[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 05/22/2002]
“The things we choose to care about…” – Bartlet
A persistent question that bugs me anytime I sit down with Season Three of The West Wing is: How would it be different?
Say that nothing had happened in the world in the fall of 2001 that could conceivably impact how Sorkin and co. portrayed the continuity of the Bartlet administration. Say that the third season operated in the same political and worldly climate as the first two, that “Isaac and Ishmael” [3×00] never had the reason to be written. How would it be different?
Before you answer, recall that five scripts of Season Three had already been completed before the prospect of terrorism changed the entire world mentality. There’s no mention in those scripts of Qumar or Saudi Arabia or Islamic extremism, and yet… those episodes don’t feel terribly at odds with the rest of the season.
In referring to Season Three as The West Wing‘s darkest year, I’ve clearly had to factor real-world influence into the equation. But even in the season’s earliest scripts, produced back in July and August, the show had already taken on a darker shade than that of past seasons. Thematic setup – making Season Three into the antithesis of Season Two – was present right from the premiere. “Manchester (Part I)” [3×01] introduced the perilous undercurrent that would pump through the season’s veins: overconfidence. The season would go on to explore the dangers of idealized power in many different forms, but it was the overconfidence of the Bartlet administration that would cause the most trouble.
And in that rather disturbing way, The West Wing ended up paralleling the real world. It was overconfidence, many said, that caused Americans to lay down their guard, to consider their country a fortress filled with secure airports and indestructible skyscrapers. It was overconfidence which cost us, much as it was what cost the characters on this season if The West Wing.
Over these last 21 episodes, we’ve come to understand why “Isaac and Ishmael” [3×00] was, in its time, simultaneously a success and a failure. On the one hand, it did exactly what it set out to do, showing audiences that in spite of the relative utopia Bartlet and his staffers appeared to live in, the characters were still capable of (indirectly) acknowledging real-world calamities. On the other hand, the episode failed to work as a blanketing safety net to keep the real world from intruding into the series again, and later Season Three episodes began working terrorism into the storylines in ways that missed as often as they hit.
The season as a whole was given a near-impossible task – creating a stable thematic arc that worked on its own terms, while constantly looking over its shoulder to figure how its stories would also work in this dramatically-shifted American climate. Much has been speculated as to how well the season accomplished its goals, or if it accomplished them at all. What’s my take on the matter?
Well, take a look at “Posse Comitatus”.
Much like “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], “Posse Comitatus” has the unenviable job of wrapping up the season’s thematic arc in a manner that is both relevant and engaging. And about the greatest criticism I can level at “Posse” is that – well, it’s simply not as great as “Two Cathedrals” [2×22]. Obviously, that’s a very small criticism, so let’s delve a bit further.
Like much of the season which led up to it, “Posse Comitatus” is built around the dangers of overconfidence – albeit on a much harsher scale than usual. It’s overconfidence which causes Simon Donovan to let his guard down when he stumbles across a convenience store robbery, just as it’s overconfidence which causes Bartlet to wait until the last minute to give the kill-order on Shareef. This episode deals with life and death in a manner which the season – indeed, which the series as a whole up to this point – has not needed to contend with.
That’s all thematically well and good, and it provides the episodes with some great dramatic material. But it’s not the primary reason that “Posse Comitatus” excels.
The episode is built around a large-scale yet benign setpiece: Bartlet attending a play at the Broadway Theater in New York. The play is an adaptation of The Wars of the Roses, based on the 15th-century wars fought between a pair of rival English families that ultimately saw Henry VII assume the throne. It doesn’t seem to have much direct relevance to the overall story of “Posse Comitatus”, but consider its larger context.
Aaron Sorkin has a clear love for the theater – as I’ve mentioned in the past, he began his writing career as a playwright – and his affection has been made plain several times in his television and film work, and in The West Wing in particular. Bartlet’s grandstanding oratories pay tribute to the masterful dialogue of Shakespeare, and “17 People” [2×18] was even crafted as a play for television. So we should not be surprised when “Posse Comitatus” frames its climax around a literal play, nor should we ignore its implications in the larger scope of Season Three.
