[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Eli Attie, Kevin Falls, and Aaron Sorkin | Director: Bill D’Elia | Aired: 01/08/2003]
“Is it me, or is this getting harder?” – Donna
She is the most well-developed and recognizable of the White House secretaries. She is as loyal to the President as any of the staffers who outrank her. She is one-half of The West Wing‘s greatest vaudeville duo, a necessary verbal sparring partner to the show’s most sanctimonious character.
Yet Donna never gets the same recognition that many of the other series regulars do. Certainly she resides on a lower tier of professionalism that Leo or Toby or CJ, but her role in the series is just as integral as theirs, and in certain ways even more so.
That she was originally meant to be a minor character is retrospectively surprising, but easily understandable – the lower-level staffers were always intended to enhance the world of the series, without carrying any weight on their own shoulders. But Janel Moloney’s comic timing and rapport with Bradley Whitford has allowed her character to far surpass the likes of Margaret, Carol, Bonnie, Ginger, Debbie, and even Mrs. Landingham in terms of series importance. (And inspired a whole lot of Josh/Donna fanfiction along the way.)
The importance of Donnatella Moss can be traced to several factors – straight down to her very name, which not only calls back to a widely respected Renaissance sculptor (and, of course, the smartest of the Ninja Turtles), but underscores just how much she “grows” on her fellow staffers as the series goes on.
But we must delve further. Donna’s key relationship, of course, is that with Josh, the arrogant blowhard who has never been afraid to speak his mind. As I mentioned in my take on “Noel” [2×10], Josh is one of the few long-term West Wing regulars who never really changes – and given how uncompromising his character can be, the series needed someone who could keep his gigantic ego in check.
That role was originally meant for Mandy. Introduced as a potential love interest for Josh, Mandy was also intended to mitigate his elitist mindset. Unfortunately, Mandy was too much of an outsider to successfully break through Josh’s barriers, and too often spent her screentime lobbing thankless criticisms at Josh that he would then rightfully ignore. There was never a spark between the two characters, nor between Whitford and Kelly, which was part of the reason she was so unceremoniously dropped from the series.
Donna, on the other hand, clicked with Josh almost instantly, knowing him well enough to trade barbs that were measured to provoke laughs without feeling unnecessarily cruel. Learning from the mistakes of the Jeremy/Natalie relationship on Sports Night, Sorkin was in no particular hurry to couple these two, instead driving their relationship with free-flowing workplace banter. Without romance as a part of the equation, any condescension on Josh’s part felt less hurtful, and gave Donna more control of their conversations, even if she was ultimately the workplace subordinate.
The resistance to pair the two would cause some uncomfortable bumps during the show’s Wells years, but for much of the Sorkin period, Josh and Donna were The West Wing‘s most reliable comedy couple, generating laughs out of the most mundane of conversation topics – or the most complicated. Indeed, another of Donna’s primary roles was that of the audience conduit. Since she was not an especially political character, the upper staffers could filter exposition to the viewers through her relative inexperience. This, too, became a less-prominent device over time – as Donna grew closer to the upper staffers, she became more experienced and knowledgeable.
By the halfway point of the series, Donna has grown more than any other character. She’s gone from being just another administrative assistant to one of the most trusted members of the Bartlet administration. What’s most impressive is how natural this development has been. While some seasons have given her more development than others, there’s been no specific pivotal moment where she made the leap from minor to major character. It’s remarkable character writing, especially coming from a man whose track record for writing women has been so spotty.
Donna has proven herself a welcome addition to the West Wing universe. No matter how dull the surrounding elements may be, she lightens up any scene she partakes in. Even in an episode as boring and ineffective as “Guns Not Butter,” her scenes are a great deal of fun to watch. We observe as Donna uses her wits and wiles to try and contact a secluded Senator, and it’s as enjoyable a running subplot as anything we’ve seen all season. And when she ultimately fails, the resulting loss hurts, simply because we know how loyal she is to both her boss and her cause.
Such emotional connection cannot, unfortunately, be found in the rest of “Guns Not Butter,” an episode which features a lot of blather about a foreign aid bill which connects to no larger story and signifies almost nothing in regards to the characters, outside of Josh’s fervent desire to see the bill passed. The episode tries to make grand statements about political drive and motivation, but having Charlie decide to assist a woman on food stamps simply because Zoey’s new boyfriend mocked him about it doesn’t make the President’s aide look especially admirable. It doesn’t help that this episode brings out the worst in West Wing Republicans, between the conniving Ellen and the Senator who (in one of the episode’s most cringe-inducing moments) makes light of Simon Donovan’s death.
“Guns Not Butter” is an almost entirely pointless episode, made worse by its unengaging plot. Which is, again, why Donna’s scenes are so crucial. Apart from a few scenes involving Ron the goat, the only genuinely entertaining scenes in this episode involve the adventures of the White House’s most lovable secretary. It’s enough to boost this incredibly dull entry (tepid even by mid-Season Four standards) out of “bad” territory, but not by much.
There’s really not much I can or want to say about “Guns Not Butter” in general. Part of this is because the episode doesn’t give me much analytical material to work with. And part of it is because the next episode on the docket is “The Long Goodbye” [4×13], and I’d prefer to save my more harshly critical side for when I really need it. As for now, let’s all tip our hats to Donna.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Poor Will. He just can’t get anyone to remember his name.
+ A reference to CJ’s prayer group from “Debate Camp” [4×05]. Yet another welcome dash of continuity, even if it’s followed up by the unfortunate Donovan line.
+ There are some cows and goats in Gail’s bowl. Not only that, but CJ actually glances at the bowl and says, “What’s up, Gail?” You’d think Gail would give her a heads-up about the cow-and-goat shenanigans that would occur later in the episode, but nooo…
– Both Bartlet and CJ comment on how good-looking Jean Paul is. Was that supposed to make me like him more? Because it didn’t.
* Lots of talk here about the countdown clock. Is this foreshadowing for the countdown clock on Studio 60? I don’t know. I’m kind of grasping at straws with this episode.