[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Paul Redford | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 03/06/2002]
“Oh, my God. You switched back to First Lady.” – Donna
Although she’s credited as a regular from the third season on, Stockard Channing is absent from the majority of episodes in the series. Future seasons will give her character an on-and-off recurring role, keeping with the parameters of Channing’s contract (which gave her enough rope to eventually star concurrently in the short-lived CBS sitcom Out of Practice) while making her character’s presence felt to some degree at all times. Season Three, though, doesn’t distribute her quite so evenly – although Abbey is a prominent character in the season up through “Bartlet for America” [3×09], she pretty much drops off the radar for the second half of the season, appearing only in a single episode.
Fortunately, that episode knows how to make the most of her. “Dead Irish Writers” is the first episode of the series in which the First Lady takes center stage (“The White House Pro-Am” [1×17] gave her a proper introduction, but was very much told from her husband’s point of view), allowing us to view her as the emotional and thematic core of the story. And taken on its own, it’s a fine look at a character we’ve come to know without fully knowing for the last three seasons.
From her earliest Season One appearances, Abbey has oscillated between two basic modes – the supportive wife and the independent thinker. As was exemplified in episodes like “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” [2×13], Abbey loves her husband, but has plenty of political ideas on par with his, and won’t see them shot down to satisfy his polling numbers. But beyond her relationship with Jed, there doesn’t seem to be a lot going on with Abbey, development-wise – nothing in the above description tells us much about her character on its own.
Yet that may not necessarily be a bad thing. In a 2003 interview, Aaron Sorkin recounted his first meeting with Channing following her introduction to the series. She asked him questions about Abbey’s character: “Who do you think she is?” Sorkin didn’t know how to respond to that – in his mind, the only question about his characters he could easily answer was “What do they want?”
We know from past episodes and seasons what Abbey Bartlet wants – she’s ostensibly the outsider of the main cast, someone who’s not directly involved in the President’s political affairs, and thus easier to outline than some of the deeper “insider” characters like Josh or CJ or Toby. Even more than the main staffers, Abigail Bartlet is defined by her motives, since the show has never given us much else to define her with.
That’s why Abbey is the perfect centerpiece for “Dead Irish Writers”, an episode all about the understanding of motives. In typical Season Three form, we are given several situations in which our protagonists are called upon to think and act with their signature idealism, yet their use of this idealism only exposes the flaws and cracks in the system. Following up on the hypocrisy-ridden “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14], “Dead Irish Writers” demonstrates just how lost the Bartlet administration currently is – their personal motivations have become completely detached from their rationales.
Consider what Toby goes through. Tasked with organizing diplomatic relations between Washington and an Irish Ambassador, Toby has his heart in the right place – promote peace at all costs – but doesn’t stop to acknowledge the potential dangers of letting this controversial figure into the White House. Precisely how ignorant of political logic is Toby here? Well, he’s set straight by the perpetually foolish Lord John Marbury – a character whose role this episode is bookended by off-color remarks about the First Lady’s breasts – who winds up giving him nothing short of a Britain/Ireland history lecture. This is not the same Toby we saw stand rigidly to his convictions in the days of “Mr. Willis of Ohio” [1×06], which adds to the level of concern we have about the Bartlet administration’s sense of direction.
Sam undergoes a similarly disconnected experience, although to different emotional effect. When the eminent Dr. Millgate arrives at his door with an ambitious new invention, Sam is at first hesitant to support him… until he learns that (1) the person chiefly responsible for deflecting the doctor’s attempts is an old nemesis of his, and (2) Millgate has been diagnosed with lymphoma. Sam ends up convincing himself that he believes in Millgate’s invention, even though it takes him some time to come up with a credible, non-personal reason. “It’s for discovery,” he finally states, using an argument of Millgate’s that he himself didn’t care for earlier. What we get, then, is a happy ending, but only in the superficial sense – Sam has essentially won, but there’s not much indication that the bill will pass, even less indication that Millgate will live long enough to appreciate effects, and every indication that Sam’s personal emotions have overshadowed his staunch political reasoning.
But the hang-ups of Toby and Sam pale in comparison to those of Abbey. Faced with the prospect of losing her medical license as an aftereffect of the MS scandal, Abbey spends much of the episode having a rather unhappy birthday. As in several of her earlier appearances, the drama of the story is built around the juxtaposition of her political career and her personal (or in this case, medical) accomplishments. And given what we’ve seen of Abbey in those previous appearances, it would be no surprise if she succeeds in getting Bartlet to take the fall for her.
But that’s not what happens. In the episode’s most instantly memorable scene, Abbey corrals CJ, Donna, and Amy together in a private lounge with one selling point: “Let’s get drunk.” The West Wing is not by nature a female-centric show – in fact, only one of these four characters has regularly played a truly major role in the series up to this point – but watching this quartet of women cut loose from their general professionalism and take a few sips of whiskey reminds us that the ladies on this series can be just as fun to watch as Bartlet trading quips with Leo or Josh annoying Toby.
But the key moment of the “West Wing women” scene comes not from disarming gender-based humor, but from a moment of unbridled honesty. Donna, who’s been through a pretty unflattering hang-up of her own this episode (she’s learned that she’s not technically a US citizen), comes off as the most aloof of the women, and when that aloofness is combined with alcohol, it gives rise to a pretty uncomfortable moment for all involved. In keeping with the episode’s theme, Abbey is upset that her husband’s career is costing her her medical license, but she’s ignoring the fact that she was in part responsible for causing all the trouble by consenting to secretly give Jed his drugs. So while trying to pass herself off as “just one of the gals”, Abbey lets her status slip just long enough for a somewhat imbibed Donna to call her out and remind her that she’s not an innocent victim in this scenario.
As I’ve said, Abbey Bartlet is a character defined almost entirely by her motives, and in the case of the MS scandal, her motives were to cover up her husband’s disease. Though she was concerned about his choice to run for President in the first place, and she’s spent much of this past season discomfited by the idea of him running for reelection, Donna’s frank little comment reminds her that, at the end of it all, Abbey still respects and supports her husband’s ambitions – it was she who chose to give him the pills, and it was thus she who placed her own career on the line… out of the concern that comes from a truly caring spousal relationship.
Donna’s comment initially comes off as a painful shot, but it ultimately provides the episode with a final bit of clarity. Abbey acknowledges the wisdom in Donna’s words, and chooses to forfeit her license for the remainder of Bartlet’s term in office, proving that she loves her husband, but is also not beholden to him in her decisions. And what could be more Abbey-esque than that?
“Dead Irish Writers” is the first episode in the show’s unofficial Abbey Bartlet trilogy (“Privateers” [4×18] and “Eppur Si Muove” [5×16] are the other two), and it’s a fine vehicle for a character who remains an integral part of the series, even if she never attains the same storyline importance as most of the other regulars. As the episode proves, Abbey is by no means flawless, but she has the strength of will and personal convictions to match any other White House resident, and likely even more than most. A shame, then, that she won’t be around for the rest of the season – the other characters could stand to use a dose of her newfound internal comprehension.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Abbey not getting her wish for a calm and relaxed party.
+ As indicated in the review, I love Abbey’s “Let’s get drunk” command. Straight and to the point.
+ Josh explaining to Amy that he can’t make decisions based on her “smooth skin”.
– Seriously, though – was it that difficult to find something genuinely funny for Marbury to say? The “magnificent breasts” line can’t be taken seriously enough to laugh at.
* Toby responds to Marbury’s fears with “What’s better than sitting down and talking?” This line, and the conversation in general, allude to how this season will end with the President solving an international crisis by actively not choosing the route of sitting down and talking.