West Wing Recaps: S1 Ep5 “The Crackpots and These Women”

Many apologies for the delayed post, but puppies! They’re doing beautifully, thank you, and growing like weeds.

The premise of this week’s episode is that the senior staff are taking a day to meet with small or fringe interest groups who often have trouble getting the White House’s attention. It’s really kind of a neat idea, and resonates well with the idea of democracy. Of course, the groups can’t really get anywhere as their requests are pretty well entirely unreasonable and even a little “crazy” in a way, but their passionate pleas DO stick with the staff-members and make them think about certain issues a little deeper. So! Without further ado.

The episode opens with friendly basketball game among the senior staff (i.e. Main cast) and the President. The scene is fun and witty and full of snappy dialogue, but it really has very little connection to any of the rest of the episode or even the season. The main purpose seems to be some development of the Toby/Bartlett relationship. This might seem trivial, but it’s actually important in a rather abstract way. There are several relationships whose development and portrayal span nearly the whole show and drive the plot. One of them is the bond between President Bartlett and Toby, and the bantering camaraderie shown in this scene helps to increase the impact of later scenes, some of them all the way in season 6 or 7 of the show.

After the credits roll, we open up to Donna and Josh heading to senior staff meeting. The only important thing here is setting up a certain level of intimacy between them as they talk about Donna’s personal dating life. It also implies that she dates a lot of men, most of them not good enough for her, or at least not good enough in Josh’s eyes. Finally, the scene sets up a later meeting of Josh’s. Josh moves away and is joined by CJ. The meeting they are both going to is to pass out group assignments for the aforementioned meetings with fringe-groups. This is known as ‘Big Block of Cheese Day’, or as Toby explains to Mandy (she’s the ‘new girl’ so her presence is the excuse for explaining all this to the audience) ‘Throw open our office doors to people who want to discuss things we could care less about’ Day. ‘Big Block of Cheese Day’ trips off the tongue a little easier though. Why Big Block of Cheese? Well, Leo is here to explain, in a speech he has apparently given several times before, judging by the eye-rolling and snickering occurring among the staff. Apparently, Andrew Jackson kept a big two-ton block of cheese in the foyer of the White House and encouraged anyone who wanted some to cut a slice off. This spirit of opening the White House to “the People” is what is behind Leo’s insistence on these meetings. The Andrew Jackson story is apparently apocryphal, but it’s a nice sentiment anyway, and lends itself to a fun name.

Josh finally arrives at the meeting (he terms it ‘Total Crackpot Day’) and is quickly ushered off to a meeting with an NSC official. He is given instructions for how to proceed to ‘The Bunker’ in the event of a nuclear attack. Josh is clearly a little nonplussed by the instructions, particularly by the realization that he would go alone, without any of his staff.

The scene shifts to a practice press conference with President Bartlett. The staff are asking him questions as if they were reporters and helping him to shape the answers he would give. The first question, about the economy, prompts a little lecture by the President. The staff attempt to get him to ‘not answer that question like an economics professor with a big ol’ stick up his butt’, which the President averrs is exactly what he is.

Next they move on to a question about the recent gun-control bill (the one which occupied the previous episode). At the end of the previous episode, the bill is acknowledged as an incomplete and toothless bill, privately. Toby now wishes to acknowledge this publicly, while the President (backed up by the rest of the staff) are adamantly against any such suggestion on their part. An argument breaks out, and apparently one which has been re-hashed several times in recent days. I can’t help feeling sympathetic to Toby’s position, as I feel it’s always a good idea when those in power admit when something is a bad law. That’s the first step to getting the people to demand the law be fixed, and without the demands of the populace, often nothing gets fixed in our sprawling acrimonious government.

While Toby is arguing with the President, we move to the back of the Press Room where Josh is leaning in the door-jamb lost in thought. CJ wanders by and wonders what he’s doing just standing there, to which he has no particular answer. In the background, the discussion erupts into a bit of a fight, complete with raised voices. The other characters seem to be expecting this turn of events however. Toby is shouted down, and the others disperse reluctantly to their Cheese Appointments.

Sam’s appointment is with a man from the US Space Command. The man (Bob) is played by Sam Lloyd (also Ted Buckland from Scrubs) and portrayed as nerdy and obsessed, and a little bit of “a loser”. He wants Sam to convince the President to “pay more attention” to UFOs. Sam is a bit nonplussed, and Bob provides an example. Apparently, there is an object flying east from Hawaii which the airforce could not establish visual-contact with and Bob is convinced this is an extra-terrestrial contact. Sam handles the situation diplomatically, albeit in much the same way as a skeptic might treat someone convinced they heard their dead grandmother speak to them through the lips of a medium.

A few more scenes follow of bits of White House business, including a budget meeting where Bartlett’s portrayal as an economist (and a smart one) is reinforced. At this point, Charlie interrupts to let the President know that his daughter Zoe is visiting. Bartlett is quite excited, and decides he wants to cook chili (himself!) for the staff in honor of her visit. The staff are somewhat skeptical, but Bartlett jovially reminds them who’s the boss and their enthusiasm increases rather miraculously. They move smoothly into a meeting about actual business. Mandy proposes to allow a powerful movie director in California to host a fund-raiser with the President as guest of honor. Toby objects strenuously on the grounds that the director’s movies are very violent and the President also intends to admonish the industry on the subject of violence in movies. He is shouted down for the second time that day, especially by the President. As Bartlett says, they can screw around with the movie industry because “it’s Hollywood, who gives a damn.” This is an interesting bit of self-awareness within the framework of the show. Then Toby delivers a little bit of profundity, invoking McCarthyism, to which the President replies:

Bartlett: “Do I look like Joe McCarthy to you, Toby?”

