West Wing 6×06: The Dover Test

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[Writer: Carol Flint | Director: Laura Innes | Aired: 11/24/2004 ]

“You don’t work here anymore.” – Debbie

It’s unfortunately telling that the two most interesting characters in “The Dover Test” do not have any direct affiliation with the Bartlet White House. In fact, it’s unfortunate, period – most of the main characters spend this episode looking out of their element, wandering from one hallowed room to another in search of a direction.

If this sounds like a regurgitation of my typical criticism of Season Five, I should stress the difference: There was something decidedly askew with the fifth-season Bartlet administration, but it adhered to the same basic structure that typified the first four. Early Season Six episodes, however, see the show’s entire structure upended, as characters begin shifting positions and swapping job titles with abrupt and alarming frequency. Toby replaces CJ, who replaces Leo and takes Charlie under her wing. Donna is clearly eyeing an escape from Josh, who is himself gearing up for bigger and better things. I half-expected a scene where Bartlet, getting bored with the Presidency and wishing for something new, asks Russell if he wants to trade.

This perplexing game of musical chairs can be attributed in part to the backlash that Season Five was met with – Team Wells tried and failed to please fans with the supposed status quo. But as I discussed in my “Liftoff” review, blame also rests with the growing fatigue of the status quo. And while I applaud the ambition for change, it would probably help if some of these changes were for the better.

But The West Wing is stuck in a transitional quagmire – still fully attached to the characters of the earlier seasons, yet desperately hungry to try something new. And indeed, the show will find new footing during the season’s second half, and we’ll all be the better for it. But in the meantime, these early episodes are among the most shapeless and anonymous in the show’s history.

So yes, it’s very telling that the two most interesting characters in the episode have virtually no connection (at this point, anyway) to the Bartlet administration. The first, predictably enough, is Matt Santos, making a more encouraging impression here than in “Liftoff,” as he proves his political savvy by proposing a risky healthcare bill, then nicely covering for himself when it inevitably fails to pass. Santos is shrewd yet professionally composed, and despite all the talk about his retirement, the show (particularly the opening credits) makes it pretty obvious that there are greater things ahead.

As for the episode’s other notable character – no, it’s not Annabeth. (She manages to squeeze in the occasional good line, but it’s hard for her to leave an impression in an already overstuffed White House.) I refer instead to Malti Chakrabarty, the nurse tasked with taking care of Leo.

Stick with me on this one. In the grand scheme of the series, Nurse Malti barely registers as a blip. But her role in “The Dover Test” is a reminder of how, even at its most confused and aimless, The West Wing is a master of characterization. What could have been a one-note role – the cranky Indian lady forcing Leo to take his medicine – turns surprisingly three-dimensional as the episode evokes without exploiting her oft-ignored culture, and explores how the work that high-and-mighty politicians dabble in day after day affects real people, both in America all around the globe. Malti is hardly an earth-shattering character, but it’s that humanized simplicity which makes her so effective.

Also effective is the episode’s final scene, in which Bartlet visits and prays with a pair of badly wounded soldiers. Many emotional moments from the early Team Wells era parallel similar moments from the first few seasons – compare this scene with the radio conversation Bartlet has with a young naval cadet at the end of “The State Dinner” – but the acting is good, and the dialogue isn’t too on-the-nose. (Although given that Laura Innes directed this episode, it’s too bad we didn’t get a Dr. Weaver cameo.)

It’s perhaps faint praise for an episode that pales in comparison to even a sub-average Season Two offering. But when standards are lower, you take pride in the little moments, a modest number of which are present in “The Dover Test.”


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Josh hanging up Donna’s phone, presumably thinking she’s talking to a clingy boyfriend.
+ “You go, girl! Do people still say that?” “Not really.”
+ Continuity Easter Egg: Leo gets stressed out after watching a TV interview with a politician who criticizes the Bartlet administration. This politician is Darren Gibson, the man who nearly ended Leo’s career in “Bartlet for America.”

– Will Bailey is truly insufferable here. His “All hail President Russell” attitude is deeply condescending, and flies completely in the face of the man who once had the moral backbone to campaign for a dead guy. I know were not supposed to love him here, but come on.


Foreshadowing

The Bartlet Presidential Library is introduced, an early sign that this once-young administration is drawing to a close. This library will play a key role in the famous flash-forward which opens “The Ticket.”


Score: C+

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