West Wing 4×10: Arctic Radar

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Gene Sperling | Director: John David Coles | Aired: 11/27/2002]

“Of the things I don’t care about, I put you right up front.” – CJ

The two-month period that exists between Election and Inauguration Day is never the most exciting time of the political year. During this transitional period, America essentially languishes “between terms,” fully committing to neither the former governmental body nor the latter. It’s a time of political anonymity, as we bide time until the next term begins. And you can take that as at least a partial explanation for why the stretch of West Wing episodes between “Election Night” [4×07] and “Inauguration (Part I)” [4×14] comes off as so lifeless.

It’s not a bad stretch, mind you – certainly it’s an improvement over the insulting reelection arc that preceded it – but so very little of genuine interest occurs during the lead-up to Bartlet’s second inauguration. The final stretch of Season Seven finds itself in a similar context, but those episodes benefit from the emotional farewell it gives to the show’s many characters. At the current halfway point of the Bartlet administration, though, there’s no driving force to make the stories feel complex, or even all that compelling.

So with little in the way of overarching narrative force, an episode like “Arctic Radar” must survive on its own merits. To that end, it stacks up only modestly well. The most distinctive thing about the episode – which might not even be apparent to first-time viewers – is that it features a more aggressive side of the Bartlet administration than we’re usually used to. Certainly, these characters have had moments of smugness and egotistical superiority, but perhaps riding high on their reelection victory, they seem a little too comfortable in their element here.

Josh in particular comes off as especially unapologetic this episode. When Donna asks him to act as a romantic liaison between her and Jack Reese, Josh proceeds to tell Reese about his secretary’s infamous panties-losing fiasco from “The Leadership Breakfast” [2×11]. Later, Josh chews out a Star Trek fan who wore a Starfleet pin to work, explaining that there’s a difference between “being a fan” and “having a fetish.” In both these cases, there are attempts to soften the blow – setting the record straight with Donna, teasing the possibility of Star Trek holidays – but to an extent, Josh comes off as pretty thankless in this episode. (That the storylines dredge up a couple of concepts that are growing stale by this point – the “Will they or won’t they?” between Josh and Donna, Sorkin squashing his beefs with obsessive online fans – doesn’t lend them any extra credibility, either.)

Beyond Josh, though, the relative condescension of the White House seems to be constructed around another premise: Things may change, yet they remain exactly the same. This point is exemplified by the teaser, where Leo thanks Bartlet’s Cabinet for the last four years of good, devoted work, before reminding them to hand in their letters of resignation. There’s no great tumult made over the Cabinet layoffs – it’s simply a White House routine, designed to leave the option of resignation open for the President’s numerous Secretaries. (Several of these men and women will remain for the second term – Roger Tribbey and Mitch Bryce, for example, appear again in “Twenty Five” [4×23] – which only underscores the relative meaninglessness of this supposed “change.”)

Other examples of changeless alterations abound throughout “Arctic Radar.” CJ, for instance, attempts to flex her powers as Press Secretary over the newsmagazines by changing the seating order. Eventually, however, she is forced to return to the original arrangement. (All is not lost, however – she still manages to satisfy her ego by ensuring that at least one of the tabloid reporters never misses a briefing again.) More obvious an example of the theme is the way this episode completes the Sam-to-Will switchover. We know enough about Will Bailey at this point to realize that his optimism and determination would fit perfectly under the Bartlet regime, and by using the Inauguration speech as an opening, this episode is able to slide him comfortably and appreciably (if rather obviously) into the Sam Seaborn position. Will’s interactions with Toby, who is caught in a speechwriter’s funk this episode and sees the arrival of a new protégée as a promising opportunity, give the episode plenty of its most memorable comedic and dramatic material. The West Wing will often struggle to nail Will’s character over the next three seasons, but his “proper” introduction here as a Bartlet staffer is handled admirably.

Still, there’s a clear sense that the Bartlet administration, for all its dynamic shifts in this episode, is locked in stagnant mode. It’s only in the climax of the episode where this is addressed, when Bartlet recounts a story from his youth about how his basketball coach told him that “Winners want the ball” – ergo, you won’t succeed unless you take an active stance in the game.

Bartlet’s speech is stimulated by his reaction to a ludicrous turn of events. In what may be the best-delivered feminist critique of the Sorkin era (granted, that’s not saying much, but bear with me), he defends a female Navy commander who is set to be dishonorably discharged for committing adultery with a fellow officer. Bartlet’s logic – that a male officer in the same situation would not receive such a harsh punishment – is sound, but Leo’s argument that about business vs. pleasure also holds water.

Bartlet’s not looking for definitive answers here – as he tells Leo, “We get five more people in here, I think we’re going to have eight opinions.” But he wants to stimulate discussion of issues beyond the cold standards and procedures that are on display when the military decides to discharge Vicky Hilton. Bartlet doesn’t care for the idea of “trivialities,” either –when Charlie tries to keep a “hot-button knucklehead” issue away from him, Bartlet explains that his job is to face the issues, no matter how miniscule said issues may seem in the context of the Oval Office. (He them promptly goes off on a great rant over said “hot-button knucklehead issue” – see the Quotes section – but that’s to be expected of someone as humorously hypocritical as Bartlet.)

There’s actually a fair deal going on in “Arctic Radar,” but very little of it feels imperative or urgent, and even less of it feels convincingly well-structured or cohesive. By the end of the episode, the light smatterings of drama are meant to convince us that the stakes have changed. Yet the result is much like the episode’s own message: In terms of character and thematic perspective, things remain fundamentally static.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Sam asking Toby if he wants a hug. Awwww…
+ Leo’s reaction to Josh and Amy’s banter. “Oh, god help me some days.”
+ Fitzwallace’s good-humored response to Josh about “Jackie Robinson and breaking barriers.” (It’s reminiscent of a similar comment that Isaac made about Rosa Parks on Sports Night.)
+ Toby’s garbage can catching fire – and his completely passive reaction.
+ Okay, although I still hate the “panties mishap” storyline from “The Leadership Breakfast” [2×11], I do always love it when the show makes a long-term continuity reference.
+ Bartlet making his point to Leo by bringing up Eisenhower.

– Why is this episode called “Arctic Radar”? The title is only invoked once, and barely in passing. Kind of an odd choice there.


* Charlie, on Hilton: “I don’t think you can reasonably ask someone to control who they fall in love with.” Yep, that pretty much sets up his arc for the rest of the season.
* Danny reference! Between this and the Charlie thing, we’re setting things up for some important character returns in “Holy Night” [4×11].



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