Sunday, 20 May 2012
S01E07: The State Dinner
If the last episode was a whole lot of fuss over nothing then this one is a whole lot of fuss over a whole lot. Union negotiations, extremists, hurricanes, protests and a state dinner all vie for attention in a gripping 44 minutes.
The whole episode is really about decisions, and the huge consequences both physical and emotional when we have to make big ones. Most of us are making decisions which are pretty inconsequential most of the time. We bite into our ham sandwich and wish we'd made cheese sandwiches instead. We realise that the colour we picked for our living room doesn't actually look as good in our house as it did in the brochure. It's rare that we make really big, life-altering decisions. These guys do it all... the... time.
Leo and Jed have to make a decision about what to do with a carrier group. It seems straightforward, so straightforward that Leo effectively makes it on behalf of the President, but it ends up most likely costing the lives of most if not all of the 12,000 men in it. You can tell from the final shot in the episode that Jed isn't looking to apportion blame, the weight of this decision sits squarely on his shoulders, at least in his eyes. He might not be able to tell a hurricane to change course, but it leads him to flex his muscles over the union dispute, settling that in short order.
Toby and Sam have to make a decision about how hard they go on Indonesia in the toast they're writing. Sam wants to keep it light, but Toby's principles force him to pull rank and go harder. The consequence - Toby's friend isn't getting released from prison in Indonesia any time soon. Richard Schiff's acting is fantastic in the scene as it begins to dawn on him just what "doing the right thing" has cost him. We almost see him die a little inside. Sam has his own low point of the night when it turns out Sledge Hammer has bought Laurie as his date. His decision to further his association with her has consequences too.
Mandy and Josh have to make a decision about how they deal with the faceoff between the extremists and Federal Agents. Mandy is far more idealistic than Josh about the whole situation, and she revels in the fact that the President takes her advice, not Josh's, but that's short lived when she discovers the consequences of that decision - the probable death of the negotiator she urged Bartlet to send in. Josh's "Well you're in the game now" reveals that he's been on the wrong end of these choices a great many times. For Mandy, it's absolutely crushing.
With all the weighty stuff in this episode it's nice to have moments of levity, and they come courtesy of the interpreting snafu and Danny's flirting with CJ.
Above all things this episode is just really well written. It has a lot to squeeze into its running time yet nothing feels rushed and all the subplots, and hence characters, get their moment to shine, and shine they do. There are episodes that are great and as a result the running time just flies by - before you know it they're over, but there are other episodes that are great, but are so densely plotted and so flawlessly executed that they feel more like a film. This is one of those. By this time The West Wing was already my favourite TV show on the air, but if I think back it was probably this episode which made me realise what potential the show really had. It could be the best show I'd ever seen. Turns out, it was, and still is.
I feel a bit sorry for the Indonesian president during the photo-ops. They make him out to be a real stuffed shirt, but I bet if he was talking to Bartlet in Indonesian (any one of the 583 varieties) Jed would be a little terse too.
There aren't many moments in this show where Toby gets comprehensively schooled, but the most extreme example of it can be found in this episode where he gets put in his place in no uncertain manner by Rahmadi Sumahijo Bambang (no, I can't spell it correctly either but IMDb is my friend).
Sam's "I'll give you $10,000 not to go home with that guy tonight" kills me. In an episode full of great lines it's hard to single one out, but I couldn't not mention that one.
I guess Sorkin is a big Yo-Yo Ma fan. Tiny spoiler: We actually get to see him play next season, not just hear his music.
Oh yeah, almost forgot, turns out FLotUS is a Pink Lady.
Episode grade: A+
So what did you all think?