amadi: Text icon reading: "You want to tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing?" (Tempt the Wrath)
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My apologies for the lateness of this, I took on the recap at the last minute then real life exploded!

Episode 1 x 06: Mr. Willis of Ohio

Read the transcript here

This is the epic episode of foreshadowing. We have foreshadowing of relationships both professional and personal, foreshadowing of crises both political and personal (wait, the personal is the political, especially on this show!) and even foreshadowing of real life American politics. This episode sets up things that aren't going to come to fruition for years. It's just. That. Good.

(Inaccurate) Blurb from IMDb: In the first of several episodes throughout the series' run that portrays ordinary Americans and how they interact with and ultimately affect the W.H., an Ohio middle school social studies teacher, a widower who has recently filled the brief remaining term of his late wife in the House, joins two other reps to meet with Toby and Mandy about changes to unfair rules in the U.S. Census written into the latest federal budget. The other two, career politicians, are completely resistant to the changes, but Mr. Willis is swayed by a potent argument Toby makes regarding "strict constructionism" (generally conservative and libertarian belief that the U.S. Constitution is not a living document, and must be followed as written, unless officially amended through standard 38-state ratification) and the 14th Amendment. Toby is impressed with the man and his open-mindedness. Elsewhere, Sam tutors C.J. on the finer points of the census. Late in the episode, the staff meets for a late-night poker party.

Summary: We open with all the Senior Staff and President Bartlet in Leo's meeting room, playing poker at the end of a day. The President plays strategy, knocking everyone off of their game by engaging the group in a quiz of what Josh calls "inane trivia." Toby becomes increasingly agitated, makes an ill-informed raise only to lose it all to the crafty Bartlet. The game closes, Toby grumps, the President laughs him off, Josh makes puppy dog face at Sam to cajole him into staying to help Josh understand a report about the upcoming 2000 U.S. census. We learn that Leo has not revealed his marital woes to the President.

Before everyone is able to get back to their own offices, Secret Service agents move everyone into the Oval Office because there's a security breach. While they wait for more word, the President resumes his trivia challenge, prompting another go-round with Toby:
President Bartlet: What body of water in South America is formed by the confluence of --
Toby: Excuse me, Wink Martindale, do you really think this is the time?
President Bartlet: Not quite up on your South American maritime geography my friend?
The Secret Service gives the all clear and Mandy quips that this sort of thing didn't occur in her last job and... opening montage!

We next see the staff the next morning. Toby is stymied by his staff assistants' inexplicable inability to provide him with a copy of the U.S. Constitution, one of them asking "Is it still in print?" He is admonished for yelling at them by a cagey-acting C.J. who is waiting for Sam, who she asks (in the roundabout way that she gets when she's embarrassed about something) for tutoring on the topic of the Census, which has confused her. There's a walk and talk as she explains how little she gets and that she's been faking it, he pokes at her about it, but agrees to help her understand.

We move to Josh and Donna, and in another walk and talk there's mention of a $32 billion dollar budget surplus and that the Democrats are not in favor of "tax relief" like the Republicans. They're not done with that topic.

They enter a meeting Leo enumerates some of the provisions of the budget appropriations bill for the upcoming year which is just about to come up for a vote. (Mentioned, somewhat sarcastically, is volcano monitoring. Real life foreshadowing!) The bill's passage is crucial, but a Commerce committee amendment prohibiting statistical sampling in the counting of the Census (hence the report) could kill the bill. Three congressmen who sit on the committee are coming to the White House to be persuaded to table the amendment so that the bill can be pushed through. Those congressmen are Gladman, Skinner and "Janice Willis's husband" who it is presumed will "do what he's told."

We move to the Oval. Ron Butterfield explains the previous evening's security breach: a woman with a gun jumped the fence and was trying to get to Zoey Bartlet. Leo comes in to try to reveal his impending divorce, but decides that it isn't the time.

Gladman and Skinner meet Josh and Mandy in the Roosevelt Room and we're all introduced to Joe Willis, who proclaims that he's not a congressman, but an 8th grade social studies teacher. Mr. Willis is a plainspoken, humble, affable man and perhaps a bit out of his depth. Toby joins them and kicks the meeting off with a big display of putting the bound, 7,000 pages of the appropriations bill on the table and off they go into a several-hours long discussion of the offending amendment.

Segue to C.J. and Sam, time for her tutoring session. He's continuing to give her some grief, and she's pushing back, but in this scene, we are meant to believe that this woman with a degree from UC Berkeley, senior White House staff, advisor to the POTUS, never took junior high civics, because she asks for, and receives, an explanation of the basic points of the census fit for a 12 year old. This is frustrating and almost embarrassing to watch. Would C.J. really ask why the Constitution mandates a census? Was this just a chance for Sorkin to show off his knowledge of the word "decennial?" Sam also lays out the basic foundation for why the administration wants statistical sampling, which is the important part, but for some reason we couldn't skip straight there.

Over in Leo's office, Mallory has come to visit and bring him some of his things from the house. She also gives her father a reality check: her mother doesn't want him back. The McGarry marriage is through.

