[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Mark Goffman, and Debora Cahn | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 02/26/2003]
“The doctor got into medical school.” – Lauren #2
The West Wing covers a wide array of political topics, ranging from the political and social to the economic and global. As I’ve mentioned several times in the past, however, these topics are means to an end. They exist to embellish the world of the series, to build its characters and explore its numerous themes. And oftentimes, it can explore those themes in some very unusual ways.
You would not expect, for example, that an episode could convincingly connect two stories about a federal tax plan and a military rescue operation. But although these two threads are vastly different, both contextually and emotionally, “Red Haven’s on Fire” draws a parallel with a deceptively simple theme.
Early on, we watch as Will Bailey outlines the White House’s latest tax plan to a roomful of speechwriting interns. One of the interns immediately voices her concern that the plan is unfair to more successfully-employed Americans. Will simply rolls his eyes and delivers a snarky retort, one which immediately puts him in an unsympathetic light. Lauren Romano may well subscribe to “Republican Vogue,” but she does have a point.
Toward the end of the episode, Bartlet and the Joint Chiefs celebrate a successful rescue mission to bring three captive American soldiers home. Their joy is cut short, however, when reports immediately come in about a retaliatory suicide bomb that left 17 of their soldiers dead. The storyline, which began on a hopeful note, shifts almost instantly to a tragic one.
Tonally and structurally, these two story thread could not be more dissimilar. But they each drive home the same general theme, one which the West Wing has toyed with from time to time: The perpetual weighing of costs versus benefits.
Much time is spent with the families of the three American hostages, as Bartlet and Leo do all they can to offer comfort without divulging any classified information. This keys us into the intense drama of the rescue operation while still catching us off-guard when the retaliatory bombing occurs. We know nothing about the soldiers lost in the blast – unlike the hostages, they’re merely depicted as a statistic, which makes the tax plan comparison all the more tragically apt.
Other, less tragic examples of benefits vs. costs span the length of “Red Haven’s on Fire.” Although Toby has been assigned to Sam’s campaign, he quickly acknowledges what Sam – and, before him, Will – never have: It’s a gallant campaign, but ultimately a doomed one. Toby outlines the scenario to Sam in typically point-blank honest terms. “The story’s gonna be that you actually stuck up for what you believed in,” he explains. “That you didn’t cut and run. And people are gonna remember that.”
“Red Haven’s on Fire” marks Sam’s last appearance as a series regular, and although the show never gives him a proper write-out, the final scene still works as a fitting sendoff. Although Toby’s prediction will likely fulfill itself, people will remember less about Sam’s loss itself than about the fact that he took the stand for a dead man and nearly achieved a victory. It’s a fitting cost-and-benefit analogy for the show’s most eternally optimistic character, even though a legitimate sendoff for someone who’s been an integral part of the series since the “Pilot” [1×01] would have been preferable.
But even as one character departs from the show’s inner circle, another enters. Amy Gardner has functioned as the show’s proto-feminist over the last couple of seasons, breeding scattershot appearances with a success rate dependent on just how amusingly she gets under Josh’s skin. But finally, she earns a regular place in the series. (For the moment, at least.) We saw back when Amy first appeared in “The Women of Qumar” [3×08] that the First Lady supported her activist positions, and “Red Haven’s on Fire” completes the circuit by having Amy talk her way into a job as Abbey’s chief of staff. The joke is that it was Josh who first made Abbey aware of her own flawed system and convinced her she needed to put someone in charge of her affairs – little knowing that that “someone” tended to share a bed with him.
The Josh/Amy relationship doesn’t get much focus here, as their on-and-off relationship has been one of the more inconsistent factors of the last two seasons. Still, it’s an ancillary actor to the main development of this storyline, which nicely sets up some more interesting Abbey and Amy development in the future. (I’ll go into more detail in my review of “Privateers” [4×18].)
In the meantime, “Red Haven’s on Fire” succeeds on its own fronts. It’s certainly one of Season Four’s stronger efforts, with a resonant theme and some good character moments. It has its share of flaws – a disconnect from the thematic arc of the season, the non-exit afforded to poor Sam – but for the most part, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Charlie trying to “throw down with the street.” Never change, Charlie.
+ Ah, yes. It’s only fitting that Sam’s final regular appearance makes one more reference to Laurie.
+ Sam’s Bergen/McCarthy mix-up.
+ Debbie showing her maternal side with the three-year-old Betty.
+ Slowly, Will reaches out and touches the glass partition. Guess what happens next…
+ CJ doing her best Bobby Short.
– Okay, I know we’re not supposed to sympathize with Will here, but that “Republican Vogue” line should have earned him a swift kick in the butt. I kind of wanted to deliver it myself.
– Wait, Amy wants to “jump” Josh whenever he starts flaunting his ego? That doesn’t sound very Amy-ish.
* This episode marks the first appearance of Alana Waterman, who returns in Season Seven as Toby’s defense attorney. This episode perfectly sets her up as someone worth avoiding.