[Writer: John Wells | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 1/26/2005]
“I lived the opposing arguments.” – Santos
It’s impossible to envy the position John Wells was put in during the summer of 2003. Not only had he been left to take charge of one of the most lauded and award-winning dramas of the era, but he’d had no direct involvement with the series beforehand. That the series didn’t immediately collapse into a pile of ash and broken dreams with the Season Five premiere was something of a miracle.
However, even the most charitable of West Wing fans would have to admit that the first year of John Wells’ tenure in the showrunner seat was not the series at its best. Storylines grew less focused, character arcs became schmaltzier. The show developed a staid “crisis of the week” format which unwisely championed plotting over character, and lacked the verve and light-footedness which defined the peaks of the Sorkin era. Episodes like “Han” and “The Supremes” provided only temporary exceptions to the rule, which saw the once-beloved series slide into aimless territory.
The first half of Season Six, regrettably, did not improve the situation, and in some ways even doubled down on Season Five’s flaws. Team Wells tried to recapture the cheer and sprightliness of Sorkin’s first season, but the change in tone felt forced, and the themes were more simplified than ever. By the time Bartlet suffered a contrived MS attack in the Penn-and-Teller showcase “In the Room,” it began to look like the series was beyond repair.
Yet now, midway through Season Six, The West Wing experiences a sudden and unexpected rebound. Despite a few occasional bumps for the remainder of the series, it generally returns to a level of quality at or near the Sorkin era. And while the seeds for recovery were planted earlier in the season, the episode which truly helps the series regain its footing is the excellent “King Corn.”
“King Corn” is like no West Wing episode before it – in terms of style, tone, or structure. Characters like Bartlet, Leo, and CJ are completely absent, and Toby only makes the briefest of cameos. And yet these differences are precisely what electrifies the episode – and, by extension, the series – by setting The West Wing on its freshest path in years.
Sure, the series has dealt with campaigns and elections before. But Bartlet’s first run for the Presidency was relegated to a series of flashbacks, and his reelection bid was essentially glossed over in the shallow early episodes of Season Four. Team Wells is thus presented with the opportunity to explore an area of American politics the show has thus far dabbled very little in – that of the Presidential campaign trail.
While “Opposition Research” kicked off the campaign arc, “King Corn” gets it in full swing. The episode follows three different primary candidates – Democrats Bob Russell and Matt Santos, and Republican Arnold Vinick – as they formally kick off their campaigns in the pivotal state of Iowa. The parallels and differences between these three campaigns are laid bare throughout the episode (which devotes one act to each), priming us for the complex electoral road ahead.
Start with Russell. Long seen as something of a Congressional joke, Bob Russell builds a Presidential campaign less out of ambition than out of necessity – as Vice President, he’s essentially expected to run, anyhow. Despite the fact that he only attained Veep stature during Bartlet’s second term, his next-in-line status makes a Presidential run inevitable. (It’s this same mentality that likely fuels the Hoynes campaign, though Hoynes himself is absent from this episode.)
Russell’s appeal, then, stems from his depiction as a run-of-the-mill Democrat, a portrayal evident since Bartlet selected him as the “safe” VP in “Jefferson Lives.” Russell may follow the liberal mentality of his peers in Washington, but when it comes to discussing ethanol alcohols with a group of Iowan farmers, he’s happy to change his tune. It’s the sort of broad-based candidacy that could potentially work in a general election, but is not likely to survive a densely-packed primary.
Perhaps the most crucial information to be gleaned from the Russell scenes does not reflect on Russell himself, but on his campaign staff. Will Bailey’s gravitation toward such a pedestrian candidate seemed out-of-character in Season Five. But as Russell’s position as a Democratic frontrunner slowly begins to ebb away, Will’s actions grow more understandable. In a tight primary, a flip-flopper like Russell slowly turns into an underdog, a man without a message beyond “I’m the Veep.” It’s a different flavor than the Horton saga, but Will is fighting an uphill battle nonetheless.
Donna has it even worse. Still a lackey – albeit with a less condescending boss – she’s tasked with speaking to some of the fringe candidates Russell will be debating on the Ohio stage. This more direct and image-conscious job ultimately leads to her realization that those fringe candidates are a few kernels short of a corncob. The need to make Russell feel “polished” and “safe” – he’s even discarded his cowboy boots – means his image could be hurt if he’s even on the same stage as some of these minor-leaguers.
Santos has no such problem. He is a minor-leaguer, a longshot at the Democratic nomination if ever there was one. But despite his need for recognition, he’s reluctant to subscribe to the standard candidate playbook. He cites statistics about minority communities without fear of political incorrectness; he doesn’t shy away from discussing hot-button topics like immigration reform. Both figuratively and (at one point in this episode) literally, Santos prefers to pilot his own plane.
