West Wing 6×14: The Wake-Up Call

6x14_top

[Writer: Josh Singer | Director: Laura Innes | Aired: 2/9/2005]

“The document is just the beginning.” – Lessig

I’m a sucker for titles with double-meanings, and “The Wake-Up Call” has a doozy. The name refers here to the late-night/early-morning call that the President receives during a national emergency. But it also refers to the recent metaphorical wake-up call – mapped out in the purposeful “365 Days” – to the Bartlet administration at large, which is now in its final year and must determine how to end on a high note.

“King Corn” was punctuated with multiple wake-up calls, but they were the soulless and robotic type, automated to jar a peaceful campaign traveler from their happy dreams. The message there was obvious – on the election trail, things develop into a routine. Life in the White House, though, remains anything but routine, with wake-up calls delivered by human staffers at the most inconvenient of hours.

“The Wake-Up Call” pivots on one such inconvenient call, its time overlapping with Barlet’s slow recovery from his recent bout with MS. The disease may have temporarily crippled Bartlet, but in the long run, we assume, he will emerge stronger than ever. An international emergency should see him leaping out of bed!

Or perhaps it won’t. Smartly, the episode chooses not to tell the story from Bartlet’s point-of-view, but from CJ’s. The newly-minted Chief of Staff is still struggling to coordinate her various responsibilities, and with Abbey demanding her husband get adequate rest, CJ is at times practically running the White House herself. Dramatically, focusing on her perspective serves two good ends – it reduces the emphasis on contrived illness that the first half of Season Six (between Bartlet’s MS and Leo’s heart attack) overemphasized, and it lets us become more accustomed to seeing the former Press Secretary assume the second-most powerful role in the White House.

It’s refreshing to see an episode give CJ a compelling “day in the life” story, especially after the utter failure that was last season’s “Access.” “The Wake-Up Call” sees her balance various perspectives – tending to the President, appeasing Abbey, Kate Harper, and Lord John Marbury (returning for one last appearance) and tending to an international crisis between the UK and Iran. In typical West Wing fashion, that last conflict is solved pretty handily by the end of the episode, and the focus is more wisely shifted to CJ’s role as “the new Leo.”

Bartlet has always been a take-charge President, but he was more willing to cede authority back when his best friend held the Chief of Staff position. But the coupling of his recent MS attack and a newer, less experienced second-in-command has him yearning for the Oval Office at every opportunity. CJ’s firm stance – both to the President and to the First Lady who tries to reengineer her job – justifies her promotion to the job, and showcases Allison Janney’s talent in a way that’s engaging without feeling like Emmy bait. (Janney was not nominated for an Emmy this season, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

Also showcased well in this episode are Richard Schiff and guest star Christopher Lloyd, the latter of whom appears as Constitutional historian Lawrence Lessig. Collaborating to draft a workable democracy template for Belarus, Toby and Lessig soon realize that explaining America’s structure and bylaws to a group of outsiders isn’t as easy as it (ahem) sounds on paper. Lessig may seem earnest when trying to explain the Electoral College to the Belarusians, but only seems to cause more confusion in his attempt. (In fairness, this is what happens when trying to explain the Electoral College to Americans as well.)

Toby, as we’ve seen in earlier episodes this season, has been handed what amounts to the show’s table scraps. Josh, Will, and Donna have left for the campaign trail, while CJ has been promoted. Toby, though, has inherited the Press Secretary job, which has left him without much of an insider role in the administration, and no amount of Annabeth’s Valentine’s Day candies can cheer him up. He’s the only man in the White House seemingly not excited to meet with the winner of the Miss World beauty pageant, yet that’s exactly the job an overburdened CJ saddles him with. Once among Bartlet’s most respected and forthright thinkers, Toby now seems like an outcast in the administration he helped build.

That’s what makes his conversation with Lessig at the end of the episode so liberating. No, certain parts of the Constitution may not fit together perfectly. But as Lessig explains it, the Constitution itself was only a springboard, a collection of inherent ideas which a few motivated people were able to capitalize on, and from there allow America to flourish. That these ideas could be blueprinted onto a former Soviet country might seem farfetched, but “The Wake-Up Call” handles such an assumption with a verve and panache which recalls the show’s early seasons.

Which is, in the end, the episode’s chief strength. Unlike Season Six’s early White House-centric episodes, “The Wake-Up Call” doesn’t feel like Diet West Wing. It’s well-written, well-structured, and at times just as fun as standard Sorkin-era fare. And it’s a pattern that will only continue from this point on. The West Wing, on both its campaign and Washington fronts, is back on track.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ CJ’s reaction when Bartlet says he’s taking Abbey to Otello: “Isn’t that the one where the guy kills his wife?”
+ Chet!
+ The “Hans and Franz” line. That’s right, The West Wing is making SNL jokes now.
+ No idea what’s in Gail’s fishbowl this week. It’s either roses or red butterflies. Maybe it’s red butterflies eating roses. Not sure why I’m putting this in the Pros.
+ Miss World turning heads at the Belarus meeting.
+ CJ referring to Lord John Marbury: “…And then there’s Maude.”
+ Another “Is Margaret gay?” joke, courtesy of Miss World. (Ed and Larry also seem attracted to her, which goes against a popular fan theory.)
+ Bartlet bumming a cigarette from a Secret Service agent.
+ Yeah, I know Miss World doesn’t have much to do with the episode or the review, but she makes for a good screencap. And good screencaps = more views. Did it work?

– The subtitle reads 12:15, yet CJ’s clock says it’s 12:24. Little thing, I know, but it underscores the pointlessness of some of these subtitles.


Foreshadowing

* First mention that Ellie Bartlet has a new boyfriend. It’s also noted that he likes fruit flies, which also gets mentioned in Season Seven’s “Here Today.”


B+

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