[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, William Sind, & Michael Oates Palmer | Director: Paris Barclay | Aired: 10/16/2002]
“You pay for these things for such a long time.” – Bartlet
The differences between the average politician and the standard television writer are vast and varying. One would not think to put the two on the same logistical level – certainly, both are experts at spinning lengthy stories that make you believe things they’ve entirely manufactured, but little else between them feels like common ground.
But there is one crucial aspect which both TV scriptwriters and US Congressmen must both contend with – a little something referred to in common circles as “the illusion of change”. In the standard television script, characters are put through challenging and life-changing events, but – up until a few years ago – it was uncommon for their supposed personal transformations to linger past a single episode. Politicians have their own “illusions of change” to constantly deal with – they spend millions of dollars working to boost the goals of their respective party in ways they hope to be permanent, only for the opposition to take control and turn things in the other direction at the very first chance they get.
The most notable political “illusion”, of course, is the Presidency – one party can elect the leader of their choice and enjoy his power for the next four to eight years, but then the other party has the opportunity to take control of the White House for their own gains. It’s a clash of powers designed to encourage constant debate and disagreement, even if most of the “permanent” changes ultimately go out the window. (In a strange way, art unintentionally imitated life in the case of television writers: Aaron Sorkin held a four-year term in charge of The West Wing, before he was essentially voted out and replaced with John Wells, who eventually turned the series into a very different – though still intriguing – show.)
The idea that a President can generate permanent change – that he can leave a legacy which won’t be swept under the rug, that he can make his mark on history going forward – is what makes the fragility of election season so palpable and intriguing to watch. And it’s precisely what sets “Debate Camp” above and apart from every other episode in Season Four’s reelection arc.
The plot is deceptively simple: In order to prepare Bartlet for his upcoming sole debate with Ritchie, the staffers seclude him on a North Carolinian farm where he can take the time to learn the skills and rhythms of proper debate. But little emphasis is put on the debate preparation itself – like so much else about this arc, it glosses over the competitive aspects of the reelection in general. But whereas “The Red Mass” [4×04] and “Game On” [4×06] unwisely structure themselves dramatically around the very competitive aspects they leave undeveloped, “Debate Camp” shifts the focus to internal issues, posing the question: Has the Bartlet administration caused change, or merely the illusion of change?
The episode feeds its messages by paralleling the present with the past. In flashback, we witness a fledgling administration, newly elected into the White House and attempting to acclimate to a first-class environment. The staffers go back and forth on a potential Attorney General who seems to be a good professional fit, but raised some public eyebrows with his views on racial profiling. The staffers do not want to begin their term on the wrong foot, and after attempting to bandy the word “justice” around until it turns into salesman puffery, they quickly change their mind about the appointing. This underscores just how nervous the administration was in the early going – in the pre-Season One days, they had barely a leg to stand on, having been elected into office against the popular vote and losing some high-minded friends along the way.
There’s an air of gravitas around the proceedings in those flashback sequences, as the staffers all devote their minds to making the transition to the White House as fluid and seamless as possible. Toby, for instance, balks at his wife’s current plan to have kids – “Shouldn’t we talk about a stop-date?” he asks. CJ attempts to avoid addressing issues with the religious right, even after a Christian group sets a calendar day aside to pray for her. (Though as we learn, those prayers are in motivated by the fact that the Evangelicals that she’s going to Hell, so maybe she did the right thing in not associating with them.)
The only character, in fact, who treats the transition with a healthy dose of humor is Donna. A relative outsider compared to the upper staffers, the young and inexperienced Donna seems extra-bubbly when she unwittingly gives a teen-magazine interview about the White House. But her apparent incompetence masks a cunning desire to lessen the intensity that the administration is now burdened with. The elaborate prank she plays on Josh is funny in its own right, but it also demonstrates that the White House doesn’t have to be an entirely somber and ultra-serious place.
Contrast this with the present day, where everyone appears to be taking things a little too lightly. At the camp, Bartlet takes the mock debate none too seriously, the other staffers lightly tease Toby about his relationship with Andy, and there’s even an old camp song around the dinner table. Four years older and (supposedly) wiser, the Bartlet administration feels more at ease with its political standing, and most of the staffers bask in a more lighthearted glow.
And yet… how much has the administration really grown? At several points in this episode, four-year-old history is drudged up, and not to very flattering effect. Bartlet is still finicky over his rejection of the original Attorney General nominee – “Bite me” is his response when asked about it during the mock debate – and Toby’s standing with Andy is more problematic than ever, as he unsuccessfully attempts to woo her into remarrying him. (That Toby has gotten Andy pregnant is a rather abrupt and contrived revelation – an issue I’ll be detailing more in later reviews.) On top of that, we have Josh so intimidated by some potential debate questions that he coerces Amy into feeding Bartlet the best responses. The staffers may see the camp as an opportunity to bring out the best in Bartlet, but very little of what occurs there brings out the best in any of them.
All, that is, save Sam. In recent episodes, Sam has emerged as the most diligent of the staffers, working more closely with Bartlet (“20 Hours in America (Part I)” [4×01]) and concerning himself with the more obscure aspects of the electoral cycle. Season Three hinted at Sam being a younger version of Bartlet, and these early Season Four episodes follow up nicely. “Were you doing me just then?” Bartlet asks him when the two go head-to-head in the mock debate. Sam’s concern with the declining health of Horton Wilde – who dies by the episode’s end – is indicative of how Bartlet has influenced him to support any cause he believes in, no matter how futile. Sam may have fun in joining his fellow staffers in their rendition of a Latin camp song, but he acknowledges the serious translation of the lyrics – remind you of anyone else on this show who’s fluent in Latin?
Sam, in fact, is more Bartlet-y than even Bartlet himself this episode. As mentioned earlier, the President doesn’t take the debate camp very seriously. He also gets high-strung at the idea of losing his home state of New Hampshire in the general election, and he doesn’t invest himself very firmly into the increasingly-mounting tensions between Israel and Qumar. Leo tries convincing him to take the offensive route, but Bartlet’s sarcastic tone (“Honey, if we’re going to have this fight, can we not do it in front of the Joint Chiefs?”) suggests that, even after four years, he still has trouble making the call on international issues.
The final conversation between Bartlet and Sam allows the former to unburden his concerns on his young protégé. “We made a mistake,” Bartlet says in reference to his four-year-old decision regarding the Attorney General. “I corrected it. I’ll make more.” To Bartlet, there’s no escaping the inevitability of blunder, so he’s come to accept it with all its consequences. But Sam puts things in a more positive perspective: “We expect the President to face the world in his own way, for his own time.”
For his own time. That one simple statement captures the mortality of the Presidency, as well as the struggle each President faces to leave his own indelible mark on the country before it’s time to leave office. Although “Debate Camp” suffers from some of the same problems as the other reelection episodes – the drama, to an extent, is still contextually based around the frustrating non-entity that is Robert Ritchie – it shows a sense of maturity and awareness that elevates it above its episodic peers. Though the reelection arc as a whole is the most hurtfully-botched opportunity in all of The West Wing, take comfort in the fact that for at least one episode, it got things right.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Bartlet humorously contemplating suicide while at the camp.
+ CJ memorizing the names of the Briefing Room reporters.
+ The final (sniff) appearance of Mrs. Landingham.
+ Bartlet thinking that the door to Leo’s office actually leads to a closet.
+ Amy providing narration during her bike ride.