It’s a headache for Josh, who prefers the more traditional campaign road that first steered Bartlet to the White House. Josh recommends that Santos take a pro-ethanol stance, even if it means going against his own personal beliefs. Santos prefers the truth – but backs down at the last minute. Personal honesty can only stand so much in the face of the Iowa caucus.
That is, unless you’re Arnold Vinick. The seasoned California Republican is also an outlier in his own party, but he’s more recognized and respected across the board than Santos is, and has a bit more leverage when it comes to voicing unpopular opinions. Like Santos, he takes an anti-ethanol stance – diverging from the GOP at large – but unlike Santos, he doesn’t shy away from it when the cameras are on. To the exasperation of Bob and Sheila (a pair of campaign heads who feel more like unwilling hangers-on), he takes corporations to task for their increased reliance on ethanol fuels. It’s the sort of tactic that would be deemed suicidal in a normal political environment.
But as we’ve seen time and time again, The West Wing does not depict a normal political environment. We may be focused on different characters, but it’s still the same show – a show where unpopular opinions do not immediately torpedo Presidential campaigns.
And the episode lets us believe it. By building from Russell’s milquetoast pragmatism to Santos’ muted stoicism to Vinick’s nonconforming forthrightness, “King Corn” allows for the drama to increase across each of the first three acts, and deliver a fresh and intriguing fourth.
A quick glance at the opening credits of this episode – now featuring both Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda – should dispel any doubts about which primary candidates will prevail. And “King Corn” does an excellent job of setting up Santos and Vinick as a pair of complex and (in different ways) rebellious politicians. They may have similar positions on the ethanol debate, but Vinick’s refusal to cave to geography paints him as more liberal-minded than his Democratic opponent. It’s an unusual outcome, setting the tone for an unusual campaign.
But enough about the politics of the episode. What really sells “King Corn” – pushing it from an excellent Wells episode to an excellent West Wing overall – is the feel. For perhaps the first time, the rougher, coarser feel of the Wells era leaves genuine impact on the series.
The pristine white buildings of Washington DC are swapped out in favor of the dust and haze of rural America. Unlike Sorkin’s “20 Hours in America,” which transported the show’s polished style and aesthetic to Indiana, “King Corn” puts Josh and Donna in an earthier world where they’re quickly outsized by the local populace. “20 Hours” may have stranded them in the middle of nowhere, yet they seemed less helpless in that episode than they do in this one.
The act openings emphasize this feel. As helmed by the excellent Alex Graves, each new vignette opens from a different character’s perspective – Donna, Josh, Vinick – as they’re roused from bed by a quarter-to-six wake-up call and begin fumbling around to begin their day. These scenes find the camera dipping in and out of focus, and showing our characters in rougher positions than we’re used to. (We even catch a glimpse of Josh urinating – or as much of it as mid-2000s network restrictions would allow.) The intent of these scenes is clear – we’re meant to feel what it’s like to be on the campaign trail, to get up early and stressed and praying that your candidate hasn’t cratered in the polls.
That’s what makes the episode’s final montage – set to Ryan Adams’ “Desire” – so satisfying. Characters return to their homes and hotel rooms after a hard day’s work. The camera slows down, letting the show bask in a moment of serenity. The characters experience the highlight of their busy day, whether it’s Santos coming home to his family or Will snagging an ice cream sandwich from the vending machine. (That’s his highlight? Poor Will.)
We enjoy the moment with these characters, and we wince as it jarringly ends, as the next day’s wake-up call rouses Josh from his slumber. Another long day of politicizing and placating ahead.
Naturally, no future episode will focus on the campaign trail quite as directly as this one. But that’s no concern. We’re now in a new era of The West Wing, one which will feature some of the most detailed political exploration in the show’s history. And the stage is fully set by the wonderful and distinguished “King Corn.”
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ There’s a lot of blatant product placement in this episode, which is normally not a good thing. But Donna’s giant FedEx tube and Will’s purchase of the Nestle Carnation are amusingly integrated into the story.
+ One of the fringe candidates singing “Peace Train.”
+ “Drip-Along Daffy” is one of my favorite Daffy Duck cartoons, so I was happy to see the Santos kids watching it.
+ This episode features trivia about Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Which means you are both entertained and educated!
+ I’d like to see someone make a YouTube clip where Bambi is elected President of the NRA. Let me know if you make or find such a clip, and I’ll link to it here.
+ Vinick singing “Happy Birthday” to his granddaughter. Aww.
– Toby’s cameo is pointless, and we really don’t need to be reminded of the Middle East plot debacle which kicked off the season.
* This episode ends with a wake-up call. The next episode is titled “The Wake-Up Call.” Coincidence? (Probably, but I’m pointing it out anyway.)
* Real-Life Foreshadowing: Josh tells Santos to promise voters that “by the year 2020, 10% of all motor fuels will come from renewable sources like ethanol.” As it turns out, this prediction came true years before 2020, catalyzed in part by the second Energy Policy Act (which was passed in 2005, only a few months after this episode aired).