West Wing 6×16: Drought Conditions

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[Writer: Debora Cahn | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 2/23/2005]

“You got a chance to shape the debate, strengthen the party, and you blew it!” – Toby

Among the many failings of Season Five, one of the most egregious was the way it turned TV’s greatest political series into a primetime soap opera. Illicit romances, interpersonal vendettas, and betrayals/backstabbings were brought to the forefront, often seemingly out of nowhere, and the show’s once-cutting political vernacular fell to the wayside.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with primetime soaps per se, and shows from The OC to Grey’s Anatomy to Empire have trafficked in many of the same tropes in ways both fresh and entertaining. But in a series where characters deal weekly with budget cuts, foreign diplomats, and terror crises, these more personal theatrics feel (to put it mildly) out of place.

“Drought Conditions” features a lot of the soapy tropes that typified the previous season – it features sexual undertones, secretive characters, and bitter betrayals. There’s talk of terminal illness and suicide. And two of the lead characters actually engage in fisticuffs onscreen. None of it feels very West Wing.

Why, then, does it work so much better than it did in Season Five?

Much credit here goes to the fact that the events of “Drought Conditions” actually connect to other episodes, both past and future. Whereas earlier Wells episodes could feature contrived character drama that evaporated as soon as the ends credits rolled, “Drought Conditions” builds its frame on pre-existent character relationships, and its ramifications will be felt for the rest of this season and much of the next. It is, put pointedly, an episode that matters.

Toby’s brother, Kate’s ex-husband, Cliff Calley’s former stint as a GOP counsellor – these are all elements we’ve been introduced to in previous episodes and seasons. Some might not be particularly compelling (I have yet to meet a single West Wing fan who expressed interest in the Will/Kate romance), but no characters have been invented wholesale for this episode.

Well, okay – one of them is. Ricky Rafferty is the pure definition of a one-shot. We’ve never seen her before, and we never will again. But her role as a single-episode character is entirely the point. She’s treated by the other characters as a flash-in-the-pan, a late-stage entry into the Presidential race designed to gin up support and media attention with her far-left politics.

It’s the characters’ conflicting reactions to Rafferty that are key to this episode, highlighting the split between the season’s two disparate setting and setting the stage for future problems in this season and the next. Fresh off Santos’ third-place finish in New Hampshire, Josh is on tenterhooks about his man’s future prospects, and sees Rafferty as a spoiler candidate who will funnel attention and votes from more viable candidates. Toby, however, never believed that Santos was among the viable candidates in the first place, and pushed Rafferty to enter the race in order to open more left-leaning conversations. She may not secure the nomination, he reasons, but she can leave her mark on the rest of the field.

Toby’s dealings with Rafferty coincide with a particularly harrowing time in his life – his brother David (whom we’ve never seen, but who has been mentioned as far back as “What Kind if Day Has It Been”), after receiving a terminal diagnosis, committed suicide. Toby’s grievances, though repressed (he tells everyone but CJ that David died of the cancer he was diagnosed with), contextualize his push for a candidate who supports a more comprehensive healthcare plan, even if said plan is less popular with the American electorate.

Toby’s push for Rafferty, and Josh’s responsive anger, culminate in one of the most controversial scenes in the whole series – the fistfight. The brawl between Josh and Toby is not comfortable, entertaining, or even well-directed, but it’s obviously not meant to be. These are two men who each feel betrayed by the other – Josh for being kept in the dark, Toby for being left out of his friend’s campaign plans. They are no longer coworkers, and hardly communicate with one another anymore. The physical altercation between them is spontaneous and sudden, ending as quickly as it began, but the mark it leaves on the audience is even more pronounced than the one left on Toby’s face.

Because as I noted earlier, “Drought Conditions” is not a disposable standalone. Rafferty exits the race, and the show returns to its focus on Team Santos next episode. But what we witness here is the start of one of the most tragic arcs in a show that very rarely deals in tragedy.

Toby has long been one of the show’s most assertively liberal voices, but as Leo tells him near the episode’s end, he has crossed a line. “You don’t pick losing candidates and usher them to the principled end… You’re the guy who takes good men and makes them great.”

For a moment, it looks like Toby hears and understands his mentor. But then Leo, without realizing it, crosses the line: “Your brother didn’t have any more fight in him. You still do.”

It’s one of the most quietly distressing scenes The West Wing has delivered in years, and is even more difficult to watch in retrospect. Knowing what we know will happen to Toby in Season Seven, Leo’s words wind up having the opposite effect that he intended. Toby does have fight left in him… but he’s no longer in the same battle.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Santos singing, and Josh’s reaction to it.
+ CJ to Margaret: “You’re my assistant, not my wife.” Now there’s a line to launch a thousand slash fics.
+ Annabeth shooting CJ with a rubber band.
+ I want some White House M&Ms. In fact, I now refuse to eat any M&Ms that don’t include the Presidential seal.
+ Debbie not letting Josh, Will, or Donna in to meet with Bartlet.
+ Annabeth tearing up at receiving a compliment. (I sense that Annabeth is on her way to becoming the new queen of the Minor Pros.)
+ Toby noting the Jewish tradition to not leave the deceased’s body alone before burial. Little details like that leave the biggest impressions.
+ Will and Kate standing in silence for 44 seconds. (Yes, I counted.)

– Not sure why there were so many rotating camera shots during the gala scene, but they gave me a headache.


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