Welcome to the show people! With one little tip of the hand by Veep John Hoynes, the election changes course entirely and Toby’s whole world seems to crumble around him.
“What’s next?” Find out after the jump…
We the audience have known since the first season that the President (Martin Sheen) has M.S., that the public doesn’t know, and that Leo (John Spencer), is the only West Wing staffer who knows. So it seems improbable that the revelation of the President’s condition simply to another staffer would hardly make great television, and yet the set up and reveal that plays out over these two episodes is stellar.
On its own, “The Stackhouse Filibuster” is an enjoyable hour. It’s a nice reprieve that reveals just a bit more about the private lives of our main characters through emails with their families. As they wait for Senator Stackhouse to give up on his nine-hour-plus filibuster, we see a guilty CJ (Allison Janney) apologize to her dad for being late to his birthday. And it’s great that we pick up on Sam’s (Rob Lowe) family upheaval from the previous episode as he changes the greeting of his email from “Dear Jackass” to “Dear Dad.” He may not have entirely forgiven him, but he’s trying to keep him involved in his life at the very least.
But what makes this episode so interesting and gives it more impact than the normal stand-alone episode is what’s brewing in the background. Toby (Richard Schiff) investigates some unusual behavior by Vice-President Hoynes (Tim Matheson), and discovers that Hoynes is having public polling done to help improve his image. Toby’s inquiries barely total a few minutes of screen time, and yet as he grow from merely intrigued to openly concerned over the implications of this polling, he becomes exponentially more compelling. Of course it helps that Schiff can play this complexity so well, imbuing each look and hand gesture with a thousand different emotions and worries.
It all comes to a head in “17 People,” scored ever so elegantly by the repeated thumping of Toby’s rubber ball (and a motif that has been quietly and brilliantly worked in to the last couple of episodes). Toby’s investigation into Hoynes’s polling has forced Bartlet into a corner, and what could have merely been a confession about a hidden illness becomes an epic showdown between two strong wills in the Oval Office. Schiff carefully builds Toby’s anger over the course of the episode, so that when he bellows at the president for essentially allowing Leo to stage a coup d’etat during a past M.S. episode, we’re right there with him. But Sheen doesn’t allow Schiff to steal the episode out from under him. Beneath Bartlet’s arguments that he has a right to privacy and no need to justify his decision to hide his illness, Sheen layers his readings with a hefty dose of guilt, humiliation, and fear. The scenes in this episode between the two of them are beautifully complex, and they foreshadow a fascinating story arc to come.
- Is it me or does Donna get shafted again in “The Stackhouse Filibuster”? It’s Donna (Janel Moloney) who figures out that the reason that Stackhouse is preventing the Family Wellness Act from passing is because of his own grandson’s autism. It’s also Donna who figures out that they can give him a rest without yielding the floor by sending in a senator to ask him a question. Yet it’s CJ, Sam, and Josh (Bradley Whitford) who get to do the self-congratulatory voice overs about how great they can be sometimes at the end of the episode. Where’s the love for Donna?
- I admit that I’m a sucker for Josh’s schoolboy charms, and yet there is something particularly endearing about him pointing out to Donna that he correctly stated “an hysterically funny person.” It’s cute that he’s so proud, that he thinks it would be a turn on to her!
- CJ wins for best rejoinders in these episodes: “Well, I wouldn’t want you to miss a legitimate ‘Dude!’ sighting” and “I have the ancient curse of Bast on me, so get off my back, Sparky!”
Now it’s your turn. Who wins in the Bartlet-Toby showdown? Is Donna Washington’s unsung hero? And how far would you travel to experience a “Dude!” sighting by Mike Piazza? Sound off below!
Join me again next week as we wade into the MS mess further with “Bad Moon Rising” and “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You.”