West Wing 3×17: Stirred

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Eli Attie, and Dee Dee Myers | Director: Jeremy Kagan | Aired: 04/03/2002]

“I know how to count to 270.” – Hoynes

Decade after decade, blockbuster after blockbuster, few fictional characters have proven as durable or as popular as James Bond. Mainlining over twenty films and spawning countless parodies and rip-offs, Bond has been a pop cultural icon for over half a century. And it’s not difficult to understand why. Though he’s been embodied by numerous actors and filmed by various directors, his chief conceit has remained endlessly admirable: A suave, handsome agent, capable of escaping any trap and charming any femme fatale he comes across. He’s a guy that men want to be, women want to date, and everyone wants to watch. Bond is, to many, the human ideal.

So it seems a bit strange for Bartlet to take a few shots at this beloved film icon over the course of “Stirred” (an episode which even takes its title from the tag of a famous Bond line). To the casual viewer, Bartlet is something of a human ideal himself – the Presidential ideal. Cool, confident, charming, and good-humored – he’s basically got all the Bond ingredients, minus the British accent and the snazzy accoutrements.

But there’s an important distinction to be made, and “Stirred” takes great strides in making it: Bartlet may be an admirable man, but he’s not pretentious about it. He scoffs at the famous “Shaken, but not stirred” line, pointing out that “James is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.” This is an important aspect of Bartlet’s character, one that’s defined him since the show began – he values honesty and pure intention, and rolls his eyes at self-important effrontery. Though he may have some peculiar interests of his own, he revels in them with amused and self-deprecating humor. Sheen’s effusive performance mixes wonderfully with Sorkin’s affably funny dialogue, giving us a character who’s simultaneously idealized and intriguing to watch.

There’s dramatic heft behind this trait. Matter-of-fact man that he is, Bartlet is aware of his power, but he’s equally aware of its limits. When a uranium truck suffers a head-on collision near a populated Idaho town, the White House takes all possible measures to clean up the situation, but Bartlet still understands their vulnerability in letting the event happen in the first place. “We’ve packed this stuff in two inches of stainless steel, four inches of lead,” he says of the uranium. “We’ve rammed it with trains and dropped it from helicopters and it still isn’t going to protect us from the thing we haven’t thought of.” Bartlet has no fear in admitting the built-in weaknesses of his administration – in fact, as of late, he’s become surprisingly comfortable doing so.

But there’s an upside to Bartlet’s understanding of human limitations – he appreciates it when people go beyond them. The results of Charlie’s tax return may not be to his liking, but Bartlet values the fact that his young aide has donated so much of his earnings to charity, and rewards him with the amenities he wished for. Donna’s hope to give her beloved old schoolteacher her own holiday must go unrealized, but Bartlet acknowledges her earnestness and gives her the chance to speak with said teacher… straight from the White House hotline. (“I’m in the Oval Office with the President of the United States,” Donna informs her teacher in one of the episode’s most touching moments, “and it’s because of you.”) In each of these examples – the latter in particular – Bartlet shows the smallest and largest extent of his power, acknowledging a little act of kindness and devotion and reciprocating with kindness of his own.

All of this, I will admit, would be fairly simplistic and redundant character development, beneath the aspirations of a typical West Wing episode. But “Stirred” succeeds by bringing a relatively untested element into the equation – that being a man called Hoynes.

John Hoynes has always been an outsider to the West Wing we’re used to – as I mentioned in my review of “Enemies” [1×08], the show portrays him in two-and-a-half dimensions, granting him more development than some of the administration’s more vehement foes, while also keeping us from getting too emotionally connected to his character. Prior to “Stirred”, in fact, Hoynes has come off as an unwilling participant to the Bartlet administration’s goals – as the flashbacks in “Bartlet for America” [3×09] revealed, Hoynes only accepted the status of second banana once it became clear that Bartlet was beating him in the polls. There’s never been much indication that he shares the President’s ideals – if anything, he often seems to be running counter to them.

But in granting Hoynes the position of Vice President, Bartlet was not merely looking for an easy way to avoid dragging out the primary campaign. He saw something in Hoynes – saw the strength the man possessed, as well as the potential for him to lead. It’s so easy to frame the Bartlet/Hoynes relationship as simple political rivalry, particularly due to the often contemptuous way Hoynes treats his superior. But the vice-presidential position originated from a place of good faith and judgment, as “Stirred” dutifully confirms.

