West Wing 7×02: The Mommy Problem

[Writer: Eli Attie | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/02/2005]

“I need to hear it all.” – Santos

At a time when many serialized dramas (The Sopranos, The Wire, Buffy) were being meticulously mapped out for seasons in advance, The West Wing was largely written on the fly. Sorkin famously spun Bartlet’s MS into an episode simply as a detail; it was only during the break between the first two seasons that he began considering its implications in the larger framework of the series. Plenty of other arcs were introduced as the need allowed, even as some of them built off events and even lines of dialogue from seasons past.

This tradition extended to the Wells era, most notably in the sprawling campaign arc. Though the writers always intended for the primary to culminate in a Santos/Vinick showdown, the precise winner of that showdown was up in the air as Season Seven began. Although the writers had developed Santos as the breakout candidate – and, initially, the surefire victor – Vinick had grown into a popular character as well, thanks to stances that made him palpable to liberal viewers, coupled with Alan Alda’s commanding performance. Suddenly, the show had an election arc where both candidates were potential winners.

Perhaps this sort of storytelling challenge unnerved the writers, and the early episodes of Season Seven see a bit of backpedaling. Having made Vinick so likable in episodes like “King Corn” and “In God We Trust,” the writers now shift him to the backburner, focusing almost exclusively on the Santos campaign and its attempts to catch up to the GOP competition. Vinick, in these first two episodes, is reduced to a couple of cameos on background TV sets – hardly a flattering image for the show’s most fully three-dimensional Republican.

Still, it’s true that – at this stage in the game – Santos’ campaign contains more narrative meat than Vinick’s. Josh and co. are still trying to gain a foothold, find a message, and establish an identity for their candidate, who is still perceived by many Americans less as a White House candidate than a Baywatch extra. But as always, the only voice Josh will take advice, comments, and criticisms from is his own.

Enter Louise Thornton. The latest in a line of quick-witted brunette women who have a history of working with and one-upping Josh (though she’s not as annoying or Mandy or as accommodating as Amy), Lou is a non-nonsense political strategist who immediately gets to the heart of the Santos campaign’s problems and doesn’t care who she debases in doing it. It’s an immediately welcome change – the Santos team’s dynamic in Season Six was a bit too genial, and characters like Bram, Ned, and Ronna (plus seventh-season newcomers Otto and Edie) aren’t blessed with much personality.

Louise’s diagnosis of the Santos campaign leads to her pegging their chief issue as the titular “Mommy problem” – being too coddling and sympathetic at a time when Americans are looking for a more forceful and authoritative leader. Josh wants to center the campaign on domestic issues like jobs and healthcare; Louise argues they should emphasize the more forceful topics of defense and military.

The conflict is timed nicely with the current events at the White House, where the shuttle leak has thrown the state of national security into question. As the investigations continue (and Greg Brock -after two seasons of flirting with and irritating CJ – heads to jail), the Santos campaign is put in a precarious position – should they criticize the White House and potentially antagonize their own party, or turn a blind eye and risk looking foolish in the eyes of the public?

Josh spends much of the episode worrying about optics, but as has become standard, Santos ultimately proves the folly of his fears. The Congressman makes a statement on Bartlet that perfectly balances criticism and esteem, and even solves the Mommy Problem by engaging in his reserve training in the National Guard. Though Josh prides himself as the one pulling the strings, it is once again Santos himself who rights the campaign ship.

Still, even Santos acknowledges his weaknesses. His reshaping of priorities would likely not have occurred without the critiques of Lou, who has already established herself as a necessary factor of the growing campaign. The characters are more comfortably settling into their roles as they gear up for the general election battle, and it’s a joy to watch them grow. Now if only we could get some more Vinick time…


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ The West Wing doesn’t typically employ montages, but the teaser sequence, scored to “Jet Airliner” by the Steve Miller Band, is plenty fun. (The song was written by Paul Pena, who – in a sad coincidence – died the day before this episode was broadcast.)
+ Josh giving the full tour to the new guy, without realizing he’s just there to fix the phone lines.
+ Lou’s Vinick/Santos comparison – “He’s Neil Young to your Neil Diamond” -which inevitably has Josh responding that he likes Neil Diamond.
+ CJ translating “no” in Norwegian.
+ Santos giving his autograph to a passing waiter. One of those little moments that’s just nice for existing.
+ Josh tying himself to a chair, with predictable consequences.

–  The entire subplot about Santos’ bed breaking is so very, very dumb.


Ned takes the brunt of Josh’s criticisms in this episode, a subtle sign that he’s not long for this campaign.



West Wing Review Archive

2 thoughts on “West Wing 7×02: The Mommy Problem”

  1. Something I’ve wondered: is the “mommy problem” a thing outside of this episode? Any attempts to Google it just bring me back to this episode, which is not helpful.


    1. The closest comparison I can find to the “mommy problem” is George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics. Lakoff breaks down the differences between the two parties, dividing them into the conservative “strict father” model and the liberal “nurturing parent” model. I don’t know if the book was the inspiration for this episode, but it shares a similar theme.

      Outside of that, I don’t think the phrase “mommy problem” is specifically used in real-world politics.


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