Better Late Than Never: 10 Random Thoughts on The West Wing Episode Four

Credit: NBC/@twwgifs

Welcome back to Better Late Than Never. This is going to be a short week, but let’s try to make the most of it, shall we? Today we’re going to be covering “Five Votes Down,” one of my personal favorites from the first season. I’ve seen this episode a couple of times and every time I see it, I find something interesting or something that I like.

We left off on Friday with the President attacking Syria after they downed a military helicopter on the way to Iman. The chopper was carrying Morris Tolliver, the President’s doctor, and the father of a new ten-day old baby. Josh hired Charlie to be the President’s body man, and Sam dealt with the fallout of CJ learning that he had a relationship–however brief–with a call girl. “Five Votes Down” seems to take place at least a few weeks later, maybe longer, and introduces a whole new host of problems, particularly the loss of five votes on a gun bill the President is trying to get passed.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

  1. So, as much as I like the beginning speech, the beginning walk and talk is one of my most favorite moments of this episode and the show so far. This walk and talk is exquisite. It’s so well choreographed. Everyone is on their toes. It’s well-acted. The camera work compliments the scene. Man. According to John Spencer, this was the longest walk and talk they did at the beginning of the show. It took a lot of takes to get it right but boy it shows and it’s wonderful. I love it. 
  2. “We love you, Josh.” “It helps not to know him.” I mean, she’s not wrong, is she? I love Josh as much as the next person but he really can have his moments. 
  3. I absolutely do not believe that Margaret didn’t remind Leo of his anniversary. That does not seem like the type of thing that Leo McGarry forgets. I know we don’t know much about Leo’s life with Jenny, but come on. I would imagine that would be the first thing that he tells Margaret to remember. 
  4. Forty thousand dollars on the lecture circuit? I’m in the wrong profession. 
  5. “I’m in your own party.” And we saw how well that went for Bernie Sanders. Lawrence O’Donnell wrote this episode over twenty years ago and perfectly captured the dissent in the Democratic party, that same dissent we would see in full force when Sanders ran (twice!!) and couldn’t get the support he needed from the Dems. It’s incredible how this show is almost like an oracle. 
  6. I also absolutely do not believe that Toby, morally superior, always has a comeback, believes himself better than everyone (but we still love him anyway), Toby doesn’t realize the amount of trouble he’s in. I know he’s just a writer. I know that he doesn’t deal with economics or the like, but seriously. How could he not know that his sole investment in a tech company would jump to an inordinate amount of money after a friend of his testified in court about it? I mean… I don’t know. 
  7. I love the camera work in this conversation with Wick and Josh. It could be something as simple as a medium shot of the two of them arguing, but no, director Michael Lehmann makes it dynamic by working in a dolly shot that circles Wick and Josh while Josh is talking about assault weapons that should be banned. I also like how everything is up close and personal in these shots. The West Wing is all about medium shots or close-ups and I’m pretty partial to them, I guess. But, yeah, this is such a dynamic scene and I love how it’s shot.
  8. Mrs. Jenny McGarry, the heck is your problem? Seriously. She stands there in this beautiful house saying “I can’t do all of this anymore.” Honey. HONEY, you married him knowing full well that a) he was a veteran and b) probably has PTSD, along with the knowledge that he was probably going to end up a politician after going to law school but one step away from it. He worked in the private sector for years, was elected to congress under a REPUBLICAN FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, and then kept supporting him through drug and alcohol issues only for you to be like “I can’t do this anymore?” what can’t you do that you didn’t already sign up for? I mean, really. SERIOUSLY. I don’t get women sometimes because, by God, I’d have remained with him knowing exactly what he’s going through, what he’s been through, and the good that he’s doing. At the same time, I can see how Jenny feels, but like… I don’t know. I’ve never been in a relationship so I guess I can’t say much, but still.
  9. Question: did we know before this that Leo had a problem with alcoholism? Because I don’t remember but I don’t think so. In that vein, I like that we learn that both of them struggle with this addiction in a very intimate way. Is it honest? It’s hard to say. When I first watched this episode, I thought that maybe Leo was playing Hoynes (he’s capable of doing that) but now that I’ve watched it again, I think his reaction is genuine. 
  10. The President while high on pain pills coming into a meeting in the Oval Office is the funniest thing I think I’ve ever seen. I do hate that the Bartlets never got a dog, though. That would’ve been amazing. 
  11. BONUS: And this is why Leo didn’t want to go to Hoynes. This exact moment. He claims victory when the victory should go to the President.

As stated above, I absolutely adore this episode and I don’t even know if I can properly voice why I love this episode. It is just such a strong episode and I think the performances are spot on. There’s a little bit of humor, there’s a bit of drama. It’s witty. The audience gets some great character-building moments. It has a bit of everything. Lawrence O’Donnell really knocked it out of the park and so did the cast of characters. I feel like this is the first time we really see them work together for the good of the administration. Of course, that would be a lie, but I don’t know. In a lot of ways, this felt the most cohesive so far, the most balanced, I should say. There wasn’t an overabundance of Sam. We didn’t have Laurie shoved down our throats or any type of condescension to the women. It was a good, well-written, well-balanced exploration of this group of politicians trying to get a gun bill passed.

That being said, though, I do have to talk about Leo’s storyline a little bit and Spencer’s incredible performance. The episode is, admittedly, Leo heavy but it’s done in such a subtle way that you don’t really notice. Everyone gets their dues, but I think we learn more about Leo and Josh than anyone else in this episode, which I’m totally okay with.

Leo, in this episode, is so tragic. He tries not to be, but the circumstances around Jenny leaving him and the revelation that he’s not been able to go to meetings, meaning he’s been dealing with his alcoholism and pill addiction on his own while dealing with the stresses of an administration. That scene with Hoynes is so telling and Spencer just owns every moment of it. Leo’s exhaustion is palpable. His disbelief is written all over his face and in every single movement he makes. He is blindsided by Jenny’s decision to leave him. Honestly, I was blindsided by it as well. I don’t know why I was, especially seeing as this is the only time we ever see Jenny. It just felt a little shoe-horned in, but boy did it work.

This is a humanizing moment for Leo. Yeah, we know he has a grown daughter who is just as fierce as he is, but this episode peels back the layers a bit. Up until now, he’s been this pragmatic presence who isn’t afraid to push and prod his staff a bit. He has a great relationship with the President, but he’s really just been this stalwart presence, the rock of the administration to this point. So, it was nice to see another layer to Leo and it was spectacular seeing Spencer stretch his legs a bit and give the audience this emotionality that he’s really great at doing.

Of course, Whitford is also equally as spectacular as Josh in full pitbull mode, going after congressmen and rattling chains to get everyone to fall in line. This isn’t nearly as chaotic as this man can get, but it’s nice to see it so early. He’s passionate about his job and he’s passionate about keeping the administration’s constituents safe. Whitford just hits the ground running and keeps running. I love watching him wheel and deal and get the job done. It’s done with such passion and ferocity. It’s just a great character episode and executed perfectly by the actor.

Join me tomorrow as I cover my first big block of cheese day episodes “Crackpots and These Women.”

Shelby Arnold
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