Better Late Than Never: 10 Random Thoughts on The West Wing Episode 15

Credit: NBC

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to Better Late Than Never. I had a family emergency last week and am just now getting back on my feet. This is the perfect episode to get back into the swing of things with. It’s funny. It’s poignant. It’s everything I want in an episode and more.

So, last Monday, we watched a very somber episode called “Take This Sabbath Day.” In it, we learn that a lawyer is trying to get a stay of execution for a drug kingpin who killed two dealers. The lawyer tried everything to get his client acquitted just short of calling Sam Seaborn, a guy he used to beat up in high school. When push comes to shove, he contacts Sam and the staff at the White House end up considering the case. Elsewhere in the White House, Josh meets Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin) and hilarity ensues. It was a great episode that peeled back the layers of our characters and gave the audience some substance as well as a little bit of humor. Mostly, though, it was a very serious episode that is one of season one’s best.

“Celestial Navigation,” tells the story of Josh messing up a press conference, Sam and Toby getting lost in Connecticut, and the new pick to the Supreme Court Roberto Mendoza getting arrested because of racism. To top it all off, Josh is telling a group of college students this story for a lecture series because why not? It’s a great follow-up to an amazing episode and manages to stand all on its own by just being brilliant in its own right. So, let’s dive right in.

  1. Why do we always blame CJ? I mean, I know some of it is joking, but seriously. Why is it always CJ? Is it because she’s the press secretary? Is it because she’s a woman? It’s hard to tell. I don’t know anymore. 
  2. “She was baited and she was right.” About calling all Republicans racist? Well, I think the events of the past four years shows that those words have never been truer. Don’t you think? Yeah, I think so too.
  3. I love the structure that Sorkin uses in this episode. If you’ve been reading and paying attention to my Better Late Than Nevers, you’ll know I like it when writers decide to use a different narrative tactic to get the story across. This is one such instance. After fourteen episodes of the same structure, it was time to switch it up and this is the perfect format to do it. Why? Well, a) it makes sense that Josh would be the one called to a college to do a lecture. He’s charming, he’s witty, the girls love him, and he’s more popular than Sam, it seems. B) he has a better job. Communications probably only appeal to a certain type of person. Not everyone is going to deal with communications. Josh covers all the bases. C) No offense, I love Leo, but he’d bore everyone to death. Not only that but this kind of structure allows for Josh to be a bit of an unreliable narrator and atone for sins that are about to rear their ugly heads. Plus, maybe I’m biased, but I love when episodes flashback, even if it’s only to earlier in the week. 
  4. Never let Jed speak in front of the press without CJ there to reign him in. I mean it. CJ is fully capable of holding the President back and I don’t think anyone understands that. They’re understanding that now. So, guys, maybe, like, cut CJ some slack on her job. It’s a lot harder than you think it is. 
  5. “I’m using celestial navigation.” “Hey, Galileo get off at the next exit and turn the car around.” Toby knows when other people are wrong. Sam should know when he’s wrong. He’s a sailor, he should know the different stars and how to navigate with them. However, on this occasion, it’s not working very well, is it?
  6. Oh my god, CCH Pounder! I wish they would’ve made a staff position for her. A senior aide to the White House, something. I want more of her. She stands toe to toe with John Spencer and just always delivers a powerhouse performance. Plus, she would’ve worked out better than Moira Kelly did as Mandy. I can guarantee that much. Plus, Janney is great. She’s a queen. I love her. But she really needed an equal in that White House. Someone she could stand toe to toe with and work with who wasn’t a man. There, I said it. 
  7. Josh will never touch press conferences again. Not with a ten-foot pole. Not after this. Danny tried to warn him. He really did. Did Josh listen? Of course not because it’s Josh and he listens to no one and that just means he dives headfirst into everything he definitely shouldn’t dive headfirst into. 
  8. Leo McGarry is like, “Goddamnit, today was supposed to be a good day but my disaster of a White House staff has made that goal a little difficult to achieve. Everyone needs to shut up and they should’ve shut up more than three hours ago.” This is a time I wish that The West Wing had been on HBO so we could’ve heard Leo cursing in frustration.
  9. “No, I did not. Let me be absolutely clear, I did not do that. Except, yes I did that.” Petition, once again, for Bradley Whitford to be in a screwball comedy. Preferably with Martin Sheen and Allison Janney. Please? Pretty please? Someone make that happen. 
  10.  Mendoza is a man after my own heart. I’m sure Connecticut has fantastic antiques and I really wish that I could, you know, see them and have some of my own.

I mention this in my list of thoughts above, but I love when Sorkin plays with time. If Christopher Nolan and Aaron Sorkin ever got together for a project, I’m pretty sure my mind would explode because they do similar things in their writing and they do it phenomenally well. I might be biased, but I think Sorkin does it a little bit better, but shh. Don’t tell anyone else I said that.

“Celestial Navigation” is the first episode that really toys with the flashback narrative. It’s also the first episode that fiddles with time a little bit. Granted, it doesn’t fiddle with time quite as much as Nolan does, it does give the audience a new way to appreciate a story and it energizes the season right in the middle of it to keep it interesting. So far, we’ve been given all linear stories and this one just comes in and changes it up. Once again, it changes it up for the better. Maybe I’m just biased (again, I know) but I do love when narratives are presented in flashback. I love it even better when the most chaotic character of the show is given the task of telling about the events that happened.

Of course, this is another episode that really showcases Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, and even John Spencer’s comedic timing. As you all know, I will use any excuse to sing these guys’ praises. (Yes, even Martin Sheen’s praises too, because, let’s be real, he’s a large part of why the show works early on. Let’s just say he’s the beating heart of the first season.) I’ve mentioned before that I would’ve killed to have seen Kathryn Joosten, Spencer, and Sheen in a comedy film together and this episode reiterates it, once again, but honestly, the comedy of this episode is carried expertly by Janney and her “woot canal.”

I love Janney as a serious actor. She crushes it every single time in the more dramatic bits–we saw some of that in the previous episode–but this episode dials up the humor and Janney hits it every single time. I’ve always said that Sorkin writes to his cast’s strengths and this is no exception. I’ll be honest and say that I can’t see anyone else doing this bit. This is where Janney excels and proves that she’s not only a phenomenal dramatic actor, she’s also talented in comedy. I love that The West Wing gave her the opportunity to prove her medal and to exercise her talents in this way. It was the perfect show to do this because the premise lends itself to that, and Sorkin writes it that way too. I also love that she’s still wowing us with award-winning turns in movies and on Mom.

Anyway, “Celestial Navigation” is hilarious and is probably one of my favorite comedic episodes of season one.

Shelby Arnold
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