West Wing 6×03: Third-Day Story

[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 11/3/2004 ]

“It’s that little burst of warmth before you freeze to death.” – CJ

“Third-Day Story” is a step up from the first two episodes of The West Wing’s sixth season. That’s not saying a great deal, but it’s worth acknowledging. As the show shucks off the effects of the wrong-headed Israel/Palestine arc, it tries to return to its baseline status quo – but the results, especially in the early going, are mixed.

What we see in “Third-Day Story” is an attempt to transition from the murky, operatic drama of Season Five to the more lighthearted tone of Season Six. But this transition is not a simple one – particularly given that the previous episode ended with one of the main characters succumbing to a sudden heart attack.

So “Third-Day Story” gives us some zippy dialogue (courtesy of Eli Attie, one of the best dialogue-writers of the later seasons) and some amusing political plotlines centering on taxation and gay marriage. But at the same time, the episode can’t detach itself from the stark drama of the previous episode. One minute, we’re watching CJ challenge Josh to an eat-healthy contest; the next, we’re watching Leo on an operating table, as a group of doctors cut into his chest.

The resulting episode is uneven, to say the least. Trying to balance upbeat, glib comedy with the sight of Leo in a hospital bed and Donna in a wheelchair makes for a story in which neither the humor nor the drama ever quite hit their mark. You can see a promising and entertaining episode trying to break free of the confining Middle East arc, but there’s too much baggage to shake off.

The episode’s best moments, in true West Wing fashion, blend the personal with the political. The staffers try to go about their daily work, but the Leo-shaped hole in the White House – as well as the absence of Bartlet, who’s pacing nervously at the hospital – makes it difficult for them to maintain their sense of direction. (My more cynical mind wants to read this as a metaphor for the series trying to keep focused in the post-Sorkin era. But I digress.) It’s a reminder of how difficult work can be without the Chief of Staff around to hold things together.

With Josh and Toby fumbling their tax bill negotiations, CJ is the one who assumes default control. She takes on a parental role this episode, first comedically (the dietary restrictions she imposes on Josh), then dramatically (figuring out how to maintain the Middle Eastern peace accord). Over the last few seasons, CJ has become Bartlet’s most loyal and unwavering staffer, and this episode shows just how far she’s come.

So when Bartlet, in the episode’s pivotal final scene, offers her Leo’s position, it doesn’t feel like a bolt from the blue. In reality, of course, a Press Secretary would be ridiculously unqualified to assume the Chief of Staff role. But Bartlet’s is no ordinary administration, and CJ no ordinary Press Secretary. Her arc over the past five seasons has made her one of the show’s richest characters, and confining her to trade barbs with the press – humorous as those exchanges may be – now seems beneath her talents. (The four Emmys that Allison Janney has already won for the role don’t hurt, either.)

It’s a suspension of disbelief that works, even if so much of the rest of the episode doesn’t. There are promising ideas at play here, but it will take a while for Season Six to recognize them.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Will mentioning Foggy Bottom. Brings back “Celestial Navigation” memories.
+ Josh and Toby’s humorously botched “Good Cop/Bad Cop” routine with Haffley.
+ CJ channeling Snagglepuss: “Well, heavens to Murgatroyd!”
+ There are two doves in Gail’s bowl. Gail knows how to peace out.

– The “Leo had a heart attack” segue into the opening credits. Utterly lazy writing.
– Josh mentions that they’re approaching a Presidential election year. This doesn’t quite fit with the timeline of the show. I’ll go into more detail about this in later reviews.
– The “Jump off a cliff” line is awful. Makes me wince every time.

Score: C

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