West Wing 4×18: Privateers

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Paul Redford, Debora Cahn, and Aaron Sorkin | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 03/26/2003]

“What the hell kind of free world are you running?” – Abbey

Begin at the end. For Abigail Bartlet, you’ll find it in “Eppur Si Muove” [5×16]. It’s not her last appearance, of course, but it’s her last key episode in the series, the one that rounds out her miniscule arc. The episode in question gave us Abbey doing what she does best: Using her medical knowledge to help those in need. Moreover, she does it while her impressionable daughter watches, gleaning inspiration from a woman who continues to find ways to work despite having her medical license revoked.

It’s an effective scene, made emphatically so by nearly five seasons of buildup. Abbey has never been one of the show’s most crucial characters, nor one of its most politically powerful. She is expected to constantly ally herself with her husband’s ideals, even when they don’t measure up with her own. But as I discussed in my take on “Dead Irish Writers” [3×15], Abbey is a woman defined by her motives – she lobbies, and lobbies hard, to get her agendas through, no matter how the President may feel about them. And whenever she fails, the result is bittersweet – we’re generally inclined to root for Jed, but Abbey has shouldered more than enough Bartlet weight to deserve the occasional win.

So secondary is Abbey to the general proceedings of the series that this episode marks the first time we learn something about her background – specifically, involving one of her ancestors. Sorkin loves tying his characters into early American history, so this new layer doesn’t feel like untrodden territory. What’s ironic is that this bit of background information is introduced in this episode specifically to be ignored. To Marion Cotesworth-Haye, the idea of Abbey having a connection to some sort of pirate is enough to request her booted from the DAR. To all our protagonists, though, the distinction is clear: Thomas Broom Weathergill was a privateer, not a pirate, and his actions should not even register as a blemish on Abigail’s family record.

Privateers, as any swashbuckling fanatic can explain, were essentially government-enlisted pirates, employed in times of war to deal with enemies. Surprisingly, very little is done to embellish this difference in the episode; regardless of their immoral makeup, privateers seem to get a free pass from the Bartlet administration.

In retrospect, it’s not especially surprising – the Bartlet administration experiences its own surge of privateer-like behavior in this episode, blanketing underhanded tactics in professional camouflage. Some of it is played for comedy (Donna is tasked with covertly shadowing a former drug dealer around the DAR event), some for drama (Will publicly reprimanding a hydroclimatologist to cover up a global warming issue). In general, the ways in which the White House plays fast-and-loose with political morality fits nicely with the season’s themes about retaining power – the administration can’t risk anyone putting their political authority at risk.

At the other end, “Privateers” features a subplot which paints the White House as a victim of subterfuge – when an old friend of Toby’s drops by in need of legal assistance, we assume no lawyer beneath the White House bankroll would suffice. But no, it turns out that Toby’s friend has already commissioned a lawyer, and only dropped by the White House to earn some extra protection. It’s an interesting turn of perspective, one which lends a bit more sympathy to the administration.

But back to Abbey. Despite her seeming importance to the story, she’s surprisingly absent for much of the episode. There’s plenty of talk about her connection to Weathergill, but mostly between other staffers. As such, nothing about her develops beyond the hazy familial bond. Yet there is still a fresh outlet by which we can properly view Abbey in this episode – through her new Chief of Staff.

Through the eyes of Amy Gardner, we see firsthand what it’s like to interact with Abbey the boss. Amy is driven and determined, but her first day as Abbey’s Chief of Staff is borderline chaotic, even once you get past the “hazing” Josh puts her through. (It’s to the episode’s credit that it downplays the Josh/Amy relationship, only utilizing it for some well-timed visual humor.) Abbey may try pressuring her Chief of Staff into covertly attempting to derail a controversial bill, but Amy is quick to realize that their battle is a losing one. Though she manages to keep Abbey’s head above water this episode, pacifying Cotesworth-Haye with “the Francis Scott Key… key,” she steadfastly refuses to attempt a veto that would only succeed in making the First Lady look foolish.

