Oh hai, liberal politics and excellent dialogue. Oh hai, Martin Sheen. Looks like we got some West Wing to review. I know this sort of show isn’t the usual cup of tea for many of you, but beneath its bleeding heart there is a…..heart…..of….good….things….
Whatever, fuck it.
HERE BE SPOILERS FOR THE WEST WING UP TO THE END OF SEASON 5
|NBC|2004-2005|22 episodes|60 mins|
Picking up from where we left off at the end of season five, President Bartlet deals with the aftermath of the attack on US officials in the Gaza strip. EVERYTHING FUCKING BLEW UP OH MY GOD! Both the public and most everybody else in the Situation Room are pushing him for a military response, while the President continues to try to find a way to diffuse the crisis and resume peace talks.
In the meantime, Bartlet’s MS is catching up with him, and it’s really starting to interfere with his duties as president. Much to his annoyance, he has to take breaks at regular intervals throughout the day, and if he overexerts himself, chances are he’ll collapse. It gets bad enough he soon requires the use of a cane. I rather liked that the multiple sclerosis storyline was finally progressing after its introduction all the way back in season 1 and the huge shitstorm it caused the following year.
Season Six’s focus and the characters themselves are now split with the upcoming election, spending about half its time inside the familiar walls of the West Wing, and the other half out on the campaign trail as the next federal election looms nearer and Bartlet’s administration nears its end.
This even further splinters the main cast, as it’s not at all clear who the Democratic presidential candidate will be. There are a few familiar faces throwing their hat in the ring, as well as some new ones. Josh seems to have found his guy in Texan Congressman Matt Santos, played by
Bail Organa Dexter’s murder buddy Jimmy Smits. Will Bailey and Donna, of all people, hit the road in support of current Vice President and total moron Bob Russell.
Another big-name newcomer this season is Senator Arnold Vinick, played by a rather Palpatine-looking Alan Alda, who—
— who is almost guaranteed the Republican nomination. He might just be the most level-headed, sympathetic Republican ever featured on the series, and hell, aside from a few disagreements, he’s making a rather good case as to why the audience should like him. Not only that, while the Democrats spend the season squabbling over who gets to be Bartlet’s successor, the Republicans largely have their shit together.
I’m of two minds about this split focus. On the one hand, it’s a good thing because it expands the scope of the series beyond its normal parameters and helps illustrate what a presidential campaign is like when the incumbent can’t run again and it seems like it could be anybody’s game. The downside is that quite often you only get to see about half the cast each episode and the uncertainty in the Democratic camp simply strains the relationships between the characters even further.
Season 6 does unfortunately continue the infighting and darker tone showrunner John Wells has brought to the series since coming aboard after creator Aaron Sorkin’s departure at the end of Season 4. To be fair, Sorkin did start down a pretty dark path in the last few episodes of his final season and Wells just carried right on down that road.
Even so, tensions between the West Wing’s once-cohesive unit can be hard to watch. Disagreements can escalate into huge fights, the issues dealt with are often darker and on at least one occasion, friendships are broken. It’s kind of hard to watch the way things have gotten steadily more difficult for the Bartlet administration since Season 1. Don’t get me wrong, I completely love dark, and I think it’s a welcome change to temper some of the idealism of earlier years. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Placement of characters is also changing this season. There’s some shuffling around of the staff to cover the various health problems, and to pick up the slack left behind by characters departing the White House in favor of the campaign trail. It’s certainly an interesting idea and changes the dynamics you’re familiar with, especially refreshing this late in the game.
And late in the game it is. A sense of ending and finality pervades throughout Season 6 and you could be forgiven for forgetting there’s still one more to go. I really like that. I hate it when a series doesn’t build to an ending, and just kind of realizes it’s almost over a couple of hours before the end. Not good shit, television. Also appreciated is Bartlet and Leo’s new “fuck it” policy: They have exactly 1 year left in office, and they’re going to fight tooth and nail to get things done, no matter the fallout. It’s very satisfying after seeing Bartlet have to compromise with a difficult Congress season after season.
Season 6 is one of the series’ weaker seasons, but that may simply be when comparing it to the amazingly strong, consistent run of Seasons 2-5. It’s by no means terrible. It takes a lot of risks with the status quo, and like most aging series that decide to “shake things up” towards the end, some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Smits and Alda are both great additions, and my only complaint there is that Alda doesn’t get enough screen time. He’s awesome. I’m excited going into the final season and a little sad that this journey will soon come to a close.
Six seasons of this and American politics still make my head hurt.