For much of the episode, the staffers fret over the realization that, politically, Hoynes would not make a good running mate for Bartlet. In conducting their stratagem, the staffers don’t display any real animosity toward Hoynes – in fact, Josh recruits Sam to help the VP save a bill of his that’s about to be shot down. And while most of the characters lob suggestions like Leo and Fitzwallace across the table, we witness a more passionate side of the original Vice President than the series has ever shown us before. At long last, we get some follow-through from the alcohol-addiction thread introduced way back in “Five Votes Down” [1×04] – and even more crucially, we learn that Hoynes is more than willing to take one for the team. Not only does he voluntarily decide to take his name off the bill, but he even agrees to remove himself from the reelection ticket.

I’ll confess: That the series should suddenly boost Hoynes into a sympathetic light to better convey this episode’s message feels a bit contrived, particularly for a season that is generally able to transition smoothly from one story development to the next. But whatever the plotting issues, the emotional beats in the episode hit every mark, right up to the Bartlet/Hoynes finish. It’s readily apparent that Bartlet will choose his personal feelings over political logic, but the manner in which he conveys his thoughts is simply perfect. Scrawling four words on a piece of paper – much like Leo did under somewhat different circumstances in “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19] – he explains to Hoynes why he will remain on the ticket in completely matter-of-fact terms. Bartlet, as I’ve mentioned, understands Hoynes’ potential as a prospective President, and should his MS claim him while in office, he knows he has a worthy successor.

“Stirred” could easily have rubbed off as a fairly basic, late-game standalone were it not for the way it admirably showcases the relationship between POTUS and VPOTUS. That the story succeeds is evidence to how well it utilizes the President’s well-tested faith in those who work for him, as well as the show’s continued subversion of even his most seemingly one-note relationships. When all is through, only one man could have made this episode so fully watchable.

His name is Bartlet.

…Jed Bartlet.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Bartlet taking time from his busy day to file Charlie’s 10-40.
+ Bartlet taking time from his busy day to tell Charlie to hand over the money he owes.
+ Leo taking time from his busy day to tell Charlie to hand over the money he owes.
+ Bartlet “bemoaning” the fact that Leo has no “personalized telephonic device” for getting in touch with him.


Foreshadowing

* The off-handed wording of Bartlet’s “Because I could die” comment is troubling, an indication that the President has become a bit too comfortable with his physical health issues. This lack of concern will play a large role in Season Six.
* The staffers theorize Leo as a potential VP. In Season Seven, Leo will become Santos’ running mate – and were it not for his tragic death in “Election Day (Part I)” [7×16], he would have become Vice President.


[Score]

B

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23 thoughts on “West Wing 3×17: Stirred”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    This one scene really goes into the heart of my problems with Aaron Sorkin as a person. I don’t know if Jeremy can forgive me for using naughty language on top of getting into a discussion of big-budget spy movies, but…

    From my perspective, the worst thing about James Bond is Ian Fleming’s execrable sex politics. Here’s an excerpt from the original Goldfinger to give you an idea what I mean.

    – QUOTE –

    Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterson was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed-up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and ‘sex equality.’ As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits – barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.

    You don’t have to have a feminist conscience to recognize there’s something deeply, deeply fucked up about a passage like this. And this sort of gender essentialism is front and center in nearly every one of the 007 films.

    So when Jed Bartlet says that the messed up thing about a chauvinist thug that can cure lesbianism with his golden cock is that he’s snooty when he orders alcohol, that says something very deeply disturbing about someone one of the most beloved protagonists in all of television, and it says something very fucked up about Aaron Sorkin as a writer.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    I’ve sympathized with your earlier problems with Sorkin’s writing in regards to women, Bosc, but I’d say this comment is really taking things a bridge too far.

    Bartlet isn’t lapsing into a serious judgment call about how Bond was initially defined in books that were written many decades ago. He’s deconstructing a famous pop-cultural staple, and doing it in a way that’s thematically relevant to the episode.

    The joke he’s making about “the messed-up thing” about Bond only functions as a joke because Bartlet has no extensive knowledge of the character, nor does he care to. He’s simply dismissing the idea of Bond as a credible figure by pointing out how pretentious he is. And he’s doing so by using a line that even people who have never read or watched a single Bond story are familiar with.

