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The West Wing: “Shutdown,” Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mom

Is it conceivable that a country’s governing political party, to maintain basic functions and operating similarly for almost 250 years…would swiftly, cravenly and selfishly ignore common sense? When they know it will harm and damage so many innocent lives? Would they have the nerve to idiotically reverse course and not protect their own citizens? To force a country to shut down? Could they then display the audacity to lay blame elsewhere? Sow seeds of disunion and do it over something as fundamentally stupid and cosmically insignificant as money? Could art and life imitate each other so chillingly? So many questions, yet we act like kids and Mom has to separate us as we practically slap-fight each other for answers.

In this current reality, the soothing balm and intellectual salve that many of us apply to our battered, fractured psyche is another re-watch of The West Wing. It offers an alternate reality of how Washington DC’s political machine should be running. How an intelligent and empathetic leader could behave. How a Staff would happily lay down their social calendars, REM cycles and very lives, all at the pleasure of their President.

In Shutdown we see the virtues of fair play, inner-work, fighting bravely, acting like adults (most of the time) and “always telling the hardest truth first” (Thank you Twin Peaks). That’s how battles and wars are won before they even need to start. 

The West Wing’s Washington DC is filled with beloved characters, brilliant story arcs, razor-sharp dialogue and endless dizzying “walk and talk” hallway ballets. They spend the first four seasons in a wondrous cocoon of Aaron Sorkin’s shiny, bespectacled magnificence. I’d like to think he occasionally relishes the fact, while polishing his Oscar at Mark Zuckerberg’s expense. The best way to polish anything. 

In Season 5, Sorkin ceremoniously departed, Emmys in hand, and left the TV juggernaut a runaway. It was well-intentioned, but written, produced and portrayed as more tired and angry. It painfully slogs through a second term in office with a somewhat futile search for meaning.

CJ with a somewhat pained look on her face
Previously on The West Wing: “We miss you.”

As a parallel, our real-life country also searches for meaning. I wish it were as simple as the yearning for clean, well-written, steadicam smoothness from past seasons—the lovely wave of emotions, feelings, pathos and musical theatre reference bewitchery that was the fictional Seasons 1-4. Unfortunately, as in the inevitability of a TV show life, mirroring our own modern-day life, it seems we’ve jumped the shark 

Now, I enjoy Seasons 5-7. It still kicks the crap out of reality. There’s anger at injustice, self-righteous indignation and a set of brass balls displayed by the Administration. We expect an exciting, upcoming election cycle with such talented names as Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda jumping into the fray, as they electorally spar toe-to-toe. This specific episode (“Shutdown”) is a bright spot in Season 5, because we have a heroic reinstatement for Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman and a fantastic return to form for the series in general.

But we especially cheer for Stockard Channing, as First Lady Dr. Abigail Bartlet. She’s back from self-imposed exile to kick ass (specifically her husband’s) and help save the day. Behind every great man, there’s always a greater woman. To put an even finer point on it, greater womenMore on that later.  

Showrunner and Executive Producer John Wells did his absolute damndest with the last seasons of the TV reality. He helped create villains coming from our own backyard. They’re diabolical, eerily prescient and more threatening to the very fabric of our existence. Much like our present day villains, who hijack the country over things like a border wall, pandemic safety and relief, tax cuts for the rich, and even threaten to gut the previous President’s health care plan. In the case of “Shutdown”the devious party in question holds the federal budget hostage.

Men and women in dark suits surround a long table
The Democrats and Republicans poker face-off!

As we begin in The Roosevelt Room, the President is seated across the table from the Speaker of the House and his Republican contingent. He rejects the three percent reduction in a continuing resolution to fund the federal government. Because they originally agreed on one percent. That, along with a number of other compromises. The Republicans always seem to display a Cheshire Cat grinning face of trust, are given an inch and take a mile. In this metaphorical poker game negotiation, Jed Bartlet has had quite enough of the sloppy play from Jeff Haffley.

Speaker of the House Haffley is the best adversary they’ve seen yet, but President Bartlet is a Nobel Prize winner in Economics. He’ll rarely bluff and never bet with something he doesn’t have. The only problem in this scenario is that poker is rarely a group effort. He calls their bluff, dumbfounding everyone in the room, and a shutdown is now imminent.

