Better Late Than Never: 10 Random Thoughts on the West Wing Episode Nine

Credit: NBC

Welcome back to Better Late Than Never. We took a little bit of a break there because of the political unrest in the United States, but now we’re back with episode nine.

In episode eight, “Enemies,” Josh fought against a land-use rider that was attached to a banking bill. The banking bill, a rare win for the Administration, was on track to be ratified but the rider attached to it made it more of a win-lose situation. But, thanks to Donna, Josh was able to suggest that the President make Big Sky in Montana a National Park which protected it from the attached rider.

In this episode, Josh has the difficult task of interviewing White House staff when a congressman makes accusations against the administration regarding drugs. Meanwhile, President Bartlet, Sam, and Toby scuffle over a proposed Supreme Court nominee. What was poised to be a slam dunk, quickly turns into a fight, but the Administration is no stranger to fighting and it’s nothing they can’t handle.

So, let’s delve into the particulars of “The Short List” and see what Josh, Leo, and the rest of the team are getting themselves into.

  1. Josh and CJ securing the nomination for the Supreme Court is probably peak sibling energy. Then Josh pulls Sam and Toby into the mix after CJ leaves and then even that is peak sibling energy. Celebrating each other’s triumphs is some of the greatest moments in the staff dynamic and they have been desperately hoping for this win. They desperately need this win after having a series of losses. So, energy is high. Everything crackles. Their joy is our joy in these moments. 
  2. I’m going to shower some compliments on Allison Janney for a moment and simply comment on the absolutely stunning red turtleneck and tailored suit jacket (blazer?) ensemble. I don’t know what pattern that jacket has but I love it all. I love her hair. I love how statuesque she is. Allison Janney as CJ everyone. I adore her. 
  3. “When it doesn’t work out, you end up drunk, in my apartment, in the middle of the night, and you yell at my roommates’ cats.” Now that is a story I need further expounded upon. Donna and Josh really do have an interesting dynamic, don’t they? They always have and I can’t believe they’re not already together already. Seriously. This is ridiculous. 
  4. Lillianfield just brazenly holding a press conference and saying that one out of three staff members uses drugs on a daily basis. This dude reminds me of someone. I can’t put my finger on it. Oh yeah, but we don’t say his name right now. We’ve heard his name enough recently. But, yeah, then he goes on to mention someone who has the President’s ear. None of the staff caught that? I did. 
  5. Jed getting a bug in his ear and running with it is the best Jed there is. He knows he’s wrong. He wants an easy win, but he also knows that it won’t sit right with him if he doesn’t check out everyone. That’s a good leader. 
  6. “CJ likes goldfish.” The way Danny just automatically brightens up at this nugget of information he gets about the light of his life and the love of his life is just so cute. It’s pure joy. I still don’t ship them, but Danny makes it hard not to. 
  7. “You’re Leo McGarry. You’re not gonna be taken down by this small fraction of a man.” Aside from Josh’s wonderful solidarity with Leo and his protection of Leo, can we simply appreciate John Spencer’s performance here? The minute Josh tells Leo that Lillianfield isn’t after the senior staff, he just knows that he’s in trouble and it shows all over Spencer’s facial expressions. He has the most amazing yet subtle microexpressions and they’re so powerful. This scene always punches me in the gut. Every single time I watch it, it’s like the wind has been knocked out of me. 
  8. DANNY BROUGHT CJ THE GOLDFISH. It’s so adorable. I love him. And then CJ is cute enough that she takes the goldfish and then gives Danny a kiss and the fish’s name is Gail and, okay, maybe I ship them a little bit. 
  9. Ah, Edward James Olmos. I adore him. I don’t think they could’ve chosen another actor to be Mendoza. He has gravitas. He commands the room. I really do love him. I hope we get to see more of him. 
  10. This ending makes me tear up every time. Snuffy Walden, you musical genius.

There’s a lot going on in this episode, but like “Mr. Willis of Ohio” before it, it feels breezy and carefree, inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. I’m not sure why it does, considering it’s an episode that begins two multi-episode story arcs, but it’s so well balanced and so effortless that it doesn’t feel as important as it actually is. Several very important moments happen in this episode, both professional and personal. So, while it seems like it’s inconsequential, I’m going to argue that it’s one of the most important episodes of season one.

Here’s why.

Number one: it sets a precedent for the show. In 1999, when this episode aired, there were two people of color on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Before Thomas was Thurgood Marshal. Marshal was the first Black man to serve on the court. Scalia was the first Italian-American on the court. Now, it’s important to note that The West Wing is in its own timeline. It’s an alternative timeline that diverges during Nixon’s presidency.

That being said, President Bartlet’s nomination of Roberto Mendoza to the Supreme Court, marks a pivotal moment in the show’s history (and highlights our own past inadequacies that have only just been rectified). It also paves the way for further in-show history-making moments. Mendoza is the first Latinx man to be nominated to the Supreme Court. The U.S. wouldn’t have a Latinx person serving on the Supreme Court for another ten years. I’d say that’s a pretty important moment and Mendoza hasn’t even been confirmed in the show yet!

This also serves to amplify Sorkin’s writing and to highlight just how hopeful this show was. In a time when white men dominated the political sphere (and they still do, let’s be real), Sorkin wrote about an Administration amplifying and acknowledging a Latinx voice and the casting directors got Edward James Olmos, one of the best Latinx actors of our time, to portray Mendoza. It’s a powerful move and it proves that we can be better and we need to be better, not just politically, but also in our day to day to lives. This is an Administration that learns from its mistakes and uses its power to give voice to an otherwise silenced majority.

Number two: Leo’s admission has far-reaching ramifications and sets up his character for so much in the span of the show. No spoilers here, I promise, but Lillianfield coming in and exposing this part of Leo opens him up and makes him a much more empathetic character. This man has a lot of demons and a far less capable writer would have made him bitter and closed off, but not Sorkin. Sorkin allows Leo’s pain to fuel his compassion. He doesn’t demonize Leo or lessen him in any way. He gives him supportive colleagues and friends. One of the best lines of the whole episode came from Whitford as Josh and he says, “You’re Leo McGarry. You’re not gonna be taken down by this small fraction of a man. I won’t permit it.” For a show set so early in the understanding of addiction and mental health, in a society tinged by “Just Say No,” I feel like this was a tremendously positive step forward and I haven’t seen anything else like it before or since.

So, basically, while “The Short List” feels breezy and inconsequential, it’s actually a very important episode with stellar performances and fantastic writing. I loved every bit of it.

Shelby Arnold
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