    As I said in the comments of “The US Poet Laureate”, judge the art before you judge the artist. There may well be plenty of things wrong with Bond beyond the “Shaken, not stirred” line, but they don’t reflect on the context of Bartlet’s line, nor do they reflect on Sorkin’s perspective in writing it.

    (The naughty language didn’t help endear me to your comment, either. But I’ll try to forgive you eventually.)

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  3. [Note: Freudian Vampire posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    I haven’t seen the episode but that sounds like a random leap. Does the episode whitewash Bond’s misogyny or ignore it? If it’s the latter, I don’t see why I would care.

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  4. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    No comment on Sorkin, Bartlett and the episode, but my goodness that quote is one of the worst things I’ve ever read.

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  5. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    “So when Jed Bartlet says that the messed up thing about a chauvinist thug that can cure lesbianism with his golden cock is that he’s snooty when he orders alcohol, that says something very deeply disturbing about someone one of the most beloved protagonists in all of television, and it says something very fucked up about Aaron Sorkin as a writer.”

    To be honest, I find something deeply fucked up about your line of thinking and rather harmful as well. And to think Scott almost convinced me that feminist extremism was only prevalent on populous internet sites like Youtube.

    Like

  6. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    Let’s connect the dots here: Ian Fleming wrote some misogynistic books, which were adapted into misogynistic movies, which became very popular and resulted in a completely benign catchphrase becoming very famous, which resulted in Aaron Sorkin using that catchphrase as the basis for a few jokes in a TV episode he wrote, and you’re saying that you have a problems with Sorkin as a person because of this, going beyond merely complaining about his work and attacking the man himself.

    I usually agree with your criticisms of how female characters and feminist themes are handled on this show, but frankly, this is really reaching.

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  7. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    Feeling kind of piled on here. I will admit that I’m probably being too hard on Sorkin and that Bartlet probably would know less about Bond than I would. And yet that line still rubs me the wrong way for some reason. Let me think about this.

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  8. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    In other news guess who just got “Requiem” spoiled from IMDB…Or probably the episode before Requiem, whatever…either way this sucks…

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  9. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    Yeah, I was pretty sad when I first learned it myself.

    And it’s really the one West Wing spoiler that no one can avoid reading about beforehand.

    Like

  10. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    Dang it Bosc, I almost had him. We were supposed to use the frog in the boiling pot method to make unkin into a feminist then you go and throw hot water all over him.

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  11. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    This discussion about Ian Fleming’s massive sexism is fascinating, but can we also talk about how much of a massive hypocrite Jed Bartlet is to rip into other people for being “pretentious”?

    I love Bartlet as a character a great deal, and it may be true as Jeremy says that he is, taken all in all, an admirable man. But let’s be honest. Not only is this “Presidential ideal” actually a really mediocre president (the best-kept amusing secret for anyone who pays attention to the details of the show) he is also an insufferably smug and pretentious prig.

    This is a man who, when asked to respond to a plea for increased veterans’ benefits, delivers a monologue about the origins of the term “red tape”. When a geeky NASA flack offers him a draft speech, he humiliates the man by dissecting his grammar. He returns from a trip to India with chess sets for his senior staff – and then insists on beating each of them while lecturing on strategy. He is the sort of social boor who invites a radio columnist to the White House, then tongue-lashes her publicly while showing off his erudition for the crowd. He is the kind of snob who sends his young African-American aide out to buy him a new carving knife, then with mock humility presents the orphaned young man with his own knife in exchange – cast for the Bartlet family by Paul Revere himself.

    And yet he pokes fun at James Bond for being “snooty” in the way he orders his martinis? Bartlet would have done better to take notes from Agent 007. The British super-spy may be a rampant misogynist, but at least he’s an unfailingly polite gentleman. He may lack humility, but that is considerably less grating than false humility.

    This episode is yet another exhibit in why the character of John Hoynes was a big missed opportunity for the show. He is the sort of character who opened up a whole variety of angles that could have been fascinating to explore. But they never are.

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  12. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    I believe the distinction that should be made regarding Bartlet’s pretentiousness is the way he’s able to offset that image with his more candid side. Yes, he constantly talks up his staffers about national parks and carving knives, but he always does so with a sly smile that shows he knows he’s coming off as overtly pompous. It’s not simply a case of “Look how smart I am,” but of “Look at how amused I am by how smart I am.”

