[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 09/25/2002]
“I’m a puzzle.” – Bartlet
Making onscreen appearances at irregular intervals throughout “20 Hours in America” is a list of scheduling points, chronicling the President’s activities throughout the day. The points are brief, direct – and highly unusual. The West Wing does not typically go to such extremes as to list its plot developments, beat-by-beat, before they occur; more often, it breezes from one event to the next and expects its viewers to simply keep up.
But there’s a special distinction reserved for “20 Hours in America”, an episode that manages to plumb meaningful drama from this seemingly routine schedule. Bartlet, as of late, has been having memory issues, to the point that he may not be able to keep up with a complex daily timetable. In featuring periodic blurbs listing Bartlet’s daily meets-and-greets, the episode shows us just how eventful his day is – and how overwhelmed he feels by all of it.
In the teaser sequence for Part II, for example, Bartlet is shown getting cold feet before a seemingly harmless photo op. Still uneasy over the prospect of the plummeting Dow, Bartlet doesn’t feel as though simple photo ops have a place on that day’s schedule – particularly not when one such photo op drudges up a rather unfortunate superstition.
The comment Bartlet makes to Muriel Keith about President Truman – “You shook hands with him, and the next day the Great Depression started” – is an excellent theme-setter for the episode. On one level, it underscores how uneasy and overwhelmed Bartlet is by his daily schedule, to the point that he’s begun to visualize bad omens. On another, it plays up Bartlet’s inflated ego (The “Great Depression” comment feels almost spiteful, as it comes in response to Keith stating that he preferred meeting Truman over Bartlet), which, as we know from Part I, is getting a lot of attention and care from his staff.
Those two levels coalesce at various points in “20 Hours in America” – such as anytime Sam is shown helplessly trying to keep Bartlet’s schedule on point. But said schedule is indicative of a much larger picture: The need of the President to always be on top of things, to lay out events in a timely order and always know when to handle them. It’s not merely Deborah Fiderer’s sense of humor and loyalty that convince Bartlet to hire her as his new personal secretary (although those are certainly important factors) – it’s also her uncanny memory. Though he’s generally an egotist, Bartlet acknowledges this one mental weakness, and Debbie is just the kind of woman to compensate for it.
Bartlet’s attempts at compensating for his failing memory stresses the larger message of Season Four – cracks are beginning to form in the formerly pristine surface of his administration, and he sets his mind to returning it to his former luster. Season Three put our characters in a position of weakness it had never seen before – when Bartlet accepted the Congressional censure to resolve the MS scandal at the end of “H. Con-172” [3×10], it rebranded the White House as a governmental weak link. But now, Bartlet is once again on the offensive, taking action to regain and retain his power, in all senses of the word. (This is also why he refuses to let the Joint Chiefs take any fall for him should Qumar grow suspicious – as he explains to Nancy, Fitz, and Leo, “I stand by you all.”)
That Bartlet is breaking away from the set Presidential schedule is as sure a sign as any that he wants to regain his personal authority. But that’s not to say the primary purpose of the episode is to decry schedules in general. (We get a positive example of a character making use of a daily timetable when Charlie, finally agreeing to take up the mantle of Big Brother to Anthony, informs the young man of his own daily routine, and instructs him to follow it: “You can got to juvey, or you can be at Cosmo’s 9:00 on Saturday morning.”) It’s to demonstrate just how much our characters want to stay in control of their actions and decisions.
“I need information,” Josh fumes. “I need to know what’s happening in the world!” He, Toby, and Donna are still a world away from the political field, trapped in a Middle America that doesn’t seem to care much for the campaign. Unfortunately, as Donna comes to realize, Josh and Toby still care entirely too much, and when debating with the locals breeds no fruit, they settle for debating with one another, through arguments that quickly turn rudimentary and circular. (Before long, they’ve begun debating religious politics, fighting for Semitic superiority.)
