West Wing 4×23: Twenty Five

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 05/14/2003]

“It’s… just a political reality.” – Josh

Ah, that final shot.

That final shot is an evocative one for a number of reasons, not least because it represents the final moments of The West Wing that Aaron Sorkin himself ever gave us. Though the last three seasons (and the final one in particular) certainly have their strengths, “Twenty-Five” can’t help but feel like the end of an era, as Sorkin departs the series he has overseen since its inception.

In a way, the final shot can be taken metaphorically, as we watch a leader choose to step down from his lofty position for what he presumes to be the greater good, allowing another man who has never been a direct presence on the series but has been involved in crucial behind-the-scenes work to take his place. The circumstances between Bartlet and Sorkin, and Wells and Walken, are of course quite different, but it’s difficult not to notice their facile similarities.

Equally as noticeable is the music that plays as Bartlet exits the Oval Office, having surrendered his power over the life of his daughter. Snuffy Walden’s West Wing theme plays out on woodwind, evoking the show’s more inspirational moments. (The hyper-optimistic first season used that music all the time.) Although Bartlet’s invocation of the 25th Amendment may feel like the most distressing move of his career, we are reminded of what a noble move it truly is. Way back in “A Proportional Response” [1×03], Bartlet was willing to spark a vicious retaliation when some guerrillas shot down a plane which was transporting his close friend, and was only talked down by Leo. Here, it is Bartlet who talks himself out of reckless behavior – having been through numerous military attacks and hostage crises in the last four years, he understands the severity of the current situation.

So the themes of Season Four finally come full circle. The season’s early arc feature Bartlet trying to retain the Presidency through reelection – now, Bartlet surrenders the Presidency of his own volition.

It’s perhaps not as impactful as it could have been. Season Four remains the most unwieldy and uneven season of Sorkin’s tenure, as well as the second-weakest season of the series, and its lack of focus and high stakes have made some of its punches feel rather muted. But “Twenty-Five” makes do with what it’s given quite commendably, and shows signs of improvement from the season’s earlier missteps. Robert Ritchie was and remains the worst political caricature the series has ever given us, and his lack of presence robbed much of the reelection arc of its potency. Not so with Glenallen Walken. Though his appearance at the end of “Twenty-Five” is limited to but a few minutes, he immediately establishes himself as a strong, forceful politician, prepared to handle Zoey Bartlet’s kidnapping rationally yet firmly. As with Bartlet’s first appearance way back in the “Pilot” [1×01], Walken makes his presence felt with an imposing speech that perfectly defines him while putting any member of his opposition in their place.

Walken’s sudden usurpation of Bartlet is but the latest in a long line of spontaneous plot developments that have occurred in these last few episodes, after the sudden ousting of Hoynes (who would otherwise have taken Bartlet’s place) and the kidnapping of Zoey. The latter development borders on ludicrous, and feels awfully like Sorkin attempting to sabotage his own show on his way out the door. (It’s not the only time an exiting showrunner chose to blow everything up right before their exit – see David Greenwalt’s third-season finale of Angel, or Amy Sherman-Palladino’s sixth-season closer to Gilmore Girls.)

And yet, at least in The West Wing‘s case, the kidnapping story works. The season itself has been highly erratic, to the point that we’ve become primed for pretty much anything to occur. More importantly, “Twenty-Five” never for a moment undermines the severity of the situation. What it gives us are forty-three minutes of tense, gripping television, filled with passionate, psychosomatic behavior – Charlie attacking Jean-Paul, Abbey’s desire to make a direct appeal to the kidnappers – that keeps us riveted to the screen.

And like so many of the show’s other great storylines, the emotional crux is relatable and humanly simplistic. As Will sums up Bartlet’s decision, “It’s a fairly stunning act of patriotism, and a fairly ordinary act of fatherhood.” The bond between father and child is portrayed here at its most gentle (Toby meeting his kids for the first time) and its most fragile (Bartlet rationalizing his internal struggle between the fate of Zoey and the fate of the country). And even at one extreme, there are traces of the other – Toby’s daughter is named after the Secret Service agent killed on Zoey’s watch, while the episode itself opens with docile childhood pictures of the youngest Bartlet girl. The West Wing has always done an excellent job of grounding the most complex of stories in basic human emotion, and “Twenty-Five” is no exception.

But like I said, it’s all about that final shot.

Jed Bartlet is no longer President. At this moment, he has no political power at all. He is in the weakest position we’ve ever seen him, in a more fragile state even than the time gunmen opened fire on his assembly, or the time his mentor was killed by a drunk driver, or the time he gave the order to assassinate a foreign diplomat. Yes, Jed Bartlet has been stripped of everything that, only minutes earlier, had made him the most powerful man in the world.

