West Wing 4×07: Election Night

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, David Gerken, and David Handelman | Director: Lesli Linka Glatter | Aired: 11/06/2002]

“Is there any suspense at all today?” – Steve

I have no idea how to read someone’s palm. Tea leaves hold no inner meaning for me. My Magic 8-Ball has been gathering dust on the attic shelf for many a year, and there’s little chance I will ever get the sort of prescient newspaper subscription that blessed Gary on Early Edition.

Still, I don’t need extra-sensory powers to predict that this is going to be a very short review, possibly the briefest I’ve ever written for this website. Part of the reason can be attributed to the fact that I’ve covered most of the issues with the reelection arc’s climax in my review of “Game On” [4×06], and part can simply be blamed on the fact that, even on its own, “Election Night” offers very little in the way of substantial analysis.

“Election Night”, to its credit, is not quite as insulting as “Game On” [4×06] – it’s still not a good episode, mind you, but it lacks the innate cluelessness of its predecessor. The problem is that it barely contains any real dramatic weight. With the election apparently branded a foregone conclusion, the episode simply coasts along, biding time until the final scene, when Bartlet can deliver his victory speech. “Election Night” isn’t a truly bad episode, but with no stakes holding the story in place, it is a very boring one.

Oh, there are moments of charm to be found: Debbie establishing her presence as the new Executive Secretary by lording her power over Josh, Charlie encouraging Anthony’s friend Orlando to vote for the first time, and Donna’s Meet Cute with Jack Reese. (Reese isn’t a particularly deep or interesting character, but it’s nice to see Sorkin add another likable Republican to the show, especially now that Ainsley has more or less vacated to Mandyland.) We also get more material with Will, whose development here is so ludicrous (he practically makes it rain at his command) that it almost justifies the way Team Wells chose to dial his idealism back several notches in Season Five.

There are certainly amusing subplots throughout the episode, but none of them stick dramatically, because the center of “Election Night” is too vapid and hollow to support any strong supplemental development. Josh and Toby fret over the chance possibility that Ritchie could still emerge victorious, but their concerns are played for comedy – at this point, even the show itself is treating the reelection as a joke. There’s some drama shoehorned in about Bartlet’s relapsing MS, but it’s so downplayed that it barely registers into the story at all.

I’m struggling to come up with anything worth really talking about with regards to this episode, especially since I already joked about thematic redundancy in my take on “College Kids” [4×03]. I suppose the final scene demands mention. After delivering his victory speech, Bartlet has a brief exchange with Abbey about his MS, which temporarily prevented him from seeing the teleprompter. “It’s going to be harder this time,” Abbey tells him. “We can still have tonight, though, right?” Bartlet responds with a smile. It almost seems like – for the briefest of moments – Sorkin is acknowledging how completely tepid this early Season Four arc has been, and that we should enjoy ourselves in the moment before things start to get more intense.

(It’d be easier to buy into that if the next few episodes fully returned the show to its former greatness. Sadly, they do not. But those are criticisms for another time.)


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ The teaser sequence is an unnecessary follow-up to the already-problematic teaser to “Game On” [4×06]. Still, Josh’s exasperated “YES!” at the end always makes me laugh.
+ Similarly – despite the poor context – Toby’s “Tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing” line is always worth a smile.
+ Andy: “Hey, sports fans, this is getting exciting.”
+ Toby taking Josh’s suggestion to bribe the hospital nurse.
+ Orlando getting so excited about voting that he tries to do it twice.

– Everything about the “You’re gonna win New Hampshire” scene, particularly the unnecessarily serious buildup. Blech.


* Toby speculates that he and Andy will be married on Christmas. As we’ll see shortly in “Holy Night” [4×11], that holiday holds more significance to him than that line would assume.



19 thoughts on “West Wing 4×07: Election Night”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on March 21, 2016.]

    The problem is that it barely contains any real dramatic weight.

    I feel like this episode is very much reminiscent of the bubbly episodes of the first season that don’t quite earn their dramatic weight– “The Crackpots and These Women.” I have a hard time seeing why you’re rating it so much lower than any of the lightweight S1 episodes.


  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 21, 2016.]

    Because the potential stakes in this episode are much, much higher than those of the lightweight episodes of Season One. Episodes like “The Crackpots and These Women” earn the right to be laid-back and frivolous; episodes like “Election Night” do not.


  3. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on March 21, 2016.]

    “potential stakes”

    That election was a real nail-biter, yep. I had no idea whether Jed Bartlet would win in a landslide, or whether he would lose and quit politics, at which point the show would devolve into a domestic drama where Toby helped CJ deal with her father’s dementia.


  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 21, 2016.]

    By “potential stakes”, I mean the stakes that should have existed in this episode, had Sorkin not decided to forgo any attempts at turning the reelection arc into anything dramatic or meaningful, and instead made it into a bloated, one-dimensional, potshot-riddled storyline simply because “Well, Bartlet’s gotta win anyway!”

    “President fighting for reelection” should not be treated with the same lack of seriousness as “CJ fighting for Pluie the Wolf.”

