Better Late Than Never: 10 Random Thoughts on The West Wing Episode 16

Credit: NBC

Hi everyone and welcome back to Better Late Than Never. Most of North America and Canada are under a cold snap and my real-life craziness has finally settled down. So, I’m here for the week to bring you your weekly dose of all things fictional politics in The West Wing. We have three good episodes to break down this week and I’m eager to go through them and talk about them.

But first, let’s recap where we left off last week. Last week’s episode, “Celestial Navigation” put Josh on stage at a college lecture class, telling the story about CJ and an emergency “woot canal” that landed Josh in the hot seat when he implies that President Bartlet has a secret plan to fight inflation. Elsewhere, Toby and Sam deal with a racially charged situation that led to Supreme Court Justice nominee Roberto Mendoza being arrested in Connecticut on the suspicion of drunk driving.  It was a hilarious episode undercut by real and important discussions about racism against Latinx people. So, basically, it was textbook Aaron Sorkin.

“20 Hours in LA” is another episode that tackles humor and important ideas all in one fell swoop. Let’s dive in with my ten random thoughts followed by my review of the episode. Enjoy!

  1. I’m sure I have said this once and I will say it again. Leo and Jed’s relationship is probably the best thing in this series next to Donna and Josh’s relationship. I love watching John Spencer and Martin Sheen playing off each other and bringing their friendship from behind the camera on screen in these two very powerful men. It’s just such a great dynamic and Sorkin writes it phenomenally well. 
  2. Aww, Jorja Fox. I wish they would’ve kept Gina around for a while. I like her. I like her gumption. I like how she doesn’t back down in front of the President. I really liked her relationship with Zoey as well. This episode is the first time we really get to see them together and I thought it was great. 
  3. “I’m just saying call her or stop bugging me.” He immediately decides to call her and Donna just wilts. You can practically hear her entire thought process because Janel Moloney plays Donna’s crush on Josh so well. Like, it’s obvious that Donna is pushing Josh toward Joey because she’s insecure about her own feelings and him being blind to those feelings doesn’t help much. Gosh, Moloney’s acting here is exquisite. 
  4. I want to eat at a place that makes the guacamole fresh right in front of you. I just want everyone to know that. But on a more serious note, the conversation that Bartlet has with Josh, Sam, Charlie, and Toby during this particular walk and talk, on the surface, feels like just a bit of nonsense. I mean, he’s talking about guacamole and eating lunch with his daughter, but there’s a lot going on under the rapid-fire, stage-esque dialogue that is written here. Or maybe I’m just reading too far into things. I’m not sure. Either way, the seemingly insignificant dialogue probably isn’t really. It never is where Sorkin is concerned. 
  5. Toby is so finished with Al Kiefer that his entire demeanor screams “this is ridiculous,” which is exactly what he says when he says that Al is the guy who runs into the 7/11 to get Satan a pack of cigarettes. Al Kiefer is a pawn. A grunt worker. A mindless man who thinks he has all the answers, but really is just blowing smoke up the President’s non-existent skirt. I don’t like this guy either. He feels too familiar in this climate. 
  6. Ah, the party. I like seeing all the staffers dressed up. It’s always so fun. And they’re a gorgeous cast. So, it’s totally worth it. 
  7. Okay, but seriously, Joey and Josh would’ve been the cutest thing in the whole wide world had Josh not been so stupid. I swear. He really is stupid. Stupid and clueless. I love him to death. Also, Marlee Matlin and Bradley Whitford had tremendous chemistry and I hate that it was so wasted. 
  8. “I live in the land of professional politics, not in the land of adolescent tantrum,” the President says while standing up to make his point and yelling in a way that could be construed as a tantrum. Okay, then, sir. Whatever you say. 
  9. Joey Lucas with Al Kiefer is the BIGGEST slap in the face I think I’ve ever seen in an episode. I hate every moment of it. It’s so gross. She deserves better. 
  10. It would’ve been really nice to see Hoynes and Bartlet work together on more things. Hoynes is still a snake oil salesman to the one-hundredth degree, but I think it would’ve been an interesting dynamic to explore. I know I talk a lot about the women on the staff working together and propping each other up and supporting each other, but I feel that it’s sometimes lacking with the men. Them being together on things is just as powerful as when women support women.

So, let’s talk about this episode. “20 Hours in LA” feels like a breezy episode focused on a fundraising event in Los Angeles, but underneath the surface, there’s a lot going on in this episode. Everything from gay rights to flag-burning, to reelection and other things, are discussed in this episode. The two most important things to consider in this episode are gay rights, specifically their service in the military, and flag-burning, which, in a lot of ways, converses with the First Amendment and what’s considered free speech and what’s not.

In addition to these conversations, there’s even more simmering under the surface. There’s a tension building in President Barlet and surrounding Charlie and Zoey and their relationship. A new Secret Service agent is added to Zoey’s detail and she reveals that white supremacists are threatening to take action because Charlie is Black and Zoey is white. It’s a father’s worst nightmare, amplified by the fact that Jed is President and holds the highest office in the land.

Despite all of this happening in this episode, not a lot of time is spent directly on these individual issues. The white supremacists get openly discussed in less than five minutes at the beginning of the episode. Flag-burning gets an extended sequence near the middle and another extended sequence during lunch with Zoey. The issue that gets the most attention is gay rights but even then, I feel like most of it is swept under the rug or not spoken about in a direct manner. I understand that this show aired in the early 2000s when LGBTQ+ people didn’t have the vocal voice they have today, but Sorkin could’ve used his platform in a better way. As I said, this was all swept under the rug and brushed off like the worry wasn’t founded, but we all know that members of the community have had plenty of reasons to worry in the past. Most specifically the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy prohibited the LGBTQ community members from serving in the military and was signed into law in 1994 under the Clinton Administration. The West Wing ignores the Clinton Administration and takes place in a timeline where Clinton didn’t serve as President, but its fingerprints are all over the show, right down to the ultra-liberal ideologies the administration holds. In my opinion, instead of sweeping Ted’s concerns under the rug over a proposed bill that sounds a lot like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and instead of treating Ted like a confrontational worry wort, President Bartlet should’ve addressed Ted’s worries frankly and honestly. In that way, Sorkin could’ve used his platform to say something important. Instead, the conversation is turned to President Bartlet’s problems and Ted’s are just forgotten. As I said, they’re swept under the rug with nothing really done about it. Ted’s worries are totally founded and grounded in reality. It felt like Sorkin dropped the ball.

The flag-burning conversations feel the same way. I’ve seen many televisions that explore the fall out of flag-burning as a method of protest. Yes, the President has a point that there isn’t an epidemic of flag-burning out there that’s really a problem, but when it does happen it does create a problem. This is another instance where Sorkin could’ve made a poignant argument about the First Amendment and started a conversation about freedom of speech and how just because something is allowed to happen, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to let happen. It’s a fine line to tread, but I feel if done right, it would’ve opened up some interesting lines of conversation.

Anyway, other than that, I thought “20 Hours in LA” was great. It was funny and personal and those are the episodes I love the most.

Shelby Arnold
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