The West Wing season 1 episode 4 review

The White House reluctantly celebrates Big Block of Cheese Day in the fifth episode of The West Wing, season one. And here’s our review...

5. The Crackpots And These Women

It’s Big Block of Cheese Day in the White House, on which Leo insists the senior staff meet with people and organisations who struggle to make their voices heard. The staffers are finding it hard to take the whole thing seriously: Sam is sarcastic and dismissive towards a UFO-obsessed nerd stereotype, CJ struggles to be polite at the suggestion of an 1800-mile ‘wolves-only highway’, and Josh merely gives us a disdainful, “Is today Total Crackpot Day again?”

But then Josh has rather a lot on his mind this week, after receiving a card which tells him where to go in the event of impending Armageddon. It slowly dawns on him that he and Leo are the only West Wing staffers to be given these NSA golden tickets. There’s no room in the bunker for CJ, Toby, Sam or – perhaps most importantly for Josh – his assistant Donna.

The realisation leads to a whole bucketload of Lyman angst. Josh visits his old therapist and admits he can’t get Schubert’s Ave Maria out of his head – it reminds him of his sister, who died in a fire while toddler-Josh ran out of the house and saved himself. Even the best US dramas can be overly fond of these all-too-convenient psychoanalytical plot devices, and only rarely does it feel wholly convincing. (If you love this kind of thing though, please do go and watch Season 2’s Noël, in which the Freudometer is turned up to eleven to great effect.)

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But it does lead to a goosebump-inducing scene with CJ, in which Josh describes in frighteningly plausible detail how a third of the human race could be wiped out with the smallpox virus, as Ave Maria plays hauntingly in the background. This is one of the many things The West Wing does so well – in the midst of all the witty banter and Big Block of Cheese silliness, it suddenly whacks us on the collective head with the serious stick and gives us something downright scary to think about. It goes without saying that both Whitford and Janney handle the scene brilliantly. They always do.

Meanwhile, things between Toby and Bartlet are teeth-clenchingly tense. Toby brings down the light-hearted mood of the opening scene with the accusation that Bartlet’s ‘better angels’ are shouted down by his ‘brazen desire to win’, then Eeyores for the rest of the episode over his discovery that he was not Bartlet’s first choice for Communications Director.

Richard Schiff’s curmudgeonly performances just get more and more compelling each week, although Sorkin strikes an off note here by having Toby rant about McCarthyism during a discussion about violence in film. It’s clearly the writer’s own voice coming through, and it’s annoyingly intrusive – if you’re going to use your characters as mouthpieces for your own political views, you’ve got to be a sight more subtle than this.

Of course, The West Wing’s detractors would say the entire show is a mouthpiece for Sorkin’s own political views, but being a big soft cissy bleeding-heart Guardian-reading liberal herself, this reviewer is usually too busy agreeing with him to criticise.

Things take a surprising turn in the final act. Instead of the almighty showdown we’re expecting, Bartlet has a calm talk with Toby, telling him, “I couldn’t live without you” and “I know I disappoint you sometimes”, thus winning this reviewer’s Employer of the Month award and becoming even more endearing to boot. And when he quietly resolves to obey his ‘better angels’ and strive for greatness… well, here come the goosebumps again.

It’s bittersweet smiles all round by the closing scene. Sam and CJ have dropped their scorn (well, sort of) towards the Block of Cheese crackpots, and Bartlet’s daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss in her pre-Sterling Cooper days) has turned up to make chilli and be adorable. As for Leo, he just “can’t get over these women”.

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The menfolk of the West Wing stare in admiration at CJ, Donna and Mandy, and two out of those three deserve it a hundred times over. But when Leo describes Mandy as “going punch for punch with Toby in a world that tells women to sit down and shut up”, it sounds more like a comment on an episode of Mad Men.

While the world circa 1999 was by no means rid of sexism or the glass ceiling (and it still isn’t) someone should really have pointed out to Leo that a) things had moved on somewhat since the 50s and b) in Mandy’s case, someone probably should tell her to sit down and shut up, because she’s horrendous.

The most significant moment – arguably more so than Bartlet’s speech (“with outstretched fingers, we touched the face of God”) – is Josh’s decision to hand back his Armageddon card. if disaster strikes, he wants to be there to comfort his loved ones. The Crackpots And These Women was, for this reviewer, the episode in which Josh became truly likeable.

We’re beginning to delve deeper into the main characters’ backstories and personal lives now, learning who they are and what makes them tick, and – with the obvious exception – they’re looking less like characters and more like real people every week. Let’s hope Toby and CJ get the same attention soon.

Read our review of episode 4 here.