West Wing 4×13: The Long Goodbye

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Jon Robin Baitz | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 01/15/2003]

“Wow. Senior moment.” – Talmidge

There’s a part of me that wants to like “The Long Goodbye.”

It’s a rather small part, I’ll grant. And it gets smaller each subsequent time that I watch it. But it’s still there.

But for all my efforts, I still don’t like it. No matter how many times I try to convince myself that “The Long Goodbye” is anything more than a soulless, manipulative, place-holding television “product,” I can’t. There are simply far too many factors working against it, factors that drown out what few positive aspects the episode may have.

It’s not the first West Wing episode I’ve roundly disliked (and trust me, it won’t be the last). But this time, things are different. DOAs like “The Women of Qumar” [3×08] and “Game On” [4×06] were bad episodes, but much of their poorness was magnified by context – these were episodes that connected to larger stories, and completely fumbled their attempts at building on those stories.

“The Long Goodbye,” on the other hand, has no substantial context. It doesn’t even bother trying. It just feels like an episode of some other series that got lost and wandered over to the West Wing set. It furthers no storylines. It develops no character. It builds upon no themes. Calling it “filler” would be too charitable.

The background to the creation of the episode only underscores its complete uselessness. Due to a series of production issues too complicated and uninteresting to name here, Season Four wound up with an order for 23 episodes, one more than the standard network season. Sorkin’s contract stipulated his involvement in only 22 episodes, however, either as writer or showrunner, and so he recruited his friend Jon Robin Baitz to pick up the spare.

Baitz, like Sorkin, was an accomplished playwright, one who had never written for serialized television before. (He has since gone on to write an excellent Alias episode and create the successful drama Brothers and Sisters.) It’s perhaps not entirely fair to pin the blame of “The Long Goodbye” solely on him, since he was put in the unenviable position of “Don’t change the characters, don’t change the story” to begin with. Still, the flaws of “The Long Goodbye” go far deeper than its general uselessness.

Remember “Ellie” [2×15]? One of the weakest episodes of the show’s early seasons, it was crippled by a seemingly nonstop barrage of contrived plot and character developments and didn’t feature nearly enough of a satisfying conclusion to be worth all its huffing and puffing. Well, if you thought “Ellie” [2×15] was problematic, “The Long Goodbye” takes all of that episode’s flaws and maximizes them beyond all human comprehension.

CJ’s father has been mentioned in the past, in episodes like “The Stackhouse Filibuster” [2×17] and “The Two Bartlets” [3×12] (the latter of which first made mention of his “forgetfulness”). We have enough emotional context for his character to forgive a brief cameo, or at most a minor episodic side-story. We do not, however, have remotely enough context to justify an entire episode devoted to his character and relationship with CJ – let alone an episode that also sees fit to unspool an entire backstory for the show’s most prominent female character, complete with an estranged stepmother, an old love interest, and some good ol’-fashioned fly-fishing.

“The Long Goodbye” dumps all these new elements on us right out of the blue, and then attempts to string them together into a coherent story. The result, however, feels less like The West Wing and more like a distended episode of The Young and the Restless. Any attempts by “The Long Goodbye” to connect with the general series (usually through CJ’s half-baked phone conversations with Toby) are half-hearted at best, and come off as a lazy attempt to remind the audience that the episode hasn’t completely forsaken the White House – even if its uninvolving, overly saccharine tone gives you the feeling that it really, really wants to.

As dull as ER could be whenever it transported its characters outside the hospital, the unassuming viewer could turn on “Middle of Nowhere” or one of the show’s numerous Africa-based episodes and still recognize it as an installment of the long-running hospital drama. Conversely, “The Long Goodbye” never feels the least bit like a West Wing episode, from the setting to the story to the tone to the dialogue to the direction.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying something different. TV episodes like Buffy‘s “The Body” and Breaking Bad‘s “Fly” are proof that there is plenty of merit to be found in an occasional change of pace. And The West Wing‘s two best post-Sorkin episodes (“King Corn” [6×13] and “Here Today” [7×05]) are both, in their own ways, perfect examples of going against the grain. The trick is to provide an understandable reason for why a specific episode is bucking the norm. And “The Long Goodbye” offers no substantial reason outside of “Sorkin didn’t write it.”

