West Wing 5×16: Eppur Si Muove

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Alexa Junge | Director: Llewellyn Wells | Aired: 3/3/2004 ]5x16_top

“No, no, no. Not one of the daughters.” – Leo

Near the end of “Eppur Si Muove,” Debbie Fiderer is shown speaking to Ellie Bartlet.

“My sister died of cervical cancer,” she says. “She was 37. It was really fast. We didn’t know then… Noody knew it was connected to HPV.”

Ellie offers her sympathies, and tells her they’re developing a vaccine to rid the world of this horrible, life-threatening disease.

Then we cut to Elmo the Furry Red Monster, smiling and laughing as he gets a doctor’s check-up.

This scene is disturbing and distressing for multiple reasons, all of which are too complicated to explain in detail. (Rest assured, though, by the time I finished this episode, my dislike of Elmo had been fully rekindled.)

Why on earth, you well may wonder, would The West Wing do a Sesame Street crossover? What network executive decided that they needed to draw the preschool demographic to their prestige primetime political drama? And most importantly, why did no one think to give Big Bird any lines?

Granted, the episode takes many strides to downplay the strangeness of this crossover (helped, no doubt, by the fact that Abbey Bartlet used to be a regular target of the Mad Painter.) And some of the dialogue it provokes, like Abbey explaining to Debbie the difference between Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, is amusing. (Though I must take umbrage at Abbey’s notion that Kermit the Frog is the only link between those two shows. Sesame Street characters would occasionally guest on The Muppet Show, and vice versa. For example, Bert and Ernie once appeared on TMS, where the former danced with Connie Stevens while belting out a moving rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening.”) But no amount of self-deprecation can compensate for the fact that it’s all wrapped up in an episode about terminal illnesses and STDs. Whose idea was this?

The fact that I dwell so much on the brief Sesame Street scenes should give you the sense that the rest of “Eppur Si Muove” is largely forgettable. But that would be an unfair assessment. “Eppur Si Muove” is far from a masterpiece, but it’s still nowhere near the bottom of Season Five’s barrel. Though it feels slow and workmanlike, in the same vein of this season’s other recent standalones, “Eppur Si Muove” has a beating heart. It’s built around the relationship between the Bartlet parents and daughter Eleanor, and it’s the strength of that familial bond which raises the episode above mediocrity.

“Eppur Si Muove” succeeds where Season Two’s “Ellie” failed by painting a more nuanced and believable picture of Ellie’s relationship with her mom and dad, and affording the middle Bartlet daughter enough screentime to make the emotional material pay off. Here, Ellie is a victim of politics, caught up in a medical scandal purely due to her last name. Not much time is dwelt on the difficulties of being a First Daughter (that ground was already sufficiently covered with Zoey); instead, the episode just gives us some intimate family scenes that serve to develop both Ellie and Abbey.

Eleanor Bartlet may suffer from “middle child syndrome,” but she’s done a commendable job of staying out of the public spotlight. When she’s unwillingly forced into the open, it naturally riles up her father. Jed isn’t really the focus of this episode (he appears in a total of two scenes), but he gives his daughter a clear picture of why she can’t simply have a normal life. “I’m sorry you had the misfortune to be born in this family,” he says, “but our business is politics.”

In referencing Galileo, particularly his defiant statement about the Earth’s revolution (which gives the episode its title, translating to “And yet it moves”), Jed points out that science cannot make progress without first facing controversy. It’s nice thematic followup from “The Warfare of Genghis Khan,” another episode that was built around the pros and cons of scientific development (and which, fittingly enough, ended with a character gazing through a telescope). Ellie should embrace the more controversial side of her profession, and not simply be roped into it due to her surname.

But it’s Ellie’s mother who fully convinces her to persevere. Although Abbey’s return to the medical profession is treated with little buildup or fanfare, the point is made: She may have lost her medical license, but she hasn’t lost her motivation to treat the sick. Opting for volunteer work allows her to treat children her medical demotion. It’s an inspiring message for a daughter in need of inspiration.

It’s a real shame, then, that “Eppur Si Muove” isn’t very interested in carrying this “Like mother, like daughter” arc to its proper conclusion. It hits all the right emotional beats, but in the end, the episode is less interested in rounding out Abbey and Ellie’s arcs than it is in comparing CJ to Big Bird. The side-threads involving Will (who begins to realize that – big shock – Bob Russell isn’t the perfect politician he seemed to be) and Josh (whose story here mostly exists as setup for “The Supremes”) add little to the proceedings, only cluttering up what should have been a powerful Abigail and Eleanor showcase.

That’s not to say “Eppur Si Muove” is a lost cause, because it isn’t. But as we near the home stretch of Season Five, the missed opportunities only become more apparent. Instead of an inspiring character piece, we just get the same generic drama the show has given us all season. Only now with more Elmo.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ CJ’s wearing White Shoulders! Not that I have any idea what that is.
+ Did Diane Sawyer ever sing a duet with Cookie Monster? I can’t seem to confirm this. Oh, well, it’s still funny in my head.
+ Will’s inability to tell a CJ/Big Bird joke. (Don’t even get me started on the “Tall Street Journal.”)
+ Josh and Leo’s $20 bet. Just give him the money, Josh.
+ Toby teaching Rina about appropriate grammar. For shizzle!
+ Okay, fine. The Big Bird scene cracks me up. Happy?


Foreshadowing

Ryan is suspiciously absent from the episode (forcing Josh to handle the Sixth Circuit case himself). This will of course pay off in “Talking Points” (5×19).


Score: C+

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