The West Wing – 1×04: ‘Five Votes Down’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Teleplay by Aaron Sorkin
Story by Laurence O’ Donnell and Patrick Caddell

Directed by Michael Lehmann
Original Air Date: 13th October, 1999

The obvious thing to note about ‘Five Votes Down’ is the Steadicam shot that opens the episode. For a series famous for its ‘walk and talks’, it comes as a surprise that this early into the series, its fourth episode overall, that it went all out with an epic unbroken take that lasts for approximately four minutes.

It’s the one thing that you cannot miss and most likely the thing about ‘Five Votes Down’ that many talk about, but it would be remiss to just mention that and not talk about the other wonderful things going on here because this is without a doubt the best script since the ‘Pilot’ that indicates just how brilliant The West Wing can balance jaunty political comedy with surprisingly complex drama.

The episode as a whole is a showcase for the talents of the late, great John Spencer. Four episodes into the series, and it’s clear that Leo McGarry is the one carrying a lot on his back with how to make this administration run. It probably goes without saying, but the Chief of Staff is probably the second most important person on the White House Staff when it comes to making sure the office is running smoothly (remember when the White House ran smoothly, those were the days, huh), or at least that’s the impression one gets from watching television dramas depicting the President and his staff.

Same goes for 24; we became accustomed to seeing Jude Ciccolella’s character Mike Novick running as much of the show as the President he worked for, and here Sorkin really goes to town with a story showing the toll that such a job could take on someone whose job it is to make sure that the person running the free world is actually managing to do that job right.

Prior to The West Wing, Spencer was famous for being a character actor who showed up in supporting roles in the likes of Wargames and The Rock, the latter being one of not only Michael Bay’s best movies where Spencer had an enjoyable antagonism with Sean Connery, but which also had uncredited contributions from Sorkin himself, potentially making The West Wing the second time that Spencer was delivering Sorkin’s words.

It’s does feel strange whenever The West Wing spends time away from its main set and The Oval Office, but the scenes of Leo and the eventual breakdown of his marriage carry considerable weight. It becomes evident that Leo, who the series has done such a great job of making a fair and brilliant boss over the short span of the series so far, has managed to make a mess of his marriage back home, being late home and forgetting his anniversary, and even managing to mess up the reconciliation dinner that he organised.

There is a quiet charge to the scenes at the McGarry household that any other series might have turned into a dramatic free for all, but the manner in which Spencer and Sara Botsford carry the emotional weight in as subtle manner as they do here make the eventual dissolution of their time together a powerful moment.

It’s a scene that will no doubt inspire differing reactions from the audience; Jenny declaring that Leo’s work is not more important than his marriage, to which he replies that it actually is, is a moment that will play differently to whoever watches it. The series never actually takes a stand either way, even though Leo is a lead character and we’re not likely to see much more of Jenny after this, but it still stings hard and leaves the audience which much to think about and consider.

After all, this is a television series about the highest political office in the world and the work they are doing is important, and the conversation these two characters are having is coming in the middle of a plotline involving passing a bill that will stop the sale of automatic rifles, unfortunately an issue that is still a pressing concern in the real world where gun violence is still an all too common news story that comes out of the United States.

On top of the brilliance of John Spencer’s performance, the episode gets to the heart of how American politics work, especially regarding how bills and laws are passed through quid pro quo and deal making. Our characters manage to get their gun law passed, but it comes by having to rely on Vice President Hoynes who clearly has his own agenda politically, but who we also get to see as more complex than the usual type of antagonist than we might expect given his genuine concern for Leo and the overture he makes in inviting him to a private AA meeting away from the public eye.

It’s these types of complexities that makes the series, even this early on, an invigorating and brilliant one, where victory is bittersweet but not without consequence and where doing the right thing, and the important thing, doesn’t come without an emotional price to pay.   

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