Leo stares blankly and as the room clears. The entire Staff, along with the rest of the country, is blindsided. Immediately afterwards, Josh mentions a felicitous poker playing analogy…poker isn’t any fun when you play against professionals. They always win and suck all the fun out of it. That’s all the counsel he can muster since he’s on a Leo-imposed exile. Josh was relegated to the sideline for his miscalculation in Constituency Of One

Leo looks to the side with an eyebrow raised
He calls their bluff. “Then shut it down.”

President Bartlet is the only professional playing at the negotiating table. He’s the smartest guy in the room, but doesn’t include anyone on how he wants to play this particular hand. He knows he alone cannot fix it. But against his better judgement, knowing the facts, he goes ahead and does it anyway.

In our current reality, the head of the Executive Branch is a rank amateur. He has no idea how to play a hand of anything, insists “only he can fix it” and also, does it anyway. In our sordid melodrama, we’ve called their bluff more times than we care to count. Facts are ignored, tantrums thrown; they cheat, ruin lives, try to outrun it and call it “governing”.

Then, frustrated and full of bombast, the President runs away to the residence. He enhances his own calm by eating a junk food staple and watching some sports. The country is being run into the ground due to a shutdown and no one is sure what to do. Wait…Is there a glitch in The Matrix? Doesn’t this scenario sound…familiar?

Jed Bartlet stands behind a counter in a shirt and tie, declaiming about something
Melodrama ensues, along with some Notre Dame basketball and a side of peanut butter and jelly.

With the TV shutdown in full effect, CJ, Toby and Leo realize they need a ringer. The good Doctor Bartlet is asked to return and prescribes a firm smack to the backside of the President’s head. She also has to host a State Dinner for the British Prime Minister, so she suggests serving up a couple hard truths. First, the staff need to know what you’re thinking and second, “Where’s Josh?” She can plan a State Dinner and be White House Counsel. It’s all in a days work in order to save the country. 

Josh is called back and can now head full-steam towards helping fix this particular problem and completing a wonderful character journey that comes full-circle in Season 7. I love when Josh Lyman gets an idea. Cranial bees begin to buzz, we get all tingly, and everyone starts germinating. Suddenly, beautiful, scintillating and dramatic flora springs forth. That’s the ‘ole West Wing we know and love!

They gird their loins, step up, head to Capitol Hill and stride confidently forward. They even take a moment to greet the public and assure them that the shutdown will end and a resolution will happen. As they continue to surprise us all, they arrive to unprepared Republican adversaries, and are made to sit and patiently wait for them to come back and negotiate.

Josh Lyman and Angela Blake look on
En route to the showdown on Capitol Hill.

But they’re practically cowering under the poker table, arguing how to play. Shutdown? More like SHOWDOWN [Ennio Morricone music here]. Abbey is the conduit for which Jed needed to be a grownup and try to get everyone to work together. Josh then grabs the defibrillator and pumps some electricity into this sputtering corpse of a deal. She is wise, she is strong and she is invincible woman, thank you Helen Reddy

Wouldn’t it be nice if a smart, emotionally mature woman were at the helm to fix things? Regrettably, our current problems in reality require a more stringent and disinfecting flush. A purge from the centuries upon eons of toxic masculinity and innumerable mistakes of our sordid past. We need to dig ourselves out of the present in order to rescue our future. All whilst carrying a proverbial golden shovel (Thank you again Twin Peaks).

Speaking of the occasional pop culture reference…I’ve been quoting I, Claudius since that fateful day, November 8th, 2016. ”Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud, hatch out.” What’s happening with our shutdown is the BEST, WORST thing that could’ve happened. Stay with me on this.

Now, what if we did have The West Wing gang to help us? Or even better, if the first woman as a major party candidate, bravely breaking through the wall and getting the most bloody, were elected. It would have been historic, but would it have fundamentally changed anything? Probably not. The greedy, male, corporate, racist machine would have chugged along. We honestly needed a worst-case scenario to be put on full display, showing how damaged we are.

