West Wing 5×03: Jefferson Lives

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Carol Flint & Debora Cahn | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/08/2003]

“It appeals to Dad. You know, hope and irony.” – Zoey

Whenever I start reviews on a new West Wing season, I usually begin by defining that season’s overarching theme. Defining a theme allows me to set a tone for that season’s reviews, and helps me build on previous ideas when writing about each new episode.

Though we’ve already covered the first two episodes of Season Five, I’ve yet to define any of the overarching messages of the season. Much of the blame can be shifted to the fact that the show’s creative overhaul has been far more noticeable and important than any thematic undertones. But as we’ve now moved past the season’s troubled two-part premiere, it’s only justifiable to follow the show’s lead and settle things into a more comfortable groove.

While Season Five may often feel unfocused (even more so than the bumpy Season Four), it does explore another facet in the show’s world of political power: The art of compromise. Partly by design (more on that in a later review), Team Wells will demonstrate how Bartlet’s invoking of the 25th meant more than just a short break from the White House – like it or not, it’s exposed a vulnerability in his administration. Ergo, compromise may sometimes be necessary if the President is to push his agendas forward.

It’s not the choicest of options, of course – as Leo sums up early in “Jefferson Lives,” “The message we need to send now is one of action.” But when their new contender for the Vice Presidency is met with resistance from both the Republican and Democratic leaderships, the question arises: Should they back down?

Once upon a time, Bartlet’s answer would have been a resounding “No,” but that was back when his emotional state was comfortably stable. Times have changed. Though the kidnapping ordeal is over, Bartlet still fears for Zoey’s safety, and his attempts to reconnect with Abbey are met with stoic silence.

His staffers, meanwhile, are left adrift. Pushing an agenda forward is especially difficult when their opposition is led by Jeff Haffley, the new House Speaker who shoots down their Veep choice and offers a few alternative “suggestions.” Haffley is nowhere near as obnoxious as he will later become, but he’s already proving to be a resistant force for the White House.

So what begins as a formality eventually grows into a legitimate search for a Vice President that Congress would approve. Josh frets about the futility of it all, Toby rolls his eyes at each new “audition,” and Bartlet struggles to stay awake as Senator Adar tries to impress him with a story pertinent to the July 4th proceedings.

It’s this last scene (in which Adar slowly and carefully tells over the widely-known story of John Adams’ and Thomas Jefferson’s simultaneous dying day) which manages to encapsulate the larger problem with “Jefferson Lives” – and, by extension, one of the larger problems with Season Five as a whole. As Zoey confirmed earlier in this episode, Bartlet knows the Adams/Jefferson story quite well, and thus has no interest in hearing Adar tell it to him as though it were the very first time. We can relate to Bartlet in this instance, because… well, so much of the story in “Jefferson Lives” feels repetitive, even while it makes every attempt to appear revelatory.

Start with the way the characters reiterate every beat of the Vice President storyline, until there is no doubt left about Berryhill’s chances. An already straightforward story is made even more simplified and predictable with the roundabout dialogue, especially once it becomes clear that the administration will need to pick someone from Haffley’s list. Well, gosh – do you suppose Bartlet will end up picking the one guy whom everyone takes the time to refer to as unqualified?

Repetition is nothing new to The West Wing, which, under Sorkin, turned the style of echoing dialogue into something of an art form. But “Jefferson Lives” seems unwilling to let viewers figure anything out on their own. Zoey’s recovery scenes are filled with the quiet moments that Wells excels at, with moments like her struggle to smile for the cameras and her uneasy interview with Will among the episode’s highlights. But the horse-riding flashbacks are an unnecessary addition to the story that cheaply attempts to tug at viewers’ heartstrings. And were that not enough, we also have Charlie spelling out what should be blindingly obvious: “She thinks what happened was her fault.”

The idea of Zoey putting on a front for her father (and the media) is intriguing – it demonstrates the difficulties of being a President’s daughter, where everyone expects you to smile and look pretty for four to eight years. But rather than explore this idea to any deeper degree, “Jefferson Lives” just feels content to restate it, again and again. And therein lies the larger issue: Season Five is not merely the least subtle season of The West Wing, but also the most superficial.

