[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
I love dark dramas. I really do. Despite my insistence to retain a sunny outlook on the world at large, there’s something very intriguing about a show that’s willing to look at the harsher side of humanity, to remind us that the world is a two-sided coin, and that we must understand the evil of humanity in order to fully appreciate the good. At their best, shows like The Sopranos, The Shield, and Breaking Bad (to name the obvious choices) ushered viewers into a world that was unfamiliar to the casual soul, yet at the same time hauntingly real.
The West Wing is not a dark drama by trade, introducing us to a world that is, if anything, brighter and cheerier than the one we’re typically used to. In a way, however, this makes it just as commendable as television’s more unsettling dramas, and perhaps even more so – in the antihero landscape that’s dominated much of 21st-century television, it’s no small feat to maintain thrilling and thought-provoking drama while remaining positive and optimistic.
In truth, however, I would not classify The West Wing as predominantly cheerful and optimistic. Sure, it’s got plenty of good humor and a breezy atmosphere, and there’s a buoyancy present in the show (particularly the early episodes) that was absent from the dramas airing on HBO at that time. But looking at the show as a whole, there’s a lot of moral seriousness and disquiet buried beneath the “smart politicians” vibe that sold the series. And no season better exemplifies the show’s penchant for darker, more discomforting material than Season Three.
As I mentioned in my review of “War Crimes” [3×05], The West Wing at its darkest is still nowhere near the standard shades-of-grey storytelling that drives your typical antihero drama. But that the show is capable of crafting such moral uncertainties is a key point to understanding not just this season, but the series at large.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the show’s thoughtful, engaging – and yes, relatively dark – third season.
- Development pains in the face of real-world events.
- The unceremonious dropping of several story threads.
Though I’m quick to defend Season Three to the many who would call it the worst of the show’s Sorkin years, I must still admit that it has its rough edges. Even avoiding any direct comparisons with the uniformly stellar Season Two, there are still a few issues with this season that must be addressed before we get to the good stuff.
The shadow of 9/11, of course, looms over Season Three, putting the show into the unenviable position of promoting a good, pristine political climate to a world that features anything but. The West Wing attempts to simultaneously have its cake and eat it, and only occasionally succeeds, resulting in such misfires as the preachy and non-canonical “Isaac and Ishmael” [3×00] and the anvilicious “The Women of Qumar” [3×08]. Episodes like “Night Five” [3×13] feature subplots that play into moralistic issues which feel right for the real-world climate, but fly in the face of what we know about the show’s internal universe.
The later seasons will feature less talk of terrorists and Islamic extremism, albeit the issues will not be entirely dispelled. (Season Four will attempt to return the show to a more innocent state, but Season Five will veer it back into more realistic territory.) To that end, I can forgive the third season of The West Wing for not being prepared to deal with the world-changing events that occurred before and during its airtime, even if I concede that there were still simpler, less heavy-handed ways to maintain its integrity.
I’m a bit less forgiving, however, of the season’s more-than-occasional habit of dropping plots that feel incomplete, as well as picking up story threads for no apparent reason. One of the strongest assets of Season Two was its consistency – from “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part I)” [2×01] through “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], there was a linear progression of story, character, and theme. There’s some of that this season, too, but to a more inconsistent degree: Characters like Ainsley Hayes and John Hoynes pop up when the plot demands them, and Amy Gardner, while likable, proves ultimately to be a byproduct of Josh’s arc this season, never really coming into her own as a character. (Thankfully, she will grow more interesting in Season Four.) Episodes like “The Indians in the Lobby” [3×07] and “The US Poet Laureate” [3×16] don’t add a whole lot to the overall narrative, nor do they feel fully integrated into the stories around them. Structurally, this season feels less fully-formed than its predecessor, and it seems as though some minor tweaking and tightening of a few story threads could have easily made the ride smoother.
But despite the bumps, there are a lot of things Season Three does get right. Such as…
- Continued development of central characters.
