[Writer: Mark Goffman | Director: Andrew Bernstein | Aired: 1/19/2005]
“Everyone’s walking around here like we’re finished.” – Leo
There are certain oddities and inconsistencies of The West Wing which must be accepted in order for us to appreciate the show’s finer aspects. The unexplained disappearance of many side characters (did Mandy just get lost on her way to the Sit Room?). The occasional character inconsistencies and continuity errors (pretty much everything involving Zoey Bartlet). The fact that election years are staggered two years against real-life elections (although if they occurred during leap years, as happens in reality, I suppose this episode would have been distractingly titled “366 Days”).
But no bigger inconsistency in the show’s seven-season history may be quite as headscratch-inducing as the Missing Year. The show’s linear path would suggest that, by the end of Season Five, Bartlet is midway through his sixth year in office – yet early in Season Six, we find that the staff is approaching his eighth.
No onscreen explanation is ever given for the supposed shift, nor is there any indication that a time-jump has even occurred. Still, the reasoning makes perfect sense once you consider the offscreen influences. Itching for a semi-reboot, Team Wells decided to introduce a new set of characters racing for the White House, and portray our longtime protagonists in the process of leaving it. And since the show’s timeline still put some distance between the storyline and Bartlet’s final bow, the writers decided to move up the finish line.
A wise decision indeed. Though the supposed time-jump is initially disorienting, it begins paying dividends around Season Six’s halfway mark. Here the Santos campaign injects some much-needed freshness into the show’s veins, while the Bartlet staffers face a challenge they’ve never dealt with before: retirement.
In recent seasons, Bartlet and his administration have once again grown somewhat toothless in their policies, hindered as they’ve been by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and a deadlocked Congress. But now, their term as America’s temporary custodians is nearly up. How, then, will they choose to spend their final year?
It’s a question most of the staffers haven’t bothered to ask; for much of the episode, they carry on with business as usual, trying as they can to enliven up the daily workload. In this effort, one can hardly blame them – seven years in the White House has left the team rather beleaguered. Attempts to make politics look more appealing – Charlie drumming up a new name for the Earned Income Tax Credit, Annabeth convincing Abbey to visit a NASCAR race (helped by photos of the hunky drivers) – are, at this stage, inevitable.
But cracks have begun to form, as the administration seems to recognize its age. Bartlet’s final State of the Union address, as penned by Toby, is tamer and less challenging than his previous efforts. Bartlet himself is overwhelmed by a hostage crisis in Bolivia – a familiar storyline on the series, yet more stressful to a President whose MS has taken greater hold of his body. The effects of the careworn administration even trickle down to Will, who begins doubting that he can turn Bob Russell into another Horton Wilde.
It is ultimately Leo – having just gone through his own stressful crisis of age and obsolescence – who steers the team back on track. From the early scene where he at last reenters the White House (reminiscent of a similar scene from the “Pilot”), Leo sees that all is not right with the Bartlet administration, that their more headstrong days seem permanently finished. It is Leo who, after rewatching clips of Bartlet’s older Union speeches, realizes that they need to get things together for one final play.
“Business as usual” isn’t good enough. Bartlet has the opportunity to end his Presidency on a high note, and Leo advises him to take it. “This is our last game,” he tells the President. “Let’s leave it all out on the field.” They may never accomplish their full agenda, but that doesn’t mean they can’t try.
The final scene of the episode is familiar – we’ve seen it at the end of “Let Bartlet be Bartlet,” as well as any other time that the President and Chief of Staff have tried to rally their troops. But there’s an increased sense of excitement this time around – now that Bartlet is counting the months till retirement, the sky (or at least the Capitol roof) has become the limit.
We may never know what occurred during The West Wing’s Missing Year. (Perhaps it involved Mandy’s triumphant return?) But by moving closer to the show’s built-in ending date, the writers are gearing up to make the final year a memorable one.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The staff getting Leo his own defibrillator. That’s sweet. And, in retrospect, quite sad.
+ Annabeth deconstructing the meaning of the phrase “Hell yeah.”
+ “Mount Rushmore’s on the move.”
– Continuity Nitpick: Leo references the SotU address where Bartlet mentioned the Blue Ribbon entitlements program, stating it occurred “four years ago.” That speech happened in “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union,” which was four seasons ago – but technically, it’s been five years since that speech. A small issue, but demonstrative of how the unspoken time-jump still causes internal confusion.
– “Poor Tax” is a terrible name for a tax program. Granted, the Earned Income Tax Credit is designated for low-income families, but why insult the people who utilize it by calling them “poor”?