Better Late Than Never: 10 Random Thoughts on The West Wing Episode 18

Credit: NBC

Hi everyone and welcome back to Better Late Than Never. Most of the South is covered in snow–which is part of the reason this post was delayed until today–and some of the Southeast got hit with some severe weather. So, I hope that everyone is staying as safe as possible and as warm as possible. If you have power and you’re seeing this post, I hope you enjoy it.

Last week, we left off with “The White House Pro-Am,” a somewhat sexist episode that explores the topics of economics, child labor, and friction between the First Lady and the President as his choice for the new chairman of the Federal Reserve was Abbey’s ex-boyfriend. I lamented the way that Sam treated Abbey and her staff. Thankfully, this episode was much better on this front, save for when Sam and Mallory are fighting about school vouchers.

“Six Meetings Before Lunch” tackles the topic of slavery reparations as well as the Bartlet Administration’s first win with the confirmation of Roberto Mendoza to the Supreme Court.  Elsewhere, Zoey was at a party where a Senator’s son was busted for drugs. The press tries to get Zoey to talk and when she does, she lies to them to protect her friend. Thus, Sorkin tackles another facet of what it’s like to be the teenage daughter of the President and how protective Jed is of Zoey. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the episode. Review follows below.

  1. “How about some champagne?” The whole room chimes in: “No.” “The hell?” Josh, we don’t want to tempt fate. Or, you know, the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing. Sorkin and his things. And fate. And Toby saying similar words just mixed up in a different order. The Bartlet Administration has definitely not had a good time of it. We’ve seen that from the beginning. Is it about to get worse? Hopefully not, but we’ll just have to see. 
  2. Seeing Toby happy is, honestly, a breath of fresh air. It’s so wonderful. We don’t see it often, but it’s nice. It’s refreshing. 
  3. Sam and Mallory are dull. I love Mallory a lot and I wish we got more of her over the run of the show, but Sam and Mallory are dull. I’m probably biased because I absolutely hate Sam and he’s a misogynistic prick. There. I’ve said it again. For like the 100th time. 
  4. I love The Jackal. I really do. I know there are some people who don’t like it and think it’s too silly, but I think it fits right in with CJ and her characterization. It’s a whole lot of fun and CJ is a whole lot of fun. Is it a little silly? Yes, but that’s the whole point of it.
  5. Another reason why Mandy isn’t liked is that she gets saddled by these ridiculous plots. The woman hasn’t been in the last few episodes and then suddenly she’s there talking about pandas. Yes, pandas are important and it’s important that panda bears have mates so they don’t die of loneliness, but come on. A media consultant talking to Toby about panda bears? It’s not all that important.
  6.  Oh my gosh, Carl Lumbly. I love Carl Lumbly. I first saw him in the tremendous made for TV movie The Color of Friendship. He blew me away then and he blows me away now and he is the perfect person to bring in for this role. The only problem is, there’s not enough of him. But what is the old saying? Quality over quantity? This is definitely one of those roles and one of those moments. We should also definitely pay reparations. 
  7. Mallory deserves better than this. She has a good platform and a great voice and great speeches, but ugh, Sam is insufferable and always shoots her down. And why do they always go back to them trying to date each other? Mallory, honey, you deserve someone better than Samuel Seaborn. 
  8. “I’m not afraid of being affectionate in public.” Charlie, my man. Yes, you are. This is why you didn’t kiss Zoey in public in the West Wing and why she then proceeded to push you up against a wall and snog you like you’ve only been snogged before in private. Zoey’s got some gumption. I like it.
  9. “What a tight ass little priss he must have been.” Since you’re talking about Washington, yeah, that doesn’t surprise me at all, that he would’ve written the words in that book. Now, why you’re reading it, Mr. President is another story. 
  10. Seeing this episode now and hearing the conversation that Josh and Mr. Breckenridge have about the state of this country and how it’s unfinished hits hard. Twenty-some odd years later and this country still isn’t finished. It just keeps suffering setbacks, mostly because of deeply rooted institutional and other forms of racism. It’s rough.

There are a lot of good things in this episode and some bad. Today we’re going to focus on the good because I could spend a whole lot going on and on about how Mallory deserves better and Leo was right to mess with Sam because Mallory doesn’t need or deserve Sam. No, the great thing about this episode is how the narrative balances the light with the deep. The great thing about this episode is the acting and the character growth we see with Zoey and Charlie. We get to see CJ and the rest of the staff blow off steam and we got to see Toby smile. All of these are just fantastic ways we get to see the cast stretch their legs and give the audience more to relate to.

The best performances of this episode are easily Richard Schiff as well as Carl Lumbly. Schiff has already broken our hearts in “In Excelsis Deo,” the Christmas episode I discussed here. But in this episode, we get to peel back some more layers of Toby and Schiff does some extraordinary things. It’s fantastic to see a different side of Toby. It’s a little weird, but it’s still really cool. How often do we see Toby excited and happy? Not very often. In fact, in the first season, I think the only time we see a good mood from Toby is when he’s not killing himself with his work. His “day of jubilee” and the day after is Toby, basically, blowing off a little steam in celebration for a well-deserved win. He’s not worried about confirming Mendoza. He can take a break and it’s needed.

I feel like this is definitely something we don’t acknowledge with Toby very often. Every single staffer works themselves to the bone, but I feel like Toby does it ten times more and throws himself into his work far more than anyone else does. It’s an obvious character flaw, but I don’t know if the audience has been aware of it until this episode. There are several moments where other characters mention that the three months spent confirming Mendoza to the bench almost killed Toby. Statements like those could be thrown around in jest, but I don’t feel like they are. Toby feels like he is the most dedicated staffer and one could almost assume that he’s been with the campaign since the beginning and that he and Leo are the ones who really got it off the ground and made things happen. So, my question is, what happened to Toby for him to be like this? I’m sure we find out in future episodes, but we know so little about him right now, other than he doesn’t know when to quit and it’s basically killing him but he keeps going anyway because he doesn’t seem to have anything else to go home to.

Carl Lumbly as Jeff Breckenridge is brilliant as well. He’s only in probably about twenty minutes or less of the story total, but he leaves a mark on the episode and says a lot of things that need to be said about civil rights, slavery, and the issues of reparations. To be honest, I think there should be reparations made available to the ancestors of the African people who were kidnapped and brought here by slaves. I think reparations should be paid to the ancestors of the Native Americans we killed colonizing this land.  Black people and people of color should not have to suffer from institutional racism and injustices that prevent them from living a life like white people do. Breckenridge makes a fantastic argument and Lumbly injects the needed gravitas to make the words sizzle. He is so good in this role and I wish we’d gotten more of him in later episodes. I feel like he would’ve worked well with the rest of the staff. I also selfishly wish we would’ve gotten Lumbly in a room with Martin Sheen. The intellectual conversation Breckenridge and Jed would’ve had would’ve been brilliant.

Later this week we’re going to tackle my third favorite episode of the season titled “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” So, stay tuned for my thoughts and my review of the episode.

Shelby Arnold
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