West Wing Recaps: S1 Ep7 “The State Dinner”

Oh look! An episode going up on time for once! WOOT!

Ok, anyway it’s that time again. Time for a new episode of The West Wing. Now we’re starting to really get into the swing of the narrative and the writers are starting to settle into the voices of the characters. We’re also finally getting some of the pomp and circumstance of the presidency here, with men in tuxedos and women in beautiful dresses.

These episodes going forward really get into the pacing they exhibit throughout most of the rest of the series, e.g. VERY fast. The camera switches back and forth between sets of characters and scenes quite rapidly, and the viewer is expected to keep up. Plot points may be fully explained late in the episode, or not at all. This is a stylistic choice which I think fits well with the hectic pace of the characters’ lives in the tumultuous seat of power for a world leader. In any case, in order to avoid confusion, I try to start a new paragraph for each new scene. And without further ado, here’s is the 6th episode of The West Wing. Spoilers and etc of course.

This episode opens in the Press Briefing room with CJ, who is doing an informal sit-down with reporters. She is telling them what The First Lady and Mrs. Siguto “will be wearing” presumably for some sort of upcoming fancy function, based on the description of the two women’s clothes. CJ tries to interest the reporters in a more serious subject, a Nuclear Test-ban treaty, but gets no takers. Josh meets up with her in the hallway, where CJ complains about the shallowness of the reporting to him. He then tells her about Hurricane Sarah, which is apparently worsening and heading for landfall on the east coast. Then CJ and Josh acquire Sam in their hall-way ramble, who informs her that the Teamsters Union is going on strike, effective at midnight unless they can broker a deal about something. They all arrive at CJ’s office, where Toby is waiting to tell her about a situation in McClane Idaho involving the FBI and a farmhouse full of survivalists in a stand-off. CJ sums up the evening’s plot-threads for us, and provides us with the information that tonight’s State Dinner is in honor of the President of Indonesia, and then we move into the credits.

When we come back, Josh is on the phone talking about crappy weather to someone. He exits and asks Donna to arrange a meeting for himself and Toby with a senior Indonesian advisor, and to make sure a translator is available if necessary. Donna comes back to Josh with some concerns based on some “reading she’d been doing on her own” about Indonesia. Apparently, they still convict and execute people of witchcraft there, and this bothers her. Josh brushes this off as insane and walks into the Senior Staff meeting. The usual crowd is all there, to discuss the strategies for the day’s issues. They also, not-so-incidentally, let us all in on some of the pertinent details. The trucker-strike is a response to their two-tiered hiring system, and how the companies are using this to hire young truckers as “part-time” employees but exploiting them by working them like full-time employees while paying them less and not providing benefits. This is not an issue unique to the trucking industry, and in fact is a quite troubling phenomenon to the average worker. These sorts of predatory-hiring practices are exactly why we have unions, however.

Leo also hands out some assignments. He insists Sam help Toby write the President’s toast, over Toby’s protests that its unnecessary. Because of this, Mandy is able to step up and be the liaison with the FBI for the Idaho situation. Leo accepts her offer, over Josh’s objections. He apparently doesn’t trust Mandy’s judgement, and claims she shouldn’t do it because she’s just a political consultant. Leo ignores him, and the meeting breaks up.

We move into the Mural Room, where President Bartlet and Mr. Siguto are standing together while a host of reporters snap their picture. One attempts to ask Bartlet a question and is quashed by CJ. Bartlet makes a small joke at his own expense, then attempts to engage Siguto in conversation. He is met with monosyllables and coldness.

President Siguto is less than friendly to President Bartlet

President Siguto is less than friendly to President Bartlet

Back in the Communications Office, Toby looks in on Sam, inquiring after his progress. Sam reads what he has, and Toby gives him instructions on tweaks to make. These are not spelling or grammar and the like, but rather style and content changes based on politics and the relations between the two countries. Most notably, Toby shies away from even using the word “friends” to describe the relationship between the US and Indonesia. He is reluctant to show too much warmth toward a country of dictators, despite that country’s move toward democracy. As he leaves, Sam asks him about his meeting later that evening with Josh. Toby tells him “We gotta see a guy about a thing.” And declines his help.

Leo enters the Roosevelt Room which is packed with middle-aged men in suits. He comes in tough and blowing steam that the two sides couldn’t reach an accommodation without dragging the White House into it. This is clearly the stand-off between the Teamster’s Union and the Management, and the two sides state their general grievances. Leo verbally spanks both sides, and informs them that they will not be leaving until an agreement is reached.

