The West Wing – 6×01 – NSF Thurmont

Like ajp I prepared some thoughts on the opening of The West Wing’s sixth season. I started these with the best of intentions as the episodes aired in the US, but my enthusiam ground to a halt so there won’t be many more of these!

The West Wing – 6×01 – NSF Thurmont

And so the season starts with…well, a direct continuation of the end of Season 5. Literally and thematically this picks up right where Memorial Day left off, and never lets up. Bartlet continues his increasingly isolated crusade to bring diplomacy, not missiles, to bear on the West Bank, in a story with deep relevance to the current political situation in the US. (And of course it aired right before the US elections).

This is an intelligent episode which manages to continue the debate from the season finale. It does however lack much of the subtlety of its predecessor, with the parallels with 9-11 and the war on Iraq drawn far more crudely. However, despite the lack of subtlety there’s something quite satisfying about watching Bartlet’s incredulous outrage at the idea of responding to a terrorist atrocity with an attack on an Iran, without any direct evidence of a connection between the two. 🙂 Partly I was simply relieved to have a clear signpost that Bartlet retained the moral high ground, because the season finale left me worrying that maybe he was headed for a fall.

Once again Leo is dead set against Bartlet’s conciliatory stance, repeating like a broken record his insistence that Bartlet “have to” launch the proposed attack, until his truly riveting explosion in the Oval Office. And he comes up, full stop, against Bartlet’s quiet challenge:”..or what?” This interpersonal conflict, downbeat (and arguably out of character) though it is, is superbly played by John Spencer and Martin Sheen. Leo, sadly, is for me at least a very unlikeable character, continuing a trend which began last year; it’s a real shame to see such a well-loved figure descend into acrimonious conflict with his former friends.

In the background pretty much everyone is against the President, leading to a very nice scene with Abbey in which he ponders how easy it would be to give in, and provide an attack which would satisfy the craving for revenge in the short term, but achieve nothing but more bloodshed in the long run. His brainstorming session was also fascinating, as he more or less drags the staff into helping him by stubborn force of will. Time and again I thought Bartlet was going to have to relent, and time and again he stuck to his guns. If this episode achieved anything it’s showing in no uncertain terms that peace can be the more courageous choice than war. It’s just a shame that it does this at the expense of pitting friend against friend.

Thankfully, although I doubt that next week will see a true peace brokered in the Middle East, the story is now at a place where I can imagine the peace plan failing gracefully without Bartlet having to back down and go with Leo’s hawkish approach. For that, I’m extremely thankful!

In the meantime Josh enters a realm of “Josh + Donna 4 ever” shippyness that begins to feel like a parallel universe. Fortunately Donna spends most of the episode unconscious, which prevents this from going anywhere. My money is on the whole plotline simmering back down to unrelieved sexual tension before this story is done. Mostly because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

The frustrating thing about this episode is that it stops, dead, right when you’re desperate to see how it all turns out. I still sorely miss Aaron Sorkin, even one year on, but this very different show is still surprisingly compelling.

One other interesting thing to note – Mary McCormack, alias Kate Harper, is now in the opening credits. I assume this means she’s a regular (though not necessarily, since others have hopped in and out of the credits before now). This is somewhat surprising, to me at least, but she’s a decent enough character, so I guess we’ll see how she fits in.

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