“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
A little story about The West Wing.
I last watched it about three years ago, at school, with Hiking Friend, who was (and still is) sort of obsessed by it. We had watched up to about halfway through season 6 (I’ve now established that it was about episode 10 that we stopped), and then we went to university and I mostly lost interest in it, partly because Josh Lyman had disappeared from the show at that point and, really, Josh carries the whole thing. Anyway, I visited HF recently, and we couldn’t remember which episode we’d stopped at, so we decided to watch the season 6 finale.
And here we are.
Things Fall Apart and 2162 Votes focus on the issue of President Bartlet’s sucessor. The Democrats have no nominee; the White House tries its best to knock everybody’s heads together and get them to agree. And there’s a crisis aboard the ISS: an oxygen leak leaves the astronaut’s lives threatened, and discussions are had about whether to use a secret military shuttle to rescue them.
It’s hard to speak to the episodes as a finale to season 6, because I haven’t seen the whole season, but one of the strengths of the two-episode arc is that it delivers a deceptively simple ending to a fast-paced, politically technical, very funny hour and a half. There’s never any doubt, ideologically speaking, that Mat Santos will get picked (because he is a Good Guy and also represented by Josh Lyman, who is, as noted above, about as close to a lead character as an ensemble show like this can get) and that the Bartlet Administration will send up the military shuttle to rescue those astronauts; it’s more a case of finding a way around the various political obstacles. As several commentators have pointed out, The West Wing is essentially a fantasy, one whose premise is that it’s actually possible for a kind, principled group of people to gain political power in the West. It’s a fantasy that enables a discussion of the ways that the system pushes back against kindness – the ways that it inclines people towards self-interest and self-aggrandizement, not because they’re intrinsically terrible people but because they’re paradoxically fuelled by the prospect of doing greater good – but also one which is sort of founded on the idea that kindness is possible; that if individuals make specific and positive efforts towards kindness and decency, the world can change, in small and incremental ways, for the better. It’s an approach that acknowledges political realities (to a point) while arguing that those realities aren’t an excuse for callousness, for irresponsibility, for abuse of power.
And, while there are iffy things about the show – as an emotionally restrained British person, I find its untrammelled patriotism, its unashamed adherence to an ideal America, a little worrying, especially when I catch myself actually wanting to be American – this isn’t a bad line to walk at all, between individualism and collectivism, between idealism and reality, between pessimism and hope. It manages to make politics – politics! – exciting and watchable and funny and somehow personal as well: the dramas of the west wing become our dramas, as office tensions merge into personal tensions merge into national tensions. In this finale to the show’s penultimate season, the answers seem perhaps a little easy and a little obvious, but the sheer political detail of the episodes keeps the balance between hope and realism sweet. Watching it was a great reminder of what I loved about The West Wing, and why I’ll always pay attention when someone mentions it.