The West Wing might be the best TV series ever made. Whether it is not or not it’s the TV show that’s given me as much pleasure as any other to the point of near obsession. If you’ve never watched it or only watched a couple of random episodes stop reading this immediately. Go and buy the entire box set. Call work and tell them you’re ill and proceed to watch all 100 hours of its utter magnificence. (Quick novice viewers tips – don’t focus on the fact that most of the people in the series are far far more attractive than anyone you’ve seen anywhere near politics or that no humans could speak that quickly or intelligently off the cuff – just relax and let it all roll over you in a wave of TV joy).
I should warn you I’m going to talk about the plot and specifically the end of the show so if you don’t want to know what happens don’t read the rest of this as the show will be spoiled for you. So this is your spoiler warning. You have been warned. About the spoiler….
Right that should have got rid of most of you – for the rest let’s talk endings. As legendary scriptwriter William Goldman once said, ‘they’re a bitch’. Ending 7 years of the West Wing proved to be trickier than most.
A lot of the last episodes of the series feel wrong, shoehorned almost tacked on. And a lot of that is because it is or so the story goes. According to Laurence O Donnell, executive producer of the show, the story was written as a ‘win’ for Democrat candidate Matt Santos after the harsh reality of the real world intervened. John Spencer, who played vice Presidential nominee Leo McGarry, died during filming an event that was translated on the show. The decision was made that for both characters and audience the double blow of a death and an election loss would be too bleak and the story line which had been for a Republican candidate Vinick win was changed.
However the Matt Santos win came to pass it’s the wrong result and gives rise to a string of finishing episodes which are horrifically lame compared to the rest of the show. The big political jeopardy is whether the President Elect will…wait for it…get the speaker of the house he wants (it’s as dull as it sounds). Another episode features the personal devastation suffered by Josh when he realises he’s over worked and really needs a holiday. 8 years of workdays that appear to start at 5am and finish at 4.57am dealing with the biggest issues on the planet and deciding whether they get a very co-operative or slightly co-operative speaker pushes him over the edge. The best thing you can do with the West Wing is to stop it the moment the moment Bartlett is told there’s a result and never watch the rest.
I didn’t realise quite how the series trails off until the second time through. You see I was rooting for a Santos win. I mean Josh is one of the best characters in TV drama and I’d spent hundreds of hours with him; how could I not root for his guy? Plus …you know…he’s the Democrat. However I was rooting for the wrong guy – Vinick deserves to win; he’s the better candidate and deserves it more.
This doesn’t come as a surprise I have a long history of rooting for the wrong fella first time round. It’s my ‘McEnroe/Borg problem. As a child I rooted for Bjorn Borg – live and for years after in repeats (and yes you are supposed to root for someone on repeats). I inherited this from my Mum, I was young and easily influenced. Borg was suave, elegant, clean (despite his well bushed beard) and graceful under pressure. McEnroe was aggressive, spoilt, brattish and worst of all – in my household – vulgar. Him winning was the triumph of darkness over light in my family’s front room. All of this of course masked the truth – that Borg was a cyborg sent from the same sporting factory that went on to produce Pete Sampras, Steve Davis (pre humanisation operation) and every jockey not called Frankie Dettori. McEnroe meanwhile was an unmitigated genius with a racquet with all the human flaws and emotions that come in the genius package. Now I root for him during repeats, even after this horror.
The problem with Santos winning is that it’s just too easy; he gets all the breaks and gets them exactly when he needs then. And that’s a huge understatement – this guy has shares in Deus ex Machina Ltd.
- First during the primaries he’s in third place, he’s out of money about to remortgage his house in a hubris filled statement of principle; he’s done, out, through. Then out of nowhere John Hoynes suffers a ‘bimbo eruption’ and has to withdraw and suddenly he’s second in a two horse race with bingo Bob.
- Next he reaches the convention; a narrow loser in the primaries but a loser nonetheless. He’s faced with being VP to a man he doesn’t respect or walking with nothing. Fear not here comes completely random intervention number 2. Governor Baker decides to run and looks to clinch the nomination in a heartbeat…then it turns out his wife has a history of mental illness. Baker pulls out so we’re as we were except we’re not because somehow Santos wins. I’m still not quite sure how, and I’ve watched it 3 times, but it involves President Bartlet talking to the head of the teaching unions behind closed doors (it’s behind closed doors because that scene is literally impossible to write I mean what’s the dialogue ‘I know I’m an outgoing President with no power and my preferred candidate has policies directly contrary to your members interests but…um…pleeeaaassseeee).
