[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Chris Misiano | Aired: 1/12/2005 ]
“How do you wanna go broke? As the brown candidate, or as the American candidate?” – Josh
Politicians, despite what cable news may tell us, are not props. They are as human as you or I. They have hang-ups and flaws and quirks and foibles. They have favorite foods and favorite films and families they occasionally get to see.
We know all this because we’ve followed The West Wing for the last five-and-a-half seasons. We’ve watched numerous political figures celebrate their victories and bemoan their losses. We’ve seen every iteration of “they’re just like us,” sometimes more than once. The West Wing has taught us this message so thoroughly that there doesn’t seem to be anything left for it to say.
And so, after five-and-a-half seasons, the show is now restarting that message from scratch.
With “Opposition Research,” we begin the final phase of The West Wing, one which takes place largely outside the marble walls of the White House. Instead, the show will take us out and onto the campaign trail, a path whose ultimate destination is the White House.
It’s an intriguing move, and perhaps a necessary one. Team Wells tried to replicate the freshness and wonder of the Sorkin years in Season Five, but results were mixed at best. A new team needs a new direction, free of the many seasons of continuity and character development that Aaron Sorkin had built up. Season Six has been slowly building towards that new era, and “Opposition Research” represents a crucial phase in the transition.
The White House is almost entirely absent from the episode. Instead, we are whisked to New Hampshire, and to the fertile beginnings of Matt Santos’ Presidential campaign. While Bartlet’s original campaign has only been glimpsed in a few choice flashbacks, Santos’ journey is placed front and center, allowing the show’s old messages to be delivered in fresh new ways.
Case in point: Much of this episode is centered on the debate of issues vs. image. In kickstarting an underdog campaign, Josh and Santos immediately clash over the question of how to hit the ground running. Josh lobbies for handshakes and baby-kissing; Santos prefers policy and speeches. The war between content and packaging is nothing new to the series – early Sorkin episodes routinely saw Bartlet and co. trying to conjure up the safest way of delivering even slightly partisan messages. But a new setting breathes new life into the idea, particularly (as we will come to see) since Santos’ ideology differs notably from that of the average Democrat.
No immediate solution is given to the conflict in this episode; instead, the root of the problem is traced to Josh and Santos’ differing goalposts. Josh is aiming straight for the White House – a spiritual third term for Bartlet – but Santos is at first uninterested in winning the Presidency. The campaign trail offers him a temporary loudspeaker, but there’s no way, he assumes, to beat a frontrunner like Bob Russell.
That may explain, in part, why there’s so little opposition research in “Opposition Research.” Despite Josh’s natural antagonism, he’s still running a campaign against a Vice President he personally knows (as well as a former Vice President he once worked for). Will Bailey wants a clean campaign, and Josh agrees, though he can’t resist trading barbs with Donna, who’s now joined the Russell bandwagon.
At various points, it seems like the Santos campaign will be shot down before it even leaves the runway. A bid for endorsement by Doug Westin (still as irritating as he was in Season Five) goes quickly southward, and the resurfacing an old comment from Santos (about the sheer whiteness of New Hampshire) nearly sends Josh up a wall. But despite the setbacks, Santos remains committed to his vision, determined to prove that issues and image can go hand-in-hand.
That “Opposition Research” is set in New Hampshire, Bartlet’s home state, is itself a clever move on the writers’ part. It allows for both conscious and unconscious callbacks to the show’s primary character, even as the President is largely absent from the episode itself. The West Wing may be going through some changes, but the transition remains smooth and skillful.
“I do want to win, y’know?” Santos tells Josh by the end of the episode. “But I can’t do it by being just another cardboard cutout.” Josh is himself no fan of cardboard politicians, at one point even drawing a goofy mustache on a Russell standee. And through amusing mutual agreements like this, The West Wing has a duo worth rooting for. Too often, the Wells years have struggled with cardboard characters and plotting, but the season’s two dimensions are at last expanding to three.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Is dwarf-tossing really a thing? On second thought, I probably don’t want to know.
+ Always love it when Joey Lucas (and Kenny!) pops up. Her line about Santos’ margin of error (“of having any support at all”) is an episodic highlight.
+ Donna, Ronna. Ronna, Donna.
+ Josh and Donna trading insults through Dr. Seuss puns. (As an aside, “The Cat in the Imitation Cowboy Hat” sounds like be a pretty entertaining book.)