West Wing 5×17: The Supremes

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Debora Cahn | Director: Jessica Yu | Aired: 3/24/2004 ]

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“Oh, my God. You’re putting my mother’s cats on the Supreme Court.” – Donna

“The Supremes” is the standard by which every post-Sorkin episode is measured. It’s a Season Five episode that’s liked even by Season Five’s biggest detractors. In terms of fan favoritism, it’s among the most popular episodes in the entire series.

So, is it ironic that I find it a little overrated?

Don’t get me wrong – “The Supremes” is easily one of the season’s best offerings, and a breath of fresh air after a half-dozen episodes of sterile wheel-spinning. But just as I’ve pledged to judge the season’s mediocre points with a fair critical eye, so too in this manner must I also judge its peaks.

I will, however, be brief in my criticisms, since it’s past time I doled out some praise. The faults of “The Supremes” are largely shared by the rest of Season Five – it’s a standalone episode, with very little in the way of non-operatic character development. The principal characters in the drama do not reference its events again, and some of them are confined to this episode alone. Moreover, the episode can’t mask the fact that its final-act resolution is too tidy, given the astronomical stakes involved.

But leaving these issues aside, “The Supremes” is a Season Five episode done right.

In Evelyn Baker Lang, the series crafts the ultimate liberal fantasy: A Democratic woman with an abortion in her past becomes Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That’s the kind of starry-eyed plot that’s crippled so much of the season, and threatens to topple this story as well. Why, then, does it work here?

Part of the reason lies in the fact that the episode is fully and openly honest in its intentions. Once it becomes clear that the Bartlet administration has set their sights on Lang to join the Supreme Court, the story does not bog itself down with sidetracks or self-aggrandizing speeches. The episode simply asks “How?” Getting Lang on the Court is certainly no easy task, so the episode hones its focus on the process, and then slowly and carefully develops into a study of bipartisan politics along the way.

Through this process, we encounter the episode’s other chief benefit. Early seasons of The West Wing were not particularly well-known for a nuanced portrayal of Republicans, and even the occasional Ainsley Hayes or Cliff Calley only earned the “good guy” label by being overly sympathetic to the Democratic opposition. But in order for “The Supremes” to work, it must give us a Republican who’s at least as respectable to his side as Lang is to hers.

Enter Christopher Mulready. Based on the snippets of conversation the episode grants us, it’s clear that the Bartlet administration is no fan of his. Yet never is he portrayed as stupid or malicious – in fact, he may be the smartest and most reputable one-off conservative the show ever introduced. He makes a strong case against Affirmative Action, and even goes head-to-head with Toby in a debate on gay marriage. (Granted, it’s quickly revealed that he’s “yanking Toby’s chain,” but only due to his similarly right-wing stance on congressional overreach.)

Lang and Mulready would provide a tug-of-war on what we’re told is a largely centrist Court, reigniting strong political debate and reaffirming the themes of the season. This is an episode about compromise – not necessarily by choice (Lang was never meant to be on the short list in the first place), but by design. The resolution may be a bit too easy, but the episode treats it respectfully enough to make it work.

It also forms the template that the show will use in its last two seasons. Though it initially seemed that bipartisanship could not breed satisfying drama, “The Supremes” proves that a weighty argument from both sides can yield success. More than any other episode this season, it recaptures the spirit of peak Sorkin-era West Wing, even if its message is startlingly – and refreshingly – different.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Ryan’s flower-sending mix-up. Nice going, Ryan.
+ Bartlet never is going to learn people’s names, is he? Sigh.
+ Toby accidentally using the hand sanitizer on CJ’s desk.
+ Donna’s “cat people” argument… and the way it inspires Josh to make the episode’s pivotal decision.
+ CJ and Senator Pierce getting drunk and singing the lyrics to “American Pie.” Too bad that scene was so short.

– Josh on Lang: “I love her mind. I love her shoes.” Don’t be weird, Josh.


Foreshadowing

Senator Pierce tells a surprised Josh, “Watch yourself. (Ryan’s) a mean and hungry tiger.” This is obvious setup for the events of “Talking Points.”

Andi chastises Toby for not taking a more involved role in his children’s lives, leading to him getting Lang’s autograph for his daughter. Toby’s attempts to connect more with his family will be a major component of his arc in the show’s final two seasons.


Score: A-

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1 thought on “West Wing 5×17: The Supremes”

  1. Josh’s “I love her shoes” as a negative? Come on…I loved that very Deborah Cahn line.

    BUT I agree it is a somewhat overrated episode, but I give it extra points for its huge injection of hope it gave viewers at the time that there was a possible better future for the show.

    Like

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