- Finally he’s 7 points behind in the Presidential race. Woefully underqualified to be President facing a stellar opponent he has no hope. No hope of course unless he receives some sort of miraculous intervention in his favour. Now surely the best scripted TV show of the last 40 years wouldn’t be so crass to have a 3rd such convergence of circumstance? Um…yeah it would yeah. And this is the worst of the lot. A nuclear reactor sort of melts down – except it doesn’t – but it’s still scary because it involved the word nuclear. This happens in California and it turns out not only does Republican candidate love nuclear power and has repeatedly told the public how safe it is he also pushed to get that specific reactor built. Overnight the election goes from a certain defeat for Santos to a neck and neck horse race. (let’s not even get into how bad Santos would have to be for his opposing candidate to be directly implicated in the construction of a nuclear power plant that nearly melted down and not be in a huge lead). It’s a ridiculously clumsy piece of story telling – which only makes sense if Vinick defies it to pull out a win.
Having talked it all through with you I’m not sure Deus ex Machina quite covers it. Put it this way I’ve just spent a good half an hour on the DVD for season 7 looking for the Easter egg where the Matt Santos sacrifices his youngest child to Satan in return for the Presidency.
What makes the result worse is the excellence of Republican Arnold Vinick, a likeable, intelligent Republican (oxymoron alert) with centrist appeal and a ton of experience he starts the race a heavy favourite. He then wins the only Presidential debate of the campaign. If you don’t agree your suffering ‘Bartlett succession bias’ go and rewatch it Vinick has all the best lines. King of which is his answer to how many new jobs his administration would create: ‘None … <beat to gasps from audience> …because Government doesn’t create jobs’. No Republican has ever had a line that good in a Presidential debate ever. He then overcomes the nuclear accident in the campaign with a virtuoso press conference where he outlasts the press and rationally, convincingly destroys every argument – by the end of it I was calling the American Embassy to get citizenship so I could vote for him.
I don’t know the truth of the story plotting and whether the winner was changed it doesn’t matter because Vinick should have won. It’s the only fair, logical outcome.
So what if he did?
The truth is the end of the West Wing would have been far different and far more interesting…
- The tragedy of VP candidate Leo McGarry’s dearth is compounded as Nevada is called for Vinick. As tax-cutting, state rolling backing, minority abusing, gun toting righties celebrate across the land the President is informed in his bed he pouts and pulls the covers over his head.
- Matt Santos has gone from political zero to political hero and back to political zero again almost as quickly as he’s gone from tall, suave young thrusting candidate promising the new Camelot to 15% tubbier per episode, far too floppy haired to be taken seriously has-been. He retreats to a month long sex a thon with his more than grateful never-to-be-first-lady wife Helen as they make a serious attempt to break the most beds in one session.
- Bartlett takes the defeat personally with the knowledge that a Republican President will undo everything he’s achieved. He becomes increasingly bitter and consumed with darkness as his health fails. He spends much of his last days in office sabotaging the incoming administration by committing huge numbers of troops to the problem in Kazakhstan as well as wandering around the White House super gluing desk draws shut and removing the letters ‘F’ and ‘U’ from every computer keyboard. He does not pardon Toby Ziegler.
- Toby Ziegler goes to jail. His ability to receipt the problems with the Republican tax cut plans in intricate detail while slowly raising the volume of his voice in line with his anger does not help him in escaping the myriad of horrors inflicted upon him by over sized cellmate Lenny.
- Josh Lynman is a broken man. Despite going without sleep for 137 days he lost the election and second is as good as nowhere. Far worse though he can’t forgive himself for convincing Leo to return to Politics and the thought that he caused his death. Railing against the world around him he blames Donna and sends her away (for the 9th time the series) before beginning to mix his red bulls with bourdon and pulling out what little is left of his hair.
- Our scene before our penultimate scene is a slow pull back from President Vinick at his desk in the oval office. He is dispensing orders for his first pieces of legislation including an act to make gay marriage explicitly illegal to appease the right for their help in the campaign. We continue to pull back as we see the oval office full of his advisors, Republican senators and leaders. An unfamiliar secretary closes the double doors in our face as we glimpse the office for the last time.
- Our penultimate scene is at the Democratic national headquarters. There is a meeting of the heads of the party which is interrupted by Josh Lyman. He announces he’ll take on the next Senate campaign they have running himself, ‘this time I’m going to beat them myself’; he breaks the top off a new red bull and begins to swig.
- Our final scene is aboard Airforce One with the Bartletts. President Bartlett sits clutching his ‘Bartlett for America’ napkin in a shaking hand. He stares into the distance out the airplane window.
Abigail Bartlett: What are you thinking about
President Bartlett: Yesterday