[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.
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.
* 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.