What, exactly, does this episode tell us about CJ? There is nothing to be gleaned by her concern over her father’s Alzheimer’s, since we were already well-aware of her feelings from “The Two Bartlets” [3×12] – feelings that aren’t terribly eye-opening, anyway. (It doesn’t help that Tal suffers from the TV version of Alzheimer’s – the kind that only kicks in whenever the story demands it.) In forcing Tal upon the viewer in this abrupt and tone-deaf fashion, the episode doesn’t make CJ’s father feel sympathetic so much as frustrating.

Equally frustrating is the character of Marco. The “former flame” thread provides yet another example of how tired and clichéd this episode is, straight down to the chance meeting between CJ and Marco at a rainy airport terminal. CJ ultimately ends up sleeping with Marco on the night of the high school reunion (oh, yeah – there’s a high school reunion in this episode, too), which is made doubly confusing by the fact that another of her former flames, Danny, has recently reentered her life. But asking for character consistency from this episode is probably asking too much.

And that’s the ultimate problem with “The Long Goodbye.” Even if you want to accept the episode as an innocuous, pace-changing detour, it still flies in the face of what The West Wing stands for. CJ is a great character who is defined by her political aspirations; remove those, and she just becomes a woman in a daytime soap. And because nothing that occurs in the episode will ever be mentioned or referenced again, the way “The Long Goodbye” contorts her character feels insulting in its blatancy. Rather than feeling like a showcase for one of The West Wing‘s greatest characters, “The Long Goodbye” just comes off as a shameless piece of Emmy bait. (The plan backfired, incidentally – although Allison Janney had won Emmys for each of the first three seasons, she lost in her fourth bid to Edie Falco. Lessons were not learned, however – Janney would have more success the following season when she submitted “Access” [5×18], the single most insulting episode in the entire series.)

Factoring in the Emmy loss, “The Long Goodbye” is a failure on just about every level. It signifies nothing, it accomplishes nothing, and it’s among the most boring and out-of-place episodes in the series.

There is one bright spot, however: We have finally reached the end of the Season Four slump. Starting with “Inauguration (Part I)” [4×14], the Sorkin era returns to its former levels of glory, and though the second half of the season isn’t perfect, it’s still good enough to compensate for the many aches and pains throughout the first. It hasn’t been easy criticizing one of my favorite shows, so I’m more than ready to start looking on the brighter side. Let the good times roll.

 


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ All the press room reporters holding up the Dayton papers.
+ The brief, fleeting reference to Josh’s press-briefing fiasco from “Celestial Navigation” [1×15].
+ CJ getting her phone through the metal detector in middle of her conversation.
+ The cat’s named Archimedes. Cute li’l Archimedes.
+ The moment where Tal looks at a picture of young CJ and states that “I can’t remember who this is” feels touching and genuine. Too bad the rest of the episode couldn’t follow suit.

– Toby calls about “that NEA thing.” Could this episode at least try to care about politics?
– The entire conversation between CJ and her stepmother is clichéd and awful.
– Toby: “All quiet in the West Wing” Sigh…
– Okay, did they seriously show CJ in her underwear? Can’t this episode leave her with a little dignity?


Foreshadowing

* Toby briefs the press in CJ’s absence. Already, this seems like a bad idea…


[Score]

D

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8 thoughts on “West Wing 4×13: The Long Goodbye”

  1. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on June 29, 2016.]

    A well-written dissection of a dull flop of an episode. Kudos as usual, Jeremy, and I look forward to reading your take on the next, more compelling, batch of episodes!

