With the 2016 Presidential Election approaching, we at the Place to be Nation decided that now would be a great time to go back and look at a television drama that presented an American political landscape that we all could be proud of. Join us month-by-month as we re-watch The West Wing together. Part companion piece, part reflection. Enjoy the show all over again or discover it for the very first time.
THE ADMINISTRATION AT THE START OF SEASON FOUR
Fresh off the heels of the covert assassination of a foreign diplomat and terrorist sympathizer, the Bartlet administration is in the midst of a re-election bid against a Republican governor whose “plain spoken” style is perceived as a threat against the President’s erudite reputation. CJ is reeling from the untimely death of her secret service agent love interest while Josh and Amy’s relationship is left uncertain when one of Josh’s legislative moves costs Amy her job. This personal drama is all a backdrop to an election season which must see Toby come to grips with how to present the President’s agenda to America while Leo must balance increasing foreign threats against the United States with the President’s political goals.
Elections are the dominant theme throughout season four. We begin with the march to the Presidential election as President Bartlet must first stave off a third-party challenge by liberal Senator Howard Stackhouse (of “The Stackhouse Filibuster” fame) before gearing up for one – and only one – debate against his Republican challenger. Bartlet thoroughly sheds his “Uncle Fluffy” “good for all timezones” persona and trounces Governor Richie in the debate, sealing his Election Day victory.
The other election that takes center stage in season four concerns Sam. When tasked with advising Will Bailey (future “West Wing Weekly” podcast host Joshua Malina,) the spunky campaign manager of a California Democrat who has died of a heart attack during his Congressional campaign told fold his campaign, Sam offhandedly offers to placate the deceased candidate’s widow by offering to run in place of her husband should he miraculously win the election. As if we couldn’t see this one coming a mile away, Bailey leads the dead guy to victory and most of the rest of season four sees Sam off to California to run for Congress. Bailey, who it turns out is an exceptionally talented speechwriter in his own right, winds up joining the West Wing staff, replacing Sam as Deputy Communications Director when actor Rob Lowe leaves the show. Sam loses his campaign but disappears to Mandyland never to be seen or heard from again (at least until season seven, but we’ll get there.) Speaking of changes in the Communications department, Toby and ex-wife/Congresswoman Andrea Wyatt decide to have a baby which, through the magic of TV, turns out to be twins.
Threats abroad also see increased focus as Aaron Sorkin’s writing shies away from 9/11 doppelgangers and instead focuses on imaginary nations posing a threat to national security. First in the form of Qumar, who is none-too-pleased with the mysterious death of their Defense Minister at the end of season three, and then later in Kundu, a stand-in for a myriad of African nations in strife but mainly Rwanda. As inauguration approaches, Bartlet decides to go all Blackhawk Down and orders US troops on a unilateral peacekeeping mission to Kundu. And just like that, our imaginary White House is fighting a war abroad, just like the real one.
The final four episodes of the season switch gears entirely when newly hired Associate White House Counsel Joe Quincy (Matthew Perry) on his first day of work stumbles upon an affair between Vice President Hoynes and a prominent Washington socialite. Hoynes resigns over the scandal, leaving the Bartlet administration without a VP. This situation could not come at a worse time as on the night of her college graduation, Zoey Bartlett his kidnapped from the bathroom of a nightclub, spiraling the White House out of control. Faced with potentially ordering military action to ensure the safety of his daughter, President Bartlet steps down, temporarily handing over the Presidency to Republican Speaker of the House Glenallen Walken (John Goodman.)
I should go on record as saying that season four is my personal favorite season of the show. From the stellar Debate Camp and Game On, to the always excellent Christmas episode Holy Night, to the important Inauguration two-parter, to the overlooked and underappreciated California 47th, Red Haven’s On Fire, and Angel Maintenance. The season concludes with my favorite season-ending arc: Evidence of Things Not Seen, Life on Mars, Commencement, and 25…which are, in fact, probably my four favorite episodes of the show.
Season four is when writer Aaron Sorkin began to slowly step away from the show, eventually leaving between this and season five, so there are a few episodes that include very little of his work. Most notably among them: The Long Goodbye, a stand-alone episode showing CJ returning to her childhood hometown to speak at her high school graduation and deal with her father’s on-setting Alzheimer’s Disease (aka “Let’s Try to Get Allison Janney Another Emmy.”) It bears almost no impact on the rest of the show. Sorkin’s absence is also notable on Swiss Diplomacy and his lessened influence are seen in Guns Not Butter and Privateers, however these pale in comparison to the dearths of the completely Sorkin-less season five. For one thing, all of these episodes are actually decent. (Swiss Diplomacy kind of sucks, and The Long Goodbye is ultimately pointless, but the last two are actually thoroughly enjoyable.)
As I’ve already said, season four is my favorite season of the show. Yes there are a few small hiccups, as outlined above but almost everything else is an out-of-the-park homerun, both with a more upbeat tone and and higher stakes plotlines. It’s almost as if a light-switch is literally flipped in the season premiere as the dark and brooding season three is replaced with an episode that takes place in great part outside in daylight.
Season four sees the introduction of some great characters both major and minor. Will Bailey sticks around in various capacities as a main cast member for the rest of the series. Lilly Tomlin also joins the cast as Debbie Fidderer, the President’s new secretary, replacing the dearly departed Mrs. Landingham. Some great minor characters pop up including Matthew Perry’s dramatic turn as Joe Quincy, who I would wish stuck around for many more episodes of the show if not for the fact that he got another shot at being a Sorkin-player with his leading role in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. We are also introduced to Anthony (a youth Charlie mentors who could have stood to appear in more than the five episodes that he actually did,) Elsie Snuffin (Will’s half-sister and assistant, superbly portrayed by Danica McKellar, aka the Wonder Years’ Winnie Cooper,) and the foursome of Lauren, Lauren, Cassie, and Lauren (four speechwriting interns turned Will’s staffers) none of whom ever appear in another episode after season four.
The real bodyblow of this season comes in the last four episodes that perfectly exeplify the best of the show with heart, humor, and high stakes political drama all amidst dialogue and direction of the finest caliber. Aaron Sorkin went out on the highest of high notes and while the season would hit some highs again in seasons six and seven, the absolute lowest lows are forthcoming. It’s so sad to see because a season five, led by Sorkin, could have been the best ever for the show and television. It will end up taking an entire season of mishandling to get the show back on track but by then it was too late and it would become a show that was lumbering to it’s finale.