- Darker and (at times) more psychological stories.
- Complex exploration of themes.
- An engaging second half overall.
- “Bartlet for America” [3×09], “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14], and “Posse Comitatus” [3×21]
Though the execution is overall less consistent than Season Two’s, the third season features some fascinating character and thematic material that keeps the show as riveting as ever. Character arcs – particularly those of Bartlet, CJ, and Donna – continue to move in interesting directions, deepening both our understanding and appreciation of the ensemble. The stories and overall tone are decidedly grimmer than that of the first two seasons, reflecting the changing American climate but also the darker themes the season explores.
As mentioned numerous times in the episode reviews, Season Three is basically the thematic inverse of Season Two: whereas that season celebrated the use of idealistic power, this season displays its various downsides – particularly overconfidence, a trait which afflicts the Bartlet administration many times throughout the season. “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] could be read as the purest, most confident resolution to a story about what the most powerful people in the world could do if they set their minds to it; conversely, it could be interpreted as the first in several boundary oversteps that said people would make in the following year. Much of what we witness the Bartlet administration go through this season is a product of overconfidence; at other times, it is the product of hypocrisy. Our heroes fall victim to the very traps they lay for their opponents, and as they are continually placed under scrutiny and surveillance – be it due to the MS scandal or personalized death threats – their weaknesses come into more focus than ever.
Structurally, Season Three takes some time to build up a consistent head of steam, but once it gets past “The Women of Qumar” [3×08] (the first of eight West Wing episodes that I would define as actively bad), it surges forth with a full head of steam. Three episodes stand out in particular: the tear-jerking “Bartlet for America” [3×09], which simultaneously puts the immortal Bartlet/Leo friendship on a pedestal and beneath a microscope; the complex “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14], which provides more psychological insight into its protagonist with each viewing; and the spectacular “Posse Comitatus” [3×21], which sends the season out in remarkable style, both thematically and emotionally.
Season Three may not be Season Two’s equal, but it’s incredibly close, featuring strong writing, stories, themes, and characters. And ah, yes, what of those characters? Read on…
Once again, it begins with Bartlet. Though the end of last season found him seemingly rebuilt into a more confident man than ever, Season Three demonstrates that the President still has more than his fair share of vulnerabilities. But despite the cracks that form in Bartlet’s seemingly impenetrable exterior when playing chess with Toby or having a sit-down with Dr. Keyworth, he is still the strongest-minded character on the show. Though his staffers may be lost and stumbling in the wake of the MS scandal, Bartlet remains steadfastly attached to his ideals – until the season finale, when he must make a decision that flies in the face of his Presidential morals.
It is Leo who convinces Bartlet to make that decision, continuing the pragmatic streak that has defined him since the show’s early days. Leo’s strength of character is put more to the test than ever this season – his showcase episode, “Bartlet for America” [3×09], reveals both the weaknesses of his character while also spotlighting his eternal friendship with Bartlet. Leo does have his moments of levity this season – his scenes with romantic interest Jordan are relatively fun – but even those moments underscore just how terrible his surrounding elements have become.
Josh has a slightly better year than his boss – whereas Season Two dealt with his PTSD, Season Three takes him on a less-psychological tack, pairing him with the staunch feminist pundit Amy Gardner. The Josh/Amy romance makes for one of the season’s more uneven story threads, but it does put Josh in some more interestingly compromising positions than he’d been in during earlier seasons. Josh’s attempts to balance his job with his girlfriend prove to have toxic results – like his fellow staffers this season, he simply puts too much on his plate at once.
Sam, in fact, is among the few regulars who doesn’t seem to be doing enough this season. This can be in part due to the fact that, of all the Bartlet staffers, he comes the closest to understanding the President’s vision, and is most capable of following in his footsteps. But it could also be due to the fact that Sam simply doesn’t get a whole lot of great storylines this season – they’re typically detached from the major goings-on, and usually deal with less-than-pressing matters. (Rob Lowe was the only castmember not to gain any Emmy attention for this season – his insistence on submitting himself in the Lead Actor category didn’t help his case, but it’s not as though he had a whole lot of material to impress them with.)
