The West Wing Recap: S1 Ep1 ‘Pilot’

(Apologies for posting the very first episode 2 days late. This weekend got more than a bit out of hand.)

Here we are with our very first episode! Very excited. So let’s get started. I’m going to post this all below a cut, because it’s so long. Also, there will very likely be spoilers in many of these recaps, so please read at your own risk if for some reason you haven’t watched the show yet.

This is the pilot episode, where we’re introduced to the primary characters and the general theme of the show. We start out with a scene in a bar, late at night, two men are talking about a third. One, Billy, is clearly a reporter, while the other, Sam, is resisting answering his questions about a character named Josh (don’t worry, we’ll find out all about who exactly these people are later), who Billy seems to think is about to be fired from somewhere. Sam exchanges glances with a woman in a flirty way.

The scene shifts to a nice house and a man named Leo getting ready for work, when he receives a call from someone called POTUS. Scene shift to a woman on a treadmill getting a beeper-message, then another shift to an office being cleaned. A man is asleep with his head on a large, messy desk. His beeper also goes off and he picks up the phone answering “This is Josh Lyman” (ah hah, you say! This must be the Josh from before, and you would be correct). Scene shift, and now we’re on an airplane in flight, focusing on a man typing on a laptop. We find out almost immediately that his name is Mr. Zeigler, and a stewardess gives him a message that the POTUS person was in a bicycle accident.

We now return to Sam and the woman he flirted with in the bar. She’s smoking weed and he’s in the shower, after they have clearly enjoyed a night together. She tells him his pager went off and the message, commenting that their two pagers look identical (that detail is important, I promise). The message is the same given to Mr. Zeigler in the last scene, but here at last we find out who this mysterious POTUS is. Sam explains to the woman, Laurie, that he has to leave suddenly, and he’s sorry, but to give him her number because he has to go to work. POTUS is his boss (it’s an acronym for President of the United States) and Sam has been called in to work early.

Now we get the title, and see an entrance hall of The White House, where we follow Leo in through a security checkpoint and through the halls, greeting people along the way and throwing off one-liners. We also meet someone named Donna and Josh briefs Leo on something involving Cubans trying to enter Florida in rickety rafts. They have a spirited argument about some options for dealing with it and then the conversation shifts to something Josh has done which angered the President and Leo, something involving the Christian right. Leo at last ends up in what is clearly his office where he discusses the issues already introduced with Sam, Josh, CJ, and Toby (Mr. Zeigler). They’re trying to formulate plans for dealing with these problems, in the course of which they expand on them for us, the viewer, filling in details.

Now we go to a scene in the Press Briefing room, where CJ briefs the press on the President’s accident (which is clearly a source of amusement for many). This fades to Josh watching a tape of himself and a woman on a Television talk show arguing about God, where he insults her. Donna enters and we find out a little more about her, how long she’s worked for Josh as his assistant as she worries about him getting fired, and he tries to reassure her. Toby bursts in to yell at Josh for a little while, and inform him that they’re going to be meeting with the woman he insulted (among others) in order for Josh to apologize and give them something they want from the White House. This scene helps set up a bit of Josh and Toby’s relationship, which seems respectfully antagonistic. We also find out Toby’s job (PR and the public message for the White House). Finally Toby shows Josh a news-paper clipping about someone they clearly both know, a woman coming to work in town that day. We see her picture, and then the scene shifts to that same woman driving by the capital and talking on the phone to another reporter. She’s feisty and snarky, but we don’t get much more about her before the scene shifts again. Here we have another meeting being led by Leo, after which Josh and Sam warn Leo about someone named Lloyd Russell, a senator, who may be gearing up to challenge the President in the next election.

The next scene, Josh and the woman from the newspaper-clipping, are sitting in a cafe eating lunch. We find out her name is Mandy Hampton, she’s helping Senator Russell gear up to campaign against the White House, and she’s somewhat competitive with Josh in a cocky and self-confident sort of way. We also find out they used to date during the President’s election campaign. She informs Josh that they’re not doing well in a new poll she knows about, which clearly worries him.

CJ enters Leo’s office to ask him some questions about various news stories, including Josh’s continued employment. It’s clearly up to the President, who we still haven’t met yet, but no one knows which way he’s going to decide, not even Leo who has “known him 40 years” and says “on any given day there’s really no predicting what he’s gonna choose to care about.” Scene shift to Sam and two other men discussing something about guns, assault weapons, statistics, and how many people defend themselves with one. This lively discussion takes place entirely while walking down the halls. Sam’s assistant interrupts to let him know that Leo’s wife wants him to give a tour of the West Wing to her daughter’s 4th grade class. He’s clearly upset, but unable to get out of it, when his beeper goes off. He returns the call and is answered by “Cashmere Escort Service,” at first confusing and then alarming him. He quickly realizes he’s accidentally switched pagers with Lauri (the woman from the bar) and makes arrangements to meet her and switch back.

