West Wing 5×02: The Dogs of War

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: John Wells | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 10/01/2003]

“A truly self-sacrificing act usually involves some sacrifice.” – Atwood

From the time I first began to study writing – heck, since the time I was first able to hold a book between my pudgy little fingers – I discovered that all good stories are based in conflict and resolution. Conflict creates a plot, drives the characters, and hooks the audience; resolution rewards our patience with a (hopefully) satisfying finish. The two tenets should complement one another, the better to create a solid foundation on which to layer the story.

The “kidnapping of Zoey Bartlet” arc is most certainly an example of conflict-and-resolution, but with a twist: The two halves were written by two separate people. The end of “Twenty Five” [4×23] – ostensibly the moment when our characters are at their lowest – is the moment when Wells jumped in to fill Sorkin’s shoes.

The problem here is not initially apparent, but it becomes so once the arc is completed in “The Dogs of War” – Sorkin and Wells are each viewing this same story from completely different perspectives. For Sorkin, conflict was the buzzword – make things as desperate as possible for the Bartlet administration, and leave it for the next guy to clean up. For Wells, the primary issue was resolution – tying up the story’s earth-shaking developments as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

In the past, storylines like the MS scandal and the Shareef assassination received slow, careful buildup at the end of one season, and were properly followed through in the next. This was understandable; in each of those cases, the story centered on something that Josiah Bartlet did, and his fears about how his staff and the public would react. There was ample time for setting up the tension, and even once the ball was dropped, the President was left with plenty of pieces to pick up.

But the story of Zoey’s abduction comes with a different flavor. Here, Bartlet is portrayed as the victim of the plot, rather than the driving force. The inherent drama is thus less interesting, at least from a character standpoint. Furthermore, the entire arc is set around a ticking clock – when and how, the show asks, will Zoey be found? There’s little opportunity in this scenario for long-term development – that is, unless the conclusion legitimately altered the status quo.

But given that Wells was only now stepping into the West Wing world, he needed a solid template to play off, and it’s thus understandable that he chose to quell Sorkin’s last-minute flames as quickly as he could, and return the show to the way things should be. But in the process, he only exposed the flaws that afflicted this arc from the beginning.

Structurally, “The Dogs of War” is a solid episode – it’s more tightly written than “7A WF 83429” [5×01], and now that enough time has distanced us from Walken’s inauguration, the story able to better balance the political with the personal. Time is reserved to the Bartlet family, but it’s wisely downplayed – Bartlet himself doesn’t even speak until the episode’s second half. The true emotional core of the episode is Leo, who serves as the perfect conduit between the past and current President. Leo does his best to comfort his old friend, but his conversation with Angela Blake demonstrates his understanding of the administration’s current political perils.

And all the while, the episode continues to humanize Walken, as he briefly confides in Debbie of his distaste for the office: “I never waned to be President of the United States.” At the same time, Steve Atwood turns out to be less smarmy than he initially appeared – he turns the tables on the politically paranoid Josh, explaining that Bartlet’s sacrificial act has earned the Republicans’ respect, and any attempt to hijack the Oval Office would only make them look bad. It’s a refreshingly welcome scene for a show that has so often struggled when it comes to writing civilized antagonists.

But while the setup is all well-done, none of this episode’s new developments lead anywhere very interesting. There is no dramatic climax – Zoey is simply, suddenly “found.” Walken cedes the Presidency back to Bartlet, having yet to feel as fully fleshed-out as he should. Josh and Atwood appear to reconcile, but there’s no greater message delivered beyond “Republicans aren’t always that bad.” (In fairness, that’s not a message the show has delivered very much in the past, outside of Ainsley Hayes.)

Even the final scene, in which Bartlet delivers another of his patented inspirational speeches to the public, feels muted. For much of the episode, Toby and Will have been debating the potential speech Bartlet would give, depending on the outcome – in the event that things ended in tragedy, would the country need to see their President as strong or heartbroken? The result – Bartlet ends up using Will’s heartfelt “if she dies” speech, albeit with some obvious alterations – should feel satisfying, as he combines both mortality and strength into a single paragraph. But very little of the speech is actually shown; instead, what we do see is reflected in the eyes of Abbey and her two elder daughters as they crowd around Zoey’s hospital bed. The end result is another jumbled and unsatisfactory attempt to merge the emotional with the political – something this whole arc has struggled with.

I don’t think it had to be this way. There was a version of the kidnapping arc that could have been not merely tense and engaging, but sustained emotional momentum right up to a thrilling climax. But when the first writer is solely focused on building the story up, and the second chiefly cares about tearing it down, conflict and resolution work against one another, and the end result is instantly forgettable.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Josh’s ringtone is less annoying than I would have otherwise assumed. Well done, Josh.
+ Amy on the phone with Josh… while standing right outside his door. “Nice track suit.”
+ Josh’s nonplussed reaction to finding Ryan in his office.
+ Ryan: “You guys always walk so fast?” (Trips and falls.)
+ Walken and Debbie’s brief discussion about Harry Truman.


Foreshadowing

* Josh’s overt concerns about the Republicans sets up his arc for the season, where he will grow increasingly paranoid and distrustful of anyone whose political views don’t match his own.


[Score]

C+

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2 thoughts on “West Wing 5×02: The Dogs of War”

  1. [Note: Unpaid Intern Staffer posted this comment on January 6, 2017.]

    Your review does a really great job of pinpointing why exactly this arc fell apart. The two halves never came together as one whole. One thing to add though, I believe Sorkin did actually have an idea on how to resolve the plot, but NBC had already fired him so they didn’t quite care about his ideas for the show anymore. I think the original conclusion had something to do with Zoey being kidnapped by domestic terrorists rather than foreign as Wells decided to go with.

    In the end, I think John Wells just wasn’t the type of showrunner at all who could write a TV series about a presidential administration. Ironically, he turned out to be quite adept at writing presidential *elections*.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 7, 2017.]

    Sorkin recently released an online master class in which he explains the art of screenwriting. In the class, he apparently breaks down his own script for episode 5×01 of The West Wing, had he stayed to write it. I haven’t watched the videos, but I’ve always been curious to see how he would have resolved the story.

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