[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 05/08/2002]
“What is it that you look for, exactly?” – Hogan
There’s a common romantic trope used in film and television – one I’ve come to dislike in direct proportion to the time I’ve spent growing out of my hormonal phase – where the light teasing about the possibility of a spark between the male and female leads is brought to a boil. The scene typically involves the girl (who, up to this point, has been averse to wearing particularly flattering clothes) stepping through a doorway, or appearing at the top of a long, slightly curved stairwell, dressed to the nines in a gorgeous long dress, while the guy does his best not to stare awkwardly. Only neon lights could more conceivably telegraph how these two are going to end up, and the trope has been played up so very often that it seems like writers only keep using it so that they can put their leading lady in a pretty gown.
There’s the indication at one point in “The Black Vera Wang” that suggests the episode is building toward this sort of tired scene – CJ and her new bodyguard, Simon Donovan, have a hint of a rapport with one another, and they’re shown at the mall along with CJ’s niece. When CJ steps out of a dressing room clad in (what else?) a black Vera Wang, you can almost cringe in anticipation of the awkwardly smitten look we’re about to see on Donovan’s face.
And yet… we don’t. Donovan barely glances in CJ’s direction, and instead continues to concentrate on his protection job. It’s quite welcoming to see a story eschew the expected cliché, particularly given how hastily the relationship between the two (Donovan was only introduced in the final scene of “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” [3×18]) is being built up. But it’s also quite relevant to the episode as a whole. As Donovan explains to CJ’s niece, he must constantly be on the lookout for anything suspicious. And “suspicious” encapsulates many things that other people wouldn’t consciously register as out-of-place, such as a man who’s wearing a coat in early May.
Would that Donovan’s penchant for recognizing anything out of the ordinary – or at the very least, not taking things at face value – be applicable to the other characters in this episode. An important theme in Season Three has been the Bartlet administration’s overconfidence; their ideals have tended to outmatch the often shaky ground they’ve stood on since the MS scandal. And a large factor of overconfidence is the inability to recognize information that’s right in front of their faces, something that’s quite a prevalent problem in “The Black Vera Wang”.
It takes Toby quite a while, for example, to figure out why the broadcast network heads are refusing to run full coverage of the primary elections. What ultimately tips him off to their motives is something that wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary at first glance, but becomes so once you look a bit closer: rather than debating airtime and scheduling amongst themselves, the network heads are all cooperating with one another. (Their reasoning is that the election results are simply too pat – and honestly, given how forcibly earlier episodes have pushed Ritchie as the Republican frontrunner, they’ve got a point.)
There was a time on this series when cooperation was a signal to raise glasses, rather than eyebrows. But now, even the idea of a Bartlet staffer attempting to collaborate with an outside friend can lead to disaster. When an unaired smear ad against Bartlet shows up on the White House’s doorstep, Sam attempts to connect with his old pal Kevin (who now works for the Ritchie campaign) in an attempt to flush out the source. Big mistake: The friend winds up leaking the video to the press, turning the Bartlet campaign in a joke. “You got played, Sam,” Bruno scolds him, “and you forgot that all warfare is based on deception.”
To the episode’s credit, Kevin is not painted is a wholly one-dimensional villain, cast in the same stupid and malicious light that will shortly define all of the Ritchie campaign. His actions are in fact personal, a response to Bartlet’s insulting on-air comment from “The US Poet Laureate” [3×16]. This puts a whole new light on Bartlet’s attempted stand – we watch as the administration experiences the consequences. One of the larger recurring issues in the series is the lack of direct follow-through between episodic stories, so the fact that Bartlet’s candid comment has heralded repercussions makes the drama here a good deal more forceful.
Less forceful than Sam’s storyline (but equally as thematically integral) is Donna’s. Through her slow buildup over these last three seasons, Donna has gone from a woman snarkily dismissive of her government to one who does her best to uphold it. She’s the conduit between the upper staffers and the lower ones – but in “The Black Vera Wang”, she becomes unceremoniously snagged between those two worlds. When Josh presents her with a slab of Helsinki moose meat, she promptly passes it to an intern… who puts it up on eBay. The result is another demeaning black mark on the White House, and a mess that Donna needs to fix herself.
Donna has grown so content in her “senior junior staff” role that she’s become ignorant of the standards held by the other assistants and interns who fill the White House halls. The salary speech she gives early in the episode to those other junior staffers outlines a simple rule for the many background workers in the building: Respect your employers. Given how close she’s grown to the upper staffers since the show began, it’s a rule she can follow easily. Not so for all the lackeys who continuously cycle through the building – they don’t understand the seriousness of working at the White House quite as she does. The empathetic Donna lobbies hard not to get the intern fired, but it’s on her for failing to realize that not all her coworkers were on her own embellished wavelength.
The idea of knowing the people who work with you even plays into the most crucial thread of the episode, in which Bartlet unearths a terrorist plot to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge. The theme comes by way of Intelligence the military gathers on Abdul Shareef, a Qumari diplomat with ties to the White House – specifically, that he’s secretly the man behind it. Even when it comes to international politics, the Bartlet administration has failed to assess the people they associated with.
As this episode indicates, knowing to look out for anything suspicious involves knowing what to look for. And much of the clues in this episode are fairly complacent – a collaborative effort among business heads, a meal invitation, an unpaid intern with an eBay account. But that only demonstrates how far things have gone from the days of “Six Meetings Before Lunch” [1×18], when an afternoon dining invitation indicated a satisfying end to a simple morning at the Bartlet administration, rather than an attempt to screw the invited party out of an election.
But still, we comfort ourselves, at least there’s one character in this episode who knows to stay on the alert. Or… is there? As Donovan prepares to wrap up work for the day, he spots another email from CJ’s creepy stalker. Yes, he was in the mall, and he was even eyeing CJ in the Vera Wang. Much as Donovan kept himself on the alert, he still failed to identify the man he’s after.
Some third-season episodes end on hopeful notes; even more end on troubling ones. “The Black Vera Wang” lands firmly in the latter camp, as it makes the one character in the episode who seems fully in tune with his surroundings look even more incompetent than any of the others.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Donovan essentially disassembling CJ’s entire car to keep her from going home alone.
+ The look on Donna’s face when Josh presents her with moose meat.
+ Toby pitching a reality show idea to the network heads.
+ CJ still getting irritated at her “Flamingo” call sign.
+ Bartlet boldly refusing to be taken to a bunker if the need arises. Predictable, but still great.
+ Carol analyzing CJ’s relationship with Donovan.
+ Bruno presenting Margaret with a necklace, finally resolving the “Bruno forgets Margaret’s name” arc. (Was it really an arc?)
+ There is a figurine of a woman in a long gown in Gail’s bowl. Gail is totally a player.
* Sam and Kevin lament the longtime lack of “genuine dialogue” during the Presidential debates. Although the 2002 election will continue that tradition, “The Debate” [7×07] will see Santos and Vinick breaking the longstanding rule by having a genuine back-and-forth debate onstage.