[Writer: John Wells | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/27/2004 ]
“Sir, should we be here?” – Josh
About the best thing that can be said about “The Birnam Wood” is that it’s not nearly as self-aggrandizing as it could have been. The episode could have been an exercise in pompous polemic, the sort of all-too-important speechifying that doomed the worst of the Sorkin episodes. But John Wells (who wrote this episode, in addition to the preceding “Memorial Day” and “NSF Thurmont”) keeps the drama toned-down and evenly moderated. Attempts at political grandstanding are few and far between.
Unfortunately, while moderation is to be respected here, it’s also the ingredient that proves this episode’s undoing. “Moderate” and “toned-down” translate onscreen into another term: “Boring.”
And holy heavens, is this episode boring. The story, such as it is, consists of 43 minutes of dull, deliberate conversation about the history and underpinnings of the Israel/Palestine conflict. The conversations typically occur between members of the main cast, but center almost entirely on the fates of guest stars, and there is little impact made on episodes which follow. The resulting episode is dull and almost entirely disposable.
But this outcome probably seemed inevitable. As I mentioned in my “NSF Thurmont” review, having Bartlet try to mediate the longstanding conflict between Israel and Palestine is an insurmountable task. If history is any indication, there’s no way this episode can have a legitimately satisfying outcome.
And yet Wells tries. He tries to compress decades of geographical disputes (as well as centuries of ideological conflicts) into the space of a single episode. But the very premise is deeply flawed. Whether or not you agree with Wells’ take on this issue (and I suspect I disagree with a lot of it), the episode flounders in its attempts to be even-handed. By the episode’s third act, Farad gets to deliver a sympathetic monologue, while Zahavy (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, a great character actor tragically underused here) simply loses patience with the lack of action. (And I can’t really blame him.)
There are moments of interest here and there. I particularly like the scene where Josh and Toby discuss the dilemma while tossing a football. Josh backs the Israelis (likely influenced by the attack on Donna), while Toby surprisingly defends the Palestinians. It’s a nice little scene that underscores the differing Jewish identities between the two men, as well as the intricate complications of their political predicament.
But most of what the episode delivers is stilted, trite, and uninvolving – straight down to its desperately-conceived climax. The rift between Bartlet and Leo reaches its breaking point, as the latter resigns from the White House in a scene that feels uncomfortably contrived. But the shows immediately throws another Hail Mary our way by having Leo succumb to a sudden heart attack. Even without factoring the sad real-life connection that this scene has in retrospect, it just feels like a desperate ploy for a cliffhanger, and a weak attempt to inject drama into a drama-free episode.
And like most of “The Birnam Wood,” it fails. It fails on a story level, a character level, and a dramatic level. But if it’s any sort of comfort, I don’t think success for this episode was ever a real possibility.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The montage of Muslim prayers interspersed with the Jewish blessings is pretty cool.
+ Toby losing his balance from the recoil of firing a gun (a la CJ in “We Killed Yamamoto”).
– The dialogue in this episode is painfully unsubtle. Every other line is a sledgehammer to the eardrums.
– Why does everyone just assume that Leo left Camp David early? Wouldn’t there be protocols for someone so high-ranking to enter and leave the camp? Come on.