The camera switches to Josh and Mandy. She updates Josh on the situation in McClane. It involves a slightly-illegal gun in the house (a barrel 1/4 inch too short), and the residents thereof refusing (violently so) entry to the police when served with a search-warrant. Mandy notes that the reason they knew the offending gun was in the house was because the government had sold it to them. She doesn’t go into how this isn’t an illegal sting, but it does seem slightly fishy to me. She notes there are children in the house, and the law-enforcement operation is in a bit of a shambles due to all the departments involved. She warns Josh that it’s a PR-disaster in the making, and that it’s her job to help ward those off.

President Bartlet and President Siguto have now moved to the Oval Office with their string of reporters and flashing cameras. This time, questions are being allowed from the Press, but Siguto is still being mono-syllabic and unfriendly. Bartlett is clearly unsure how to engage him in small-talk and put him at his ease. Finally, Danny asks Bartlet a question, but this one is unrelated to Indonesia or the State Dinner. He asks about some sort of protest outside, which the President is unaware of, and CJ quickly ends the photo-op saying she’ll cover the protest in her briefing. As they’re leaving the room, Danny walks beside her and heckles her a bit. This is a friendly sort of teasing, a verbal sparring-match between friendly-antagonists.

Back in the Oval, Leo enters and pulls Bartlett aside for a moment. The President promptly complains about the visiting dignitary’s lack of engagement. Leo does his thing, calming the President’s irritation, then briefs him that a carrier-group is going to be evacuated from an East-coast harbor due to the oncoming storm. This is apparently standard-procedure, and nothing much to worry about. Bartlett returns to the unfriendly Siguto, and fails yet again to engage him in dialogue.

Toby drafting a speech.

Toby drafting a speech.

Toby and Sam are still writing away in Toby’s office. I’ve always thought it’s interesting that Toby is writing on a yellow legal pad while Sam is writing on his lap-top. Throughout the series, Toby often drafts by hand while Sam almost exclusively writes on a computer. I like those little touches of character, the little differences that set them apart as people. Toby stops writing and tells Sam to read what he has so far, which sparks a bit of an argument about the general tone of the speech. Sam advocates for softer language in the toast.

Sam: Toby, do you think it’s a good idea to invite people to dinner then tell them exactly what they’re doing wrong with their lives?

Toby: Absolutely, otherwise it’s just a waste of food.

They continue to argue back and forth about the issue, then Toby insults Sam’s writing when he reads Toby a sample of friendlier language.

In the Press Briefing, CJ is explaining about the protest Danny brought up, which has something to do with gilded-silver, which is known as vermeil. The protest is based on the historical provenance of the objects. But the demonstration is not exactly major, only a few people. CJ rants a bit at Danny about this as they walk through the halls. She thinks his interest is silly and he thinks it’s his job (which it is). But he quickly moves on to asking what she’s wearing that evening. CJ is nonplussed, especially by his personal interest, but she tells him and he says he’ll “look forward to it.”

In a diner outside of the White House, Sam and Laurie are eating lunch. Sam talks about work and Laurie is trying to study for an exam. They banter a bit as friends will, and it comes out that she has an escort “date” that night but she doesn’t know where.

A meeting in the Oval office about the McClane situation is going on. The FBI guys, Mandy, Leo and Josh are all briefing the President and giving their opinions on the best course of action. All the men in the room are in favor of an immediate raid. Mandy counsels caution and an attempt to look like they tried peaceful solutions first. She suggests a negotiator before they get “all Ramboed up.” Josh argues that they need to be aggressive in defending the peace from the “kooks and the nuts.”

Mandy: Ultimately it is not the nuts who are the greatest threat to democracy, as history has shown us over and over and over again. The greatest threat to democracy is the unbridled power of the state over its citizens. Which, by the way, that power is always unleashed in the name of preservation.

I’m not a big fan of Mandy, and I’m a bit pleased she leaves after one season, but this is one of her greatest lines of all. She has a point too. Democracy is threatened by unequal power bases, and governments are by default unequal in their power-levels. We need governments, but we have to watch them too. They’re a bit like toddlers really. Toddlers are a necessary part of having children, but you’ve got to watch them every minute or they make a mess while your back is turned.

Ultimately, the President decides to go with Mandy’s suggestion of a negotiator.