Plays in general are dramatizations – and The Wars of the Roses is an incredibly long and wide-reaching dramatization, chronicling a terrible war with the help of loud costumes and music. The play ultimately builds to a crescendo – an upbeat first-act finale centered on a joyous song of victory. That’s good for Broadway, but it’s not the ideal model for the world at large. Nor is it even the model for the third season of The West Wing, which, despite numerous funny moments, has maintained a relatively heavy and serious air. The series has never been a true representation of the real political world, but in Season Three, it carries a hard realness that demands to be felt. And when “Posse Comitatus” adds a boisterous musical play into the world of the series, it underscores just how truly real the world of The West Wing can be.
On Broadway, characters sing and dance and wave large flags, and the Big Dramatic Moments earn every bit of their capitalization. No matter what side of the Wars of the Roses you were on, the playwright constructs the victors to have the happy ending, turning the centuries-old event into an uplifting tale. Oftentimes, The West Wing also deals in big dramatic moments and happy endings. But not this time. For if there’s anything the episode wants to demonstrate, it’s that “happy endings” are sometimes only reserved for dramatizations. The West Wing is often defined as a fantasy, but the stories on the show – particularly in its first and darkest post-9/11 season – do not always warrant a happy and upbeat ending.
If this were a fantasy, for example, Josh would have found a way to push the welfare bill through without costing Amy her job. If this were a fantasy, Debbie Fiderer would be the perfect replacement for Mrs. Landingham, instead of the rather loopy woman who, we learn, was fired for hiring the young and inexperienced Charlie as the President’s closest aide.
If this were a fantasy, CJ and Simon Donovan would complete their romantic-comedy arc, pairing together in a way that was sweet and funny and delightful. Instead, Donovan is gunned down by a nameless crook during a corner store robbery. His death is sudden, shocking, meaningless, and cruel, and it occurs directly before the viewer. There’s no question that “Posse Comitatus” wants us to experience the full emotional rawness of real death. That it then treats us to the solemn strings of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”, mere minutes before it gives us a rendition of Stephen Oliver’s far more upbeat “Patriotic Song”, only intensifies the contrast the episode makes between the relative tones of fantasy and reality.
“Posse Comitatus” is built on several story beats that are technically abrupt and anticlimactic, but which are given a spontaneity that serves to enhance the discomfort present for all involved. It spends a large deal of time showing us how unwilling Bartlet is to go along with the assassination plan, waiting until the last possible minute to give the order. In the time leading up to it, he comments on the ludicrous nature of the episode’s titular Act, tells the Joint Chiefs that the meeting they’re having is “the most absurd I’ve ever sat in”, and, during his meeting with Shareef, doesn’t even make physical contact with the Qumari Ambassador. Bartlet has always had trouble separating his personal views from his crucial political decisions, and never before must he make such an effort. When the Joint Chiefs present him with a bugged pen to give Shareef, Bartlet refuses to fully commit to their plan, instead deciding that the gift will be, more impersonally, given boxed.
So difficult is Bartlet’s situation, and so far off the legal path does it deviate, that he cannot even confide in his own psychiatrist. In a scene reminiscent of the many Tony/Melfi psychiatry sessions that occurred on The Sopranos, Bartlet comes to the realization that if he informs Dr. Keyworth of his intention to commit a crime, Keyworth is legally obligated to report it. The best he can do is discuss impersonal political issues that also relate to breaking the law for “the greater good” – but even there, illegal contraceptives are a far cry from political assassination.
If this were a fantasy, all would work out well for Bartlet – he’d find a solution that doesn’t involve killing Shareef and his two (likely innocent) bodyguards. But nothing about “Posse Comitatus” allows for such bright fantasy elements – not only must he give the kill-order as planned, but we learn that Shareef even kept the pen on his person, removing it from the box and effectively terminating Bartlet’s last defense mechanism from having to fully commit to killing a man he considers his ally. (The episode plays emotionally with the audience as well – by not having Shareef speak any English, it necessitates a translator between him and Bartlet, and thus keeps us at a certain emotional distance from the seemingly-pleasant Qumari officiate before he goes down in a hail of bullets.)
