Better Late Than Never: 10 Random Thoughts on The West Wing Episode 19

Credit: NBC

Hi everyone and once again, welcome back to Better Late Than Never. We are three, yes, three, episodes away from the end of season one of The West Wing. I truly never thought I would get this far and I am very proud of myself. I am proud of myself even though it’s taken me far too long to get to this point. We’re going to ignore that.

Anyway, we are at… not really the penultimate episode of season one but we are at the turning point of season one and I would argue the turning point of the direction of the show. Up until this point, it’s been obvious that the Bartlet Administration has been spinning their wheels in a lot of different ways. Their one big win was getting Roberto Mendoza on the bench for the Supreme Court, but everything else has kind of been a mess. Senators, congressmen, and even members of their own staff (cough cough Mandy) have been holding them back from greatness. Not anymore.

Starting with episode 19, Leo lights a fire under the bellies of Josh, Toby, Sam, and CJ (notice, there’s no Mandy in that lineup) and tells them that from now on they were going to “raise the level of debate in [the] country” and that was going to be the Bartlet Administration’s legacy. He warned them that they wouldn’t win every single battle and they might run into walls but it was better than feeling less than motivated every time they came up against a battle. What brings this all on? Well, Sam and Toby have a bit of a hard time arguing against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (which, makes no sense to me because Clinton doesn’t belong to this timeline. So, who introduced this bill and let it pass in this timeline? I don’t know.); Josh meets with the leaders of the opposition about two FEC chairmen appointees who favor aggressive campaign finance reform; Mandy wrote a memo about how to beat President Bartlet for reelection and it gets a lot of feathers ruffled because Mandy is right. Shocker.

This episode is fantastic and is one of my favorites. Hands down. So, let’s get into it. Stick around for my review of the episode below.

  1. Does anybody else feel like Sam is just a bit too idealistic for his own good and instead of it being a good thing, it has now become a laughable flaw that makes it that much easier to just no like him? No, that’s just me? I think I’m okay with that. (One day, I promise, I’m not going to keep dunking on Sam. But, then again, he gives me so much to dunk on him that I don’t feel bad about it.)
  2. Let the record show that the President wanted two picks for the FEC positions and wanted them to be tough on campaign finance reform and Leo immediately shoots it down. Josh gets excited about it and Leo shoots him down again. I’m recording this for posterity. I hope everyone knows this. This is not a spoiler. Just a little reminder to come back to later on in the episode. 
  3. I will always, always, love and adore Margaret. Poor girl has her quirks and not a lot of people listen to her, especially when she goes on a tangent about muffins, but she has a great rapport with Leo and she always brings some much-needed levity to the proceedings. It’s a great little bit of relief following the bombshell that Mandy wrote a playbook on how to beat the Bartlet Administration for reelection.
  4. I’d like to point out the distinct differences between the treatment CJ gets from Mandy when she messes up and the treatment Mandy gets from CJ when she messes up. (There are a lot of pronouns in that sentence. I hope you can understand what I’m talking about there.) So, way back when, CJ was practically berated by Mandy when she messed up. She was told to keep it together and feel no emotions. She was, basically, made to feel even worse by Mandy. CJ might be mad as a hornet at Mandy but she doesn’t berate her. She doesn’t get in her face about it. She handles it in a mature and dignified manner. Yeah, Mandy still feels like rubbish because her memo got out but CJ didn’t treat her like she’s been treated. I feel like that’s a HUGE thing we need to point out here. And, to be honest, it’s one of the many reasons Mandy is instantly unlikeable and CJ is beloved. We shouldn’t pit women against women, at all, and CJ is taking the high road so far and that’s fantastic. 
  5. “He will eat his salad and if he doesn’t like it, he knows where to put his salad.” Can I just say that Mrs. Landingham is a force to be reckoned with and I love and adore her and I love her relationship with Jed? It’s brilliant. 
  6. “Why is everyone walking around like they know they’ve already lost?” Donna is so intuitive. We don’t give her enough credit for that. She might not know everything there is to know about politics, but she knows when things aren’t right and when people are out of sorts. This is one of those times. Of course, the staff has a reason for walking around acting like they’re acting. They know they’re wasting their time and that’s a bad feeling to have. 
  7. Danny out here speaking the truth and doing so with conviction and doing so without attacking CJ or Mandy directly. Danny is right. They should’ve asked Mandy what she thought when they hired her and that was on them. There is no reason to ostracize her, especially when they all know the memo was right. Anyway, I just really do appreciate Danny for not going after CJ as everyone else has previously. It’s refreshing. 
  8. Question. So, Leo is one of the top minds of the Democratic party. He’s, basically, second in command of the entire country. If Toby, or even Josh or CJ or Sam, had come to him (maybe as a united front) and mentioned that they weren’t getting anything done, would Leo had changed his mind and become more aggressive and seen the error of his ways? Or would he have been, well, Leo, and simply shrug them off and proceed to pull Jed back to the middle? I have issues with the fact that none of the staff have pointed out Leo’s shortcomings before this. Maybe I shouldn’t seeing as he is the second most powerful person in the U.S. but still. 
  9. Jed says that Leo driving him to the political center isn’t true, but the thing is IT IS TRUE. Nothing we’ve seen so far suggests that Jed is the political neutral in this administration. I feel like the only time we’ve maybe gotten a hint about it was Jed’s hesitance about Mendoza and then the “dangling our feet” quip at the beginning of this episode. I mean, for god’s sake, the first time we saw Jed, he was denouncing the Christian right and telling them to get their fat asses out of his White House. I have some trouble with this whole narrative here. I feel like there are plot holes with this whole…thing. I’m going to have to go back and watch every episode from the pilot until now aren’t I? Probably.
  10. I’m going to copy and paste some of this from an article I’ve previously written here. The first time I saw this episode, Leo came out of nowhere and scared me to death with his argument with the President. Him coming in and yelling at the President, arguing with him, was the lowest thing on the list of things I expected to happen. It shocked the heck out of me. It’s always the quiet ones you have to worry about and Leo is a quiet one. When he wants you to listen, you listen, whether you want to or not. I felt like this was a phenomenal moment in both plot development and character development. Critics and reviewers speak of turning points in TV shows and that’s exactly what this moment is. Everything changes in the show at this moment. The pall of melancholy and the frustration of the administration shifts to one of action and hope and excitement. It’s an electrifying moment spearheaded by Spencer’s electric performance. Speaking of electric performances, coming off the argument with Jed, Leo approaches his staff and gives them a pep talk for the ages. If I thought that the argument was electric and rife with tension, this one just further solidifies the turn and the way the show goes from fraught yet idealistic to idealistic and, dare I repeat myself, hopeful. Here is Leo, the pragmatist, finally putting his foot down and saying “this is what we’re doing and we’re going to run full steam ahead no matter what.” It’s such an uplifting moment and I don’t think that anyone could’ve delivered that speech with as much gravitas and finesse as Spencer did.

