West Wing 4×17: Red Haven’s on Fire

[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.



12 thoughts on “West Wing 4×17: Red Haven’s on Fire”

  1. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on August 3, 2016.]

    Excellent review Jeremy. Is it just me or do not a lot of west wing episodes besides the A+ ones get the ‘depth high’ rating?


  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 3, 2016.]

    Thanks, Flame. You’ll find lots of A and A- episodes with “High” depth. Once episode quality gets in the B-range, though, that’s usually a sign that the thematic intelligence of the episode wasn’t truly impressive.

    But that doesn’t mean those episodes can’t excel in other areas, or that there still isn’t plenty of depth to be found in them.


  3. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    I see. I thought a B+ was a great episode that has some noteworthy flaws. Although, I’m probably think in Buffy terms, in which if an episode has flaws, it’s probably the plot. Clearly the West Wing has much stronger plots. Which is good for me because personally I value plots a bit more than Mike did in his Buffy reviews.


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

    Hm. I’m not feeling this review. But I think that has less to do with your review being lacking and more to do with my realization that in hindsight this episode– which I recalled enjoying– is actually kind of bad.

    Sam doesn’t get any sort of send-off, which is frankly kind of ridiculous. Mandy disappearing was ridiculous too but at least she had the decency to disappear between seasons. We don’t even get any confirmation he lost the election! Terrible terrible writing. Elsie Snuffin also disappears off the face of the planet for reasons unknown, which is notable because she’s a primary character’s sister. The attack in Ghana at the end of the episode is literally never mentioned again, which is bizarre given that we only learn about it at the very end of the episode.

    But this episode also frustrates me because the Laurens plot is incredibly incredibly condescending. It is the quintessential “man explains thing to his secretary” plot, except worse because the Lauren(s) situation is (as mentioned in “The California 47th”) so utterly contrived, and Will is so undeveloped right now, and (rule of three) Will gets to condescend to three Laurens simultaneously! It’s plots like this that make me happy Sorkin left after Season 4 because while Wells was far from a perfect replacement at least he could actually write male-female interaction that doesn’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth.


  5. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    I wouldn’t be surprised if you found the review lacking. Season Four is really the least interesting season of the series to analyze – it plays as a “Greatest Hits” reel of the first three seasons, with less consistency and impact. Half the time I find myself struggling to come up with strong theses.

    I’ve addressed most of your points in the past, but re: Elsie, I’ll remind you that Team Wells forgot pretty much everything related to Will Bailey at the start of Season Five. (Not that he’d had much long-term establishment to begin with.)


  6. [Note: Flamepillar112 posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    I’m looking forward to your S5 reviews. Mostly because I love reading your reviews in which you shit all over the episode/season. Elegant yet savage. Plus Jeremy, you got to admit, it’s pretty fun to write super negative reviews ;).

    It’s clear to me you think much of this season is average, which is hard to write about because it’s not interesting to write about, and it’s hard to find material in the first place. I could probably write about a tv episode I really love (“Fly”, for example), or an episode I hate (“Black Market”, “Code of Honor”, “She”, etc.) But an average one? Never. Kudos.


  7. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    I don’t expect to tear into Season Five that harshly, though. (Well, maybe a few episodes…) If anything, the first half of Season Six is going to get my harshest treatment.

    Season Five fails at a lot of things, but it at least fails in more interesting ways than Season Four does, which is why it’s generally more interesting to talk and write about.


  8. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    No, you made a funny joke so you wouldn’t have to acknowledge the condescension central to the Laurens plot.

    I can’t argue that Wells doesn’t hit the reset switch on Will’s character. And yet, I don’t care all that much because because he’s much more interesting grooming Russell for the presidency than he is as Diet Seaborn.


  9. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    S4 and S5 are quantitatively the worst seasons of the show. It’s just that S4 is Sorkin coasting and S5 is Wells flinging shit at the wall until something sticks.

    4 is my least favorite season of the show because I find unambitious bad television significantly worse than experimental bad television.


  10. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    I have no problem acknowledging the condescension central to the Laurens plot. But like I mentioned above, we’re not really supposed to side with Will here.

    And fair enough, regarding S4 and S5.


  11. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    But we are ultimately supposed to side with Will because at the end it’s revealed he inspired those silly women to pull an all-nighter with his soaring oratory. (The soaring oratory is his penis.)

    And of course, disclaimer that on the whole S4 and S5 are mediocre rather than bad. (S6 is the bad season, until it isn’t.)


  12. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 4, 2016.]

    But by the end of the episode, it’s no longer condescending. Will winds up doing something productive, which compensates for the way he acted earlier.

    Okay, it doesn’t entirely make up for the football jerseys or that stupid “Republican Vogue” line. Season Four isn’t really known for subtlety.


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