    And he even knows how to extend that candid nature in public, as evidenced from the opening of the S1 finale: “There was some debate amongst my staff earlier today as to whether or not I should take off my jacket. Some thought that it would fit in nicely with the folksy atmosphere of a town meeting, others thought that it wouldn’t be presidential. Can I trust you all to read nothing more into it than I’ve been talking for two hours and it’s a little hot under these lights?”

    Still, you’re right to say that he has a sense of false humility, and that he’s very rarely a truly great President. (That’s why I threw in the “to the casual viewer” phrase at the start of the review.)

    Incidentally, could you expand your thoughts on Hoynes? I agree that he had more potential than was used, but I’m interested in hearing about the variety of angles you’re referring to.

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  13. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    No wait, I’ve got it. The line is actually pretty harmless, and maybe even humorous! I imagine Sorkin’s thought process for including it was that it would be funny if Bartlet mocked James Bond for ordering a watered-down martini in an episode largely centered on Leo and Hoynes’s alcoholism, rather than an endorsement of Fleming’s awful misogyny.

    Alex posted his comment while I was typing mine, and he makes the other point I was going to make. I’d agree that Bartlet is definitely very snooty, and that I like him least during scenes like this one, where he elevates semantics and minor quirks into character flaws. But I have a bigger problem.

    It should be noted that I already had a very low opinion of Aaron Sorkin as a person, and would describe him as the Morrissey of showrunners– obviously talented, but pretentious and moralizing. And I think I’ve said my piece on Sorkin and women elsewhere, so I’ll shush on that. I could never top my “Aaron Sorkin versus the Guerrilla Girls” teleplay anyway.

    So I think I reflexively slammed Sorkin here because I’m naturally predisposed to hate on Aaron Sorkin even when the fault doesn’t lie on his shoulders. Because my problem isn’t with Sorkin for once, but with Jeremy. For the first time in the two years you’ve been posting these reviews, I completely disagree with your central assertion.

    Though he’s been embodied by numerous actors and filmed by various directors, his chief conceit has remained endlessly admirable: A suave, handsome agent, capable of escaping any trap and charming any femme fatale he comes across. He’s a guy that men want to be, women want to date, and everyone wants to watch. Bond is, to many, the human ideal.

    […] To the casual viewer, Bartlet is something of a human ideal himself – the Presidential ideal. Cool, confident, charming, and good-humored – he’s basically got all the Bond ingredients, minus the British accent and the snazzy accoutrements.

    Let’s get this out of the way: James Bond is basically the least admirable protagonist in any popular franchise in recent memory. But that’s not the problem I have here; my problem is that Bartlet is such a wonderful protagonist because he is so unlike Bond. Jed Bartlet is the least Bond-like protagonist in all of prestige TV.

    I mean, if there’s a similarity between the two, it’s not that they’re human ideals; it’s that they’re masculine power fantasies. But the key difference is that not only is Bartlet fettered, the show is a celebration of the very fetters that contain him. This is in sharp contrast to the womanizing thug with a limitless supply of improbable gadgets, who doesn’t know the first thing about restraint. If there’s a Bond analogue in modern television, it’s not Jed Bartlet, it’s Walter White. And while I’m not a huge fan of Breaking Bad or James Bond, I have nothing against fans of either; and yet, I’m utterly terrified of the people who view Walter White as someone they should emulate. If you were correct that Bartlet and Bond were comparable, and if the only difference between the two really was that Bartlet had better taste in alcohol, I would not be writing so much and so vehemently about this show right now. And frankly, I would hope you wouldn’t either.

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  14. [Note: Unkinhead posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    Good comment and everything, but Bond vs Walter White? They’re not even remotely similar. Walter is hardly any of the adjectives that were listed under Bond. The key difference probably being that Bond is a “good guy” where as Walter White is a pretty terrible person.

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  15. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    They both have that male power fantasy idea to them, but I would agree that they aren’t very similar. I don’t think Bond is that good a guy, he’s fairly neutral and a terrible misogynist. Walter White is not that misogynistic, but obviously terrible on a whole lot of other levels.

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  16. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    – QUOTE –

    If you were correct that Bartlet and Bond were comparable, and if the only difference between the two really was that Bartlet had better taste in alcohol, I would not be writing so much and so vehemently about this show right now.