    I’ve mostly abstained from commenting on your most recent reviews, because even though it can sometimes be hugely fun as a group exercise to delve into what caused a piece of fiction to fail, the excitement just isn’t really there when a normally good show enters into a “slump” period like this. You’ve done a great job of pointing out all the particular elements that misfired, and there doesn’t feel like much to add. The reviews I’m still really looking forward to though, are the season 5 episodes. That is the sort of dramatic failure with lots of juicy potential for discussion!

    I will note that one of the hallmarks of an extra-subpar episode like “The Long Goodbye” in a series like The West Wing is that its location in the show sort of tends to become blurred in my memory. (Ironic, I know.) Most of the episodes I could instantly pin down the point at which they slotted into the larger story arc of the season/show, even though it’s been years since I last watched most of them. But if you grabbed me out of the blue and quizzed me about where this one fitted in, I would have been at a total loss for an answer.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on June 29, 2016.]

    Thanks as always, Alex. This hasn’t been an easy stretch of episodes to review, largely because it’s been difficult coming up with interesting things to say.

    And you’re right about Season Five, which, no matter how bad or disappointing, will still offer lots of potential for analysis. Mostly since none of those episodes will involve the issue of “Sorkin spinning his wheels.”

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  3. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on June 29, 2016.]

    Are you all trying to give me a heart attack with the Season 5 hate? Just between you and me, nothing in S5 comes close to the non-drama that is the first half of S4 in terms of badness. And the statement “Aaron Sorkin did not write this season of television” is kind of a blessing in disguise.

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  4. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on June 29, 2016.]

    Anyway, a bit more on Jon Robin Baitz, whose presence on this episode is slightly understated. (I almost convinced Jeremy to do a joint review on this one because I have *very* strong opinions on Mister Baitz.)

    In this review, Jeremy calls J.R.B. “an accomplished playwright who had never written for television before.” This is actually false on multiple levels. The latter part is false because he had written a couple of scripts for an anthology series back in the 90’s. And the former part is only true if we consider “accomplished” to mean “has a body of work” as opposed to “has achieved anything of note.”

    Because holy christ on a cracker, Robbie Baitz is a bad playwright. And like all bad playwrights, his favorite subject is himself. There’s a throwaway line in this episode about Bartlet meeting with a South African students’ union, which is in the episode because (as Mr. Baitz is quick to remind anyone interviewing him) Robbie went to an Anglican boarding school in apartheid-era South Africa. This has not given him any real interest in racism, however: it’s just a fun detail he can use in writing turgid semi-autobiographical domestic “”dramas.””

    Likewise, he’s also very vocal about his identity politics, or at the very least, he doesn’t hesitate to remind anyone he talks to that he’s both gay and Jewish. This is not exactly an unprecedented combination in the theater (Kushner, Laurents, Fierstein, etc, and that’s just naming playwrights), but what is unprecedented is that neither seems even remotely relevant in his writing.

    So he’s basically the reverse of Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin of course stuffs his work with his political opinions and digs against his old girlfriends, but in public denies all that. “Just writing my little stories, ha ha ha!” Whereas Baitz talks a good talk about politics in public… but his plays are the same insipid “white people in a living room screaming over each other” plays that untalented amateur playwrights vomit out once every three hours.

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  5. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on June 29, 2016.]

    Just between you and me, nothing in S5 comes close to the non-drama that is the first half of S4 in terms of badness.

    Cool story bro

    The latter part is false because he had written a couple of scripts for an anthology series back in the 90’s.

    This statement is also false. Baitz wrote a single script for each of two different anthology series back in the 90s. In any case, I’ve clarified the statement.

    P.S. “In Dreams…” is still one of the best Alias episodes ever.

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  6. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on June 29, 2016.]

    Also, Alex Graves has currently directed *every* terrible (D or lower) episode of this show. The depths to which he’s fallen……

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