West Wing 3×20: We Killed Yamamoto

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 05/15/2002]

“The laws of nature don’t even apply here.” – Fitzwallace

Midway through one of Season Three’s best episodes, “Bartlet for America” [3×09], Leo reminisces on his love for Bartlet: “You ever see a pitcher work the mound so the dirt does exactly what his feet want it to do? That’s the President.” Near the climax of another Season Three highlight, “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14], Toby gives his own perspective on Bartlet’s workmanship: “Being the smartest kid in the class is a pretty good pitch. It’s not a strike unless you watch as it sails by.” And later that same episode, Leo counters Toby’s claim, telling Bartlet, “I think you foul it off.”

Baseball metaphors pop up quite a few times during key moments of The West Wing‘s third season, and they’re even more prevalent than usual in “We Killed Yamamoto”. Bartlet closes a Situation Room meeting with “That’s the ball game.” Donna compares Sam to the second baseman for the Yankees. Toby states at one point that “This is no time for the starters to be on the bench.”

Baseball is an attractive subject for a series as patriotic as The West Wing – it’s America’s national pastime, after all – and it’s not too surprising to see a few written into a series created by the man who also gave us Sports Night. But though the metaphors may be applicable, their sheer quantity in an episode that has nothing to do with the actual subject of baseball raises an inquisitive eyebrow.

Rationalization, then, comes from a deeper understanding, not of baseball, but of character. Metaphors, by nature, are a disassociation from reality; they draw comparisons to making larger-than-life concepts appear down-to-earth. And in order to make metaphors, one must distance himself from his own reality, capable of recognizing the basic tenets of a situation while still remaining detached enough to avoid the seriousness of it.

This definition summarizes the conceit behind “We Killed Yamamoto” – characters find themselves in serious and/or dangerous situations, but refuse to fully commit to their realism. It is quite possibly the most destructive consequence of Season Three’s “idealism gone wrong” theme – the Bartlet administration is pretty much choosing to ignore the severity of their problems.

Take CJ, for example. The threat of the stalker now takes a backseat to her growing attraction to her bodyguard. Although an early scene of this episode finds her distressed when Donovan informs her of the Vera Wang incident, CJ pushes her fears into the background, and soon grows close to her bodyguard himself, leading to a charmer of a scene in the Secret Service shooting gallery. (Bonus points for subverting another romantic cliché in this scene: Rather than have Donovan stand behind CJ and “cozy up” by showing her how to aim the weapon, CJ rejects his attempts at helping her fire a gun… and winds up losing her balance from the recoil, deflating all sexual tension and giving Allison Janney another opportunity for one of her patented pratfalls.) CJ nearly forgets herself as Donovan walks her home, and the two end up sharing an almost-kiss. (Well, I didn’t say that the episode subverts every romantic cliché.) But she’s quickly reminded of his job, and how no personal relationship can occur between them – and thus, reality intrudes.

Sam has his own issues in dealing with his emotional reality. Still reeling from the part he played in setting the anti-Bartlet smear ad onto the public, Sam has grown more reclusive. When his presence is requested at a North Dakota convention, he sends Donna (who continues to grow in importance even through these last few episodes) in his place. Sam’s uneasy new outlook leads him to initially reject an Everglades proposal from a pair of campaign staffers – but as we learned in “100,000 Airplanes” [3×11], he is Bartlet’s most malleably optimistic staffer, and soon changes his position on the proposal. Sam may have screwed up, but he’s a guy who’s able to push past his failures and concentrate on what lies ahead.

Josh has less success in this regard. In his case, the difficult situation comes in the form of an impending welfare bill which has him and Amy deadlocked against one another. Josh is at first unenthusiastic that the bill will pass – but when Amy catches wind of it, she begins mobilizing her forces, sending him into action to counter her. Had Josh treated the bill with a bit more seriousness from the get-go, he likely wouldn’t have opted to spend the evening with a woman fiercely opposed to it, and their relationship may not have soured so poorly by episode’s end.

But all other situations pale in comparison to Bartlet’s. The president has had a difficult season all around, but he’s proven durable even when his staffers haven’t. It’s been a year since Mrs. Landingham’s death, and Bartlet finally acknowledges to himself that things need to move on. He commissions Charlie to find a new executive secretary, and begins looking forward to one of the campaign’s less-grueling opportunities: a night at the Broadway Theater.

To the effect of his relative bliss, Bartlet is resistant to the first round of intel the military gathers on Abdul Shareef. At first, it appears that Bartlet does understand the full severity of the matter – “This isn’t a cave-dweller,” he tells the Joint Chiefs. “This is Capone.” The White House is playing a most dangerous game of international chess, and all they need is for any one of a thousand pieces to make a wrong move.

Before long, however, the evidence grows too great to ignore. The information the Russians acquired from their suspect, we learn, was obtained through torture, and is thus inadmissible. (This episode also makes a strong yet humorous case that the Russians have a leg up on America in terms of intel – at one point, Leo tells Josh and Toby that NASA spent millions trying to make a pen that would work in zero gravity… while the Russians simply “used a pencil”.)

But even once it becomes clear that Shareef is the terrorist he’s suspected to be, Bartlet still wants to find an easy way out. He avoids the stinging truth – that Shareef is a massive global threat who must be dealt with, once and for all. It’s the sort of dark and chilling decision that Bartlet has never had to deal with before – yet one the whole season has been building up for him to make.

It takes a pair of the show’s most pragmatic minds to realize that Shareef must be permanently taken care of. Alone in the Sit Room, Leo and Fitzwallace reach into the past, as the Admiral explains to the Chief of Staff about how the nature of war has changed over the centuries. The third season may have struggled at times to work off of the effects of 9/11, but in this scene, the show links to reality in a manner that’s both relevant to the period and dramatically effective.

