[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, David Gerken, and Gene Sperling | Director: Lesli Linka Glatter | Aired: 02/12/2003]
“A ship in the harbor is safe. But that’s not what ships were built for.” – Leo
It seemed almost too ridiculous to be true. Yet it was. Bartlet’s MS – which would lead to the most iconic arc in all of The West Wing – originated one day when Aaron Sorkin decided it would be a funny idea to show the President sick in bed, watching a daytime soap opera. It’s strange to think that a storyline with such gravity and such massive ramifications could spark from what was initially just a throwaway joke in the middle of “He Shall, From Time to Time…” [1×12]. But inspiration can come from the oddest of places.
Bartlet’s experiences with the loves and labors of daytime soap-operas crossed my mind as I watched “Inauguration: Over There,” an episode that also features a scene where the President watches something seemingly light and silly on television. In this case, he comes across an airing of the original Babes in Toyland. It’s an amusing juxtaposition – but in this case, his viewing actually yields some hauntingly serious results.
As evidenced by all the verbal sparring between Josh and Donna, Sorkin clearly loves the art of the 1930s screwball comedy. But in this episode, he displays an ability to mine that art for serious character drama. For in watching Laurel and Hardy activate an army of wooden soldiers, while a separate TV screen projects a similarly stoic and determined army of American soldiers, Bartlet realizes that he must make use of the military resources at his disposal.
This innovative scene is just one of many that makes “Inauguration: Over There” the best West Wing episode since the fourth-season premiere. Finally, we have genuine stakes. Finally, we have meaningful drama. Finally, we have fresh and fertile thematic ground to cover.
The rising tensions in Kundu unloaded a lot of moral questions on Bartlet and his staff in Part I of “Inauguration,” and those questions continue to bubble up in “Over There.” The very title of “Over There,” in fact, refers to Toby’s comment to Josh about the seeming uselessness of concentrating their forces on getting involved with a foreign country; after all, the threats will just relocate to a new field of destruction. Numerous statements are made supporting the benefits of foreign interference – at one point during his conversation with Toby, Josh even invokes the Holocaust. That a Laurel and Hardy film would be the deciding factor for an invasion that could cost thousands of lives is disturbing, but it also reminds us of how difficult it is for personal debate to inspire a solution.
As its second term dawns, the Bartlet administration is in a rather precarious position. And it’s the tenuous nature of their government that drives them to ultimately help Kundu. “Inauguration Day” perfectly captures the fragility of power, the theme that drives Season Four, as various characters try to keep their heads above water.
After one too many questions from Danny, CJ finally confronts Leo over Shareef’s death. “The more I know,” she says, “the more I can help you.” Meanwhile, Donna takes credit for a derogatory statement about the Department of Defense in order to protect Jack Reese (the real originator of the quote). The actions of both women underscore that nearly any negative act – from the assassination of a foreign leader down to an off-handed comment about the DoD – can have massive repercussions for people in power.
Elsewhere, the episode has fun poking holes in some of the Presidency’s more valued traditions – specifically, the use of a Bible to usher in a new term. Part I of “Inauguration” featured a series of humorous mishaps in which Charlie struggled to find an appropriate Bible for the occasion. “Over There” continues this thread before culminating in the realization that any old Bible will do the job. Much as the White House may like to puff out its chest and look good to the public, there are times when it can and must simply settle for the ordinary.
All of which is why Will Bailey is undoubtedly the MVP of the episode. His starry-eyed idealism – fresh and untainted compared to that of the more seasoned and hardened White House staffers – drives him to push for changes in Bartlet’s Inaugural speech. Will’s motivation to up the ante is, at this point, far greater than Toby’s, as evidenced by their respective use of the famous rubber ball. Toby keeps his bounces on the office window harsh, yet reserved, while Will smashes clean through the glass on his very first throw. Indeed, his determined arm gets an even greater workout later in the episode, when he joins Josh and his fellow staffers as they lob snowballs at Donna’s apartment. (I do like that this episode displays the pros and cons of throwing balls at windows.)
Will’s enthusiasm knows no discernible bounds, and he eventually winds up changing the President’s speech for the better. We never hear said speech delivered, of course – in true West Wing tradition, the episodes is concerned far more with backstage mechanics than with public presentation. But the triumph is palpable, and Will’s acceptance as an official member of the Bartlet administration feels earned.
The variation on Margaret Mead’s famous quote (“Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world – indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”) fits perfectly with the messages of the series. The Bartlet administration has faced greater and greater pressures over the last few years, but Will’s perseverance is a reminder that idealism is still pure and alive.
“Inauguration” – both in Part I and in “Over There” – is a breath of fresh air, a reminder that The West Wing has not lost itself in a sea of ineffective plotting and George Bush caricatures. It is still a remarkable series, capable of plumbing effective drama from the simplest and most unexpected of sources… even something like Babes in Toyland.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ No matter how many times I watch it, the moment when Will accidentally shatters Toby’s window is awesome.
+ “Abbey, the kids are eating sugar…”
+ Toby teaching Will what it’s like to get a midnight phone call from the White House.
+ The jazz music playing during the Inauguration Ball is a lot of fun.
+ The entire scene outside Donna’s apartment is a delight on numerous levels.
+ There is a podium in Gail’s bowl. Gail is quite authoritative, don’tcha think?
– Charlie is fun during his search for a Bible. But once that thread is resolved, he abruptly switches back to “whining about Zoey” mode. Sigh…
* Abbey to Jed: “You would’ve been happy walking up Pennsylvania Avenue in this cold?” Come “Shutdown” [5×08], Bartlet will walk up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol building, and – cold or no – he won’t mind it a bit.