The West Wing season 1 episode 2 review

After shooting out of the blocks in some style, Gemma finds that episode two of The West Wing is Aaron Sorkin on a quieter day...

2. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

We open, unfortunately for us, on Mandy, doing her Clarkson-goes-riot-grrrl thing again, before screaming at client and lover Lloyd Russell that she’ll kill him with her shoes for scuppering his own chances for the Democrat nomination. She’s shrill, arrogant and, oh look, now she’s gone and got herself a sense of entitlement the size of Belgium as well as a job at the White House. Terrific. (And this coming from a reviewer who loves nothing more than a feisty heroine in killer heels.)

I’m still not entirely sure whether we’re supposed to find Mandy unbearable or admirable, but in Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc she’s a poor example of both womankind and Sorkin’s writing, thin, two-dimensional and utterly ghastly. Can’t he create a better female character than this?

In fact, the women don’t fare too well throughout the entire episode, which highlights just how much of a back-slapping boys’ club Sorkin’s vision of the West Wing can be. From Josh gloating at his triumph over Russell and Mandy (“Victory is mine – I drink from the keg of glory!”) to Sam trying to redeem call girl Lori (“I don’t need saving, Sam.” “Yeah, you do.”), the audience is fed an overdose of self-congratulatory manly male manliness that feels rather dated.

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We already know Sorkin’s romantic ideals are firmly planted in the 50s, but now the negative side of that is starting to emerge. He’s a brilliant screenwriter, and he can do better than this.

The worst offence concerns CJ, as she confronts Vice President John Hoynes over a comment he gave to the press which could prove damaging to the President. Hoynes is dismissive, almost offensive, but CJ maintains a dignified silence when questioned by her colleagues. That’s fine. She’s classy like that.

The problem, for this reviewer, at least, is that it’s down to Chief of Staff Leo McGarry to reprimand Hoynes for his behaviour. There’s a chain of command, of course, but it galls a little to see CJ effectively ‘rescued’, and patronisingly referred to as ‘a good girl’. She plays no part in the resolution of a plotline which began with her, and we know from the pilot episode she’s a stronger character than that.

(That being said, the dynamic between Leo and Hoynes will prove important further down the line, as will Hoynes’ apparent lack of respect for Bartlet, and the scene does lay vital groundwork for upcoming episodes. But Sorkin still gets a slapped wrist for the ‘good girl’ thing.)

Meanwhile, Bartlet is being examined by Navy doctor, Morris Tolliver, a perky, sharp sort of chap who makes this reviewer wonder whether one only gains access to the President after passing some kind of Witty Banter competency exam first.

Morris spends half the episode showing various staffers a photograph of his ten-day-old daughter, which, in TV Land, is tantamount to sewing a target onto your shirt, jumping up and down, waving a big red flag in the air and shouting, ‘Yoo-hoo, enemies of the Free World, I’m over here.’

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The foreshadowing may be clunky, but it’s a great scene, full of warmth and genuine vulnerability on Bartlet’s part. After last week’s Mary Marsh smackdown, it’s disconcerting to see him admit how nervous the military heads make him. (“Why is it every time I sit with the Joint Chiefs I feel like I’m back at my father’s dinner table?”) He’s failing to make friends in the military due to his woolly-liberal aversion to annihilating smaller countries for Friday afternoon lolz and giggles (“This country has enemies, but I don’t feel violent toward any of them.”), and worries that he’s thought of as a weak Commander-in-Chief.

But sure enough, Morris doesn’t make it out of this episode alive, and once Bartlet hears his doctor and bantering buddy has been killed in an attack by Syrian fundamentalists, the woolly liberal ideals are flung out the Oval Office window faster than you can roll your eyes and say you saw that one coming a mile off. (“I’m gonna blow them off the face of the earth with the fury of God’s own thunder.”)

It’s an abrupt change of heart, and this reviewer did feel as though Sorkin was battering her about the head with a rolled up script, shouting, “Look, look, the President is a human being! With feelings!”, but it’s bound to ratchet up the tension in the following episode.

What happens next may require some suspension of disbelief, but I’ll bet we’ll be rewarded with some damn good drama for our trouble. 

Read our review of episode 1 here.