[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: John Sacret Young & Josh Singer | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 01/07/2004]
“Trust the people, Jed.” – Newman
Have you ever wondered about how Jed Bartlet first came to be President? We know what inspired him to embark on the path in the first place, and how the staff first came together on his campaign. But the mechanics of his first Presidential victory are never explored in the series proper. His opponent during the 1998 campaign, in fact, never makes an appearance, and isn’t even granted a name. (As flat and cartoonish a character as Robert Ritchie was, he was still, in the end, a physical character.)
Many questions about Bartlet’s rise to power can and have been raised, but within the fabric of the series itself, the answers are largely unimportant. The West Wing is a show about the here and now of the Presidential administration, developing its characters within the world of the White House. Any events that occurred before the “Pilot” [1×01] are only important insofar as they reflect on and deepen these characters (as the show’s many wonderful flashback episodes demonstrate); plot details are only necessary to maintain tension in the show’s present day.
“The Stormy Present,” however, has other ideas. In the space of forty-three minutes, it attempts to layer political background into the world of The West Wing (a world which, as many commentators have pointed out, politically deviated from our own somewhere around the time of Richard Nixon). We learn here of two former Presidents, and of political decisions made long before Bartlet took office. In fact, the entire crux of this episode is built around the death of a former leader.
Yes, there’s a lot of fresh information in “The Stormy Present,” delivered on the fly as Bartlet and his staff prepare for the funeral. But even as the episode tries to paint a clear picture of the late Owen Lassiter – with help from Glennallen Walken and the newly-introduced D. Wire Newman – it ultimately can’t compensate for the fact that its background-heavy story appears almost entirely from the ether.
Contrived plotting is a problem The West Wing falls victim to from time to time (I discussed the issue at length in my review of “Ellie” [2×15]), but it’s rarely been as blatant as it is in “The Stormy Present.” Prior to this episode, we’d heard nary a whisper about Lassiter, or Newman, or any other in-universe Presidents of the late 20th century. Suddenly, we get an entire episode centering on the death of a character we’ve only now been introduced to.
So “The Stormy Present” spends a lot of time explaining. Explaining who Lassiter was, explaining how Bartlet felt about him, explaining how Toby and Newman and Walken felt about him. On top of this, it also spends a considerable amount of time establishing Newman (without ever explaining why his name is “Wire,” or what that little “D” stands for). By the time we’re done laying pipe, there’s barely any room for the episode’s emotional side to shine through.
And when the emotion does come, it feels muted. This is partly due to the overabundant exposition, but also because of Season Five’s continually fumbled attempts to provide a balanced political perspective. Lassiter was conceived by Team Wells in the mold of Ronald Reagan: a Republican leader loved by his own party, and both hated and respected by his opposition. (Newman, following in this vein, seems to be based in part on Jimmy Carter.) But beyond a few statements made about Lassiter’s character and temperament, “The Stormy Present” doesn’t saddle Bartlet’s storyline with much drama. His relationship to Lassiter is painted in vague terms, which is clearly meant to underscore his conflicted emotions. But instead, it only causes the episode’s message to come off as muddled.
As in previous Season Five episodes, Bartlet is searching for a new political direction – and following a rise in Middle Eastern protests, he’s finding it difficult to toughen up against terror. Newman and Walken both have their own philosophies, clipped and basic as they are, but they don’t get enough time to elaborate on them. And Lassiter’s posthumous advice (“Listen to Lincoln,” which drives Bartlet to visit the 16th President’s famed Memorial) feels too on-the-nose to be effective.
“The Stormy Present” works better around the fringes – particularly in a subplot involving a long-lost copy of the Bill of Rights. When Josh (for reasons that never make much sense, but never mind) decides to act as mediator over a 19th-century dispute between Connecticut and North Carolina, he winds up debating the merits of the Bill of Rights with the more conservative Angela. The story doesn’t lead anywhere too thrilling, but it’s a good sign that The West Wing is growing more comfortable with challenging the ideals of its main characters.
Also a good sign is that Team Wells is remembering how to have fun. Another subplot, centering on CJ’s investigation into governmental mind-control, is one of the most amusing of the season, and gives the episode some well-appreciated air. With so much seriousness in the surroundings, it’s nice to see a bit of humor centering on the usually morose topic of governmental paranoia.
Overall, regrettably, the episode gets bogged down by its awkwardly cloth-cut narrative and lack of resonance. It’s a collection of good ideas half-heartedly strung together, and executed without nearly enough fanfare. While far from the season’s weakest offering, “The Stormy Present” is best left in the past.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Some funny in-episode foreshadowing when Bartlet jokes that Leo is bringing a woman “young enough to be his daughter.”
+ Josh trying to convince Angela to sit next to Bartlet in the theater.
+ Toby singing the M*A*S*H theme. Insert obligatory Vinick joke.
+ Dr. Milkman watching CJ’s gait.
* Real-Life Foreshadowing: Lassiter, as mentioned earlier, was modeled in large part on Ronald Reagan. Reagan himself died just five months after this episode aired.