The West Wing – 1×07: ‘The State Dinner’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Written by Aaron Sorkin and Paul Radford
Directed by Thomas Sclamme
Original Air Date: 10th November, 1999

Up to this point on The West Wing, things have been going somewhat well for the administration. Sure, Bartlet had an emotional reaction to the death of his physician in ‘A Proportional Response’, but everyone got through to the other side of that situation with a smile and a new personal aide to the President with the debut of Charlie.

There has been some complex emotional dramas here and there, not least Leo’s separation and Bartlet and Zoey’s intense conversation last week, most of which was driven by an amazing performance from Sheen, but there is a feeling that things have been going too well and too slickly for everyone and with ‘The State Dinner’ both the characters and the show itself are hit with a reality check of sorts.

There is a brilliant confluence of incident here that indicates just how wonderfully this series can balance a lot of story, character and wit, not to mention tones. The series can move from funny and witty to more dramatic moments in a lovely and naturalistic manner, even in the context of a glossy network series from the late 90s, but here we get a real sense of the more harsher political realities that these characters must face.

We were plunged into a military story with ‘A Proportional Response’, here Sorkin and Radford’s teleplay goes to town with an episode that promises some pomp and ceremony, but which eventually plays into a realm of harsher political realities.

‘The State Dinner’ of the title, where the administration has invited the controversial president of Indonesia to visit, comes with all the overt trappings you might expect; the characters are in their best dresses and white tuxedos, but it’s coming on the heels of some horrific moments for many of them.

Let’s be honest, I don’t really care for the Sam/Laurie story. Lisa Edelstein is great, but you can’t help but feel like the rest of the characters and just roll your eyes at Sam trying to be a friend and even ‘save’ a female character who basically tells him repeatedly that she is fine and doesn’t need him saving her (or it feels like it’s repeated, honestly it’s the only plot line that always bores me during this stage of the series).

What is brilliant television is the build up of the hurricane in Georgia and Toby’s attempts at trying to free one of his friends, a political prisoner, by negotiating with one of the key members of the Indonesian government who basically tells him to get lost because of how Toby wrote the speech that he wrote for Bartlet that he feels embarrassed the Indonesian President simply because Toby and the administration could.

It’s a humbling moment in an episode full of them, and that doesn’t even cover the Mandy storyline and her attempts at trying to make moves during an FBI standoff with a Militant group that ends violently when she convinces everyone that negotiating is the best tactic, a decision that ends up leaving the lead FBI negotiator dead.

The best moment of the entire episode is its final scene. Surely given everything that has happened, the episode will grace us with a happier ending by having the hurricane not sweep away or destroy a carrier group that is stuck at sea with the hurricane bearing down on them?

In the end The West Wing reveals that it isn’t playing around this week and instead goes for a subtle but no less devastating moment where all Bartlet can do is talk to one of the crew members stuck in the middle of the hurricane in what might be his final moments alive.

We never see the end of the conversation, but you know what way it’s heading and even if we don’t see it, that fade to back as the executive producer credits appear arrive with a devastating charge.

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