To its credit, “20 Hours in America” never fully commits to its road-trip comedy elements, maintaining a sense of humor between its three stranded leads while never allowing the comedy to override the story’s more dramatic undertones. And so, when – without warning – the episode takes a sudden dark turn, it doesn’t feel abrupt or manipulative. It’s shocking, of course, to learn of a terrorist attack occurring in The West Wing‘s America, but the new development quickly takes hold of the story.
Now a year removed from 9/11, Sorkin is able to address the nation’s fears and concerns more directly, and if Bartlet’s speech is not very subtle in its implications, it at least reminds us that the dark cloud which hung over much of the show’s third season has still not entirely dissipated. “Every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge,” Bartlet addresses a somber crowd, “we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.” It’s an inspiring statement on its own, but it also leaves us wondering: Is the capacity of our characters indeed as limitless as they like to think?
Playing over the soundtrack as Josh, Toby, and Donna watch the speech on live television is Tori Amos’ cover of “I Don’t Like Mondays”, a song Donna alluded to briefly in Part I. The context of the song – itself reportedly inspired by a senseless act of violence – touches on a sense of hard reality that permeated much of the third season of the series, but also a sense of fragility that ushers us into the fourth.
Donna recognizes fragility in a way that Josh and Toby don’t. Not being nearly as politically-minded as either of them, she recognizes the basic humanity in rural America more easily, and tells them as much. “Eight modes of transportation,” she says, “the kindness of six strangers, random conversations with twelve more, and nobody brought up Bartlet versus Ritchie but you.” Toby and Josh have been so busy arguing over the bigger picture that they’ve neglected the very individuals they’re trying to help.
Of the two, Toby has been the greater offender – his comments about the pointlessness of campaigning in a pro-Ritchie state display his blatantly straightforward views of American voters. But Donna’s words at last make him wonder if he hasn’t been viewing the campaign from the wrong angle. In a brief conversation he has with bar patron Matt Kelley, Toby at last decides not to lead with a discussion of politics. Instead, he has a heart-to-heart with the man, who’s trying his best to send his daughter to college. “It should be hard. I like that it’s hard,” Kelley says. “But it should be a little easier… ‘Cause in that difference is everything.” Kelley doesn’t want the world on a silver platter – he understands the importance and gratification of effort – but he realistically understands that each individual wouldn’t mind their life just a little easier. He talks as one, but speaks for all.
Out of this simple discussion about public school and piano lessons comes an honest opportunity for Toby to bring up his standing in the White House. The state of Indiana may not favor of Bartlet, but that doesn’t mean the people can’t change their opinions – if they’re given reason to.
And the Bartlet staffers aim to give them reason. Season Four, as we will see, will feature our characters attempting to regain their optimism as they aim for a second term in office. They will struggle to regain their footing in the government, and keep a firmer hold on it than they did before. But it’s important for us to remember where the season starts: With three staffers, as far away from the power and influence of the White House as they could fear, experiencing the world of the everyman, and carrying some of its influence back with them. The sight of Josh, Toby, and Donna willingly making the last leg of their journey on foot, heading toward the White House with no need for luxurious conveniences, is an image to remember long after the final credits roll.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ “Your troubles end 98 miles right down that track.” (Train begins moving in opposite direction.)
+ Nancy referring to Fitzwallace as “Admiral Sissymary”.
+ Margaret comparing a cooking show to soft porn.
+ I still don’t really care for Mallory, but her jokingly calling Sam “Schmutzy-pants” is pretty amusing.
– Less amusing is Bruno jokingly calling Sam a “freak” for writing part of Bartlet’s speech in the car. It’s an awkward moment of comedy to end an extremely non-comedic scene.
* Kelley asks Toby, “You got kids?” Toby hesitates a moment before answering “…No.” The West Wing rarely uses genuinely intentional foreshadowing, but this one qualifies. Knowing that his ex-wife is pregnant and that he’ll someday have to support his own kids is another push for Toby to hear this man out and sympathize enough to try helping him.