Toby, conversely, gets some wonderful material this season – his position as Bartlet’s most trusted adviser becomes more compromising than ever. Bartlet is ripe for psychoanalysis this year, and psychoanalyzing is – much to the President’s chagrin – what Toby does best. The tension between the two of them peaks at the middle of the season, when Toby brings up Bartlet’s past in order to ease him into the future. Never the embodiment of tact, however, Toby only drives the President into self-doubt, leading to a rather dark and fascinating midseason stretch. For his own part, many of Toby’s actions this season stem from his blinding need to simply get results, regardless of how well those results measure up to his ideals.
CJ does not have to deal with as focused and concentrated a level of politics as Toby does, but her broader range of work proves her undoing. The Season Three premiere features her taking her power in the press briefing room too far, and the final arc features another thread that begins when she decides to controversially speak her mind. That final arc portrays CJ as more human than ever, as her relationship with Simon Donovan takes on some rather unprofessional shades. But alas, Season Three refuses to allow any of its characters true happiness for very long, and CJ ends the finale as hurt and broken as anyone else in the show.
Compared to nearly every other character, in fact, Charlie gets off pretty lightly. More than ever, we witness just how fiercely loyal the young Presidential aide is to Bartlet, as well as how determined he is to make sure that no one intervenes with his authority. (See his ever-escalating prank war with CJ in “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14].) Charlie will, regrettably, be shunted to the sidelines in later seasons, his only prominent storylines revolving around his on-and-off relationship with Zoey. But it’s important to acknowledge the role he played in the show’s early years, even if he never rose to the prominence of most of the other regulars.
Speaking of rising in prominence, Donna gets some major development this season. Through her relationship with Cliff Calley, we see that she is indeed capable of carrying her own storylines, and later episodes continue to seamlessly integrate her into the show’s major folds for reasons beyond “Janel Moloney is awesome”. The will-they-won’t-they aspect of her relationship with Josh is shelved for much of this season – instead, Donna proves that she can be interesting even when she’s not trading barbs with her loudmouthed boss.
Also proving herself more interesting than we may have anticipated: Abbey, continuing her development as a necessary piece of the show’s mythos. With her crucial role – as both First Lady and doctor – during the MS scandal arc, Abbey begins to feel more like a White House insider, and though she’s largely absent from the back half of the season, “Dead Irish Writers” [3×15] proves that she can sustain her own episode as well as anyone else in the cast.
Season Three boasts a remarkable assembly of characters, who remain eminently watchable through even the slowest stretches, thanks in great part to the continually talented cast. (Allison Janney, John Spencer, and Stockard Channing all won Emmys for the season, and the latter two actually submitted good episodes.) No matter how heavy the drama, these characters continue to develop in interesting ways and maintain a distinct air of likability all the while.
In recent years, Aaron Sorkin has expressed disappointment with the way Season Three turned out. He cites the difficulties in sustaining an engaging and idealistic White House in such a dark real-world climate, and feels that the end result was ultimately messy and unsuccessful.
But you know what? I disagree with the man who created the show. No, Season Three isn’t perfect, and it does indeed struggle at times to find an acceptable tonal balance. But the characters are as fascinating as ever, the stories continually surprising, and the themes among the most fascinating the show ever explored. Season Three of The West Wing may not be as easily and comfortably digestible as the first two, but the show has more than earned its viewers’ faith by this point, and it more than delivers on its promise.
Still and all, I’m aware that mine is not the majority opinion, as many fans prefer the lighter and breezier Season Four. That season, at least, has some promising ideas, and it does feature some fresh and new angles from which to explore the show’s continued messages of measuring and balancing power. But too often, Season Four fails to –
Whoops. I think I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll begin discussing the pros and cons of Season Four in my next review. See you then.