The West Wing – 1×03: ‘A Proportional Response’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Marc Buckland
Original Air Date: 6th October 1999

The sight of an emotionally volatile political leader, particularly one in the Oval Office, isn’t something that one likes to see, but it’s something which The West Wing presents with increasingly dramatic velocity over the course of ‘A Proportional Response’.

The difference between The West Wing and real life is that Jed Bartlet still knows what he’s doing, even if he’s finding himself being fuelled by a form of hatred at the loss of his physician and good friend Morris at the end of the end of the previous episode.

Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to seeing a President of the United States who clearly has trouble controlling his emotions on top of not being able to do the job adequately that Bartlet’s angry outbursts and demeanour here almost appear subtle, but it does show The West Wing and Sorkin’s writing of the series to be one that is unafraid to show it’s so-far laid back and charming political leader to be one who is driven by emotion, and sometimes not necessarily in the best possible way.  

It’s also the episode that introduces Charlie to the show and it’s here that we finally say a hello to Dule Hill and his quiet charm as the Personal Aide to the President, applying for a messenger job but instead finding himself working for the leader of the free world. It manages to be both a charming and condescending plot line given that this is a show written by a white guy who seems to have figured out he has race in America solved by having the privileged white characters of the show know there’s nothing wrong in hiring Charlie to be the President’s right hand man, so to speak, and yet still need some semblance of permission for the most prominent African-American on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It’s clear what Sorkin is going for here, but there is a danger that watching Leo and Josh figuring out the racial politics of hiring Charlie could be seen as ‘white people in charge of the world figuring out racism is bad’ sort of a trope.

Away from that plot line, it’s the Bartlet strand of the episode that makes ‘A Proportional Response’ soar. Just in the last episode, Bartlet was expressing his concerns over how the Joint Chiefs felt about him, but here he is unafraid to potentially dig into the dirt and disagree with them over how to handle the situation that ended up costing Morris his life.

It’s become almost a cliché in political thrillers to see The Situation Room in pivotal scenes involving military operations from the point of view of The White House, and while the room itself in real life is merely a bland meeting room going by official pictures that have been released (especially that famous one taken when President Obama launched the operation that targeted Osama Bin Laden), in movies and television it’s frequently portrayed as some atmospherically darkly lit room, with little light, and stacked with televisions and equipment on the wall.

The West Wing will spend much time here over its seven-season run, and it seems appropriate to do so for the first time with Sorkin basically doing an extended version of a subplot from his screenplay to The American President. In fact, some of the dialogue from that movie is used nearly word for word here, and it would become something of a running joke amongst fans of Sorkin’s work how often he reuses dialogue and even episode titles.

After introducing us to the grounded, liberally folksy charm of Bartlet in the first two episodes, it is something of a shock to see the character almost unhinged and driven by anger here  It’s maybe an example of a television series in its first season still trying to iron out maybe some of the ways it will develop and portray these characteristics going forward, but it does work and there is a genuine heft to the drama here that Martin Sheen portrays magnificently.

We even get the character smoking in The Situation Room, the first of many times in a Sorkin series where the male lead will smoke during moments of high pressure and drama (as we also would see in Studio 60 and The Newsroom).

Like the previous episode, there is dialogue here that in lesser hands might have been cheesy or overwrought, not least when Leo McGarry tells Bartlet he’ll ‘raise up an army against you’. Once again, it should have the effect of leaving the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter, but the series does it so well, and Sorkin’s ability to use such overwrought wording and the manner in which John Spencer delivers those words with aplomb makes it a truly miraculous piece of television. It shouldn’t work, I mean it really shouldn’t work, but it does and you cannot help but just be swept along by its grandiose qualities and commitment to such theatrical writing and storytelling.

As entertaining an episode as it is, if there are any complaints to be had is that things do go back to normality very quickly in the space of the last five minutes.

Then again, that last five minutes plays in the pool of optimism that appears to be The West Wing’s stock in trade. After being so dismissive of Charlie when being introduced to him, Bartlet makes up for it by turning on the charm and being genuinely friendly, and with it begins another pivotal relationship at the heart of the show, and even if it happens all too quickly, like Charlie, the audience cannot help but smile along.

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