Amy’s arc in this episode is clear and well-defined, from the moment her diplomas all drop from her office wall to the final conversation with her new boss. But Abbey’s arc never gathers any steam. Towards the end of the episode, she reminisces a time when she filled the role of Amy’s babysitter – “I used to get you in some jams,” Amy replies. It’s the briefest hint of a personal relationship Abbey shares with a character other than her husband, and it’s dispensed with almost as immediately as it’s brought up.

But can we say we’re surprised? Abbey’s history with Amy is a detail of the past, no more relevant to her current ideals and goals than a privateering ancestor of hers who lived a few centuries ago. Abbey will continue to let her goals drive her, to determine what’s best for herself, her husband, and her country. And the moment one cause is lost, she immediately begins looking forward to the next. “We’ll just get more aggressive on the domestic side,” Abbey tells Jed as they settle in after another long day.

With the Bartlet administration composed of so many politically similar minds, we look to personalities rather than motives in order to distinguish and identify the numerous characters. The West Wing has proven more than adept at diversifying and developing these many characters, crafting them as far more than mere liberal mouthpieces. But there is at least one member of the show’s ensemble whose life story remains untold.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Really, the moment where Amy’s certificates all simultaneously drop from the wall deserves an Emmy all on its own.
+ I’m tempted to make “Mrs. Helena Hodsworth Hooter-Tooter of Braintree” my new online handle.
+ Josh misusing the word “fershnikit.” Learn Yiddish, Josh!
+ The moment where Amy’s door falls down? That deserves an Emmy, too.
+ CJ putting olives in Will’s jacket.
+ CJ cracking up at the name “Marion Cotesworth-Haye.”
+ Donna referencing Laverne and Shirley. And she did it her way!

– Charlie, I know you think stalking Zoey is cute and charming. But it’s not. It’s creepy. Not the same level of creepy as Danny “I’m comin’ for you” Tripp, but still creepy.


* Jean-Paul experiments with drugs. That can’t be a good sign. Also, shut up, Jean-Paul.



5 thoughts on “West Wing 4×18: Privateers”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 10, 2016.]

    Begin at the end. For Abigail Bartlet, you’ll find it in “Eppur Si Muove” [5×16]. It’s not her last appearance, of course, but it’s her last key episode in the series, the one that rounds out her miniscule arc.

    Just like Marina!


  2. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on August 11, 2016.]

    I suspect that most West Wing fans would agree that Abbey Bartlet was one of the weaker elements of the main cast, but if you did a poll I reckon there would be something of a division about what the best fix for the character would be – even less focus on a basically extraneous character, or more focus on a character with far more potential than the series ever realized.

    There is an interesting story to be told about Abbey as a woman who sacrificed her professional integrity and personal ambitions on the alter of her husband’s ambition, but I don’t think the show was ever altogether comfortable with telling that story. Not just because Arron Sorkin has a bit of a “woman problem” with his writing (although he sort of does) but also because this particular woman’s story is somewhat at odds with the particular brand of idealism that The West Wing is pushing.

    Anyway, great review Jeremy. As always, a pleasure to read, and looking forward to the next installment!


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

    There is an interesting story to be told about Abbey as a woman who sacrificed her professional integrity and personal ambitions on the alter of her husband’s ambition, but I don’t think the show was ever altogether comfortable with telling that story.

    I’d argue that’s exactly what the show did with Liz and Doug Westin. Which is another way in which the Wells years kick the Sorkin years’ ass in the women department.


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

    I don’t think many people would argue that Abbey should have received less focus, though – her role in the series may be secondary, but she fills it very well. (It doesn’t hurt that Stockard Channing has an excellent rapport with Martin Sheen.)

    Plus, the episodes centered around Abbey display a refreshing change of pace, and prove how adept Sorkin is at thinking outside the show’s usual box.


  5. [Note: Kevin posted this comment on September 13, 2016.]

    Perhaps it was because this was the first episode I saw in real time when it aired (following which I was hooked), but the scene where CJ can’t stop laughing after Marion Cotesworth-Haye announces her name is, for me, the greatest comedy bit of the show. Every time I see it, I crack up like CJ, and can’t stop. Anyway, God Bless AlLison Janney, Amen.


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