The West Wing season 1 episode 3 review

In the third episode of the first season, Gemma finds The West Wing settles into an entertaining groove…

3. A Proportional Response

So, Navy doctor Morris Tolliver is dead, and Bartlet is royally (or, rather, presidentially) pissed off about it.

A Proportional Response deals with the conflict between Bartlet the President and Bartlet the man. Is he allowing his fondness for Tolliver to cloud his judgement, and can he really be expected to do anything else? He is, as Sorkin keeps on reminding us, a Human Being. With Feelings. And this week, he will be mostly feeling Rage.

While discussing retaliation options with the Joint Chiefs, he dismisses the sissy-boy idea of a proportional response and demands a more drastic plan of action (“You kill an American… we come back with total disaster!”). The hitherto wise and moderate Bartlet appears almost childish here, throwing tantrums left, right and centre and apparently fully prepared to nuke the entire Middle East in revenge.

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It’s like watching your favourite uncle suddenly morph into General Jack D. Ripper (and a little frightening to consider that such flawed and fallible people really do have the power to push the big red Armageddon button at will).

Elsewhere, CJ rebounds magnificently from last week’s #feminismfail by laying down the law to Sam, Toby and Josh for not informing her of the ongoing call-girl drama. After a rapid-fire row with Josh (he calls her a ‘paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista’, she parries with, ‘elitist Harvard fascist missed-the-Dean’s-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jackass’ without drawing breath), there’s a more serious confrontation with Sam, in which he accuses her of lacking the courage to look past the PR and trust that he knows the difference between right and wrong.

She proves her mettle, defending his integrity to Washington Post correspondent Danny Concannon, but when Danny agrees to drop the story, we sense this may still come back to haunt Sam in a later episode. Thanks to Janney’s performance (and the lack of anyone calling her a good girl this week), CJ is now shaping up to be a strong and thoroughly likeable character. I think I want to be her when I grow up.

Josh, meanwhile, is dealing with Character Introduction number 93,610. Charlie Young, a polite, intelligent young man with a tragic background, seems to be the perfect candidate for the role of Personal Aide to the President, but Josh isn’t keen on the potential cosmetic nightmare of a young black man waiting on Bartlet hand and foot. The issue ties in nicely with CJ’s problem: does PR get in the way of doing what’s right?

And speaking of doing what’s right, the proportional response issue culminates in the best scene Sorkin has given us so far, as Leo confronts Bartlet and his newfound massive ego: “If you want to start using American military force as the arm of the Lord, you can do that… but you’d better be prepared to kill everyone, and you’d better start with me, ‘cause I will raise up an army against you, and I will beat you.”

It’s a truly terrific scene, full of fire and thunder, and both Spencer and Sheen give extraordinary performances. Even as they’re tearing verbal chunks off one another, it’s clear we’re watching very old friends who care about each other deeply. And while Bartlet’s character arc since Tolliver’s death has been obvious and overblown, this reviewer can happily suspend her disbelief for dialogue this good.

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The scene ends in laughter, and then we’re back to the Bartlet we love, as he offers Charlie a job with the promise that he’ll do his best to ban the model of gun that killed Charlie’s mother. It’s a perfect resolution. Sometimes, getting personally involved is absolutely the right thing to do.

A Proportional Response shows Sorkin and the cast settling in. The relative lack of setup and exposition allows for levels of tension and conflict that make the previous two episodes look like a Bank Holiday drama on ITV. It’s allowing the audience to settle in too, as we grow to realise that enjoyment of The West Wing doesn’t depend on an encyclopaedic knowledge of the US political system. It works on a more accessible level, concentrating on strong characters (excluding Her Ghastliness Mandy of course) and identifiable human responses and emotions.

And I’m even getting used to the walk-and-talk.

Read our review of episode 2 here.