West Wing 6×09: Impact Winter


[Writer: Debora Cahn | Director: Leslie Linka Glatter | Aired: 12/8/2004 ]

“This is the back room.” – Leo

During the teaser sequence of “Impact Winter,” Annabeth and Josh discuss the upcoming press briefing, which will occur during “Take Out the Trash Week.” Annabeth asks Josh if he’s interested in doing the press briefing in Toby’s absence, but Josh swiftly declines, noting what a powder keg the press room can be.

It’s a quick and isolated conversation (the quiet before the storm, building up to the staffers receiving word that Bartlet’s MS has crippled him), any longtime fan could be forgiven for immediately flashing back to a pair of memorable Season One episodes while listening to it – “Take Out the Trash Day” (which defined its titular term as when the administration lets loose with some more disposable news stories) and “Celestial Navigation” (which featured Josh attempting to give a press briefing, with hilariously disastrous results).

Neither of these episodes are directly invoked in “Impact Winter,” so perhaps the connections are mere coincidence. But, intentional or not, they infuse the episode with a sense of Season One nostalgia – back to the show’s bouncy, buoyant early days, when the White House’s biggest concerns were staffers accidentally sleeping with hookers and Presidents not knowing how to steer a bicycle.

Good times, eh? Season Six has thus far spent a lot of time trying to recapture that shiny Season One feel, with storylines about Josh abstaining from sugar or getting into a harmless car accident. Season Five was unpopular because it was depressing… right? So let’s pile on the humor, regardless of how well an overly humorous tone still clicks with the show all these years later.

“Impact Winter,” like previous Season Six episodes, features its share of tonal fumbling – what else can you say about an episode where the threat of an asteroid hitting the Earth is relegated to a subplot? But the episode’s problems run a bit deeper than previous entries, and they define why so much of the season has thus far failed to ignite.

The episode might seem promising at first, as the story features more of an actual dramatic spine than its predecessors. Bartlet’s MS has now physically overtaken him, to the point that he’s been confined to a wheelchair. But, set to attend a Chinese summit with global implications, he tries to ignore the pain and maintain a position of leadership. It seems like the sort of plot the show has been building toward for years, ever since the MS condition was first revealed – the President, in what seems to be his lowest moment, pushes through overwhelming odds to emerge triumphant.

Why, then, does “Impact Winter” feel so flat and dispiriting? Much blame can be placed on the episode’s basement-dwelling stakes – hardly any gravitas has been given to the Chinese summit, and the show almost treats the global event as an afterthought. The scenes in which Bartlet convenes with foreign diplomats are ineffectual and boring (though it’s comforting to see that the characters seem to feel the same way), and the scenes in which a concerned Abbey dotes over him feel plucked from another series entirely. Like much of the Wells era thus far, the general sense of aimlessness has left viewers without a dramatic hook to latch onto, and makes this potentially powerful plotline feel like a disposable afterthought.

Too much of “Impact Winter” follows the safe and sterile mold of earlier Wells episodes. The “comet hurtling toward Earth” subplot is good for a few chuckles, but lacks any real possibility of development. The only forward-thinking aspect of the episode comes courtesy of Josh, who finally decides to embark on an “Elect Matt Santos” campaign.

It is indeed a promising moment, a transition handled with care. An unfulfilled Donna quits her job, finally awakening Josh to his slavish dedication to the status quo. In a scene reminiscent of the end of “The Leadership Breakfast” (where Leo and Toby begin planning for reelection), Leo reminds Josh that Bartlet’s days as President are numbered, and that someone will need to carry on his legacy. And Josh, headstrong as he is hopeful, decides to act on his impulse.

We know little about Santos at this point in the series – he’s a skilled political strategist, but a rather blank slate beyond. Nevertheless, the show has made it clear that he’s destined for greater things – and as the final scene indicates, Josh is about to chart his new course.

It’s a promising final scene, one which prepares to chart a new course for the show. And we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief – it’s past time for The West Wing to regain its footing.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Curtis is no Charlie, but the sight of him carrying Bartlet off the plane is pretty amusing. (And now I’m picturing Charlie attempting to do the same thing. That’s also amusing.)
+ The “tug-the-earlobe” signal. Always love a good Carol Burnett reference.
+ Margaret and the other secretaries debating who gets a spot in the President’s comet-proof bunker.

– I don’t find Bartlet threatening to hit Kate (even as a joke) to be particularly funny. Although he’s in a wheelchair and she knows krav maga, so I don’t expect him to try anything.

Score: C+

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