[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Paul Redford | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 11/12/2003]
“There’s something going around.” – Bartlet
For the benefit of you loyal readers, I’ve put together a helpful little tutorial. It’s called “How to Watch ‘Separation of Powers.'”
Already I know what you’re thinking: This sounds like the most useless tutorial since Goofy taught the world about the violent joys of football. And indeed it is! But as someone who’s pledged to rewatch and review every West Wing episode, even during the show’s roughest stretches, I find it only fair that viewers get as much enjoyment from their experience with the show as possible.
To that end, the best way to watch “Separation of Powers” may not be quite what you think. The episode should preferably be consumed as part of a binge, directly after the cringing awfulness of “Constituency of One” [5×05] and the fallow boredom of “Disaster Relief” [5×06]. Following those two episodes, the messy but potent “Separation of Powers” will feel like a breath of fresh air, a beacon of hope after two disappointing misfires. (I’d also recommend that you have some strong beverage on hand. I’d say beer, but The West Wing was never much of a beer show. Perhaps a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir show, if “Dead Irish Writers” [3×15] is to be believed.)
I can’t claim that “Separation of Powers” is brilliant by any stretch – at best, it’s a low-fidelity episode, serving in part as a place-setter for “Shutdown” [5×08]. But it’s a comforting reminder that The West Wing is still in capable hands, and that the new writers are confident enough to breathe new life into forgettable ideas and characters.
Joe Quincy was essentially a cipher when he was introduced at the end of Season Four; referring to him as Ainsley 2.0 would be a compliment. His very introduction was riddled with plot contrivances, each of which knocked into the next one, domino-style, over the course of “Life on Mars” [4×21]. Upon taking the wheel, Wells could be forgiven for wanting to ignore this uncompelling character entirely.
Yet Quincy unexpectedly becomes the emotional spine of “Separation of Powers,” as Team Wells reveals that there’s more to be made of the Republican legal counselor than simple potshots. As a close associate to Roy Ashland, the liberal but senile Chief Justice, Quincy is called upon by the Bartlet administration to convince the old man to retire from the Court. The irony is obvious but clever – Bartlet seeks to dethrone the highest-ranking member of the judicial branch, even though they share similar views and were, at one point, of similar intellect. That the decision is put in the hands of a conservative – and better yet, one who has close personal ties to Ashland – makes for a most unusual form of two-party drama.
If anything, the real antagonist of the story is Toby. From the haste with which he begins to write Ashland’s eulogy at the start of the episode to his thinly-veiled disappointment when doctors reveal the old man will live, Toby doesn’t earn much in the way of likability points. Still, his position is understandable, particularly at a time when the Bartlet administration is in such disrepair. Following CJ’s pep talk in “Disaster Relief” [5×06], the President is determined to reassert his power in Washington, but his attempts to appoint a new Chief Justice are hampered by the fact that the old one insists on staying alive.
Though Ashland does finally concede that it’s time to hang up his robe, he’s still cognizant enough to realize that Bartlet will have difficulty finding a strong replacement (particularly one that Congress will approve of). But this acknowledgment only underscores the strength in Season Five’s verisimilitude – Bartlet has an uphill battle ahead of him, and his political opponents aren’t all that generous with leeway.
Bartlet’s emboldened stance climaxes at the end of the episode, when he and House Speaker Jeff Haffley find themselves deadlocked over a budget cut. Haffley’s role in this episode is another unfortunate contrivance – a late-game development that paints him as a villainous cipher, far removed from the episode’s sympathetic development of Quincy. And “Separation of Powers” aims too high with its final scene, which attempts to pit the two men in a gritty Mexican standoff. It’s a jarringly stark finale to what has until this point been a fairly fluid story.
Still, it’s not as though the episode leading up to that final scene was entirely free of excess baggage. The New Hampshire scenes, in which CJ preps Zoey for a post-traumatic interview, merely reiterate what we already know about Abbey’s uneasy standing with Jed, and seem to exist only to remind us of the First Lady’s role in the show. Season Five has a hit-and-miss record when it comes to interpersonal drama, as many of its character-based scenes feel like they belong in another, more generic series.
“Separation of Powers” is, unsurprisingly, at its best when it strikes a balance between emotion and politics. We get a fine such balance in the Chief Justice storyline, thanks to a secondary character we never thought we could care for (and who, we now regret, will never appear again). And as an extra treat, there’s an enhanced role for Donna, as Josh and Angela recognize her potential as a “living index.” Sometimes, the biggest delights can come from the most unexpected of places.
So there you have it. Watch “Constituency of One” [5×05] and “Disaster Relief” [5×06], pour yourself cup of Willamette, and enjoy the smooth complacency of “Separation of Powers.” Oh, and feel free to shut it off before that final scene. We can never be too careful.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ I like the name “Buffalo Bob.” That is all.
+ Hippogate. Now that sounds like a scandal.
+ Josh’s reaction to learning that Donna is in the budget negotiation meeting.
+ There’s a… TV? Is that a TV in Gail’s bowl? Why would there be a TV in Gail’s bowl? What does that have to do with anything? EXPLAIN YOURSELF, GAIL!
+ The cymbal crash which closes the episode. Excessively over-the-top.