    At no point did I make that sort of comparison, though. I was just pointing out there are surface comparisons between the two, the kind that seep into any sort of writing about a character you define as a power fantasy. And the fantasy that Sorkin was going for was – on a Presidential level, at least – an ideal. (Keep in mind that The American President was the template for the series, and Andrew Sheppard the purely idealized template for Bartlet.)

    And I’m certainly no Bond expert, but I’m fully aware of the influence he’s had on pop culture, so no, I don’t think he’s at all the least admirable protagonist in recent memory. He may not stand the test of time as well as some of the more modern protagonists, but he’s got fans and admirers aplenty.

    Bond and Bartlet definitely aren’t that similar, and I can name several other TV protagonists whom I’d say more accurately parallel Agent 007. (Walter White would not be among them, however.) But when “Stirred” builds its title and a key running joke around James Bond, and mines the very humor from Bartlet mocking Bond, it’s my critical duty to figure out what that says about Bartlet as a character, particularly in relation to Bond. (And keep in mind, my thesis is built around the difference between the two.)

    That sort of reviewing style has been my approach way back since the pilot, and it’s helped me discover depths to the show I would never have uncovered using a more standard point-by-point reviewing method (like I did with Freaks and Geeks).

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  17. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on January 17, 2016.]

    Ah. Well, knowing your thought process behind this, it all makes a lot more sense.

    For what it’s worth, I like Breaking Bad largely because it deconstructs the idea of masculine power fantasy and male gender roles, showing just how damaging and silly they really are, and how weak and pathetic Walt is for being a slave to them. I, too, find it troubling that so many fans view Walt as some kind of ideal hero.

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  18. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on January 19, 2016.]

    Agreed that Bartlet has the self-awareness thing going for him a good deal of the time, and that it helps to keep him a loveable as well as sympathetic character despite having a lot of moments when he’s just as pretentious as James Bond. (Who for what it’s worth also shows more than a touch of self-awareness in some of his cinematic incarnations.)

    Regarding Hoynes, and my frustrations about how the show failed to realise the potential of this character, a lot of it ties back to the point that we’ve raised several times in the past about how The West Wing, contrary to a lot of shallow analyses that describe the show as primarily an exercise in liberal wish-fulfillment, is actually a drama concerned first and foremost with championing the presence and role of idealists in the political arena. This for me is what makes it such an outstanding political drama – aside from the witty banter among attractive and likeable characters, the complexity of the political and diplomatic issues it raises, and its portrayal of the relentless pace of events in Washington and the way desperate improvisations often turn into settled policy, what really holds the show together even through the weak patches is the unabashed boosterism for “the better angels of our nature” prevailing in democracy.

    This is why it’s so disappointing that the show so often falls on its face when it comes to creating a respectable opposition for our heroes to overcome. The common complaint is that conservatives on the show are too often cartoon villains, and those that aren’t smack of tokenism (see: Ainsley Hayes). There’s some truth to that, but I honestly see it as a secondary issue to the failure to create more compelling political realists to hold up the other side of the big “conversation” that Bartlet, Leo, and co. want to distinguish their legacy.

    Which is what brings me to Hoynes. Instead of solely being a source of sneaky, ideologically treacherous danger within the administration (until a sudden contrived-feeling push to make him sympathetic for the purpose of this episode, which will later be mostly thrown over the side) I would have liked to see more of him as a compelling voice for the downsides to Team Bartlet’s approach to politics. At the end of the day the idealists should still win the argument, but their victory would feel sweeter if the voices they were out-arguing were a little more compelling. It would also be nice to have some more acknowledgement that the total bastards in politics can sometimes make a positive difference just as big as the nice guys.

    Just as John F. Kennedy was one of the primary templates for Jed Bartlet, the character of Hoynes was obviously modelled heavily on Lyndon Johnson, and I would have liked it if the fictional character had lived up a bit more to fascinating qualities of his historical counterpart. Tim Matheson gave a consistently great (often chilling) performance during his sporadic appearances – one that hinted at a character far more complex and compelling than the writers of the show ever permitted him to be.

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  19. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 19, 2016.]

    Yeah, I think you nailed the larger issue with the show’s antagonists. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t mind it in Hoynes’ case if his character was written more consistently.

    Although to the show’s credit, given all the twists and turns he takes over the course of the series, I think the end of Season Six wraps up his arc perfectly.

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