A Secwet Pwan To Fight Infwation
A first-season West Wing episode that takes the starch out of Josh's stuffed shirt and shoves a whole mess of cotton into C.J.'s face, presented for The Canon.
For my final Canon presentation as a show regular, I want to right a wrong from the first incarnation of this podcast. The only time a listener submitted an episode of The West Wing for the Canon, I had to vote no, because it was the rare episode from the show's first three seasons that I actually didn't like. It's bothered me ever since, because I was supposed to be the West Wing apologist on this panel, and if the listeners couldn't count on me to stick up for Aaron Sorkin's one great contribution to television (sorry, Sports Night, you haven't aged well), then who could they count on?
So the good news is that I am presenting The West Wing Season 1, Episode 15, "Celestial Navigation," for the Canon. The bad news is that I don't have a vote.
We start things off with a frame story, as many a television program has before. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is the guest at a lecture series, fielding phone calls from Sam (Rob Lowe) and Toby (Richard Schiff) about some vaguely defined problem with Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos), who at this point is President Bartlet's (Martin Sheen) nominee for the Supreme Court. While at the lecture series, Josh narrates the events of the week that led up to tonight.
It turns out, Judge Mendoza had been pulled over in Connecticut for suspected drunk driving and jailed for refusing the breathalyzer, so while Josh is at his lecture, Sam and Toby head out to Connecticut to fix the Mendoza issue. They get lost. Moon-eyed Sam decides to navigate their way by the stars, which is just all Toby needs at this point, but it gets us our episode title.
Meanwhile, at the Lecture Series of the Damned, Josh tells the gathered crowd a story that flashes us back thirty-six hours: seems HUD Secretary Deborah O'Leary (CCH Pounder) put her foot in her mouth at a committee meeting, calling out a Republican Congressman for being racist. This is one of those fires that the Communications team needs to put out, but before they can do so, the President gets caught by a question from reporter Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield) about whether he thinks O'Leary should apologize. With Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) not present to deflect and defend, the President foolishly answers the question, saying that an apology would be appropriate. So much of this episode really underlines what a disaster things would be withotu C.J. at her post, and as a massive C.J. fan, this makes me happy.
Ultimately, O'Leary and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) have a bit of a throwdown, but he convinces her of the political necessity of making a public apology. Now all that's left is to communicate said apology to the press. But that's when disaster strikes. C.J. returns from a dentist's appointment having undergone an emergency root canal, and with a mouth full of cotton and an inability to properly speak the words "press" or "briefing," she cannot deliver the afternoon's press briefing.
Allison Janney utterly kills in her scenes with a dentally-impaired C.J. A lot of the time, Sorkin's comic-relief bits serve to make the female characters look foolish, and while C.J. sounds silly in these scenes, the major point that's being underlined is that C.J. kicks ass at her job and anybody else in the cast would suck at it --- particularly Josh who, true to his nature, is unbearably cocky about how he's going to handle the press corps. He expresses this bit of gasbaggery to Danny, who manages to get Josh back during the press conference.
The following scene, with Josh bullheadedly charging into the briefing, full of Ivy league bluster and a metric ton of mansplaining, is a sight to behold. Josh was a great character throughout The West Wing's seven seasons, but his arrogance too often went unchecked. "Celestial Navigation" is one big episode-long check on that arrogance, and by the time Danny's question about the economy has backed Josh into a corner where he's suddenly invented a "secret plan to fight inflation," it's all rather delicious.
After the briefing, all hell breaks loose, and it looks like there might be some kind of arm-wrestling match needed between C.J. and Toby to see who will get to murder Josh first. Then Sam comes in with more bad news: Judge Mendoza has managed to weigh in on the O'Leary matter, despite being on vacation in Nova Scotia. Mendoza said that the President was wrong to make O'Leary apologize, and Toby --- who's the point man on the Mendoza confirmation process --- is fuming that this man seems insistent on making that process as difficult as possible for Toby personally. It's on Mendoza's trip back to Washington to untangle the O'Leary statement that he gets pulled over for drunk driving.
So now we're back to the current evening, where Sam and Toby have arrived at the Connecticut police station and ultimately manage to convince the small-town sheriffs that they have, in fact, imprisoned the President's nominee for the Supreme Court, and further --- in a little bit of narrative double-bagging --- there's no way Mendoza could have been drunk driving, since he physically can't drink because blah-blah-blah metabolic deficiency
Mendoza is not interested in having Toby pull strings to get him out of jail, wanting instead to stick around and prove his innocence in an official court of law (and thus, you know, stick it to those a-holes rather publicly). Obviously, from a communications/public relations standpoint, this would be a disaster, so Toby has to convince Mendoza otherwise. It's a strong scene in that jail cell, with Toby getting to the root of Mendoza's shame at the whole incident, which took place in front of his wife and son. Toby and Sam manage to throw their weight around enough that the cops release Mendoza, apologize, and head off to apologize to the man's son as well. Because in Sorkinland, the father-son relationship is king.
Like many of The West Wing's early-season episodes, "Celestial Navigation" offers a satisfying mix of political wonkery, interpersonal good humor, and inspirational "if only this were how the real world worked" fantasizing. I've wrestled for a while with why I tend to find Aaron Sorkin's other shows so insufferable, while The West Wing, even in retrospect, holds up so well. I think this show was the last time Sorkin allowed his writing to be tempered by other voices. Even back then, there were legendary stories about Sorkin's control over the writing process, but even so, the characters on The West Wing are allowed to puncture holes in each other's righteousness from time to time. Certainly, this episode allows Josh Lyman just enough self-confident rope for him to hang himself with. C.J. and Toby in particular have a fantastic air of over-it that cuts through the more wide-eyed Sorkin stand-ins like Sam.
An Aaron Sorkin show is never not going to be strident about the way he feels like the world should operate, but on a show like The West Wing, more often than not, it feels like you're being asked to participate in a version of that world, rather than being force-fed a Powerpoint presentation about why he's right and you're wrong.