West Wing 5×21: Gaza


[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Peter Noah | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 5/12/2004 ]

“The only dishonor might be not to try.” – Kate

Most folks don’t watch The West Wing for half-baked operatic romances. Most folks don’t watch it for thin, didactic exploration of Middle Eastern conflicts. And most folks certainly don’t watch it for confusing, poorly-told stories about half-baked operatic romances and thin, didactic exploration of Middle Eastern conflicts.

And yet… “Gaza.”

It would be a mistake to call the penultimate outing of Season Five a messy episode. “Separation of Powers” was messy. “The Benign Prerogative” was messy. Lots of episodes this season (and previous seasons, admittedly) fit the description of “messy,” the way it applies to an unkempt bedroom or an infant’s playpen.

But “Gaza”? “Gaza” is a freaking hurricane.

Where to start? Typically, I’d say the beginning, but “Gaza” seems quite unaware of where it begins, or ends, or where it puts any of those pieces in the middle. The episode opens with an in media res teaser. Then it flashes back to an earlier scene. Then it flashes forward. Then it gives us a flashback, followed by a flashback within a flashback. It’s as if the writers were watching Memento and thought, ‘Nah. Not confusing enough.’

If the purpose of all this time-skipping and jumping is to distract viewers from the gaping holes in the story, I applaud the effort. That said, all the flashbacks in the worlds can’t distract from the wafer-thin themes and characterizations of “Gaza.” Start with the uncompelling plot, which sends Donna, Fitz, and Andy to the Middle East to sit in on peace talks. (Why those three second-tier characters? So that the NBC promos could convincingly promise that “Tonight someone DIES!”) There’s no real engine to drive this plot, since the roles of these three in the peace talks are never fully fleshed out – it’s all just an excuse for the show to discuss the unending Israel/Palestine conflict. A weak romantic subplot between Donna and a handsome photographer is all the episode needs for character development. Andy barely gets any dialogue; Fitz only appears long enough to become the fatality promised by the commercials.

It’s all incredibly flimsy, not to mention manipulative. The conflict in the Middle East is among the tensest and most divisive in the world, as well as one of the deadliest. While the episode tries to examine the argument from both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, it never conjures up enough of a reason to justify its existence in the first place, outside of a need to create a tragic Donna spotlight and secure Janel Moloney a seat at the Emmys. (Moloney was nominated for her work in both this episode and “No Exit”; she lost to Drea de Matteo of The Sopranos.)

It’s only in the final ten minutes that “Gaza” becomes something resembling a good West Wing episode. The flashbacks disappear, the boring photographer goes away (for now), and the story returns its focus to the main cast. Ironically, the anchor point for episode’s home stretch is Kate Harper, a character who only joined the show two episodes earlier. Kate’s outsider perspective is underscored when tragedy strikes one of the White House’s own, and she is tasked with keeping a level head during the crisis. Bartlet respects her tenacity, but also takes time to show her the human side of war, letting her accompany him on the visit to the grieving widow of Admiral Fitzwallace. The final two seasons will often struggle to give Kate a place in the series, but this early appearance shows good promise.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about “Gaza” as a whole. While a change in locale and tone could have led to an interesting story, the episode we get is underplotted and undernourished. The show’s weakest season has just suffered another weak episode; now it remains to see if “Memorial Day” can send things out with dignity.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Toby doing his best Fargo impression: “I’m from Minnesota.”
+ Leo questioning the gender vernacular of “go-to guy.”
+ Bartlet’s optimist/pessimist analogy.

– Donna’s voiceover narration is supposed to provide a framework for the episode, yet the constant time-shifts only clutter it up.

Score: C

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