A note for future readers: It is late September of 2020. Protests to ensure that Black Lives Matter are ongoing across the country. A viral pandemic is killing 1000 people a day. The 2020 election is just over a month away. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal lion and feminist icon of the United States Supreme Court, died last week. In this context, we revisit a standout episode of The West Wing: “The Supremes.”
For many people, one of whom is me, it feels like the end of the world, or at least the American experiment, is upon us.
And so, many of us have to escape to a different reality, a different life where things not only can get better (I still believe that things actually can get better, I think) but where things already are better. A world where the government upholds ideals. A world where the government is not so corrupt that the leaders will lie, distort and contradict themselves to gobble up the tiniest bit of power.
Among the pure fantasy worlds and the sci-fi utopias there is another more grounded place to which we can turn, one that actually resembles the trappings of our reality. One where the systems and intuitions it tackles are real and look like our own: The West Wing. The Bartlet Administration is a triumphal escape to idealism indeed—at least that was true for the first four seasons under the ever hawkish eyes of show creator and master writer Aaron Sorkin.
The start of the fifth season, the first overseen by John Wells as showrunner after Sorkin was pushed aside after the fourth, presents more of a challenge. The characters are more guarded and less assured that they can do anything right or good in the world. And the liberal lion of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), Chief Justice Roy Ashland (portrayed rather brilliantly by Milo O’Shea) is sick. He’s also been writing his decisions in verse, which is somehow the most disturbing thing of all.
But as we viewers sit in this dark void of anxiety in the show, and a bit of fear that the show itself has lost its way, we get to this episode of The West Wing, “The Supremes”. And suddenly, perhaps, there is hope in the darkness after all.
Late in the previous episode, “Eppur Si Muove”, there is a scene that everyone in the West Wing (and The West Wing audience) has been anticipating all year: a Supreme Court Justice has died. Josh assumes it was Chief Justice Ashland since he was losing his mind, but it turns out it was Owen Brady, the young conservative standard bearer. The remainder of that episode is dedicated to Dr. Abbey Bartlet and Dr. Ellie Barlet kicking ass and taking names. This leaves dealing with the Supreme Court opening to be the driving force for all the plots in “The Supremes.”
The episode teaser picks up with the aftermath of Brady’s death. Things are hectic. The White House staff is fielding hundreds of calls trying to influence the President’s choice. Leo quickly gives everyone assignments to start vetting and interviewing candidates. He wants a “short list” as quickly as possible. One of Josh’s assignments happens to be the ultra left-wing Judge Evelyn Baker Lang, who is just on the list to anger conservatives and mollify liberals. Leo and CJ wind up sending both Toby and Josh to interview Lang because it will make her presence seem even more serious.
The scene cuts quickly to Josh and Toby meeting with Lang, who is played by the inimitable Glenn Close, and she proceeds to dominate the meeting and impress them by cutting through all the silliness, as she instantly knew she was not a serious candidate. I never remember that Lang is already in the episode during the teaser. I expect her to pop up with great fanfare to end the first act. Instead the show brings in Glenn Close to throw her fastball early and it is absolutely the right move. Already during this first meeting Josh is getting ideas that Lang is the “real deal” and he is basically in love with her by the time she leaves the lobby of the White House in the last image before the credits.
Jessica Yu’s direction is fantastic, and very different from the normal direction and editing of The West Wing. Shots are short, cuts are fast, we jump from location to location. The settings, characters, and jokes come at the viewer fast and furious. The West Wing is best known for the “walk and talks” made famous by director Tommy Schlamme and for the rhythmic dialogue of Aaron Sorkin. The fifth season has, up until this point, been trying to find its way without either of them. In this episode it finally finds its way with Yu’s pacing, Deborah Cahn’s hilarious script, and a farcical plot that somehow has become one of the most relevant and lasting in the show’s long line of stories.
In a key scene designed to highlight the contrast to Lang we get the introduction of President Bartlet’s seeming choice to fill the seat, Judge Brad Shelton. Shelton is played to milquetoast perfection by Robert Picardo, a fantastic character actor probably best known as the Emergency Medical Hologram on Star Trek: Voyager. (I like to think of Shelton as somehow being the EMH. This could happen either through time travel or holodeck malfunction shenanigans. Some crossovers just need to happen.)
