Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.
"I'm just saying, if you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for a beer." "If you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for red lights."-Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Donna Moss (Janel Maloney)
The West Wing is known for being a fast paced show. Characters are always rushing around, trading banter and debating policy, hurrying from one thing to the next. It is a recurring feature of every Aaron Sorkin show that his characters be dedicated, often too much so, to their jobs, and this is never truer than on The West Wing. People sleep in their offices. Marriages collapse. Friends, girlfriends, potential girlfriends, parents, and children are all neglected to some extent because these characters are serving the greater good and nothing, nothing comes before their jobs.
"17 People," written by Aaron Sorkin (who wrote 86 of the 89 episodes of the show before his departure) and directed by Alex Graves, arrives near the end of the show's second season, and is really the beginning of perhaps the best run of episode's in the entire series, the starting point for one of the greatest arcs the show would ever do. As such, this column will contain some spoilers, so those of you who have yet to see The West Wing (a show I highly recommend to all) should probably jump off the wagon here unless you don't mind learning more than you should know. The episode also comes near the end of a season where virtually every single episode went over budget and came in later than necessary, due in large part to Aaron Sorkin's meticulous and perfectionist writing style. As an effort to save some money going into the final stretch of the season, Sorkin was commanded to do an episode with no guest stars that stayed entirely confined to the already built West Wing sets.
For some series, a bottle episode can present a challenge that is difficult to overcome. Yet The West Wing, which spends so much of its time hurrying around and focusing on the plot over the characters is well served by an episode that slows down a bit and gives the very well drawn characters time to breathe and interact. This episode takes place, as near I can tell, in real time (excepting the cold open which is a montage of several nights worth of quiet introspection from Toby), as the President deals with a potential national security threat and contemplates raising the security level while revealing a major secret to Toby (Richard Schiff). Meanwhile, other members of the staff attempt to punch up a speech he will have to give at the upcoming correspondent's dinner, because the original writers forgot to "bring the funny."
Sorkin cheated a little bit on his orders from the network, omitting Allison Janney's CJ from the proceedings in order to allow three recurring characters, Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), a republican lawyer working for the administration and Ed and Larry (Peter James Smith and William Duffy), two staffers who appear whenever outsiders are needed throughout the series. CJ isn't missed too much (she had taken center stage in the previous episode, "The Stackhouse Filibuster," one of Sorkin's famed epistolary episodes) as the press has already gone home when the episode takes place, and the addition of Ainsley, who spends the episode engaged in a debate with Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) over the Equal Rights Amendment (Ainsley, a Republican, opposes it as redundant and Sam cannot understand how a woman wouldn't support Equal Rights) is incredibly worth CJ's absence.
The title of the episode, and the bulk of its run time, comes from the secret that President Bartlet reveals to Toby. The audience of the show has known since season one's "He Shall From Time to Time" that Bartlet has relapsing remitting MS, a degenerative disease that he failed to divulge during his campaign for the presidency. Following some suspicious moves by Vice President John Hoynes in the previous episode, Toby has figured out that Hoynes has reason to believe Bartlet might not seek reelection. When Toby confronts Chief of Staff Leo (John Spencer) about it, Leo convinces the president that it's time to spill the beans to Toby.
Toby is easily the most self righteous character in a cast full of them, and picking him to be the first staff member (other than Leo) to discover the president's cover up is a brilliant move on Sorkin's part. Toby and Bartlet have a very contentious relationship, as Toby tends to think the president should go farther and do more than he is willing to, and he refuses to let Bartlet off for what he sees as a massive cover up. He believes the president has committed fraud and may be forced to resign over it; Bartlet and Leo are less worried at the episode's opening, but seem to be burdened by Toby's concerns by the time the episode ends.
The president has set up quite the ethical conundrum and the brilliant Toby wastes no time exploring it, often exploding with anger at the ways his boss has failed him and the American people. Toby points out that even if no one has been asked to lie (Bartlet has simply withheld the truth, never lied or asked anyone else to cover up his illness) there's an argument that everyone has been coerced into withholding the truth, and that The First Lady (which Toby is required to call her after he strikes a nerve), a medical doctor, has been medicating the president herself in violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Toby even brings up the fact that Bartlet has failed before to ensure succession of power to the Vice President (when he was under general anesthesia after being shot in the first season finale) before, resulting in a veritable coup d'Ã©tat.
All of this is true, and provides great drama in and of it, but the best moments of the episode come from little character details sprinkled throughout the discussions. Bartlet's anger when Toby crosses the line discussing The First Lady, Toby's recollection of a private moment when he and Leo pledged to get the President reelected, and the look on Bartlet's face every time the actual crisis he is dealing with at the airports calls him away from his discussion with Toby. These character moments also form the basis of the subplot, where Sam and Ainsley flirt and debate in equal measures, while Donna is angry at Josh for celebrating the anniversary of the date she began working with him the second time. See, Donna came to Josh after a relationship disintegrated and talked her way into a job, only to leave again when the boyfriend took her back. We learn in this episode that she in fact left her boyfriend after being involved in a car accident and finding out he stopped for a beer on the way to the hospital to pick her up. Josh and Donna are the will-they-won't-they of The West Wing, but the show is so often focused on the professional aspects of their jobs, it often leaves their flirtation to the side, bringing it up only in quiet moments like the quote I used to open this column.
The West Wing is by definition a work drama, and it focuses almost obsessively on the jobs that its characters do. "17 People" takes a break from most of that and just lets these characters sit back, late at night, and talk to each other. Whether they are messing around and insulting each other, digging into policy debates not for work but for play, dealing subtly with their strong feelings for one another, or examining the ethical missteps of the man they all give up their personal lives for, this episode lets the characters be themselves, which is always a treat. Considering all the trouble that rains down on the president and his staff in the episodes that follow this and close out the second season, "17 People" is the calm before the storm, and all the more necessary to provide contrast, emphasizing just how bad things get by giving us a few moments of normalcy before everything is thrown out of whack.Read more Bottle Up and Explode here
Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:
11/20: "A Night In," Porridge
12/4:"The One Where No One's Ready," Friends
12/18: "Pine Barrens," The Sopranos
1/1: "Three Men and Adena," Homicide: Life on the Streets