But there is no sense of gaping tragedy to that final shot. Certainly, the impromptu inauguration of Walken has given Bartlet’s political opponents a sudden edge. But the circumstances surrounding Bartlet’s surrender of power only serve to remind us of his nobility and selflessness. In a strange way, the Bartlet who exits the Oval Office at the end of this episode may be the most powerful Bartlet we’ve ever seen.

The West Wing still has three seasons of story to unfold, all of which will occur under the management of executive producer John Wells. Wells’ tenure, while certainly not without problems, will take the Bartlet administration in several new and fascinating directions, honoring Sorkin’s vision while building the series into something significantly different. As if the ending of “Twenty-Five” wasn’t indication enough, the story is far from over.

 


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ The slow-mo shot of Zoey’s photos falling to the floor, followed by the glass shattering, is spectacular.
+ Aww… Toby’s kids are cute.
+ Toby whacking the exit sign on his way out of the hospital.

– “Lyman Hoes”? Seriously? Was “LemonLyman” not bad enough?


Foreshadowing

* Toby to Bartlet: “There’s no one in this room who wouldn’t rather die than let you down.” That’s sweet. And, in retrospect, sad.


[Score]

A-

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9 thoughts on “West Wing 4×23: Twenty Five”

  1. [Note: Unpaid Intern Staffer posted this comment on December 7, 2016.]

    One can only assume that the *first* weakest season to which you obliquely referenced above is the next one. Truly, Season 5 almost made me stop watching The West Wing entirely, and if it hadn’t been for one or two momentary bright spots (Shutdown, Slow News Day, and The Supremes are the only three episodes I would really call worthy of the West Wing brand in that season), I probably would have. Thankfully 6 and 7 get back to basics, but this episode was probably the series finale of the REAL West Wing, all things considered.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on December 7, 2016.]

    Indeed, I was referring to Season Five. Despite that season’s flaws, however, I do believe it has a leg up on S4 when it comes to analysis. The successes of S5 are in some ways more gratifying than those of S4, and the failures are more interesting to talk about. Needless to say, I look forward to reviewing it.

    Incidentally, I believe this is the first time I’ve ever heard “Slow News Day” referred to as a highlight of that season.

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  3. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on December 7, 2016.]

    “Slow News Day” on its own may not be a highlight of the season, but in concert with “Shutdown” and “The Supremes” it forms the spine of Marina’s arc. Thus making it a great episode. 😛

    For real now, I love the Wells years and can’t wait for you to begin your reviews. They won’t be as pointlessly negative as the rest of the Internet is towards Season Five I hope.

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  4. [Note: Unpaid Intern Staffer posted this comment on December 9, 2016.]

    “Slow News Day” gets a lot of love from me because it’s one of the few episodes to feel like it really embraced the Sorkin-era optimism again. It’s also got a great spotlight on Toby, which is always good, and it’s a nicely subtle way of celebrating the 100th episode without overtly acknowledging that’s what they’re doing.

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  5. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on December 9, 2016.]

    Interestingly, “Slow News Day” seems to get singled out by many fans for over-indulging in Sorkin-era optimism. I don’t find it to be a good episode, but it’s also not one of the season’s worst.

    Also, I’ve never been able to deduce whether “Slow News” or “The Benign Prerogative” is officially the show’s 100th episode. Thanks a lot, “20 Hours in America.”

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  6. [Note: Unpaid Intern Staffer posted this comment on December 9, 2016.]

    “20 Hours in America” is in fact two episodes, at least according to Wikipedia, making “Slow News Day” the 100th. And if I can’t trust the Almighty Wiki, who can I trust?

    Anyhow, for a season that seemingly took a perverse pleasure in stomping optimism into the ground (“Disaster Relief” and “Talking Points” stand out as the most egregious offenders in that regard), a little over-indulgence in Sorkin-era feel-good material was a pleasant surprise every now and then.

    I don’t know if this is going to ruin the surprise or anything, but what’s your favorite episode of Season 5 personally?

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  7. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on December 9, 2016.]

    Hint: My favorite Season Five episode was mentioned in the second paragraph of your post.

    Hint #2: My favorite Season Five episode is not “Disaster Relief.”

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  8. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on December 17, 2016.]

    Oh, question I should ask. (Because god knows the writing staff on WW doesn’t understand names at all.) Is his name really Glenallen? Like, just one word? Seriously?

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  9. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on December 17, 2016.]

    Some sources spell his name as two words. Some spell it as one word. I just spell it as one word because I want people to comment on the ludicrousness of spelling it as one word.

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