The scene shifts to an aerial view of the Capitol at night. Donna’s voice overlays it, she is speaking about the witchcraft thing. The view shifts, and she is tying Josh’s tie for him. He is dressed snazzily in white-tie and tails. Charlie interrupts diffidently, asking for a favor. He’s worried about his grandparents, whose house is in the path of the hurricane. Josh designates Donna to help him find them and use his and Leo’s name if she must. Then he leaves, headed for the State Dinner. He meets up with Mandy in the hall, who is also dressed in a beautiful ball-gown. She wonders whether it’s a good sign that the FBI negotiator has been in the house for several hours. They enter the Communications bullpen, where Sam is also dressed in white-tie. Josh and Sam share a moment of mutual admiration for their good-looks. To be fair, Sam does look a treat in fancy-dress. Josh would too, except I’ve never been much of a fan of Bradley Manning, excellent actor though he is.

Toby (also dressed up) calls Josh over and they get ready to go to their back-room meeting with the Indonesian advisor. Except, there’s a problem. Indonesia doesn’t have just one language, it has 583. The State Department interpreter doesn’t speak the same one as the advisor they wish to speak to. Donna arrives assuring them she has it under control. She’s found someone in the kitchen who can translate the advisor’s words to Portuguese (though not English), which the interpreter also speaks and can translate to English. Unwieldy, but they agree to try it out, much to Toby’s exasperation.

CJ enters the ball-room looking for the First Lady. We get our first look at Mrs. Bartlett, played by Stockard Channing as she calls CJ over.

Stockard Channing as First Lady Abigail Bartlet

Stockard Channing as First Lady Abigail Bartlet

They greet each-other affectionately, and Mrs. Bartlet introduces CJ to the elegantly-dressed people she was standing with. On the subject of dresses, I must say this is one of my least-favorite CJ gowns. The color is acceptable, but frankly the cut doesn’t do her tall and somewhat angular form any favors. She looks a bit like a gawky girl in a prom-dress. Thankfully, in later seasons they learn how to dress her in clothes more flattering to her shape.

This is a State Dinner, not the prom, damnit!

This is a State Dinner, not the prom, damnit!

The two women step aside and CJ tells the First Lady (Abigail or Abbey) to expect some questions about the minor vermeil kerfuffle. Abbey brushes it off, saying she’s not embarrassed by it. It’s part of “our” (meaning America’s) history, and we should embrace it not try to hide it under a rug, whatever the problematic aspects of it may have been. CJ, drifts away, and Leo joins Abbey for a quick update on a few things.

Mandy, looking anxious, steps through a door into the “working” area of the White House, where she pesters Donna for any news on the McClane stand-off. Donna is unable to help her, much to Mandy’s frustration. She even gets on the phone herself, looking for any new information.

Back in the reception, Leo gathers Josh, Toby and Sam up to meet a wealthy donor to the President’s political campaigns. The man introduces his date, who turns around and reveals she is Laurie, though using her working name of Brittany. Sam is dismayed, but they both play it cool and pretend they’ve never met before.

In the informal offices, Donna catches Charlie and reassures him about his grandparents’ safety. It seems the hurricane had shifted tracks, and moved further north. The camera picks up Leo and follows him instead as he strides purposely in to CJ’s office for a briefing. She’s concerned because there is a group of air-craft carriers directly in it’s way. Leo is horrified as he realizes that’s the group of ships evacuated from harbor for its own safety. CJ states that there’s no way they can escape the onrushing hurricane, which is 600 miles across. Which, may I say, is a HUGE hurricane, easily 2 or 3 times the size of our normal ones. Leo says there’s nothing they can do, and they should go to the Dinner as planned, then get ready for the fallout of the destruction and loss of life that is inevitable.

In a formal dining room, people file in towards their chairs, and the camera pans over to Josh, who is on his cell-phone. Mandy walks up, worried that she’s not heard any news. Josh tells her “it’s over,” and that the survivalists had shot the negotiator, prompting the FBI to complete their raid. He tells her that the negotiator is in critical condition, shocking and appalling her. At that moment, the fanfare plays for the entrance of the Honored Guests, the Sigutos, and the Bartlets. Mandy is unable to respond properly, still processing her shock. After a moment, she rushes off, saying she’s going to be sick. Josh looks after her in concern, but stays in the dining room.

We get a brief view of the front of the White House with thunder bursting overhead, then the President and Leo are climbing a staircase away from the party, discussing the sudden shift of the hurricane’s path. Bartlet is dismayed. They enter another room to get a report from a Naval captain about the size and make-up of the carrier-group. The President requests to speak to the commander of the battle-group, and the officer rushes off to arrange the call. Leo advises the President to return to the party.