    (I’m not sure why you’re arguing here, actually. I think we went through this already in the comments section for “Game On.”)


  5. [Note: Tori posted this comment on March 23, 2016.]

    Yeah, there’s means of establishing stakes even if you’re pretty certain what the end result will be. Like sure, the Hero will probably beat the Antagonist, but how many of their companions will die along the way? Will they become a worse person, and lose their way morally?

    By the same token, the writers should’ve put the stakes on whether or not some of Bartlet’s trusted staff are liabilities for the ticket, and if he can stay true to his virtues. Hell, they could’ve had an interesting Democratic primary arc, wherein President Bartlet and his team faces a charismatic, well-respected and sincere opponent without his baggage. The gang struggles with whether or not their pursuit of the presidency despite the MS scandal and Hoynes’ disgraceful resignation hanging over them is an egotistical, selfish quest for power, or if they’re really the best candidates for the job. Perhaps they could bring up some of the consequential legislation that the party wants to pass, and that some Senators and Representatives want Bartlet to stand down in the face of the seemingly superior candidate because they fear that not only will the Democrats not get the necessary majorities in both houses, but they’ll in fact lose seats even if Bartlet ultimately wins.

    I could go on with how you can make meaningful drama and stakes even if the conclusion of the overall plot is pretty clear, but more than anything, the writers squandered this opportunity, and it’s bad not only for these episodes but the entire series. The possibility of losing an election is the real life source of tension when following any politician you happen to like. “Oh no, President Reagan/Clinton/Bush/Obama is facing this, will he be able to fight another day? Will the party be able to make meaningful contributions to my preferred agenda if this scandal or that seizes the public imagination?”

    But if the show’s response is, “Don’t worry, Bartlet can defeat any opponent with ease”, it undercuts the dramatic tension for the entire series.


  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 23, 2016.]

    Well said. If the arc had taken on some of the ideas you mentioned, I would probably look upon it a lot more favorably.


  7. [Note: KB posted this comment on April 13, 2016.]

    Just a note to say I’m watching West Wing again for the first time since it’s original run. After each episode or so I read reviews. I am really enjoying your review. They are outstanding and I Airbuses how you interact with commenters. BUT I never looked at the dates and u just finished watching ‘Process Stories.’ I come here primed by the review of ‘Election Night’ for a rehashing of everything and… I’ve caught up! Oh my…
    Will check back frequently. Really, thank you.


  8. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on April 13, 2016.]

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m a little backed up by real-life matters right now, but I hope to have “Process Stories” reviewed within the next week or two.

    Also, don’t mind Scott. He’s silly.


  9. [Note: etter posted this comment on April 25, 2016.]

    Nah. Incumbents tend to win, significantly; having it be a nail-biter demands Bartlet be a terrible president. Well, they could have managed that. They didn’t do that. I’m okay with that. I enjoyed the stories that they did tell. You wish they’d told a very different one. Eh.


  10. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on April 25, 2016.]

    The story didn’t need to make Bartlet a terrible President; it just needed to make Ritchie a less-terrible opponent. Bartlet has faced many political challenges over the years, but the show still credibly portrays him as an admirable politician.

    And I don’t so much wish they’d told a different story than I wish the story they had told us was the same as the story they were claiming to tell us. (The characters talk a lot about how Ritchie is a strong opponent and a great debater, but nothing we see onscreen suggests this.)


  11. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on April 26, 2016.]

    But isn’t Josiah Bartlet kind of a terrible president? I think the implication is that he’s kind of a filler commander-in-chief; Alex could probably explain much better than I could.


  12. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on April 27, 2016.]

    Thanks for the compliment Bosc. 🙂 I’ll take you up on that.

    Bartlet is not a *terrible* President per se, but he’s definitely not Mount Rushmore material either, no matter how hard his loyal staffers might protest otherwise. The show’s writers obviously intended to portray him as a really great leader – the ultimate fantasy POTUS – but if Jed was a real life politician, historians would totally rank him as a mediocrity.

    Part of this is simply an accident of the writers being bad at math. The show often brags about how many millions of jobs the American economy is creating under Bartlet, with the obvious implication that Jed’s amazing skillz as an economist have created a golden age of prosperity. Unfortunately, because the dialogue attaches a specific number to this record several times, we know that it’s hollow boasting. Even when he’s literally defending his record to God, he can’t cover up that the economy was creating less than 90,000 jobs each month of his presidency – far less than the country needs just to keep up with population growth. So even if Bartlet hadn’t been caught concealing MS, he should have struggled mightily to be reelected while defending his dismal economic record.

    Defenders of Bartlet would probably interject at this point that he can’t really be blamed for presiding over a stagnant economy. He was hobbled through all eight years of his administration by a radical Republican majority in Congress. Surely Bartlet and his team deserve enormous credit for holding the line against the Republicans’ repeated attempts to enact giant tax cuts for the wealthy and savage cuts to funding for health, education and scientific research, right?