Shelton is…well not keen to answer any of the President’s questions or basically to show any opinions, or personality, or humanity at all. His attitude and demeanor are both fully respectful and completely infuriating. After the meeting there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that he will be the perfect, moderate, acceptable to everyone, breeze through confirmation, candidate.
Josh and Toby’s second meeting with Evelyn Baker Lang could not possibly be more different. She is composed, passionate, and has an answer for everything they throw at her. She has such command of the material and knowledge of the Senators that she gives them different answers based on who is asking her the hypothetical questions. This blows them away. Taking a moment to regroup, Josh has one of his all time lines: “I love her. I love her mind. I love her shoes.”
What they don’t love is when she informs them that she had an abortion while in Law School. This revelation is a bridge too far even for a fringe candidate. CJ wants them to stop parading Lang in front of people so the press won’t hurt her with the story. President Bartlet, to his credit, refuses to see this as a disqualifying action. He insists that the team put Lang on the official short list of SCOTUS candidates.
Then we get to the moment of The West Wing “The Supremes” that locks into everyone’s memory, and that will drive the rest of the episode: Donna’s Parents’ Cats. Donna tells Josh the story of how her parents wound up with two cats instead of just one. Their old cat died and they went to find a new one. But, they couldn’t decide which cat to keep since they saw two and each liked a different one.
They compromised by keeping both. In his school-boy idealistic, goofball, brain Josh decides the same thing can work for the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Ashland is unwell and can’t stay on the court forever. Josh’s plan is to convince Ashland to retire and to replace him with Evelyn Baker Lang. The the Republicans would simultaneously get to choose anyone they want as Owen Brady’s replacement.
Please indulge me for a moment as I return to our own world. As strange as it seems, the current crisis is not the first time in recent history that the circumstances of the day have propelled “The Supremes” to the forefront of people’s minds. On February 13, 2016 Justice Antonin Scalia, the preeminent conservative thinker and so-called “originalist” died suddenly. Despite the election being 270 or so days away (and the end of President Obama’s term another 73 days after that) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
Everyone, and by everyone I mean solely Senate Republicans, eventually fell in line behind McConnell’s suggestion that no Justices should be confirmed in an election year. Eventually Scalia would be replaced by Neil Gorsuch, who was named by Obama’s successor, Donald Trump. McConnell’s Machiavellian machinations set the tone for a new era, and surely set a precedent for nominations that he would follow from that moment on. Oh…right.
Let’s get back to the fictional world, please.
Josh shares his idea with Toby and the President and while both think it is…unlikely, the President asks him to see if Ashland would be willing to go for it if they proposed it. So Josh takes the idea to Ashland who, in another of my favorite moments, throws all of the shade at President Bartlet for this insanity.
But, mostly out of pure love for the comedy of it all, Ashland does agree to step down if they can get anyone else on board. So Josh has to get a name from the Republicans. And get a name he does.
That name is Christopher Mulready, who is played to mantis-like perfection by William Fichtner. He is basically untenable to everyone as a fiery conservative who has literally written books demonizing the left. It is hard to say exactly who I think Mulready would be analogous to in real life. While Lang and Mulready are obviously based on Ginsburg and Scalia, Mulready is more than that. He is somehow a combination of Scalia, Bill O’Reilly, and William F. Buckley.
In any case, he seems like an impossible choice. And yet when he gets to the White House it turns out that he and Lang are old-school, opposites attract, super-intelligent, put the law first types and everything magically turns out to be perfect.
Both Baker Lang and Mulready will be nominated and sail through confirmation. The new era of “Baker Lang Court” is set up to be one of intellect and decency. This court ensures President Bartlet’s legacy by virtue of his “two” Supreme Court picks. His other pick, Justice Mendoza, whose story was so pivotal in Season 1, remains unmentioned. We are left to assume that he became one of the disdained moderates. Or perhaps he is still out antiquing. As it stands, the future of the court, and the country seems to be in good hands.
I have to say, I usually balk when people rank this episode in the top tier. Mostly this is because I am not on board with Josh’s plan. The show can be idealistic at its best, but this plan always seems less idealistic and more naïve. I certainly get concerned when people want to enact this plan in real life. The show bemoans the centrists on the court. In reality though, there are very few centrists on the Supreme Court. Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall shifting the court irrevocably to the right. The court now has four extreme conservatives, one slightly less right wing conservative, and three liberals.
