[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Eli Attie and Michael Oates Palmer | Director: Laura Innes | Aired: 10/29/2003]
“We don’t glorify ourselves.” – Josh
Okay, let me preface this: “Constituency of One” is not the worst episode of Season Five. It is not the worst-written, it does not feature the worst concept, and it isn’t even the most boring. No, the episodes with those labels are all still to come.
However, “Constituency of One” does bear one rather unsavory distinction: It is the Season Five episode which I hate the most.
The first four episodes of this season had their share of flaws, but for the most part, there was very little about them that was truly aggravating. But from this point on, nearly every other bump that this season will encounter can be traced to “Constituency of One,” an episode that completely screws with everything that once made The West Wing one of television’s best shows.
Plotwise, much of “Constituency of One” revolves around occupations in the White House – people quitting, changing jobs, and switching alliances. I suppose there’s some level of clever subtext here, as the episode itself features some musings about the state of unemployment. Such subtext, unfortunately, goes entirely unrealized. Instead, we’re treated to some a string of developments that are unpleasant, unengaging, and thoroughly out-of-character.
Start with our two resident speechwriters. The episode features Will deciding to leave his position under Toby and take a job for the newly-elected Vice President. Right away, the episode hits a wall. As underdeveloped as Will has been in the time since his debut, one thing has been perfectly clear from the start: his idealism in the face of adversity is practically unmatched. Yet all of the sudden, the man who once ran a campaign for a dead candidate is now choosing “the safe, predictable route” and backing a man he blatantly insulted just one episode earlier. I get that changing showrunners can lead to character hiccups, but Will’s characterization in this episode – “Bartlet’s never gonna finish the job he started” – feels entirely off the mark.
Toby is served no better. All the mutual respect built up between him and Sam’s replacement seems to have evaporated in this episode, as he dismissively ignores Will’s suggestions about economic organization. We know Toby to be stagnant in his views, but here he’s just portrayed as tactless and insulting. It’s practically impossible to sympathize with either man in this debate, between Will’s irrationality and Toby’s close-mindedness.
And that’s not the only instance of character betrayal of the episode. Amy Gardner, who has lately become one of the show’s most compelling supporting players, is abruptly written out when she attempts to push forward one of Abbey’s agendas during the First Lady’s absence. Her response to the President’s chastisement? “I wasn’t made to serve at someone else’s pleasure.” The Abbey/Amy relationship was nicely established as a respectable alliance at the end of Season Four, but this development seems to fly in its face – and rings particularly hollow given that Abbey doesn’t even appear in this episode. The writers had an excuse here – Mary Louise-Parker had gotten pregnant, and asked to be written out of the show – but this hardly seems like the most graceful of exits.
But don’t worry – you’ll barely even have time to be annoyed by Amy’s characterization, once you see what the writers have done to Leo. When CJ protests some hypocritical changes made by the White House to an EPA report, Leo lays down the law and tells her in no uncertain terms not to question him. The Leo McGarry we’ve come to know and love has disappeared in this episode, replaced by a crabby, unsympathetic goblin who dismisses CJ’s protests out of hand and leaves her to clean up her own (entirely well-intentioned) mess.
Look, I know that Sorkin’s insistence on keeping the main characters amiable and conflict-free made it difficult to write interpersonal drama – and on top of that, it wasn’t especially realistic. But however you view it, the Bartlet administration has been built on friendship and mutual respect for the last four seasons. So I have to ask: Where is all this negativity coming from? Why are all our favorite characters now acting like such obnoxious children?
“Constituency of One” provides no legitimate answers, but it certainly knows how to keep us asking undesirable questions. Like: What is the deal with Josh? As I mentioned while discussing the two-part season premiere, Josh has lately grown distrustful – even more so than usual – of people whose opinions conflict with his own. Following that, “Han” [5×04] showed us the ranges of his ego when he unwittingly took credit for Ryan’s political handiwork. Now, in “Constituency of One,” Josh’s self-image gets kicked up another notch when the papers began praising him as the White House’s most valuable asset. So when the Democratic Senator Carrick refuses to support a military backlog until the Bartlet administration agrees to compensate his home state, Josh ignores Leo and Toby’s musings of compromise and decides to call the Senator’s bluff.
There’s an idea for a good story here, but it’s completely bungled, because “Constituency of One” can’t decide if it wants to make Josh a bright-eyed hero or an arrogant simpleton. With nearly every other character in the episode radiating copious amounts of negative energy, Josh feels sympathetic by default. Yet with no buildup given to his sudden celebrity prior to this episode, and barely any time spent laying out an emotional arc, there’s no way for viewers to invest in it. When all is said and done, Josh simply comes off as a petulant child, and the episode’s big dramatic reveal – he inadvertently helps motivate Carrick to switch to the Republican Party – falls utterly flat.
This is, above all, the main reason that “Constituency of One” fails: Nothing about it connects. The story moves generically from Point A to B to C, never allowing viewers to process things on an emotional level. Everything feels rushed, as the episode crams exposition wherever it can, and never stops to dwell on the greater dramatic implications of its developments. Season Five is notable – for both good and ill – in the way it tends to be slower and quieter than the Sorkin years. But ironically, if there’s any episode that needs slowing down, it’s this one – all the unpleasant and out-of-character development makes even less sense when the episode doesn’t even give us proper time to digest it.
I’m struggling to find something I legitimately like about this episode. There are a couple of funny lines, as well as an amusing running gag involving a fish head. And Josh and Ryan share a telling – if all-too-brief – scene in which they discuss the price of celebrity. But these little moments are lost in a wave of poor characterization and flat storytelling. Nothing connects, nothing reflects, and nothing feels like the West Wing we know and love. Thankfully, I’ve just finished reviewing it. Let us never speak of this again.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Toby and Will discussing the lack of news on Fridays. A nice callback to “Take Out the Trash Day” [1×13].
+ The bowl of potatoes. Pointless, but amusing.
+ There is a color-coded calendar in Gail’s bowl. Gail is clearly well-organized.
– CJ fantasizing about Ben. Awkward and random.
– Ryan hitting on CJ. Even more awkward and random.
– Leo’s “We are the country!” may be the most wrong-headed line of dialogue in the entire series. Simply terrible writing.
– In fact, the episode’s dialogue in general just feels really clunky and obvious – even by Season Five’s usual standards. Thankfully, Team Wells later improves on that front (along with so many others).