[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Carol Flint | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 01/14/2004]
“Plenty of lemons we can’t make a thing out of.” – CJ
Towards the end of “The Benign Prerogative,” a dazed, clearly distressed Donna walks into CJ’s office.
“I just had a call from Anne Kaehler, Donovan’s sister,” she says hollowly. “He killed himself.”
Silence. Then CJ speaks:
It’s a critical moment for the episode – a moment of emotional contrast, where the narrative momentum hits a sudden wall in the face of tragedy. It is a moment meant to elicit sympathy, while also tying into the episode’s greater overarching message.
Why, then, does it fall so completely flat?
It’s a question you find yourself asking at various points throughout “The Benign Prerogative,” an episode that trips and stumbles over itself at virtually every turn. While not for lack of trying, this episode barely leaves any emotional resonance. Ultimately, it comes off as the season’s most facile offering since “Constituency of One” [5×05].
Part of the problem may lie in its ambitions. “The Benign Prerogative” seeks to explore issues relating to the criminal justice system, specifically regarding prisoner clemency and mandatory minimums. It’s a heavy topic, one well worth exploring and debating – but it’s probably not one that can be easily contained in an episodic format. An ongoing series (such as Orange is the New Black, which explores the pros and cons of prison systems in fascinating detail) has ample time to dissect numerous problems and toy with plenty of solutions. But a single episode of The West Wing hardly has the means.
That’s not to say it doesn’t try. Seeing how all issues on The West Wing are filtered through executive eyes, we watch Bartlet grapple with his power of Presidential pardons, unloading his concerns on Leo through preachy dialect – lots and lots of preachy dialect. (What, the prattling monologues of “Take This Sabbath Day” [1×14] weren’t enough?) By the time Donna enters the story – intended, as in many other episodes, to serve as the audience surrogate – her arc barely has proper time to build up a head of steam.
Still, one could argue that Donna does give the episode an emotional arc, and her own investigation into unfair prison sentences makes for a palpable hook on which the writers can hang their message. And this could indeed make for an engrossing storyline – Donna has always been one of the show’s more sympathetic characters, and has acquired a noteworthy insider status over the last few years. The stage is set for a promising and emotionally effective story.
So why, then, does “The Benign Prerogative” insist on cluttering things up? Why does the episode feature an in media res opening before jumping to “Three Weeks Earlier”? (And why does the opening flash-forward extend past the teaser sequence and into the first act? That’s plain sloppy editing.) It’s the sort of unnecessary stylistic touch that only serves to distract from the story. Equally as distracting are the episode’s early signs of operatic drama – Joey is revealed (to no greater effect, mind you) to be pregnant, not long after (or before – sorry, the whole flashback device is disorienting) a woman slaps Charlie across the face. What show is this?
There are promising ideas scattered throughout “The Benign Prerogative,” but they just don’t amount to anything significant. Bartlet’s State of the Union address, for example, has been a reliable narrative device in earlier seasons, and much ado is made here about the need for the President to master his tone of voice when addressing the public. But rather than embellish on Bartlet’s speaking concerns, the episode paints his impediment with the season’s now-typical broad brush, preferring to focus on the message of the week.
It’s around this time when you start to realize that Season Five has lost what little driving force it’s previously had. The igniting element of the early episodes – Bartlet attempting to reaffirm his political power and stand up to Congress – was limply put to rest in “Shutdown” [5×08], leaving fourteen episodes of story to fill. The bulk of the season’s middle stretch is thus based around standalone plots, with almost no overarching threads to drive the series forward. Ergo, these episodes must stand or fall on their own merits.
And, too often, “The Benign Prerogative” falls. There are redeeming moments: Charlie’s romantic subplot, once you get past the awful “slap,” is well-executed, and gives the President’s aide his best showcase since “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14]. But too much of the episode hearkens back to the administration’s concern about Bartlet’s tone – the episode puts too much focus into how it’s getting its story across, and not enough into the story itself.
Near the end of the episode, as Bartlet ends a cordial discussion with one of the newly-released inmates he’s pardoned, the woman smiles.
“It must be an honor to work for him,” she tells Donna.
Donna returns the smile. “It is.”
Fade to black, and roll the obligatory credits.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ As little sense as the flashback-structure makes, I do like the overlapping timeline of events we get at the end.
– Toby’s “Guy couldn’t wait one hour” comment is insensitive, to say the least.
– Come to think of it, wouldn’t CJ have a slightly less nonplussed reaction to hearing about the death of someone named Donovan?