Now the ultra conservative Amy Coney Barrett is set to replace the iconic liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Which will throw the court even more radically to the right. It is also a wasteland of the institutional norms that once defined it. It is traditional to refer to the The Supreme Court by the name of the Chief Justice. In The West Wing the Ashland Court became the Baker Lang Court. In our world the current court is the Roberts Court, but it seems time to ditch the tradition. With Barrett seated our court will in reality be the “McConnell Court.”
Back to the episode, and I must say watching it again I have to admit, despite my reservations I think it is one of the all time greats. The plot for all its faults is still compelling, so it doesn’t sink the episode. And that allows the true strength of the episode to shine—the character moments.
This episode is written by Deborah Cahn, who had joined the staff under Sorkin during Season 4 and stayed on throughout the Wells era. Her scripts include a whole bunch of my favorite post-Sorkin stories and a couple of my least favorite (I’m looking at you “Abu El Banat”). For the most part though her stories carry the magic of Sorkin. Cahn’s stories, like Sorkin’s, expand on the characters and create growth and change for them, while also allowing them to be a family that loves and cares for each other.
The best West Wing episodes though do two things: they have a compelling plot that negotiates something important about working in the White House, and they allow you to see glimpses of the lives of the characters and live and love with them.
The plot of “The Supremes” is actually quite interesting, especially as it continues to hold such relevance to the world. Which is sort of amazing as the writers were apparently terrified of writing about the Supreme Court because it was “too boring and stodgy.” (Listen to the episode of the West Wing Weekly Podcast on the episode to hear Cahn going into detail about this and a whole lot of other fascinating aspects of her work on the show.)
And that is the real genius of The West Wing “The Supremes”. It is a show that allows us to revel in the quieter moments. The moments that allow you to live within the world and see these people as people.
Alison Janney is such an amazing actress she can basically convey anything you need to know with half a look. And CJ’s small, but very noticeable, romantic subplot gives her opportunities to shine. Early in the episode there is also one of the always fantastic, and far too rare, CJ and Toby scenes. Janney and Richard Schiff have tremendous chemistry every time they are on screen together and in this episode they get an amazing, mostly wordless, showcase of that incredible bond.
Many moments of Cahn’s script highlight the wonderful quirks of the characters and why we love them: Debbie spraying Josh with the water bottle; the “holy crap, she is the real deal” look that Josh and Toby share when Judge Baker Lang blows them away in the second meeting; the fact that even intern Ryan turns out to have begged for his job at the White House; a drunken Josh Lyman “gesticulating wildly” outside of the mural room. These are moments that drew us to this show, and why it retains its power and relevance.
As does the Glenn Close of it all. Many shows have brought in movie stars to play important one-off characters. And The West Wing has certainly had its own fair share of tremendous special guest stars. But somehow the casting of Close as Evelyn Baker Lang is still surprising in its perfection. She embodies the character so fully in just a few short scenes that the viewer feels that she has been there forever. (And that she will be there forever, unlike in with Imposter!Lang in the series finale. Give me Close or go home.) Some people carry their own sense of gravitas with them wherever they go. Evelyn Baker Lang certainly needed to. And Glenn Close absolutely does.
Throughout “The Supremes” and the series as a whole we can share in the awe of these characters. We can see these powerful people making decisions that will take and shape their world for decades. And while they are doing it, they are funny, kind, crude and delightful.
And we can look at our world and see the McConnell court forming and want to be anywhere else. We can go instead to a different world. A world where the new left wing Chief Justice and the new right wing Associate Justice are friends. Where there are pure idealists in the halls of power—leaders who love nothing more than debating the many ways to dismantle the Defense of Marriage Act.
And still we can hope, because for all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that we must put ourselves through in the newest era of the court, we can remember this: the friendship between Lang and Mulready was based on real life friendship: the one between the departed sarcastic and dominating Antonin Scalia and the dearly departed Notorious RBG herself.
If that can be true in real life, then maybe the heady days of “The Supremes” are still possible too. Someday. Somehow.