[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 2/16/2005]
“Let’s get back to Politics 101. The object is to beat the other guys.” – Josh
Which came first? The egg.
That’s the way it is in “Freedonia,” anyway. The New Hampshire-based episode opens with Bob Russell trying vainly to autograph an ovoid piece of wood, while gearing up for an event called – wait for it – “Politics and Eggs.” We never learn what this event is about, nor why it so heavily centers on omelet fodder, but that’s not the point. It’s a traditional event in New Hampshire, and Bingo Bob is as traditional as they come.
The chicken comes later, when Russell is giving a speech at a hockey game. A man in a chicken suit interrupts, calling out the Vice President for his unwillingness to participate in a debate with Santos and the other less-known candidates. Russell has no response; it’s ultimately Donna who puts the birdman in his place. The fallout from this event (and an effective ad from Santos) ultimately lead him to join a debate with the other candidates at episode’s end.
The episode never really connects its egg and chicken incidents, but they both illustrate a key point about Russell – he goes with the flow. In a campaign of ideas, conflicting and revolutionary, Russell is the “safe” choice – the vanilla scoop on a multi-flavored sundae.
It’s a common tactic for Vice Presidents who aim for White House election themselves – as they spend years only a step away from the Presidency, they’re usually the most recognizable member of the nomination pool. And as such, they get to play it safe, as lesser-known candidates tack more to political extremes to get noticed. (In this regard, it’s likely that Al Gore helped shape Russell’s character, although newer West Wing fans may associate him more with Joe Biden.) It at first seems like a foolproof strategy – but, to the increased dismay of Will and Donna, Russell’s laid-back aloofness clashes with a forward-thinking campaign season.
That forward-thoughtfulness is exemplified by Matt Santos (who – as we learned in ”King Corn” – is ironically more conservative than several of his Democratic opponents). Outside of Horton Wilde, there’s perhaps never been an underdog campaign in The West Wing as unlikely as that of Santos, a man who gets by on a shoestring budget and a resistance to standard party ideology. Bartlet, from what we’ve gleaned in flashbacks, had a bumpy road to the White House; Santos, comparatively, has an interstate highway.
And yet in true West Wing fashion, Season Six is clearly setting Santos up to be the nominee. And it’s to the show’s credit that it builds him a believable pathway. He’s not widely-known, nor are his politics revolutionary, but he has charisma and conviction – two ingredients key to any Presidential campaign, be it fact or fiction.
And through Santos, Team Wells explores the dynamics of interparty politics with some of the most detail in West Wing history. Like Bartlet, Santos is a “dream candidate” of the show’s writers – a politician who’s charming, clean-cut, and well-spoken. But where Bartlet was a dream in the Sorkin mold, Santos leans Wellsian in his more pragmatic and centrist policies. He’s precisely the character that late-stage West Wing needed – a new avatar for a new set of storytellers.
So while Santos’ clashes with Josh over image and policy are already feeling repetitive, they help evolve the show in a new direction. Josh’s headstrong politics – here, defined by his insistence to “go negative” in campaign ads – don’t fit with the philosophy of Team Wells, and he is restrained by Amy, both emotionally (when she explains the dangers of the Democrats tearing each other apart) and physically (when she duct-tapes him to a chair).
Santos’ rise is all but inevitable by the end of “Freedonia,” although the episode can’t avoid an unintentional irony while elevating him. For all his talk about letting every candidate be heard on an equal platform, most of the other Democrats in the race remain silent and nameless. Apart from Russell and Hoynes, none of Santos’ competitors get so much as a name credit in this episode. The West Wing wants to have and eat its cake all at once, letting Santos be the underdog while simultaneously spotlighting him among a half-dozen other candidates.
To that end, the machinations of “Freedonia” – and by extent, the primary election arc as a whole – is obvious, with its end result never truly in doubt. Still, there are worse crimes than adhering to formula, many committed by the season’s exhausting earlier half. That the series has found new life through new characters is something to celebrate, even if we can hear the gears grind during the transition.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Seriously, what’s up with all the eggs? Is this an in-joke among New Hampshirians?
+ Russell referring to the other candidates as “the seven dwarves” and inadvertently comparing himself to Snow White.
+ Amy embracing the cold.
+ I know the moral of the episode is that negative ads are bad, but… the negative ads in this episode still make me laugh. Russell’s is unintentionally so, thanks to the voiceover. (“John Hoynes: Whose side is he on?)
– Santos’ little speech about Freedonia (the fictional country from Duck Soup) would have felt fresher had the series not previously featured a Freedonia-based monologue in “Enemies Foreign and Domestic.”