[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 05/07/2003]
“What kind of day has it been?” – Leo
By the time he sat down to write the script for “Commencement,” Aaron Sorkin knew he was about to leave his own show. Tensions between him and the network had grown irrevocably strained, and with scripts constantly getting delivered last-minute and often going over-budget, not to mention the poorly-kept secret of his drug issues, Sorkin decided it best to bow out before things got too ugly. But after four years of writing nearly every word to exit the mouths of Toby and CJ and Josiah Bartlet, how could he suddenly quit the series, especially with the notion that it would most certainly continue without him?
The solution was twofold, and is on full display in the final two episodes of his tenure. Sorkin wanted to go out with a bang, while still giving some level of closure to the characters he had helped us come to know and love. The first of these goals is obvious in its implications – the juddering shock of “The President’s daughter’s been kidnapped!” is among the most twisted in the history of the series. But this development does not occur until the final minutes of “Commencement,” and attention should first be given to the fond farewell Sorkin gives the staff of the Bartlet administration.
The gentlest side of The West Wing has always existed in the form of romantic comedy, a genre Sorkin has long favored and often incorporated into his work. The snarky banter between Josh and Donna, or CJ and Danny, or Jed and Abbey, has given the series some of its most memorably lighthearted moments, infusing the heady drama with a playful sense of intimacy. Sorkin may not be great when it comes to maintaining a romance between two characters, but he knows how to ignite the chemistry between them.
And with “Commencement,” many of the show’s signature romances reach make-it-or-break-it points. CJ and Danny clash when the latter drudges up information pertaining to the Shareef assassination, and she is forced to make their relationship less personal and more professional than ever. Donna is directly poised with the question: “Are you in love with Josh?” And Toby has his heart shattered by the woman who is about to bear both of his children.
The Toby/Andy relationship has been portrayed unevenly this season, from her rather abrupt pregnancy to the seeming disinterest with which she’s written into and out of the storyline. But the scene where Toby, having just bought her the house of her dreams, has his remarriage proposal rejected before he can even get down on one knee is among the most emotionally affecting scenes of the whole season. “You’re too sad for me, Toby,” Andy says. “You’re sad, and you’re angry, and you’re not warm – you take forever to trust someone.” The criticism stings with truth. Too often in the past, we’ve laughed at the incompatible relationship between these two politically parallel but characteristically opposed individuals, her sunny outlook perfectly countering his stony exterior. With their marriage a thing of the past, we’ve never considered their reconciliation as anything but a long shot. Yet this one scene reminds us that these two were once, in fact, a couple, and their separation suddenly gains a more tragic edge. Suddenly, watching these two bicker isn’t very much fun.
Equally as strained in their relationship – and, as of late, far less compelling – are Charlie and Zoey. Back in Season One, these two made for one of the show’s most endearing couples; recently, however, they’ve become one of its biggest detriments. Between Charlie’s unsubtle, borderline-stalker advances on Zoey, and the general unpleasantness of Jean-Paul, very little pleasure has been derived from watching these two this season.
But now, at last, we get the payoff. Zoey is graduating college and plans to spend some time in France, leaving both her father and Charlie behind. In separate scenes, we watch both men have their chance to honor the young woman, with one speaking at her graduation ceremony (the speech, as so often happens on this series, goes unseen, but the smile exchanged between Bartlet and Zoey as he takes the stand is all we need) and the other literally digging up a bottle of champagne so that the two of them can have one final, heartfelt conversation before her exit. Zoey is largely a means to an end in this episode, and will only become more overtly so in “Twenty Five” [4×23]. But the fond farewells she is given in this episode are well-handled, drawn with some of the more honest emotion this show has featured in a while.
And, naturally, it all has to end in disaster.
In an age when political dramas like Scandal and House of Cards have consistently relied on pulpy plots and shocking twists, the kidnapping of Zoey Bartlet may not seem especially hair-raising. But The West Wing, in its day, was grounded in a deeply humanistic reality, its “fantasy” label only attributed to the extreme degree of positivity to which its characters were attuned. The climax of “Commencement” is, in many ways, a betrayal to that meticulously crafted ethos.
And yet what an excellent climax it is. Taut, riveting, and ever-mountingly suspenseful, with the pulsing techno beats of nightclub music acting as the show’s own increasing heart rate. From Zoey’s inquiry to the carefree Jean-Paul regarding ecstasy into her drink, to Wesley’s realization that she’s disappeared from the ladies’ room, to the image of Secret Service agent Molly lying prone on the ground with a bullet wound in her head, we slowly come to realize just how dire the situation has gotten. Bartlet’s “nightmare scenario” from “Mr. Willis of Ohio” [1×06] has now become a reality, and this episode is sure that we experience every bit of shock and horror that accompanies it.
Even the episode’s final transition is jarring. As a panicked Leo runs for the Oval Office, the screen does not fade to black – instead, it explodes into white, with the names of Sorkin, Schlamme, and Wells framed in black typeface. The intent is clear – everything in the world of the Bartlet administration has turned inside-out, and we suddenly wonder if things will ever be the same.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Leo reminiscing about the birth of Mallory. Aww.
+ Bartlet suggesting that Zoey become a candy striper or a surfer.
+ Bartlet telling Wesley that, if the choice comes up, he should “kill the boyfriend.” Keep dreaming, Jed.
+ CJ’s reaction to suddenly realizing that Danny is sleeping on her couch.
+ Toby’s brief mention of his father’s questionable past. It’s nice to see some level of follow-up from “Holy Night” [4×11].
+ Danny sleeping on the job… or is he?
+ Molly counted 183 cars. I miss Molly already.
* Josh ponders if Leo would be a good Vice President. This will, of course, have an interesting (though ultimately tragic) payoff down the line.