Tuesday, April 11, 2006

How Do You Say Farewell To A Friend? - The West Wing's Election Night, Part 2

One of the TV critics - the ones who actually get paid for this - that I respect a lot is Alan Sepinwall of the Newark Star-Ledger. I remember Alan from the time when he was a regular on the rec.arts.tv newsgroup back when you didn't have to step over the racists and raging Right posters to find something interesting. Now Alan not only has his Star-Ledger columns, but also his personal blog, and he's still worth reading, and sometimes worth disagreeing with. His assessment of Sunday's West Wing episode in his personal blog and for the Star-Ledger is one of those times.

If I can briefly sum up the gist of both the articles, he takes the position that having Leo's death (necessitated by the death of John Spencer) occur at the start of the second part of "Election Night" was disrespectful to the character. In the Star-Ledger article he writes "But by having Leo's death take place on Election Day, then using it as a plot device to create tension about how it might affect voter turnout on the West Coast, Wells has done a disservice to the fans and himself." He wants us to see the initial reactions of the various characters to the news to the exclusion of other aspects of the story. Again in the Star-Ledger he writes "Aside from Josh (Bradley Whitford) and, to a lesser extent Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and C.J. (Allison Janney), none of the characters who were so close to Leo in the first six seasons get time to show much, if any, reaction to his passing. Toby and Charlie don't even appear, and several of the characters who do, learn the bad news off-screen. How do you fail to show the initial conversation between C.J. and the president? Or the reaction of Leo's long-suffering assistant, Margaret? How do you screw up something that obvious?" Worst of all, by the mid-point in the episode, Leo's death seems to have been forgotten and people are dancing and singing (I think here he's referring to the scene where the Santos election team sing "The Eyes Of Texas Are Upon You" when they learn that the candidate has won Texas). In his personal blog he adds "Would it have been so hard to wait a week, keep Leo off-screen during the election stuff (I think the audience would have accepted whatever excuse they gave for Leo not being on stage for the acceptance speech) and deal with his death more fully at a time when we could devote an entire episode to the reactions of the original characters?"

Well in truth I think maybe it would have. I have high admiration for John Spencer as an actor (I've always thought that he as much as Martin Sheen should have been nominated for Outstanding Actor In A Drama at the Emmys) and Leo McGarry as a character but I can't help but think that focussing an episode on the character's death would have been anticlimactic in that hit wouldn't provide any dramatic depth. It may well be that having Leo die while the polls are still open on the west coast is cynical ploy, but as a dramatic device it works. It does add to the tension that we feel as the election results come in. But it's more than that because it makes this episode about two people, Josh Lyman and Arnie Vinnick.

Let's look at Josh first. This election is his moment of personal triumph - he has found and groomed the man who can be the next president of the United States. If Leo's death weren't included then it would simply be one in a series of triumphs for him. By having Leo die during election night makes it a bittersweet triumph which only his constant companion, colleague and most recently lover Donna is able to fully understand. Even Annabeth Schott (Kristin Chenoweth - and will someone make sure this woman gets a job in a really high quality drama as soon as possible; forget the voice, this lady can act!) who we are led to believe has fallen in love with Leo (although I didn't see the part of the episode where it is suggested that they have something other than a work relationship) doesn't feel his death in the way that Josh does. Her scene at the hospital, where she tells Josh that Leo has died and then collapses into his arms in tears is utterly devastating but it's Josh's reaction that is more telling and apparently longer lasting. Leo is a father figure for Josh - more since his own father died eight years before on the night that President Bartlet won the Illinois primary - and he's forced to hold onto his grief while trying to manage the final stages of his victory. There's work to be done but he can't fully delay the grief to complete the job. There's that moment in Leo's hotel room where he tries to take the blame for Leo's death. He says "I talked him into this", by which he really means "If it weren't for me Leo would still be alive." It takes Donna to remind him that Leo couldn't be talked into doing anything he didn't want to do, and because it's coming from Donna he knows that it is true. Only Donna who can say this; coming from any other character present in the election war room - Lou, or Santos, or even Annabeth - it would be hollow simply because they didn't know Leo in the same way that Josh and Donna did. That's the reason why the others can sing "The Eyes Of Texas Are Upon You" - they don't have the intimate connection with Leo.

The effect of Leo's death on Arnie Vinnick is different. Leo is someone that Vinnick has had numerous dealings with over the years. They've known each other a long time, possibly even been "friendly enemies". More to the point they're contemporaries, so Leo's death could just as easily have happened to him. He can't regard it as a subject for mere strategy in the way that all of his advisors except Bruno Gianelli do. Particularly angering for him must have been the incredibly insensitive comments from Jane Braun (Melinda McGraw) about the Democrats practically wheeling Leo from his previous heart attack to the nominating convention in the hopes that he might have a couple of thousand more hours in him. By ridiculing Leo, Braun - the Conservative Bitch who was forced on Vinnick following the nuclear accident in California - points out all that is wrong about politics. Her insensitivity insults Vinnick to his core because he is in the end an honourable and compassionate man. This is his ally? The inevitable result is that he decides that he will behave in an honourable manner - he won't contest the close votes in Nevada and Oregon but will trust the decision of the voters even if it means that he loses the election.

The fact is that I'm not sure what would have been gained by making Leo's death the centre piece of an entire episode. Would the viewer have been better served by watching Leo's loyal if somewhat strange former secretary Margaret break down in tears; by seeing the shock register on C.J.'s face as she answers the actual phone call from Donna or Annabeth; by watching Toby and Will talking about their old friend; by seeing Jed and Abbey flying on Air Force One to comfort Josh and Donna? I don't think so. We need the shock of discovery but it needs to have meaning within the dramatic scheme of things and while staging the discovery of Leo's death at the end of the episode, just before Santos's acceptance speech it wouldn't have given us this intimate view of Josh or shown us once and for all the compassionate and honourable side of Vinnick. In truth I can't see this situation being dealt with in a manner that would work as drama any better than the way it has. At least not by John Wells and probably not by Aaron Sorkin (or do we choose to forget the death of Mrs. Landingham). I can't say that this is the best episode of the season, but I won't say that it is as bad a handling of the situation as Alan Sepinwall thinks it was.

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