    Well sure, but this just brings me to the next point: that Bartlet was a horrible party leader. By his own admission he basically pissed away his entire first year in office doing nothing but chasing centrist bona fides – and lost much of his credibility among his own supporters in the process. After an awesome pep talk from Leo (“Let Bartlet be Bartlet”) he gets his mojo back, but instead of using his newfound political capital to try win a friendly majority in Congress, he spends the entire midterm election obsessing about a guy he hates winning his hometown’s school district, and blows it. Then the MS scandal errupts, and while I know that we’re supposed to be on Jed’s side as fights to save his presidency, it does have to be admitted that the nay-sayers have a point: he well and truly ****ed over his party with that revelation. Bartlet’s actions in prioritizing his own self-actualization (he needs to salvage his presidency so he can prove to Mrs. Landingham that he’s stronger than his inner demons) instead of falling on his sword for the great good, arguably represents egocentric selfishness on a scale that would make Tony Soprano blush.

    Even when faced with an intractable opposition, a President still has the ability to achieve historic greatness by using his office as a platform to focus the nation’s attention and educate the electorate about critically important issues, and promote visionary policies that reshape the national agenda and lay the groundwork for future generations of leadership. Alas, despite a commendable desire to start a conversation by “running into walls”, the Bartlet presidency was a failure in this regard. What was the Bartlet plan to ensure universal access to health care? Or the Bartlet plan to combat global warming? What did President Bartlet do to close the education gap between poor and rich children? Or to ensure that every child who does succeed in high school will be able to pay for college? No progress was made because Bartlet never had to courage to stand up for bold ideas, instead opting for a string of often symbolic victories on consistently small-bore issues.

    And when Bartlet did make a real difference, it was often for the worse. I still cringe when I think of the time he and Toby tried to “save” Social Security (let’s hope their plan never actually made it out of Congress, or millions of elderly Americans would have been left destitute when the ‘verse equivalent of the GFC hit). And while “The Supremes” was admittedly a great episode, if any real President gave away a seat on the Supreme Court to the far-right in that way, they would deserve to be pilloried for it. The symbolic value of a female Chief Justice who once had an abortion is going to be cold comfort when Justice Mulready votes with his Republican colleagues to gut the Voting Rights Act and strike down the campaign finance laws that Bartlet made such a big deal out of earlier in his presidency.

    So Jed barely scrapes a pass on his domestic legacy (conservation and fiscal policy are sort of strengths that make up for the sell-outs and other shortcomings). Foreign policy is a bit better – Bartlet deserves credit for helping to broker a peace between Israel and Palestine, and for not starting any unnecessary wars. But he leaves no grand strategy behind, no fresh insights into the geopolitics of America’s global role in the 21st century. He is a President who errs on the side of good, but fails to truly leave his mark on history.

    That’s my nerd-y take on it, anyway. Anyone care to step up and defend Jed? Have I grossly misunderestimated his leadership and accomplishments in this post?


  13. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on April 27, 2016.]

    I agree with most of that, but I don’t think the writers ever fully intended to portray Bartlet as a great President in the “groundbreaking” sense. They were motivated to portray him as an intriguing and likable leader.

    One thing I’ve come to realize in writing these reviews is that while Bartlet is far from perfect, the writers maintain a good balance of keeping him both admirable and interesting. A President whose tenure ran perfectly smoothly for eight years would be admirable, yes, but not especially intriguing to watch. Bartlet has flaws, particularly in the way he often struggles to balance his personal ideals with the needs of the country. But that’s precisely what makes him a fascinating character, even if he’s not always a great President.

    If anything, you could argue that the series progressively puts Bartlet on a negative slope as time goes on, in order to heighten the drama, and to maintain character consistency with his changing political stature. S1 Bartlet operates under the philosophy of “I’m new at this job, so I won’t try anything dangerous.” S7 Bartlet works under the idea of “Screw it, I’m leaving anyway – might as well do whatever I want.” In a sense, nothing’s really changed from his perspective as a President. But it’s changed vastly from his perspective as a character.

    To bring this back around: This is precisely why the reelection arc is such a huge misfire. It adamantly refuses any opportunity to scrutinize Bartlet as a character, instead turning things into a simple “Good Candidate/Bad Candidate” story. On the one hand, Bartlet has never looked more “admirable” than he does while standing next to Ritchie. On the other hand, he’s never looked less interesting.

    (If you’re interested in a more detailed breakdown of Bartlet as a Presidential figure, I highly recommend the fantastic essay “Shooting the President”, which features the most detailed comprehensive breakdown of Josiah Bartlet on the Internet. [Start on Page 202.])


  14. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on April 28, 2016.]

    Bartlet is actually an amalgamation of about ten different real-life Presidents. He’s like Voltron, only cooler.


  15. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on April 29, 2016.]

    The character of Bartlet does contain a variety of influences, but some of them stand out a lot more than others. He’s basically a mix of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, minus the womanizing. Silver-tongued, charismatic Democrats. From Kennedy, Bartlet gets his eloquence, his Catholicism, a serious illness which he concealed to get elected, the “band of brothers” vibe of his administration, and the commitment to elevating the ideal of public service. From Clinton, he gets the genius-level intellect, the scandal, the fumbling start to his Presidency followed by a dramatic turnaround, and an awful lot of sub-plots.


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