West Wing 5×13: The Warfare of Genghis Khan

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Peter Noah | Director: Bill D’Elia | Aired: 2/11/2004 ]

“But his music just left the solar system.” – Josh

The whole concept of Season Five is entirely at odds with itself. Wells was tasked with honoring Sorkin’s vision, while also branding The West Wing in his own style. So much of the season’s messiness comes from the inability to reconcile these two goals – idealism clashes with pragmatism; politics clash with soap opera; and characters constantly clash with each other.

Perhaps nowhere is the season’s dichotomous ideals more apparent than in “The Warfare of Genghis Khan.” The episode features two distinct storylines which represent the season’s two extremes. On one level, this is an attempt to combine the old house style with the new one. On another level, however, it’s an unfortunate case of the writers attempting to have the proverbial cake and eat it, too.

One story concerns the White House’s investigation into a mysterious nuclear explosion. The other revolves around Josh clashing with NASA, and his slow-growing respect for the space race. Plotwise, these stories share very little ground. Yet there are clear attempts to draw a thematic parallel – between the dark and the light, the hopeless and the hopeful.

And points for attempting. The NASA storyline hearkens back to the earlier seasons in its optimistic message about the future… and about how people can be inspired from the most unlikely of sources. Though Josh initially scoffs at Alex’s arguments – the space race, he tells her, has lain dormant for decades – he eventually begins to ponder the “What if?” questions she lobs at him. Though there isn’t much follow-up in later episodes, it’s nice to have an upbeat story thread which invokes the show’s better days.

But unfortunately, things don’t fare quite as well in the nuclear storyline. A few good character moments for Bartlet (where he worries about how he would handle a possible global war) are lost in a plot that amounts to little more than a political whodunit. Using real countries as the suspects is another of Wells’ attempts to lend an edge to the world of The West Wing, but it just makes the internatioinal conflicts mentioned in the episode feel heavy-handed.

The message of the storyline – that nuclear weapons are not the answer – is intended to contrast with the more hopeful vibe of the NASA thread. Technology can be used to inspire, the episode tells us, but it can also be used to destroy.

The pieces fit together, but they never really click. This can partly be blamed on the lack of plot cohesion between the two threads, but also due to the dramatic contrast in tone. Each plot seems to be fighting to be the A-story, to deliver the decisive tone, yet ultimately, neither succeeds. The result is an episode with a few decent parts, but an unsatisfying whole.

There’s not much else to say about “Warfare of Genghis Khan” – it’s neither one of Season Five’s more audacious offerings nor among its most offensive. I suppose I could draw this review out a few hundred words by bashing Taylor Reid, but… I respect you guys too much for that. Next time.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Bartlet offering to send the CIA Director a lollipop.
+ Josh reminiscing on the first time he looked through a telescope… into the women’s dorm.
+ Carol clucking.
+ Alex explaining to Josh why the sky is blue. (For some reason, moments when women explain things to Josh are quite satisfying.)


Foreshadowing

This episode sets up the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that opens Season Six. It also marks the first appearance of Israeli PM Zahavy.


Score: C+

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