move on. But this, I assert, would be a mistake. “Hartsfield’s Landing” may not appear to be all that different from many of the show’s other well-crafted and satisfying episodes, but I would qualitatively place it just behind the Holy Trinity of “17 People” [2×18], “Bartlet for America” [3×09], and “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] as a prime example of precisely why The West Wing is one of the finest dramas to ever grace the small screen.

“Hartsfield’s Landing” is subtle and deceptively simple – it took me two or three viewings to really delve inside the episode’s inner workings. Once I did, however, I gained a greater appreciation, not merely for the episode itself, but for its remarkable place in the show’s remarkable third season.

It’s almost shocking to think that in Sorkin’s original conception of the series, the President was to be an unseen figure, simply the uncharacterized bond around which the staffers rallied. We should all be thankful that he was quickly promoted to the centerpiece of the attraction – Bartlet’s warmth, wit, stamina, and mentality make for a fascinating mixture of personality, and episodes like “He Shall, From Time to Time…” [1×12], “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19], “The War At Home” [2×14], “The Two Bartlets” [3×12], “Posse Comitatus” [3×21], “Inauguration: Over There” [4×15], “Twenty Five” [4×23], “Han” [5×04], “The Wake-Up Call” [6×14], and “Tomorrow” [7×22] – not to mention the Big Three I mentioned in my opening paragraph – perfectly get inside Bartlet’s head to show us the incredible man inside. (Certain exceptions prove the rule as well – episodes like “Take This Sabbath Day” [1×14], “Game On” [4×06], and “The Birnam Wood” [6×02] felt as though the only way they could show us how awesome Bartlet was involved sitting us down and explaining it to us in incredibly long, boring, and heavy-handed detail.)

But think back to Sorkin’s original concept for a moment. Obviously, having an unseen President would have altered the feel of the series – it would have given the man in charge an almost godlike quality to the viewer, there to oversee his staffers but never to directly involve himself in their onscreen work. The show would have been about the Joshes, the Tobys, and the CJs of the White House, with the President lending nothing more than an invisible hand.

Think of the potency of this idea… and then notice how, by what is surely not coincidence, it spiritually remains in the final product as well. Oh, we see Bartlet all the time – and hardly an episode goes by where he doesn’t interact with his staffers, or regale them with some advice or influence. And there lies the ingenuity of the story – we recognize Bartlet as an intriguing character on his own, but we also come to view him as a spiritual tentpole to the staffers in the White House.

We know from “The War At Home” [2×14] that Bartlet loves chess. To him, it’s more than a game – it’s a stimulation technique, openly designed to engage the player into using the board as a platform for other, more complicated matters. To Bartlet, every platform he treads on is a chessboard, and every decision he makes moves another piece.

From the start of “Hartsfield’s Landing”, we are reminded of how much Bartlet loves the ancient board game. Having received a few boards as gifts from a trip to India, he has not only committed their manufacturing backgrounds to memory, but decides to give them to his staffers as gifts. And this is where the tentpole aspect comes into play.

Across the last few episodes, Sam and Toby have helped the President rise up again from the crushing defeat of the Congressional censure. The former penned his popular State of the Union address; the latter uncovered a hurtful but important wound that he had for many years chosen to keep scarred over. Bartlet remembers their actions. He recognized their respective strengths and usefulness to him, and thus when a global crisis arises, he uses two of his chessboards to work Sam and Toby further, maximizing their usefulness for all it’s worth.

Can such small-scale ideas effectively parallel and influence large-scale events? “Hartsfield’s Landing” seems to think so, as evidenced by its portrayal of the titular town. With a population of only 63 people (a mere two-thirds of whom can even vote), Hartsfield’s barely seems to register as so much as a blip on the electoral monitor. Yet for nearly a century, this little burg has correctly predicted the winner of every Presidential election – turning it into something of a quadrennial prophet.

Back in Season Two, the city of Hartsfield’s would have brightly fit right in with all the talk about pure, polished idealism – it’s a tiny city, but one capable of massive influence. But it also fits in well with the themes of Season Three: To the Bartlet administration, Hartsfield’s represents a problem, one they’re not sure they have the power to fix. Something which could easily be viewed as hopeful and idealistic is here treated as a potential setback by our protagonists.

So we watch as Josh corrals Donna into trying to convince a pair of Hartsfield’s residents who are opposed to Bartlet that their complaints are unfounded. At no point does the episode directly state the ludicrousness of the situation – that Josh is going crazy trying to please two American citizens out of 300 million – but that only emphasizes the episode’s clever mirror-imaging of last season. Josh is fully cognizant of the idea that one person (or in this case, one small city) can make a world of difference, and here he recognizes the downside of that seemingly sunny outlook.