We’re now beginning to set up the meeting Toby arranged to smooth over Josh’s faux pas. Leo escorts Reverend Caldwell (one of the leaders associated with the woman Josh insulted) in through the gate and attempts to smooth things over along the way. We learn that the President is very religious, and has worked closely with many religious/political groups in the past, but that he doesn’t believe government should legislate on it. We also find out Leo’s political affiliation (and presumably by extension the President’s given their clearly close ties and Leo’s authority). It isn’t exactly a huge shock of course, but this is a Democratic White House. The Reverend is clearly a good man, and a reasonable one, but it is strongly implied the woman (Mary Marsh) and her associates are not. They seem to be fundies of the worst sort, hence the tension.

We now return to Sam and Laurie. Sam is nervous, and it becomes clear that the reason is because of Laurie’s job, which is that of a high-priced call girl (as well as law-student). She likes him, he likes her, but because of his job he implies he really can’t see her anymore, which they seem to both regret. This is the tip of the iceberg on this issue, but it demonstrates a problem with modern society in regards to certain public-service jobs. Two adults, doing nothing wrong or even illegal together, can’t even be seen together in public because one has a job some busy-bodies find repugnant and the other has a job which dictates the employees private life.

Returning to the White House, we see Reverend Caldwell and his associates being shown into a room, and get our first glimpse of the 4th Grade class, whose teacher is a very pretty red-head. Sam goes in to give the tour, which he’s very bad at. He lacks knowledge of the White House building, and also how to talk to 4th graders. However, he does impart important information. We find out that Sam himself (last name Seaborn) is the deputy communications director, CJ Craig is the Press Secretary and Toby Zeigler is the Communications Director. Sam explains the purpose of those jobs to the rather nonplussed children, then proceeds to butcher the history of the building until Ms O’Brien, the teacher, pulls him outside and basically asks Sam what’s wrong with him since he’s clearly an idiot. Sam tries to defend himself, but she’s not impressed, and he asks her to have pity on a man having a bad day. He enumerates all the bad things happening, including the fact he accidentally slept with a call girl. It’s at this point that we discover Ms. O’Brien the teacher is also Leo’s daughter. Sam is naturally rather dismayed! She is somewhat amused.

CJ, Toby, and Josh head into the Reverend Caldwell meeting, with CJ trying to warn Josh not to lose his head and be rude. After introductions, Josh gives his apology directly to Mary Marsh’s face. He does a good job, taking full responsibility and abasing himself. She accepts it rather ungracefully, and turns away to demand concessions from Toby. We’re treated to quite the display of arrogance and narrow-mindedness on her part, gradually riling Toby. Josh attempts to diffuse the situation and Mary dismisses him, then throws out a veiled racial slur in the process, enraging Toby. The meeting devolves into a shouting match about the order of the Commandments, and suddenly a voice from off-screen breaks in with the correct Commandment being referenced (the First).

At last we meet the President, played by Martin Sheen. He enters on a cane, and thoroughly trounces the Reverend’s group, morally and logically. He tells them to denounce a fringe group which had sent a threatening message to the President’s 11-year-old grand-daughter, then essentially kicks them out. Sheen’s delivery is powerful, compelling, and the character holds the room spell-bound during his little speech.

They all enter the Oval Office, and get a little lecture from the President. He wanders a bit, but eventually gets to the point that they all need to step up their game and focus harder. We also find out what happened to the Cubans, many of whom died, a few turned back, and a few made it to Miami. The President waxes poetical on the American dream of a better life, and dismisses them. As Josh leaves, he looks him in the eye and tells him never to do it again. Mrs. Landingham, the President’s secretary, comes in to brief him on the schedule and the scene fades out, ending the episode.

Not a whole lot happens in this episode, and it has a certain frenetic pace. This is probably due primarily to the need to introduce a large primary cast and an equally large supporting cast of minor characters and bit-parts. Most of the plots are contained within this episode, with only two not receiving resolution by the end: Sam’s personal difficulty involving Laurie the call-girl, and the situation involving Mandy and Senator Russell’s possible election-challenge. There’s also very little depth to the plot-strands, though that’s to be expected. This was the beginning, the introduction, and we’ll get plenty of depth later. What this episode does primarily is set up the characters and the tone of the show. It’s also attempting to hook the viewer and induce them to come back next week to see what happens with all these characters we’ve just met. If this were a book, this would be the first half of the first chapter.

Check back next week for Season 1, Episode 2. Thank you for reading!


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