But perhaps the craftiest non-climax of “Posse Comitatus” is the one that doesn’t center around fatal gunshot wounds. Instead, it’s the one focused on the first-ever meeting between Bartlet and Rob Ritchie. The back half of Season Three has made numerous references to Ritchie, typically painting him as a foolish opponent, hardly someone for the Bartlet administration to be concerned with. This has meshed well with the season’s prevalent overconfidence factor, without impeding on the other, larger season arcs – by having the Bartlet administration dismiss Ritchie as an incompetent, we’ve witnessed the growing difficulties they have with their own side of the campaign ([‘3×12″], “Stirred” [3×17]), as well as how they can unwittingly bait their own traps against their opponent (“The Black Vera Wang” [3×19]).
“Posse Comitatus” plays like a one-sided game of chess between Bartlet and Ritchie, as the former attempts to maintain a sophisticated image, while the latter chooses to go the route of the “everyman”. Toby and Sam lob so many jibes at Ritchie’s mental state that the barbs eventually lose their potency – the impression of the Republican candidate we’re finally left with is of a vapid shell of a man, but only because his opponents do their best to define him so.
But when Ritchie finally shows up onscreen, everything falls into place. Yes, he’s a caricature, and yes, his lack of any real presence or character will prove to be a major problem in Season Four. But here, he works perfectly. With everything we’ve been told about him up to this point, Ritchie should not conceivably be able to sustain a man-to-man conversation with the endlessly showy and intellectual Bartlet. But with the President currently reeling both from the death of one of his Secret Service agents and from having just given the kill-order on Shareef, he’s weak enough that even a lesser intellect like Ritchie is able to step up and make some sizable digs in his chest.
Hurt and angry, Bartlet lets his feelings toward Ritchie be known in a more direct and honest way than in “The US Poet Laureate” [3×16]. “You’ve turned being unengaged into a Zen-like thing,” he tells his opponent, “and you shouldn’t enjoy it so much, is all.” Lack of engagement is one character flaw that Bartlet can’t be held guilty of this season – he’s kept himself emotionally invested in whatever events have transpired in his White House, even as many of his staffers have lost sight of their goals. (If anything, Bartlet cares too much – it’s his sense of commitment to his country, ironically, that has pushed him into agreeing to the assassination plan.)
Ritchie’s insults are simplistic and pedestrian, but they have a ringing truth to them. In his morally questionable state, Bartlet stings from the “You can’t be trusted” line. It’s only when he falls back on responding to Ritchie’s “Crime. Boy, I don’t know” comment (which – one of the few things that does mar the otherwise excellent episode – is one of the single dumbest lines any character on the show has ever uttered) that he’s able to save face with himself. But even that sense of recovered pride doesn’t make it to the end of the episode – the final shot of the season is of Bartlet, having just received the news of Shareef’s death, silhouetted behind a theater curtain: a shadow of his former self.
This, then, is far from an uplifting ending – but it caps off a far-from-uplifting season. Though the later seasons (excepting Season Five) will consciously adapt a more uplifting tone, the aftereffects of Season Three, and particularly of “Posse Comitatus”, will linger far past the final credits.
Resonance is a large factor in understanding why “Posse Comitatus” is such a remarkable finale. That it must follow the standard set by “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] gives it plenty of opportunities to fall short. And indeed, none of the other West Wing finales truly match “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], with only “Posse” and “2162 Votes” [6×22] approaching it. But the fact that it succeeds so well, on so many levels, is testament to the greatness of The West Wing‘s third season.
Last season ended with Bartlet unburdening himself to a roomful of reporters. This season ends with him forced to maintain an entirely new burden. Though the series will have some issues in maintaining consistent characterization and story at times in the later seasons, one thing remains certain: the journey is far from over.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Debbie mixing up her own last name.
+ Debbie meeting the President while stoned.
+ Debbie being played by Lily Tomlin. I just love that woman.
+ The entire Wars of the Roses play is among the most marvelous setpieces to appear on the series. The final scene in particular is beautifully staged and choreographed.
– Although the tone of “Hallelujah” provides good contrast from the more upbeat and resilient War of the Roses tunes, it still feels like a push too far into heavy-handedness. Janney’s performance while it plays compensates, however.