West Wing 4×04: The Red Mass

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin & Eli Attie | Director: Vincent Misiano | Aired: 10/09/2002]

“I don’t know what winning looks like.” – Leo

To the charge that mankind always favored the easy solution, late novelist Charles Bukowski had this to say: “The shortest distance between two points is often unbearable.”

At the risk of alienating some of my less cynically-minded readers, I’m inclined to agree. The “straight line” philosophy has always struck me as too obvious, too simple to be all-encompassing for any necessary situation. Sometimes, I’d argue, it pays to put some extra effort, even if the results will remain relatively unchanged.

That argument would be largely applicable to “The Red Mass” – in more ways than one, as we’ll see. Following the benignly wheel-spinning “College Kids” [4×03], “The Red Mass” throws us fully into the reelection storyline, as all the staffers try their best to gain the most political ground with the least extra work. The direct approach is the best approach – whether it’s CJ cutting their national interaction with Ritchie to a single debate in order to dictate terms, or Bartlet giving the go-ahead to flash-bomb a barricaded terrorist home in order to save the sick little boy inside, or even Charlie getting Anthony to care about politics by simply handing him a copy of the Constitution.

“Just throw strikes!” Josh cries angrily in his first onscreen appearance this episode. He’s referring to his losing baseball team, but the over-simplicity of the statement sets the tone for the episode at large. The Bartlet administration faces a lot of obstacles this episode – two election opponents and two sets of terrorists – yet their impulses are primed for the direct method, combating problems with only the most basic and finely-honed solutions. (I discussed The West Wing‘s penchant for baseball metaphors in my take on “We Killed Yamamoto” [3×20], and the show delivers a nice subversion here by referring to actual baseball.)

Only Sam is portrayed as looking above and beyond the basics. When word reaches the White House that a certain Congressional candidate has just been hospitalized for his fourth heart attack, Sam begins to realize just how poorly the Democratic Party has been mounting new campaigns. Leo’s argument – that certain districts are simply impossible for their party to win – echoes Toby’s from “20 Hours in America (Part I)” [4×01], and it seems perfectly sound when it comes to minor Congressional districts – but Sam isn’t satisfied. “It doesn’t appear as if we’re giving it all we got,” he states in concern.

One character who does appear to be giving it all she’s got, ironically, is Amy Gardner. Fired from her earlier consulting position last season, Amy takes up arms with Howard Stackhouse, who’s got an eye on the Presidential race himself. Josh protests Stackhouse’s efforts, arguing that he’s taking the President’s votes. “They’re not his votes,” Amy shoots back. She has a point, of course – Bartlet must earn all his votes, and that requires more than hoping every Democratic citizen will automatically support him. Amy understands this – as we find out at the end of this episode, she plans to vote for Bartlet herself, and only joined the Stackhouse campaign in order to stimulate the President.

Thematically, there’s a lot going on here about the need of sustaining power. Yet “The Red Mass” never quite clicks as well as it should. A large part of that, ironically, is that the episode itself suffers from the very same problem it afflicts its characters with – the urge to always find the easy route.

It won’t become fully apparent until “Game On” [4×06] and “Election Night” [4×07], but The West Wing‘s reelection arc suffers from some serious dramatic flaws. On the one hand, it’s attempting to build up a major arc to its climax. On the other, it doesn’t put a lot of stock into the dramatic beats of that arc. I’ll go into plenty more detail into the specifics of that issue when we get to those episodes, but the symptoms are apparent even at this relatively early stage – particularly in the episode’s insistence to gloss over what should be important dramatic moments. The entire Teddy Tomba story pivots on Donna’s reaction to his seminar, yet not a moment of the episode is actually spent at the seminar. The issue of Presidential debate is given key focus, but because Ritchie is currently confined to offscreen status, the Bartlet administration winds up simply talking about it to an invisible opponent. Worst of all is the episode’s climax – Bartlet’s speech at the titular Mass we’ve spent so much time building up towards is delivered entirely offscreen, thus robbing us of its subsequent emotional effects.

The third season generally regulated Ritchie to non-entity presence as well, but it succeeded in large part because the drama was focused on the internal struggles of the Bartlet administration at proving themselves capable candidates. With the fourth season shifting the focus more exclusively toward the campaign in general – and with “Posse Comitatus” [3×21] having given us an official taste of the Bartlet/Ritchie rivalry – the story should by dramatic rights make us feel the heat of the campaign; instead, the increased focus just makes it appear more subdued than ever.

So the only solid, onscreen threat we receive comes by way of the aforementioned Stackhouse, a character previously used both memorably and subversively in “The Stackhouse Filibuster” [2×17]. That episode familiarized us with Stackhouse as a stubborn old codger whose firmly cemented views were proven to have a surprisingly human edge. “The Stackhouse Filibuster” [2×17] kept the “grouchy old crank” relegated to the sidelines, more a thematic device than a character we were meant to feel for, and “The Red Mass” starts out well by following it in this mold – as mentioned earlier, Stackhouse and his independent campaign exist in this episode primarily as a catalyst for the material between Josh and Amy. But then the episode makes the awkward mistake of writing Stackhouse directly into the episode’s final few minutes – touched by Bartlet’s speech (you know, the one we never see) at the Red Mass, he decides to drop out of the campaign and endorse the President.

It’s the kind of moment that, in a more firmly plotted and characterized episode, would resonate as an effective commentary on how Bartlet and his administration are on the right track. But because “The Red Mass” gives neither Bartlet’s nor Stackhouse’s campaign pursuit the sort of tension that this scene warrants, it’s a disappointingly ineffectual way to close out the episode.

“The Red Mass” features a number of compelling story threads, and has enough thematic depth distributed between them to make it appreciably entertaining. But like so much else surrounding the reelection arc, it remains emotionally coreless.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Emily asking to use sex as a tactic to take control of the staff’s secretary office.
+ Bartlet offering Casper one of his daughters to thank him for stopping the terrorists.
+ Amy demonstrating her developing skills at making balloon animals. It’s a sweet moment that makes up for the more sexist moments in the episode, like Emily asking to use sex as a tactic or Bartlet offering Casper one of his daughters.


[Score]

B-

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4 thoughts on “West Wing 4×04: The Red Mass”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on February 29, 2016.]

    How do you feel about Anthony, incidentally? I found him and Orlando charming in “Election Night” and irritatingly one-note everywhere else.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 29, 2016.]

    Anthony doesn’t get a whole lot to do prior to “Election Night”, so I never formed a really concrete opinion about him as a character. I do, however, view the briefness of his role as a sign of how the show never seemed to know what to do with Charlie in its later seasons.

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  3. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on February 29, 2016.]

    My big disappointment with the re-election arc is that Ritchie never really makes an entrance as a proper character; he’s just a stock opponent who exists out of necessity and rarely appears. We don’t learn much about who he is, what he stands for, or why he represents a credible threat to Bartlet. I can only assume that this was purposeful on Sorkin’s part for whatever reason, but I vastly preferred Wells’ approach to the election cycle.

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  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 29, 2016.]

    Agreed. And you’ve nailed the basic issue of the reelection arc, although I think the crux of it is a lot deeper.

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