Toby: No sir. Nobody ever looks like Joe McCarthy. That’s how they get in the door in the first place.

That’s one of those statements which is just SO TRUE. It’s also a reminder and a warning. The witch-hunters always appear benign and with everyone’s best interests at heart at first. If they didn’t do so, they would never be able to accrue the power to become the witch-hunters in the first place.

The meeting breaks up and Josh and Sam go back to his office. Sam is distracted by the er…flying object in the Pacific. Josh is also distracted, but by something else. He dances around it, but it’s about the NSC directions for the bunker and his feeling weird that he’s the only one who got them from his office. It gets even more awkward when it’s apparent that Sam didn’t get one either, and Josh leaves hurriedly.

CJ’s ‘Cheese Meeting’ is with a team of environmentally-minded individuals who are concerned about wolves and their population decimation. They’re trying to convince CJ that the government should fund a ‘Wolves Only Highway’ to allow wolf migration from US to Canada. The highway is prohibitively expensive, and CJ points out that ranchers don’t want wolves returned to the West, and she doesn’t think it’s worth fighting with them over the subject. The meeting is somewhat antagonistic, particularly on the part of the one woman of the group. And then CJ literally laughs in their faces due to their totally unrealistic expectations, particularly where money is concerned.

In her defense, the guy just seriously suggested spending $900M of taxpayer-money on a road for wolves

In her defense, the guy just seriously suggested spending $900M of taxpayer-money on a road for wolves

Scene shift to Mandy and Toby in his office. This is a somewhat bizarre meeting with no seeming narrative point other than for Mandy to accidentally reveal that Toby wasn’t the President’s first choice for the position of Communications Director. This sends him off to CJ to say “see, I told you I wasn’t paranoid!” and to complain that he feels like “the kid in the class with his hand raised that nobody wants the teacher to call on.”

We leave the White House and are in a quiet building on a quiet street, where Josh is meeting with someone. The man, Stanley, is apparently some sort of psychiatrist or counselor, and Josh dances around talking about his discomfort with the idea of being safe in a nuclear attack while his friends and colleagues are not. We also get some more background on Josh here. When he was very young, his sister died in a fire while she was baby-sitting him. He’s always felt survivor’s guilt about it, and the day’s revelations about the NSC instructions have brought that up again. Josh denies the card has anything to do with his feelings about his sister, but it’s clear it does. One of the things he talks about is hearing the ‘Ave Maria’ in his head all day, which his sister used to play in her room constantly because she thought it was so beautiful.

The scene shifts to an aerial shot of the White House at night, and the background music is ‘Ave Maria.’ We pull in tight to Josh sitting behind his desk, listening to the music. CJ knocks to tell him it’s time for chili. Josh tells her outright about the NSC directions and his discomfort. She scoffs a little and calls him ‘very sweet’ for his worry. The conversation rambles into Josh foreseeing the future of terrorism and global-war not as bombs and nukes, but as small-pox and germ-warfare. He paints a fairly horrific picture of the possibilities, but CJ shakes it off and tells him they’ll just do more to be prepared, so quit worrying. They finally go to join the President and the other staff for dinner.

The chili party is well underway, and the staff mingle with the President freely. This is how Charlie and Zoe (Bartlett’s youngest daughter) meet, hitting it off immediately.

First meeting, and already they're cooking together. Instant attraction anyone?

First meeting, and already they’re cooking together. Instant attraction anyone?

We also see that CJ has become a somewhat passionate defender of wolves, and Bartlett and Toby sit down for a quiet chat to clear the air. The President reassures Toby that his counsel is not just useful but essential, no matter how much of a pain in the ass Bartlett occasionally finds him. Finally, Josh returns the card of NSC instructions to the President and Leo, saying he doesn’t feel comfortable being included in the bunker when his friends and colleagues and “these women” won’t be. The “these women” part is a reference to the title of course, but also to a bit of conversation where Leo and the President (two older white guys) are marveling at the amazing women in the room. They express admiration on a variety of fronts for the women, but it comes off as a bit of a heavy-handed ploy by the writers. It’s a sort of cry of “Look at us, and how inclusive our cast of characters is! Look at all our strong women with diverse personalities! Hurray for us!” I mean, there IS a fairly diverse cast of strong women with different personalities and stories (especially considering the real dearth of women in the halls of power in this country). But I think that point would have been better served without having a couple of characters metaphorically jump up and down pointing at it.

The episode ends with a little speech by the President to the gathered folks there. It’s not especially rousing, but more informal and joking. He celebrates Zoe’s impending entrance into Georgetown University in the fall, and some inspirational words and back-patting for the staff for being so enthusiastic about their “Cheese” meetings by the end. He explains the “UFO” as a Soviet satellite falling from space, and laments it as a reminder of a time when superpowers challenged each other from space. Then he asks the staff what the “next challenge” will be.

It’s a nice little speech, well-written and wrapping up the episode neatly, and as a narrative device it serves its purpose well enough.

That’s it for this week. Next week’s episode deals with the census and a West Wing shut-down due to a security breech. It’s actually more exciting than it sounds, I promise.


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