At last we get to the meeting between Josh, Toby and the Indonesian advisor. It takes place in the kitchen, and starts with the complicated round-robin of translations. The advisor, Mr. Bambang, sits through this for a few painful minutes, then speaks up. He suggests it might be easier to just all talk in English, shocking them all (who thought he didn’t speak English) and dismaying Donna who had got it wrong. Much, might I add, to the amusement of Mr. Bambang. Finally they move on to the substance, which is a request by Toby that a friend of his, a French National, be let out of prison. Toby’s friend had been thrown into prison for leading demonstrations against the government in Indonesia. It seems his job was going about and teaching groups how to effectively protest. Mr. Bambang refuses scornfully, citing the humiliating toast Toby wrote about President Siguto. He calls America’s stance on human rights hypocritical, and tells Toby to go to hell before striding off. Josh reassures Toby there are other avenues, but he is still dismayed.

Danny comes into CJ’s office, where she is working on her computer. He admires her for a moment before catching her attention by complimenting her dress. She tries to shoo him off in exasperation. He wants to know what he’s done wrong, and she asks:

When you flirt with me, are you doing it to get a story?

Danny: No.

CJ: Why are you doing it?

Danny: I’m doing it to flirt with you.

They sparr a bit more, flirt a bit and then Danny leaves CJ to finish her work. This is the first time we really get a glimpse at the budding romance between CJ and Danny. It’s one of my favorite romance-arcs in the series, partially because they go so well together, and partially because I have a weakness for Danny!

In the Teamster’s meeting, the men have removed their jackets and rolled up their sleeve while they argue. As they sit there, the President strides in unannounced and they all jump to their feet respectfully. He proceeds to bully them into an agreement, refusing to let them sit down.

Sam is sitting in the dining room, alone at his table eating. Laurie and her “date” Carl come up to speak with him. Carl wants to cultivate a relationship with Sam, who waxes snarky about being payed, much to Laurie’s chagrin and Carl’s confusion. The “date” wanders over to speak to someone else, and Laurie sits down to defend herself that she “didn’t know” where she was going that evening. Sam is angry, but I’m really not exactly sure why. I’ve never understood why her presence at the party was such a problem. But at that moment Abbey comes up to greet Sam, and he introduces her to Laurie, who is clearly a little awed by the First Lady. Abbey asks after her husband, and on hearing that he had stepped into the West Wing (i.e. the offices) she sighs. Sam is confused, when she says he’s gone to “pistol-whip the trucking industry” and she explains that it’s the only disaster Bartlet could fix that evening so he’s bent on being useful. Abbey leaves, and Sam offers Laurie money not to go home with her “date” that evening. She walks away from him in offended silence.

The camera switches to the room where the President is ordering the truckers to come to an agreement. He delivers an ultimatum (along with dropping the information that he has a Nobel prize in Economics). He informs them that at 12:01am he will issue an Executive Order nationalizing the trucking industry and drafting the truckers into the army, so they had just better come up with a solution before that. He strides out and Abbey ambushes him. She talks him down a little, saying she shouldn’t have “stayed away” so long because he needs her to remind him he’s only human. The lights flicker as the storm intensifies outside, and they return to the party hand-in-hand.

Leo meets them and takes them to the call with the naval ships in the storm. All communications are knocked out except on a little tender-ship, an unarmed maintenance ship that sails with the fleet. The young officer in charge of the com-shack is the only one available to speak to the President at that moment. Abbey tells him to “talk to the boy” and he presses the speaker-phone. This is a touching little scene. The President of the United States spends several minutes trying to reassure the lowly Signalman. The boy is injured and terrified, and Bartlet talks to him, promising to stay on the line with him. Jed asks him what’s going on, and he describes the situation for their boat, which is grim. The seas are too high for such a little ship, their engine-room is on fire, and their running-lights have gone out leaving them at risk of being run over by a larger ship in the dark. President Bartlet’s face grows longer and he tells the young man he’ll stay with him as long as the radio works as the screen fades to black.

President Bartlet promising to stay by the young sailor as long as the radio works.

President Bartlet promising to stay by the young sailor as long as the radio works.

I freely admit, this scenes always gets me a bit damp around the eyes. These are the young man’s final moments, spent in terror and despair. But at least, he’s not quite alone anymore.


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