Oh, boy. What can I say about this episode that hasn’t already been said? I have no idea because I feel like I’ve talked about this episode multiple times over multiple different articles. I love and adore this episode. I feel like it’s one of the best episodes of season one. It deserves to be in the upper echelons of ranking lists. It isn’t, but that’s okay because I’m going to shout it to the rooftops myself. I don’t care.

I thought the acting was spot on. Don’t get me started on John Spencer as Leo. I won’t stop talking and you can see my reaction above. That about sums it up and gives you all you need to know. I thought the characterizations were spot on as well. Bradley Whitford as Josh really upped the ante and continued to show everyone just how much of a bulldog he could be when push came to shove. Then, of course, Richard Schiff and Allison Janney came in like a wrecking ball as Toby and CJ. I love everyone (just not Rob Lowe, sorry) in this episode. The desperation is palpable in everyone as they scramble to make some sort of difference. I think, at this point, everyone is terrified that their legacy will simply be a series of disappointments which is why they’re all feeling the sting of loss before they officially lose.

All of that aside, I will say that I feel like we got some plot holes in this episode. I could be wrong, but I think Sorkin and writers Peter Parnell and Patrick Caddell were trying to make an empowering episode (and succeeded) but in doing so kind of forgot everything that’s come before this. Maybe I’m creating the plot holes myself, but when Leo and Jed are arguing in the Oval Office, I couldn’t help but think that we started this show with President Bartlet telling off the Christian right and kicking them out of the White House. This whole episode of malaise feels wholly out of character for Jed. He’s stood toe-to-toe with Colonel Fitzwallace. He’s bombed Syria. He’s made things happen, but none of the things he’s made happen have been what his Administration needs which is why Mendoza feels important because it was something that needed to happen to establish the Bartlet Administration as something and not just another soft Democrat incapable of accomplishing anything. I don’t know, maybe I’m grasping at straws, but Mandy is right. Not Leo, Mandy. As much as I’m loathed to say that.

Other than that, this is a great climax to the first season. It’s a solid story that explores intercharacter relationships and highlights the differences between CJ and Mandy and highlights just how weak of a character Mandy is. If you’re agreeing with that assessment, don’t worry. We’re three episodes away from never seeing her again. Sorry, Moira Kelly. You’re a great actress, but you deserve better than Mandy Hampton.

Shelby Arnold
Hop On In

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