West Wing 4×19: Angel Maintenance

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Eli Attie, Aaron Sorkin, and Kevin Falls | Director: Jessica Yu | Aired: 04/02/2003]

“I screw with them all the time.” – CJ

There’s a fine line between the Sorkin and Wells eras. It’s a line that denotes a shift in tone, a change in dialogue. In certain cases, it denotes a rewriting of character and a retread of plot. Though The West Wing goes through many changes over its seven-season run, none are quite as dramatic as the changing of the guard that occurs between the fourth and fifth seasons.

Surprisingly, the line does not denote a sudden shift in quality, per se. (Seasons Four and Five are, above all, the two most significantly flawed seasons of the series, even though their flaws are radically different.) But the change is still noticeable, and would seem so to all but the most casual Wingnut.

And yet, there are moments in “Angel Maintenance” that seem to smooth that transition. Aspects that point toward some of the most glaring shifts the series will undergo in its last three seasons. Is it possible that Sorkin initially planted the seeds for Wells to water? Unlikely… but an intriguing prospect nonetheless.

Consider the following scenarios dotted throughout “Angel Maintenance”: Several characters debate the pros and cons of a bipartisan bill. Donna worries that her secretarial job is restricting her. CJ takes charge during a difficult situation and later vocalizes how exciting and perilous a White House job can be.

All these concepts will become series tentpoles during the Wells years, but it’s the last aspect that merits the most discussion. From way back since the “Pilot” [1×01], CJ Cregg has been one of the show’s most human characters – her very first scene defined her as a woman who was determined to balance a job and a life (and, lest we forget, featured her falling off a treadmill). In the time since, she’s shed the “outsider” shell of the Press Secretary and become one of the most trusted and strong-willed of Bartlet’s employees. The balance of her personal and professional lives has been tested plenty of times – never more so than in her tragic arc with Simon Donovan – but she’s emerged from each challenge even bolder than before.

By the time we reach “Angel Maintenance,” CJ has grown into one of the show’s most compelling and human characters. And it is her humanity that grounds this episode, even as much of it occurs several thousand feet in the air. Yes, large sections of “Angel Maintenance” take place aboard a soaring Air Force One, which finds itself trapped in the stratosphere when its landing gear proves faulty. CJ is onboard, along with the entire Press Room, and she takes a strict maternal role to prevent them from reporting an airborne crisis to their news outlets.

With Sam now out of the picture, it is CJ who will take the reins as The West Wing‘s most idealistic character. Team Wells will capitalize on her potential for all its worth, but the last few Sorkin episodes are already priming her for this new stage of her arc. CJ’s relationship with the press has always been one of cheerful jocularity (the “Previously on…” portion of this episode plays like a montage of her briefing banter highlights), and she maintains an upbeat air even when forced to cut the reporters’ phone lines.

Would that other characters in this episode take a page from her optimistic book. But that’s not the case. Harmonizing nicely with the general themes of Season Four, “Angel Maintenance” features a string of storylines in which our protagonists work their hardest to cover their own backs and employ extraneous measures to avoid any undue consequences.

It starts with CJ curbing the press, and continues with Bartlet finagling a no-win situation to include Colombia in the drug war, Toby debating Congressman Richardson (in his final appearance) over the merits of reinstating the draft, and Josh attempting to collaborate with a Republican House member to clean up Chesapeake Bay. In all these instances, our characters wind up with their backs against the proverbial wall, facing situations with no real hope of a positive outcome.

The Chesapeake Bay storyline packs the most resonance, in addition to the most vexing conclusion. The idea of a two-party collaboration (featuring one of the show’s all-too-rare likable Republicans) is inviting, but it gives way to the inevitable conclusion: Bipartisanship, the episode states, just leaves everyone unhappy. (I wouldn’t call this an open-and-shut case, however – the Wells seasons will constantly toy with bipartisan relations, both for good and ill, and we’ll have plenty of material to discuss in the later seasons.)

Back in “The Portland Trip” [2×07] (which also confines much of its action to an airborne Presidential flight), Josh mentioned that the President “likes long plane rides.” That may have been true in the high-flying and idealistic Season Two, but at this point in the show, Bartlet is trying his best just to keep his two feet on the ground. By the end of “Angel Maintenance,” Air Force One is still nowhere near ready to touch land, and the President looks none too happy about it.

So it’s CJ who must leave us smiling. Despite the numerous failures our characters endure this episode, she remains cheerful through the final scene. “I never imagine my life would be in danger with really uncommon frequency,” she tells an airsick Will. “It feels a little bit good, doesn’t it?”

Normally, it wouldn’t. But in an episode where so many characters endure their losses with a bitter aftertaste, CJ’s beacon of optimism feels very good indeed.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ CJ trying to distract the press with Dial-a-Joke.
+ CJ and Will arguing over who should distract the reporters over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
+ I like Margaret’s hair in this episode. That’s not a very interesting observation, but it’s been a while since Margaret has been in the Minor Pros.
+ Bartlet referencing Smoot and Hawley. It’s nice to see the show make a political reference from within the last century.
+ Landis speculating if the Democrats want a tax on clams. (If you don’t get the joke, you’ve clearly never been to Maryland.)
+ CJ kissing Ed. Or… did she kiss Larry? Man, I give up.


[Score]

B+

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