It’s a sign, perhaps, that Bartlet has taught Josh all too well – to the point that he’s recognizing outrageous troubles where a normal person wouldn’t. But if Josh has taken too much from Bartlet for his own good, he’s certainly not alone in this regard. In fact, Josh gets off pretty easy when you consider the likes of Charlie.

Of all the series-spanning regular characters, Charlie is fundamentally the least-developed. The easiest explanation is that he was not originally meant to be a part of the series, and thus was relegated to a position on the White House staff that didn’t offer many story ideas. But still, Sorkin found several ways to use Charlie in a manner that humanized him as a character while also adding a new layer to the show. Charlie begins the series as the President’s aide, but the impressionable youth soon grows into something more; around the time of “Shibboleth” [2×08], when Bartlet awarded him with an antique Thanksgiving carving knife, he became an indelible part of the President’s surrogate family.

Through his relationship with Zoey, Charlie came to know Bartlet the stern and protective father, a side of him that none of the other staffers have experienced to quite the same degree. So it’s no surprise that, between spending so much time around Bartlet and having a personal relationship with his daughter on the side, Charlie has come to see the President as much more than just a famous employer. When he reveals to Leo his knowledge of Bartlet’s MS at the end of Season Two, we don’t require any explanation – his only occasional but very careful importance to the storyline is such that we can simply accept it.

“Hartsfield’s Landing” initially appears to drop Charlie in a fairly innocuous side-plot with CJ, when the two of them get into a dispute over the security clearance over the President’s private schedule. For a while, the story looks as though it’s going to turn into a simple “Prank vs. Prank” vignette, with each one attempting to outdo the other. But then Charlie dominates with a consecutive three-peat – he superglues CJ’s phone to the cradle, swipes her ID card, and saws the leg off her desk.

“So how long do you usually make people your #####?” CJ asks after the last of these causes her desk to collapse. “Depends,” Charlie responds tersely. We all love CJ, and know her to be one of the White House’s strongest and most loyal staffers, but Charlie makes his motive known: Don’t mess with the authority of Jed Bartlet.

Clearly, Bartlet has more than left his thumbprint on his many devoted staffers. Which explains why he’s so ready to stimulate Sam and Toby in simultaneous chess games, playing his wits in order to see if he can stir up theirs. In Sam, Bartlet sees a budding young prodigy, and thus gets him thinking about the China/Taiwan conflict from a logical standpoint. “See the whole board,” Bartlet encourages him, clearly referring to more than just the tabletop game. Sam has plenty of moves to contemplate, and as Bartlet lightly teases him with obscure chess trivia, he comes to view the game from Bartlet’s perspective.

Bartlet has his own plan to deal with the China/Taiwan conflict, one that’s high on risk and low on popularity. But Sam, after studying Bartlet’s gameplay and discussing the respective motives of the two dissenting nations, winds up figuring out Bartlet’s plan without even being told – and, in effect, validates said plan. It’s a sure sign that he’s come to understand the President’s line of thinking, and is perfectly capable of matching it. To that end, Bartlet assures Sam that he will take after his boss in more ways than one, and run for President someday in the future.

Toby proves a harder nut to crack, but Bartlet is more than willing to try. He has come to accept Toby’s harsh evaluative tendencies as an asset, and rather than push him away as he did in “The Two Bartlets” [3×12], he chooses to press his Communications Director further along the road of psychoanalysis. “Sigmund, come play chess,” reads the self-aware note he leaves on Toby’s desk, setting the stage for another session of “The Bartlet Psychosis” – this time, on the President’s terms.

“I know exactly where the pieces on the board are,” Bartlet assures Toby. When it comes to the tabletop board, he is the undisputed master, capable of juggling two games without losing focus of either of them. It’s this sense of clarity and purpose he attempts to bring to his dialogue with Toby, to mixed results. Though Bartlet is perfectly forthcoming about his chess skills – right down to the story about how the person who taught him the game was brutally stabbed to death – he objects to Toby’s labeling his father as an “idiot”, and takes offense at the notion that his trouble as President is that he stands at home plate and “watches the pitch go by”.

Bartlet is aware of his high intellect – he still feels the slaps his father gave him because of it – and he hates the idea of it being a disadvantage. As we’ve seen time and time again, his extensive knowledge functions as a coping mechanism, allowing him to dispel any overly serious air with a lighthearted bit of historical trivia. Remove that razor-sharp intellect, and you remove the very core of Jed Bartlet.

