The West Wing season 1 episode 4 review

It’s a week of dodgy gun laws and disintegrating marriages, as Gemma reviews episode four of The West Wing season one...

4. Five Votes Down

We open on Bartlet passionately delivering a speech like it’s his own personal St. Crispin’s Day, but, worryingly for the senior staff, he’s just lost five votes for his new initiative on gun control. (More worryingly for this reviewer, it appears Josh has fangirls. Takes all sorts, I suppose…)

Each of the five congressmen withholding their vote has a specific reason for doing so, and they’re not all sound; attention-seeking whiner Chris Wick just wants a round of golf with the President in exchange for his loyalty.

But if Wick looks like an utter tit in this episode, the senior staff look a lot worse. Just as we’re growing to like these characters, Five Votes Down shines a bright light – possibly the kind with the power of a million candles – on the imperfections that bugged this reviewer so much in the pilot. We see our heroes through the eyes of others this week, and the view ain’t exactly pretty. Josh attempts to bully his way through the episode and comes across as overconfident, egotistical and in dire need of a slap. Even Leo is pulled up for trying to manipulate a black congressman by raising the issue of gang-related deaths (“Don’t tell me how to be a leader of black men. You look like an idiot.”)

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The truth becomes apparent as the episode develops; it’s a crappy law. Bartlet and his government talk big, but they don’t always try hard enough when it’s time to take action. What’s more, they’re arrogant enough to think no one in Congress has noticed. It’s a brave stunt to pull just as the audience is starting to feel comfortable, but it’s the right move. Sorkin’s retro style always leaves him in danger of painting a rose-tinted picture of the West Wing, and if Bartlet’s government is portrayed as perfect it would stretch the show’s credibility to breaking point.

Meanwhile, if there’s a topic that never fails to result in tense, watchable drama – yep, you guessed it – it’s financial disclosure! While the assistants snigger over the extravagant gifts Josh has received from his fangirls, Toby is suspected of influencing the stock market and agrees to reduce his salary to $1 for the next year to cancel out the money he’s made.

On the surface it seems a bit pointless as a subplot, but it does allow the brilliant Richard Schiff to turn the deadpan Eeyore act up to 11 (“there’s literally no one in the world that I don’t hate right now”) and leads to a silly-yet-entertaining cameo from Bartlet – dosed up on back medicine and half-delirious – which makes a light-hearted contrast to his performance last week.

We also get our first real glimpse into Leo’s personal life. Our favourite craggy-faced Chief of Staff’s capable veneer cracks this week as wife Jenny thinks he considers his job more important than their marriage. “It’s more important than my marriage now,” he tells her honestly, if a bit tactlessly, and at least he has the good grace not to be surprised when she packs her bags. When he later confesses all to the VP, we discover both Leo and Hoynes are alcoholics, and you just know this plotline is going to run and run.

Hoynes saves the day for Bartlet this week too, securing the final vote by reminding the congressman in question, “I’m going to be President one day, and you’re not”. This reviewer got the distinct feeling she was supposed to be taking reams of mental notes here – no scene involving Hoynes right now is insignificant, and his role in this series can only grow. The big question is, can he be trusted? (Hint: no, he can’t.)

So Hoynes has his eye on the Oval Office, Leo is in danger of falling off the wagon, and the White House may well be in line for some political retribution after Josh’s misguided attempt to throw his weight around. After the high drama of last week, Five Votes Down is a relatively quiet episode, but this reviewer senses it’s merely the calm before the storm. Give it a week or two, and it’ll all kick off…

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Read our review of episode 3 here.