“This is the most horrifying part of your liberalism,” Leo tells Bartlet in the episode’s final scene. “You think there are moral absolutes.” Leo has, time after time, been the one to rein Bartlet in when his plans become too idealistic to be feasible. But he also has a keener sense of realism than anyone else in the President’s employ. He sees the need for drastic action when Bartlet does not, and must ultimately convince Bartlet to “make the call”.

When Season Three began, we saw Bartlet at his most overconfident. He had essentially just told a country he had spent years lying to about his health that they were going to reelect him. Over the course of the season, we’ve learned many of Bartlet’s most self-destructive flaws – both as a person and as a President – yet despite all the problems he’s caused and faced, we remain steadfastly determined to continue rooting for him. The end of “We Killed Yamamoto” puts our feelings toward Bartlet to the ultimate test: Can we still call him a great man and leader when he makes the decision to covertly assassinate a foreign leader?

No concrete answer is given. But though the later seasons may lessen Season Three’s dark load, Bartlet’s more deep-seated issues will only continue to intensify for the rest of the series. He may not always let the pitch go by, but he has plenty more strikeouts ahead before the game is over.

 


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ CJ referring to Donovan as “Agent 99”. (Look it up, youngsters.)
+ Amy throwing Josh’s cell phone in the stew. (This is why they now make stew-proof phones.)
+ Amy cutting the cord on her phone while Josh is using it. I love how she’s willing to destroy her own appliances to keep the bill from passing.
+ Fitz, struggling with his words, complimenting Leo on his shampoo.
+ CJ clearly has trouble with a .357 magnum. Do you suppose Bartlet would say that she’s “a 22-caliber mind”?

– Someone needs to fire their headstone carver: “Dolores Landingham” is misspelled.


Foreshadowing

* An unfortunate piece of foreshadowing: Though Donovan is portrayed as a suave and capable agent, the moment when he holsters his gun in his pants, only to pull it right back out again from the pain of the hot muzzle, is a sign that he may not be quite as bright with his weapon as he wants to think.


[Score]

A

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11 thoughts on “West Wing 3×20: We Killed Yamamoto”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 27, 2016.]

    Sorry, I’m going to leave a productive comment in a second. But this really rankled me when Toby said it:

    (This episode also makes a strong yet humorous case that the Russians have a leg up on America in terms of intel – at one point, Leo tells Josh and Toby that NASA spent millions trying to make a pen that would work in zero gravity… while the Russians simply “used a pencil”.)

    This is a really persistent myth, and it’s not true. Russia and America both used pencils in their spacecraft prior to 1968. They both were looking for something better, though because pencils were 1) flammable and 2) easy to break, leaving potentially hazardous graphite particles floating in zero G, where they ran the risk of getting in someone’s eye or causing an electrical short.

    After the Apollo 1 fire, an inventor named Paul Fisher came to NASA with his patented “space pen.” He spent approximately $1,000,000 of his company’s money to develop it, and he sold them for about three dollars each. So no, NASA did not waste our tax dollars on fancy doodads. Thanks for the misinfo, Toby.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 27, 2016.]

    Yeah, I’d actually heard the “used a pencil” quote prior to watching The West Wing, and I wasn’t sure of how true it sounded. The line still makes me laugh, though.

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  3. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 27, 2016.]

    Okay, actual contribution to the thesis now.

    Metaphors, by nature, are a disassociation from reality; they draw comparisons to making larger-than-life concepts appear down-to-earth. And in order to make metaphors, one must distance himself from his own reality, capable of recognizing the basic tenets of a situation while still remaining detached enough to avoid the seriousness of it.

    Isn’t this sort of fitting for an episode leading towards justifying an assassination? The abstraction of thought one needs to make a metaphor isn’t dissimilar to the compartmentalization one needs to justify cold-blooded murder. (Not that I would know that, but you get what I’m saying.)

    I’m also surprised you didn’t connect this to Ritchie skipping a Shakespeare reenactment to go to the Yankees game, and his claim that it’s more representative of the common American’s values.

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  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 27, 2016.]

    I’m also surprised you didn’t connect this to Ritchie skipping a Shakespeare reenactment to go to the Yankees game, and his claim that it’s more representative of the common American’s values.

    That happens in the next episode, not this one. Though it’s an interesting point nonetheless.

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  5. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on January 27, 2016.]

    Keeping up with these reviews (and every now and then, re-watching an episode or two in accompaniment) consistently reminds me why the relationship between Jed and Leo is far and away my favourite thing in this show. Aaron Sorkin may not have a very wide range when it comes to scripting believable-compelling character relationships (see: nearly every time he tries to do romance) but *this* relationship – the mix of brotherly love, comradeship, and political partnership – he absolutely nails every time.

    You’re absolutely killing it with this string of reviews for the S3 endgame Jeremy – keep up the great work!

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  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 27, 2016.]

    I agree – the Leo/Bartlet relationship is not only the most entertaining one on the show, but the one that’s proven the most fascinating to explore. The way the two balance each other out is just amazing to watch.

    As always, I appreciate the kind words. Hope you also like my review of the season finale, which will be up tomorrow.

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  7. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on January 27, 2016.]

    Believe me, I am looking forward to it. Not just because I want to read your insights, but also because I know that Boscalyn is just quivering with anticipation to unload on why she doesn’t like it. It’s one of my favourite episodes, and it will be good to have a real proper debate in one of these comment threads.

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  8. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 27, 2016.]

    It’s so cute that you think I’ll be unloading my thoughts in the comment section.

    This little box is not big enough for my opinions on “Posse Comitatus.”

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  9. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on January 27, 2016.]

    Maybe that is so, but I would love to see you try!

    On a different note, thank you for puncturing the myth about the space pen in your earlier comment. That one annoys me to.

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