[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: John Wells | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 09/24/2003]
“You know, I’m not the enemy.” – Walken
It begins tensely, tautly. The camera pans over several broadcasting reporters, each rattling off the breaking news that Walken is now the President. Then we make our way to the interior of the White House, where staffers worry about the future, given that Walken is now the President. Then we hover on a TV screen broadcasting a live feed from the briefing room, where a humbled Bartlet stands behind Walken, who fields questions as the President.
Finally, Leo steps into the Oval Office, and people step out of the way for the SHOCKING REVEAL that… um, Walken is now the President.
Yes, there’s a new man in charge – not just in the in-universe context, but behind the scenes as well. With Sorkin gone, it’s John Wells who will carry us through the remainder of the series’ run. And amazingly, the very first scene of Wells’ very first episode breaks down much of what is right and wrong with Wells’ very first season: Lots of tense drama, well-directed (in this case, by atmospheric expert Alex Graves) and well-acted, building and building until it finally reaches… a fairly unspectacular conclusion.
It’s the first time, of course, that Season Five will give us a whole lot of buildup and an underwhelming payoff – but sadly, it is far from the last. Yes, we’ve reached what is considered by many to be The West Wing‘s worst season – one that’s been criticized even by the show’s most ardent fans.
But while there is certainly a lot of fault to be found in this season, there is still merit as well. Merit that can be found even in this somewhat uneven and unbalanced premiere.
Wells, to be sure, was put in an unenviable position following Sorkin’s departure. Not only had the show’s creator had a hand in writing nearly every script from the first four seasons (and was chiefly responsible for the distinct rhythms of the show’s excellent dialogue), but “Twenty Five” [4×23] had blown up the series’ central premise in a way that seemed irreparable. With Zoey Bartlet abducted and her father now ceding the Presidency to the Republican House Speaker, the show’s characters were in more dire conditions than ever.
It’s only natural that Wells was yearning to resolve the kidnapping storyline quickly, and return a series he had never directly been involved in to something resembling a status quo. But in attempting to properly follow up to the Season Four cliffhanger, “7A WF 83429” finds itself in an especially precarious situation, trying to reconcile devastating drama of both the political and personal variety.
Taken on their own, the Walken and Zoey developments would each be enough to carry an entire episode. But with the two inextricably linked, it becomes a battle to see which one will be the episode’s primary dramatic focal point. And unfortunately, it’s a decision that “7A WF 83429” is never truly able to make.
Even as Jed Bartlet grieves, and even as his family (including eldest daughter Liz, at last making an onscreen appearance) struggles with what could have sparked Zoey’s abduction, Josh spends the episode agonizing over the possibility of a Republican takeover. Always one of the show’s more overtly political characters, Josh’s concerns are not necessarily out of character. But with his President and surrogate father figure now in emotional turmoil, his constant venting (he begins voicing his concerns even before the news of Walken’s ascension breaks to the public) makes him come off as more callous than usual.
This is not even bringing in the Shareef thread, which (like so much else) hit a breaking point in “Twenty Five” [4×23]. That Danny is prepared to break the story of the Qumari diplomat’s assassination should be a cause for alarm; instead, this story is lost in the shuffle, barely granted a few minutes of screentime between Bartlet’s grief and Walken’s bluster. Also appearing on the periphery is a terror attack, which enters the story during the episode’s second half and is hardly given room to breathe.
Obviously, some of the blame here can be shifted to Sorkin, who clearly didn’t want to exit his series with a whimper. But no matter who can be faulted, the end result remains the same – we’re left with a season premiere that feels unbalanced and overstuffed.
And yet, as I stated earlier, there is merit to be found in Season Five, even in this premiere. Wells may not yet have a grasp on these characters, but he’s already proven in shows like China Beach and ER to be a skilled dramatist, particularly when it comes to quiet moments. And there are a number of quiet moments in “7A WF 83429” – the brief but touching scene between Bartlet and his middle daughter speaks volumes (more than her entire introductory episode, “Ellie” [2×15]), as do the little scenes he shares with Abbey and Charlie and Leo. There’s nothing incredibly complex about these scenes – in each, we’re watching a man forcefully avoiding the idea that he may have been responsible for the loss of his own daughter. But the dialogue (or, in some instances, lack thereof) is raw and heartfelt, and Sheen sells every bit of it.
On top of that, there’s Walken himself. The new President was quickly and boldly established at the end of “Twenty Five” [4×23], and the season premiere continues to portray him as firm yet rational, his no-nonsense demeanor affording him a distinctly professional air. John Goodman does fine work, making Walken likable despite the way Team Bartlet perceives him as a threat. Not everything about the character clicks – saddling him with a little dog somewhat undermines the heavy drama – but overall, it hints towards better, deeper portrayals of Republican characters to come.
“What’s next?” the new President asks at one point in this episode. Like the man he’s stepped in for, Walken is a forward-thinking individual, taking less time to savor his promotion than to retaliate against the presumed kidnappers and terrorists. And John Wells, too, is clearly eager to resolve this situation as quickly and cleanly as possible, aiming to keep this premiere in a controlled and contained environment. The result is successful, albeit spottily – “7A WF 83429,” as stated, is a cluttered and uneven episode, and doesn’t hold up under scrutiny the way previous season premieres did. But given the mess Wells was left with when he first took the show’s reins, it’s somewhat impressive that he managed to sustain the intrigue at all. The question here is obvious: Can the intrigue be sustained going forward?
Only time, and future Sorkin-free episodes, will tell.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Will un-mussing his hair. Poor Will.
+ Walken’s reaction to seeing Carol dust down CJ.
– The “bagel” joke falls completely flat. A shame, since it’s one of the few legitimate attempts at humor in the episode.
– The opera vocals during the final montage. Painfully over-the-top.