West Wing 5×14: An Khe

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: John Wells | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 2/18/2004 ]


“I’ll take it from here.” – Leo

Leo McGarry is simultaneously The West Wing’s simplest and most complicated character. He seems easy to define – the well-meaning, wryly humorous conduit between the President and his staffers. But the actual Leo is more difficult to pin than that.

As I’ve stated a few times in the past, Leo is the show’s most realistic character – a staunch pragmatist in a world of idealism. When Bartlet goes too far, Leo is the one to tug the reins. More than any other character – even audience surrogates like Charlie and Donna – he grounds the series with his practical look at national and global politics. One would think that Leo would be an easy character for Team Wells to write for, given the less romanticized themes of the later seasons. But surprisingly, Leo is the one character the post-Sorkin years could never seem to get right.

Part of the problem may lie in the effects of the show’s tonal shift. With the show’s more idealized edges sanded off, Leo no longer stands out the way he did before. If anything, there are times when his practicality can come off as less warm than hostile (as in “Constituency of One” [5×05]).

A further issue arises when Wells misguidedly places Leo front and center. Although Sorkin gave Leo a few spotlights early in the show’s run (such as the first season’s alcoholism arc), his relatively low-key character has always fit better in a secondary role. (Leo’s finest moment – “Bartlet for America” [3×09] – is based almost entirely around his connection to Bartlet.) Episodes like “An Khe” only prove how difficult it is to make him the emotional crux of a story.

What does “An Khe” try to accomplish? The story concerns Leo putting his career on the line for an old friend who saved his life in Vietnam. The main problem isn’t that said story is pat and staid and devoid of any long-term relevance. (Although yes, it is all those things.) No, the problem is that it doesn’t really tell us anything new about Leo. It forces a typically reactionary character into the limelight, contriving a story around him and offering precious little insight in return. The scattershot Vietnam flashbacks (featuring young versions of Leo and his wartime friend) are not merely pointless, but redundant. They slow down an already meandering episode, reiterating plot points that are already detailed in the present day.

The core of “An Khe” is such a drag, in fact, that it takes the most unlikely of subplots to inject the episode with creative juice. Following up from “The Warfare of Genghis Khan” [5×13], CJ confronts Taylor Reid, the obnoxious talk-show host who refers to her as a “chicken” (an insult the rest of the White House inexplicably finds hilarious). The story is among the season’s better CJ showcases – which is not saying much, given the competition – but its more notable for its awkwardly developed antagonist.

The character of Reid was inspired in part by the abrasive and confrontational Bill O’Reilly, but he’s not nearly threatening or vindictive enough to rub off as anything beyond a nuisance. Reid mocks CJ’s views and puts the White House on the defensive, but his limited screentime barely allows the episode to set him up as a threat before CJ shoots him down. Jay Mohr does what he can to liven up the character, switching from hostile to friendly the moment the cameras are off, but he isn’t given much to work with.

A 2014 Atlantic piece named Reid the worst character in all of The West Wing. Personally, though, I would still put him above Jean-Paul, and probably even Mandy. When all is over with, the show doesn’t try nearly hard enough to make Reid a likable or detestable character – he essentially exists for a time-filling and forgettable subplot, stuck in the middle of another time-filling and forgettable episode.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Though I’m not a fan of the flashbacks, the teaser’s first segue between past and present is very well-done.
+ Okay, the “chicken suit” line made me chuckle. And it stealthily sets up the Big Bird jokes we’ll be getting in “Eppur Si Muove.”
+ Josh referring to Ryan as “Jimmy Olsen.” Hey, you’re no Superman yourself, Josh.
+ Debbie reminiscing about the Summer of Love.
+ Bartlet’s reaction to seeing Ryan explain the tax plan: “…Who’s this?”

– “The tall lady”? Shut up, Taylor.
– Why does the camera wait so long to show us Ben’s face? Weird.

Score: C

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