Still, there are some promising ideas that do get a proper treatment. “Bingo Bob” Russell may seem like an unlikely VP, but he winds up impressing Bartlet with his insistence on having a hands-on role in the White House. Hoynes may have been a smart politician, but he was not above undermining the Bartlet administration to clear the path for his own reputation. It’s only natural that a politically weakened Bartlet could use an extra helping hand, even from someone who wears riding boots in the Oval and enjoys “a good rubber chicken.”

That positive note forgives some of the faults in “Jefferson Lives,” which is much quieter and thus less noticeably imbalanced than the two episodes that precede it. Still, there are too many ideas in need of more development – straight down to that title. Most historians agree that Adams’ final words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives” – either that, or they debate whether he said anything to the effect at all. They also point out that James Madison also died on July 4th, only five years after Adams and Jefferson. And many, many history buffs have indicated that the US neither declared their independence nor signed the Declaration on the day of July 4th. All of these are fascinating bits of trivia that probably deserve mention, but “Jefferson Lives” just went for the obvious.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Zoey’s reaction to seeing Bartlet prepare an espresso: “Finally, you join the 21st century.”
+ Toby and Josh’s weak attempts to keep Russell from realizing that they’re looking for a VP.
+ Bartlet disliking the Adar interview so much that he can’t even stick around long enough for Debbie to interrupt them.
+ I like the name “Bingo Bob.” That is all.

– Chyrons on this series are useful to indicate the passage of time, but we don’t need them to explain “Republican Leadership” and “Democratic Leadership.”
– Bartlet’s remark about Russell (“He ain’t my choice… but hey, we hated the last guy”) feels pretty callous to Hoynes.



6 thoughts on “West Wing 5×03: Jefferson Lives”

  1. [Note: Unpaid Intern Staffer posted this comment on January 10, 2017.]

    Gary Cole is a terrific actor and I actually think the character of Bob Russell wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It was good for the show to round out the different kinds of Democratic politicians they portrayed. Unfortunately, the arrival of Russell heralds the complete ruination of a character that I had actually enjoyed a lot last season when Sorkin was still writing for him. I don’t know if John Wells just hated that actor with a fiery passion, but he sure screwed him over in a way the character could never recover from.


  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 10, 2017.]

    I’m pretty sure I know which character you’re referring to, and yes, it’s unfortunate what happens there. I doubt Wells hated the actor, though – the issue was partly that Sorkin had only introduced the character mid-S4, and left before he had been fully integrated into the cast. Wells wasn’t sure how he would be fully integrated into the cast, and thus took things into a new, non-ideal direction.


  3. [Note: Unpaid Intern Staffer posted this comment on January 11, 2017.]

    I can sympathize with any writer who got stuck with a barely established character to a degree, but Sorkin literally set up a very simple role for that character (New Sam), one that Wells could have just run with quite easily. Instead we got one of the most nonsensical face-heel turns in TV history.


  4. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on January 11, 2017.]

    On the other hand, moving away from Sorkin’s lazy Sam 2.0 characterization was a fantastic idea, so I can’t be that upset with Wells.


  5. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 11, 2017.]

    Ah, but I’d say there’s a significant difference between “moving Will away from his initial characterization” and “suddenly turning him into the exact opposite of everything he was before.”


  6. [Note: Unpaid Intern Staffer posted this comment on January 11, 2017.]

    Yeah, I have to agree with Jeremy on this one. It’s like the writers didn’t even *watch* the episodes of Season 4 Joshua Malina was in. Granted, it’s hard to find drama when a character is a fine, upstanding human being, but turning Will into a complete sell-out who compromises his integrity not even six months into his job at the White House would be horrifyingly cynical if I didn’t know it was simply the result of a badly thought out writing decision.


    The best (worst?) part of the whole thing is that absolutely surreal scene in Season 6 or 7, it’s been so long I forget which, where Will flat-out tells Josh or Toby, again I forget which, that he only went to work for Russell because he thought they all loved him. Whether you look at it as a terribly lazy retcon or confirmation that Will is just the dumbest human being on the face of the planet, that was one of the most laugh out loud moments of the series for me.


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