West Wing 4×09: Swiss Diplomacy

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Kevin Falls and Eli Attie | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 11/20/2002]

“There aren’t any turns.” – Toby

For all the complaints I’ve leveled at the fourth season’s reelection arc, they can all be easily traced back to the single issue of squandered potential – how what could have been one of the most pivotal arcs of the series was tossed aside under the pretense that “Audiences can guess the ending.” And regrettably, it’s not the last time that The West Wing will waste a promising storyline. So in the interest of fairness, we should take a brief moment to appreciate an episode that is better than it has any right to be.

“Swiss Diplomacy” is certainly no masterpiece; storywise, it’s a languid and easily forgettable outing. Yet the various circumstances that should by rights work against it – that it comes on the heels of a misguided arc, that it’s one of the very few Sorkin-era episodes (the first since “Enemies” [1×08], to be precise) which the show’s creator did not have a hand in writing – that actually bring out a refreshingly positive side.

In a strange way, it’s helpful that the first entry following the trio of disposable reelection episodes does not have Sorkin’s name on it. There’s no mention of Ritchie, no cheap potshots, and no grandiose buildup for non-grandiose payoffs. Instead, we get a fairly benign episode that brings out the themes of Season Four in a clever and nuanced way.

The reelection arc gave us a sense of the struggles that come with retaining a sense of power, but only at the surface level. (The idea is built into the very story, after all.) “Swiss Diplomacy” takes a new tactic. It’s an episode about appeasement – maintaining your hold on the government is made easier when you can pay off favors and make use of good relationships.

Unfortunately, that’s all easier said than done. Toby works hard to find a job for the election-losing Karen Kroft – “We owe you,” he tells her – but his attempts are ultimately fruitless. Will opts not to be Sam’s campaign manager, but his reasoning is to give the job to more experienced professionals – “I owe you the best possible chance to win,” he explains to Sam. In the former case, appeasement is attempted through the strengthening of a relationship; in the latter, through the severing. And unexpectedly, it’s the second example that proves more rewarding.

Josh has problems from the opposite extreme, when a long-dead relationship comes back to bite him. He clashes with the Senate Minority Leader, who accuses him of still working for Hoynes and helping him secure backers for the 2006 election. Josh, of course, has pretty much disavowed his former relationship with Hoynes, but old wounds in Washington have a tendency to reopen. (To add extra insult, Josh also spends this episode being pestered by Donna over a delegate he put on the bench who has lately been causing some unrelated troubles. This story doesn’t really pan out anywhere, but it underscores just how tough it is for Josh to break his former ties.)

Bartlet, in his own way, seems to be the poster child for healthy relationships in this episode. When the son of the Ayatollah becomes dangerously ill and is sent to America for surgery, Bartlet agrees to get the best doctor in the country to perform the operation. Despite the dangers present in such a negotiation, Bartlet chooses to place his trust in a Swiss NGO that serves as mediator for the event.

The back-and-forth between the USA and Iran makes for some uncomfortable drama this episode, none more so than the moment Abbey ensures Bartlet that no doctor can refuse to operate on a terminal patient – even if said doctor’s loved ones have been killed by the Iranian regime. Bartlet’s assurance to the doctor that all will be well speaks to his need to keep his foreign relationships healthy. Furthermore, his impatience with the Swiss’ constant back-bending to avoid direct conflict with the Iranians feeds his desire to simply get the job done – the Swiss are well-known for their neutrality, after all, and thus they should not treat one side more neutrally than the other.

Bartlet is clearly skilled at maintaining relationships… but his methods of paying off favors are perhaps more questionable. Toward the end of the episode, we learn that it was he, and not Josh, who secured a few dozen precinct captains for Hoynes in the upcoming election cycle. His rationale is logical – “I said thanks on behalf of the ticket,” he explains to Leo – but not especially admirable, as the end result would secure Hoynes a bid in the next election before the dust even settles on this one.

And the most crucial moment in “Swiss Diplomacy” comes by way of Leo’s counterargument to Bartlet: “This shouldn’t be what you do anymore.”

For the first four years of his Presidency, Bartlet always had a goal to build towards – the prospect of a second term. Now that he’s been reelected, however, his days as President are officially numbered. In another four years, his job will be gone. Leo’s line thus indicates how Bartlet’s mentality will shift over these later seasons – with less motivation to appeal to the American people from this point on, there’s less risk involved in his decisions.

The idea of staving off problems till “the next guy” comes along is nothing new to this series – Leo has been vocalizing it as early as “Take This Sabbath Day” [1×14] – but it takes on a new level of solidity from this point. And while Leo’s comment in “Swiss Diplomacy” refers more to Bartlet’s current policies than any suggestion of holding them off for the next President, it still stems from the same ideology that taking advantage of the present is more important than securing the future.

Back in “Celestial Navigation” [1×15], Secretary O’Leary vocalized some very real concerns about the still-young Bartlet administration: “When are you guys gonna stop running for President?” Leo dismissed her concerns at the time, but has since put more faith in the belief that the administration should take more of an active political stance on its values. So now that Bartlet is securing constituents for Hoynes in the next election cycle, it’s only right that Leo remind him that he needs to focus on his own Presidency.

The thematic tie-in with Season Four – here, we witness the negative side of Bartlet trying to retain as much power as he can – ultimately makes “Swiss Diplomacy” out to be a worthwhile exercise. It will be another few episodes before this season fully gets on track, but even amidst the generally tepid post-election arc, there’s enough thought and intelligence here to demonstrate a marked improvement over the preceding episodes.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Bartlet recalling that his kids used to have a cat named “Mrs. Wilberforce.”
+ Leo telling Margaret not to use the word “recession.”
+ Is there really a Margaret Museum? I would pay to see that.
+ Gracie! Ethel! Lulu! Is there no end to Josh’s pop-culture witticisms?
+ Bartlet getting another staffer’s name wrong when he refers to Bobby as “Terry.”
+ Bartlet learning that Mrs. Wilberforce was actually the name of his old housekeeper.


[Score]

B

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2 thoughts on “West Wing 4×09: Swiss Diplomacy”

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

    Not that that’s relevant to the episode at hand, but I figured you’d make more reference to Sorkin’s absence here given that the Sorkinless seasons are right around the corner.

    Like

  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on June 1, 2016.]

    I already made the “Sorkin-free episode” concept my thesis to the “Enemies” review. And I hate repeating theses. Particularly since his absence here isn’t something there’s much to say about.

    Like

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