Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Christopher Misiano
Original Air Date: 3rd November, 1999
To call this a wonderful hour of television would be to repeat myself as I have no doubt used that phrase, or one just like it, many times in my episode-by-episode exploration of The West Wing, but damn, this is a wonderful hour of television.
It has a lot of The West Wing’s love and admiration for the more optimistic parts of the political process, but also some of the most finely written drama of the series so far (not to mention some intriguing foreshadowing of future events, but I’ll save writing about them for when we get to those episodes).
It goes without saying that by this stage it was clear that Martin Sheen’s performance was really something else, and it’s the final moments of the episode that rank amongst his best work on the series to date.
Yes, it involves him shouting at his teenage daughter, but it also gets to the heart of the considerable stakes of the series. Josiah Bartlet isn’t just a father who is merely concerned about the well-being of his daughter. Yes, he loves her dearly and more than anything else wants to protect her in a manner that all parents desperately want to do when it comes to their children, but his outburst to her in what amounts to one of the all time greatest pieces of dialogue written for the series gets into the nitty gritty of what it is to be both parent and President of the United States at the same time.
For all the gloss that many previous fictional world leaders have been portrayed as being a part of, there is something engrossing about how Sorkin has never been afraid to shy away from the complexities that come from being not only a parent to a child, but also in some respects a parent to the nation (or something like that, I just realise how potentially and grossly overdone that must sound like looking at it written down).
A potential threat against Zoey during a night out with Charlie, Sam and Josh turns ugly fast and before one knows it, Secret Service is having to make a scene. Yes, the moment is a little overplayed and made up of the contrivance of there being no Secret Service agent anywhere the bar until things become heated, but it also segues brilliantly into the difficulties that can arise whenever one is the leader of the free world.
It’s not just concern for one’s child that a President has to deal with, it’s the potential that just having children can lead to all manner of dark potentialities, and it’s here that Sorkin’s script, Misiano’s direction and the performances of Sheen and Moss grip like a hard vice on the audience.
While we have seen Bartlet angry and bitter in previous episodes (A Proportional Response), this is the first time that we’ve witnessed a more relatable sense of anger develop, albeit one that unfortunately also has its own sets of expansive and literally world threatening concerns behind it.
It could become overwrought, but Sheen keeps things on the right side of dramatic, and it ends up being the icing on the cake of an already great episode, not least with a central plotline involving the census and its title character this week, and with it a lovely graceful performance from Al Fann that is a brilliant and calm counterpart to Sheen’s more on-edge one, which isn’t just fuelled by Zoey this our but also by Leo’s divorce.
There’s a gentle exploration of just how much homelife and political life can go hand in hand, or not at all as is the case with Leo. Joe Willis assumed his late wife’s position in office, and his laid back and unassuming nature makes for a brilliant balance to the more slicker and knowledgeable portrayal of bleeding heart liberalism at the centre of the series (and I write that as someone who is themselves a bleeding heart liberal).
That it’s Toby who finds himself more touched by Joe’s attitude and approach and who stands by and watches him deliver his vote on television gives proceedings a grounded and tender quality that once again shows that for all of The West Wing’s ability to wow you with its big speeches and grandiose moments, it’s the smaller moments that really makes it fly.