The episode makes a daring, ingenious move as it shines a blinding spotlight onto the “perfect President” that makes up the compelling centerpiece of The West Wing. Even though Bartlet does comes up with an incredibly risky, idealistic plan to solve the Taiwan/China problem, we’ve come to see that his modus operandi is not all it’s cracked up to be. The very thing that made us fall in love with Bartlet way back in the “Pilot” [1×01] here becomes a liability to his character, and we wonder just how long it will be before his doubts over his own intellect drive him to serious error.

The ending of the episode sums things up exquisitely, as Josh decides that the right to vote is something to be cherished, and thus opts not to discourage a few people in one small town from disagreeing with Bartlet’s policies – even as he acknowledges that those people may in fact be “morally superior”. This simultaneously reminds us of the idealistic thinking that the Bartlet administration is founded upon and keys us in to the built-in vulnerabilities that come with said administration. After all, if the President can find both frustration and comfort in a few simple chess pieces, the White House at large can find both frustration and comfort in a few simple townspeople.

Hartsfield’s Landing. Population: 63.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Donna opening the office door in Josh’s face.
+ In a nice bit of narrative continuity, the Chinese Ambassador seen here is the same one from “Lord John Marbury” [1×11].
+ CJ calling Charlie “Chaz”.
+ Donna declaring her intention to take Josh’s coat.
+ The Krazy Glue. Also, wouldn’t it be hilarious if Charlie had Krazy-Glued the Oval Office’s hotline phone? Yeah, probably not.


Foreshadowing

* Toby to Bartlet: “The very minute they swear in the next guy, you and I are going round and round.” Not quite, Toby, but close enough: The minute before they swear in the next guy, Bartlet will be going round and round over what to do about you. (Note: This is not actually foreshadowing, but it sounded really cool in my head.)


[Score]

A+

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7 thoughts on “West Wing 3×14: Hartsfield’s Landing”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on November 2, 2015.]

    Wonderful commentary. A couple notes/petty complaints.

    1) Charlie’s “prank war” with CJ is the funniest part of any episode, even counting “Shibboleth” and the turkey conundrum. I mention “Shibboleth” (as you do) because it seems to confirm Charlie as Bartlet’s symbolic son, with Mrs. Landingham as the mother. This strikes me as a fascinating parallel– a prank war is like chess for small children, with the emphasis on thinking ahead turned to Spy vs. Spy style antics rather than intellectual dominance. But Charlie’s ostensibly light-hearted antics have very real consequences for CJ, what with her very nearly getting arrested. Bartlet’s glib in this episode, but it’s very likely there are gonna be repercussions for what he’s doing.

    But this is getting away from the point, which is the worst way I think the series has sidelined Charlie so far, in the best episode of the show. In “Two Cathedrals,” Bartlet calls out Josh as his son, even though not only is Charlie his “son,” but Charlie was the actual target of the attacks.

    2) This is a wonderful episode and it’s well established Bartlet’s big into chess. But damn, do smart people play other games? Can we have a TV show where the leading players are playing poker, or Go, or Magic: the Gathering? LOST had backgammon motifs, which was cool; I’m sure there’s a brilliant metaphor that can be built out of OTHER board games.

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

    That’s a very cool Bartlet/Charlie parallel – even with all the analysis I did, this episode just keeps on giving.

    Regarding the attacks: Although Charlie was the target, remember that in the context of “Two Cathedrals”, Bartlet is letting loose about personal crises that God apparently chose to inflict upon him. Racism is not something that targets Bartlet’s family alone (and Season One heavily foreshadows an impending attack on Charlie), but a stray bullet hitting Josh is a hard-hitting, traumatic event that is both unique to Bartlet’s experience and unsettling enough that he can call upon it a year later.

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  3. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on November 4, 2015.]

    Been a while since I commented, but in any case, another brilliant review. Hats off, Jeremy!

    This would be a top-ten episode for me as well. Partly because it’s brilliant, but partly also because the first time I saw, in high school, it inspired me to join the chess club.

    Fond memories.

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

    I wish I’d seen this episode in high school. Instead, I saw Buffy‘s “Nightmares”, which scared me away from joining any chess club.

    Thanks, Alex!

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  5. [Note: guttersnipe posted this comment on November 4, 2015.]

    It wss thanks to that episode that I ended up calling it a day on hanging out in basements with huge club-armed monsters.

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  6. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on November 5, 2015.]

    I’ve been playing chess on and off over the years, and funnily enough, watching this episode rekindled my interest and got me to buy a nice chess set.

    Does this mean that Big Chess is putting mind control messages in unassuming TV episodes to get us to buy more chess paraphernalia?

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  7. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on November 6, 2015.]

    Aaron Sorkin’s writing has had many adjectives applied to it across the years, but I highly doubt that “unassuming” has ever been one of them.

    As to your question, I think Occam’s razor says that this is a more likely explanation.

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