[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Jason Ensler | Aired: 3/9/2005]
“Eleven and thirteen.” – Santos
Matthew Santos is charming, handsome, and charismatic. He jokes effortlessly with reporters and maintains friendly rapports with the folks on his campaign staff. He has a lovely wife and two cute-as-a-button kids, and they make the most beautiful gosh-darn family you’ve ever seen.
Santos, boiled down to his essence, is another of The West Wing’s idealized politicians, cut from the same pure-hearted mold as Jed Bartlet. As discussed in my review of “Faith Based Initiative,” we are meant to draw a comparative line between the early Santos/Josh scenes and the early-season flashbacks where Leo convinces a young Governor Bartlet to try his luck at the Oval. (The other influence for Santos, as multiple sources have noted, was Barack Obama, the young politician who broke out at the 2004 Democratic Convention and was soon after elected Senator, just a few years before he moved on to a significantly higher office.)
But Santos has a burden that Bartlet wasn’t shouldered with: we need to believe, straight off the bat, that this man can win the Presidency. Bartlet never had this problem – the “Pilot” excellently set him up as a President we could love and respect, and it wasn’t hard to see how America could propel him into the White House. But Santos begins the series as an underdog in a competitive Presidential primary – how, we wonder, can such an unknown man go straight from the House of Representatives to the Oval Office? (For historical context, the last real-life politician to successfully make that leap was James Garfield in 1880.) Matt Santos must not just be a great politician, but a revolutionary one.
Season Six of The West Wing is thus stuck with a conundrum – its fundamental, series-altering arc is based around a character who needs to be as perfect as possible, and yet… how do you make a “perfect” politician interesting? Santos might be a dream candidate for many viewers, but as of yet, he doesn’t have much personality. The only two avenues the show can really travel to provide him with internal conflict are the personal toll of his campaign and the impact of his ethnicity on the political field.
“La Palabra” tries utilizing both factors. The Santos campaign, still a perpetual underdog for the nomination, is running low on funds, and Santos himself is questioning how much longer he should stay in the race. On top of that, a California bill preventing illegal immigrants from receiving drivers’ licenses has the Democrats in a frenzy, with candidates all urged to take a position on the issue – but Santos, concerned about being seen as “the brown candidate,” refuses to comment. He may have his own stance on immigration (supporting stronger borders, but without suppressing those who’ve already made it over), but understands that no matter what he says, it will be viewed through the context of his race.
The laws of underdog storytelling demand that “La Palabra” position Santos at his weakest point – Super Tuesday is right around the corner, and the results will send any tractionless Presidential campaigns to the dustbin. Josh believes that Santos has a slim – very slim – chance to eke out a second-place finish in California, but Santos, fearing the risks are too high, is ready to drop out and use his remaining funds (including a home mortgage) to fund another campaign for Congress. To any casual observer, it would seem that his bid for the Presidency is finished.
But anyone who’s watched the last six seasons of The West Wing (a category which, presumably, includes everyone reading this review) knows that the most uncertain moments yield the most dramatic successes. Think back to Season One’s “Mandatory Minimums,” where Bartlet’s radical policy agenda (initially expected to crash and burn) gives him an even bigger boost in the polls than anyone could have expected. So it is with Santos and Super Tuesday – there’s no question that this episode will end with him winning California.
The question, then, becomes: Is the journey believable? Can we honestly buy that an unknown Congressman can rally from the bleachers and clinch the Democratic nomination? So “La Palabra” does its best to smooth his rise to the top, by knocking down one of his fiercest competitors. John Hoynes, the primary’s second-placer, collapses in the polls after allegations of impropriety make the surface. (As a reminder, please recall that The West Wing takes place in a fantasy world, where politicians generally face consequences for sexual harassment.)
The downfall of Hoynes was always inevitable – the show put no stock into his campaign, treating him as the closest thing the primary field had to a villain. (He wasn’t even given a segment in the POV-laden “King Corn.”) And the show smartly ties his fall in with his past history, retroactively lending more weight to “Life on Mars” and “Full Disclosure” (a pair of episodes so relentlessly mediocre that I never bothered blessing either of them with an actual review).
And by distancing Santos from the Hoynes drama (the story is unraveled by Will and Donna, sparring to get Russell more campaign time than Bartlet’s original Veep), the episode keeps up his crystal-clean image. This is a man, after all, who we need to respect and admire, if we’re to forgive the narrative leaps the show takes in propelling him to the Democratic nomination. And if “La Palabra” might make the transition too pat, it at least has the gumption to give us an engaging “come from behind” story. The show hasn’t yet found a way to make Santos truly interesting – we won’t cross that bridge till Season Seven – but this is an admirable effort.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Orange you glad I used that header photo? (I’m sorry, I shouldn’t make puns. They peel away my readers, and these reviews are citrus business.)
+ Santos really has fun with those reporters. “Congressman! The latest Field polls say if the election were held today…” “People would be surprised because it’s normally held on Election Day.”
+ Will tricking Donna into giving a press statement.
+ Donna pouring water on Will’s face.
+ Santos’ story about his neighbors and the Feds is both inspiring and hilarious.
– The final exchange between Josh and Santos – “We won California” – has a lot of buildup for the extremely predictable payoff.