Therefore, all sides need to collectively work together to get the job done. As human beings we are all connected. We’re all responsible. Not just one party. Most places around the world are hurting too. It’s not a coincidence. In the grand scheme of the cosmos, I’ll say it again, its the BEST, WORST thing that could’ve happened.

However, the other party responsible for this mess, doesn’t act much better. At least they show good intentions, acknowledge mistakes, have human emotion and are leading the way towards finally having our FIRST WOMAN PRESIDENT of these UNITED STATES. I do love the men of The West Wing, but CJ, Abbey, Donna, Margaret, Amy, Kate, Ainsley, Annabeth, Zoey, Mrs. Landingham, Deborah Fiderer, et al, are the heart, and according to W.B Yeats, the center that holds. 

In Shutdown, Doctor Abigail Bartlet is the anchor, telling President Jed what he needed to hear. CJ, the always magnificent Allison Janney, as in every episode, is a cool, sensible voice of reason. She’s the emotional center to represent the face of the Administration. When it comes to staying on message, or getting back to you with numbers, there’s no one better to express empathy during hopelessness.

CJ looks to the side with a finger in the air as she stands behind a podium
CJ breaking it down as she has many times before, but may not have the exact numbers

Donnatella Moss, portrayed by Janel Moloney, is another wonderfully unsung, yet overworked, female heroine who’s wisely given more responsibility, even before the shutdown. She stands in at the negotiation. Leo can barely get things done without him yelling “MARGARET!” at the top of his lungs. The fantastic Michael Hyatt plays a confident Angela Blake, brought in to run The War Room. She’s here to pinch hit for Josh while he was benched because boys, will be boys. When have we heard THAT before?

Nearly every civilized country on the planet led by a woman is basically a sensible, governing body with systems in place for the benefit of its citizenry. They foster growth, pay for health and education, and do their best to exercise basic human rights for every race, sexuality, identity and spiritual affiliation. In our backwards-ass neck of the woods, we’re outdated, fear change, unfairly judge, and suffer from a slight case of Stockholm Syndrome.

We talk a good game, but when it comes to walking the walk, we’re stumbling children. Petulant upstarts who won their independence, but did it, and continue to do it, at the brutal, inhumane cost of others. Minorities, women and so many others are continually disenfranchised in this country and around the world.

So, why can’t we step up? Why can’t we be 
brave and cleverly-written as to outwit these political, poker playing amateurs? Just like CJ, Abbey, Jed, Josh, Leo, Toby, Sam, Charlie, Donna, Will and the rest do? Well, we’re programmed to work ourselves to death for those who could care less about us and more about the next fiscal quarter. Our fellow human beings must endure injustices and are denied basic freedoms due long ago. Our seemingly intelligent founders ultimately failed to deliver on their promises that ALL are created equal.

The West Wing tackles these subjects bravely for 156 episodes. They fight the good fight, offer solutions that can heal, right the wrongs and win the war. Even if they don’t win every battle. And after the dust settles, Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet gets the one percent deal and gives a familiar, self-assured, “What’s next?” With just five minutes before the State Dinner that Doctor Bartlet organized with aplomb, after saving his ass.

Jed Bartlet and others assemble in a room
“What’s next?”

The soil and dust of our non-fictional country is permanently stained by the blood of those who just wanted to live peacefully. We require lasting change and are now teetering on the precipice. It’s time to manifest a better reality. We need to work together and write our own award-winning series to include every human being, no matter their race, sex or spiritual affiliation.

We must ride a motorcycle off the ramp, clear that man-eating beast, heal from the traumatic stress and forge a new story. One showing us that truth can happily be stranger than alternative fiction. We’re almost 250 years old, yet to the civilized world we act like spoiled toddlers who throw temper tantrums. We break our toys, mansplain it away and go running to our Moms when the chips are down. Perhaps what we need is a Mother. An emotional, nurturing and powerful woman, to help us heal and tell us it’ll be okay, but that its finally time to grow up. 

Written by Rob Pedini

Rob is a professional singer, actor, host and writer making his living on national tours, off-broadway, interactive theatre, film, TV and voiceovers. He currently moonlights as lead singer & emcee with 80's Tribute Band Guilty Pleasures and is represented by JC William Agency and CBU Management. Check out his website for all the fun & more info!

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