Back to the Roosevelt Room. Mandy and the congressman squabble. Donna pulls Josh out to go see the President, and in a walk and talk, Josh explains the Democratic resistance to a tax rebate from the budget surplus in one of the most honest and simultaneously jaw-dropping explanations of policy this show will ever have:
Donna: No. What's wrong with me getting my money back?
Josh: You won't spend it right.
Donna: What do you mean?
Josh: Let's say your cut of the surplus is $700. I want to take your money, combine it with everyone else's money and use it to pay down the debt and further endow social security. What do you want to do with it?
Donna: Buy a DVD player.
Josh: See?
Donna: But my $700 is helping to employ the people who manufacture and sell DVD players, not to mention the people who manufacture and sell DVDs. It's the natural evolution of the market economy.
Josh: The problem is, the DVD player you buy might be made in Japan.
Donna: I'll buy an American one.
Josh: We don't trust you.
Donna: Why not?
Josh: We're Democrats.
Donna: I want my money back!
Josh: You shouldn't have voted for us.
Okay then, Josh! In the Oval, the President asks him to take Charlie out for a beer. Charlie's working too hard. Awww, Bartlet cares! The President tries to give Josh some cash for the drinks, then laments that he has none. He doesn't carry cash or keys any more. His life, so hard.

Josh makes the plan with Charlie, then Mallory and Zoey catch him in the hallway and a beer with Charlie becomes an evening out with Charlie, Zoey, Mallory and Sam in Georgetown. Josh actually says out loud: "What could go wrong?" Never ask that, Josh!

Sam and C.J. have, for some reason they've moved from her office to the press briefing room to continue the patronizing tutoring. A place where the lead reporter from the New York Times can overhear that the Press Secretary doesn't understand why counting 300 million people one by one is difficult is not a place for this discussion. Josh sticks his head in to ask Sam about the evening out and C.J. gets in on it too. It's gonna be a thing, you can already tell.

Back to the Roosevelt Room. (This episode whips from place to place like an excited cat, I tell you.) Now we get the real, serious discussion of why the administration wants sampling. There are racial implications. There are financial implications. The congressmen argue that the Constitution is clear, Toby says it's arcane and whips out his copy (unearthed by his staff at long last) and Mandy reads. But she doesn't quite read it all... And who would know better than an 8th grade social studies teacher? The African-American social studies teacher, who knows that the Constitution says that every free person should be counted, and slaves as well, but slaves only counted for 3/5ths of a person. Sorkin was deft here in giving us a lesson in statistics, institutional racial inequities and U.S. history, all in one scene. (As well as advancing a policy argument that makes some sense, but hasn't ever actually happened in real life, as Americans who have just filled out their 2010 census form or have had a visit from a census worker know, we're still counting everyone one by one.)

Toby's argument works. Mr. Willis says he is changing his vote, which means that the amendment will be dropped, a court can decide if sampling is constitutional, and the important appropriations bill will pass. Shout hallelujah. Mandy runs to tell Leo. Mr. Willis self-deprecates himself to the point you're left wondering how he ties his own shoes. But he'll vote yea, that's what counts.

In the Oval, after a Bartlet-Landingham song and dance, Leo reports to the President, the bill's a go, but his marriage? Well, not so much. The President is not happy. He orders Leo to fix it, fix it, fix it. Now Leo is unhappy, but there's nothing he can do. Both men retreat.

It's a dark and hazy Georgetown bar where we land next, Foo Fighters blaring on the sound system, Sam, Josh, Charlie, Zoey, Mallory and C.J. having drinks and embarrassing Sam over the Laurie situation. Mallory and Zoey are going to blackmail Sam over this for as long as they can.

Zoey heads to the bar (to get C.J. a grasshopper, really) where some college boys who are almost a parody of the sexist, racist, ignorant frat boy stereotype, start giving her a hard time. Charlie comes to her aid. (Awww.) They turn on him. Sam comes to their aid, now lead college boy is spoiling for a fight. When Josh arrives, he comes with Zoey's panic button. The boys are led off in handcuffs, for disrespecting a woman's boundaries... when that woman has federal law enforcement agents at her disposal. Would that we all did, huh?

Back in the residence, Zoey and her father have a serious discussion about what occurred in the bar. All of his normal fatherly angst about having a college-aged daughter comes to the fore, but he's no ordinary father. He lays out "the nightmare scenario" in which is Zoe kidnapped by terrorists.
President Bartlet: So now we've got a new problem, because this country no longer has a commander in chief, it has a father who's out of his mind because his little girl is in a shack somewhere in Uganda with a gun to her head. DO YOU GET IT?!
He scares Zoey half to death, but his message gets through. They hug. The President then goes and apologizes to Leo and offers his sympathy and help. Balancing family and the work that they do isn't as easy as he made it out to be. Lesson learned.

Sam, Josh and Charlie have a post-mortem on the events in the bar. The President comes to ask them what went down. Josh reveals that Charlie was really Zoey's hero that night. The senior staff reassembles for another end of the day poker game. Toby lauds Joe Willis to the group, then excuses himself to watch the roll call vote on C-SPAN, just long enough to hear "Mr. Willis of Ohio votes yea."

Questions:
  1. The foreshadowing in this episode is patently clear if you've seen what comes after. But on its own, does it seem like this is the beginning of the forging of certain relationship dynamics, especially, amongst Senior Staff?
  2. Is the interaction between C.J. and Sam just comedic, or is it troubling?
  3. This episode is heavy on policy, and heavy on explanations of policy for the benefit of the audience. How does that come across?
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