The West Wing: Season 4 — a review

I was a fan of The West Wing even before I finished watching the first season.

Season 4 was the only season since the first that didn’t start with the resolution of a cliffhanger. Even the relatively weak cliffhanger between the second and third seasons involving the question of whether Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was going to run for a second term in office. Did anyone think—I mean, really think—that he wasn’t going to run?

The season kicks off with a continuation of the election storyline. The president is touring the nation while his staff does what it does. Several episodes deal with the exciting topic of presidential debates, along with issue-of-the-week episodes dealing with subjects such as college tuition assistance. The Bartlet-sanctioned assassination of Qumari defense minister Abdul ibn Shareef returns as a storyline, as we knew it would, because all actions must have demonstrable consequences in fiction.

Meanwhile, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) becomes involved in congressional elections in the California 47th, his home district, in which a dead candidate is running. Here, we’re introduced to Will Bailey (Joshua Malina), who takes Sam’s place as he leaves the West Wing. Lowe makes a final series appearance (except for a special-guest appearance in Season 7) in episode seventeen of this season. By all accounts, Lowe wasn’t happy with the direction of his character, and there’s some suggestion that he was unhappy that his salary wasn’t renegotiated as the rest of the ensemble cast received pay raises (he was already paid more). Rather than being killed off, Sam Seaborn became an elected official, no longer a member of the West Wing staff.

Bartlet wins re-election by a landslide during the seventh episode of the season, the appropriately-titled “Election Night.” If this is a spoiler to you, I apologize. Bartlet is a two-termer. This made me particularly happy because it meant that this team wouldn’t have to be compaigning for re-election midway through the second term.

Meanwhile, Deborah Fiderer (Lily Tomlin) eventually becomes the replacement for the deceased Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), President Bartlet’s executive secretary. Fiderer first appeared during “Posse Comitas,” the last episode of Season 3, but during the next season we learn about her ties to Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), whose insistence that she’s the one finally lands Ms. Fiderer the job. Charlie has a lot of influence with the president. Deborah Fiderer, of course, demonstrates that she has a rather sharp, acerbic sense of humor. Because . . . Lily Tomlin. Mrs. Landingham is still missed and her memory is palpable (she even makes a flashback appearance this season), even for a fictional character, but Ms. Fiderer proves to be a much-needed addition to the staff.

The Qumari plot continues to unfold throughout the rest of the season, coming to a head during the finale. Consequences.

Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) gets caught having an affair with a Washington socialite and is forced to resign. I hated to see Matheson go, because he was perfect in the role, but the needs of drama dictated his removal from office. During the final two episodes of the season, the president’s daughter Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) is kidnapped. President Bartlet uses the 25th Amendment to temporarily step down from office. He doesn’t trust himself, as the father of a child kidnapped by terrorists, to make decisions not based upon emotion. Since a new Vice President hasn’t been nominated by the end of the season, the office of President is assumed by Republican Speaker of the House Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman). Which is where things stand, with another cliffhanger season finale.

All of our other favorite characters get plenty to do during the season as well. For me, Stockard Channing is absolutely luminous in the role of First Lady Dr. Abigail Bartlet. Not a shrinking violet or stay-at-home wife, but a strong female character with a voice and opinions of her own.

Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) still gives off leading-man vibes as he continues his perhaps-unconscious flirtation with his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), who has organically grown the importance of her role in this series season-by-season. Lyman also dallies with Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker), who later becomes the first lady’s assistant.

Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) continues to brood and mumble his way through various story lines. More than any other character, in my opinion, Ziegler seems to deeply feel everything that happens, whether on a personal, national, or global scale. In addition to being a gifted speechwriter with a near-eidetic memory (much like President Bartlet himself), Ziegler is also the son of a convicted felon and ex-spouse of a US representative. In this season, Toby attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife, Representative Andy Wyatt (Kathleen York), who is pregnant with Toby’s children. Toby goes so far as to purchase a house for them, but things don’t go quite as planned. This bit of characterization gives more depth to Toby Ziegler, whose prickly demeanor isn’t exactly a façade. It’s just that there is more to the character than what you get from first impressions. Andy Wyatt gives birth to twins during the finale, named Molly and Huck.

White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) continues to be the heart of the administration. Episode 13 of this season, “The Long Goodbye,” is a refreshing departure from the series’s normal format, showcasing C.J. The press secretary is returning home to Ohio for a class reunion and to visit her Alzheimer’s-suffering father (Donald Moffat). The episode demonstrates that these characters of The West Wing have lives outside of the White House. It’s these glimpses into private lives that makes the workplace drama even more compelling. This episode wasn’t a mere glimpse, however. The viewer gets to live in C.J. Cregg’s skin for a moment. Allison Janney knocks the performance out of the park.

I mentioned Charlie Young’s involvement in getting Deborah Fiderer hired as the president’s executive secretary. Later in the season, he gets to interact with Zoey Bartlet, who has begun to date French royalty, the douchey Jean-Paul Vicomte de Condé de Bourbon (Trent Ford). Of course, Charlie wants Zoey back. While this is all good stuff, I still feel that Dulé Hill wasn’t used to his full potential during this season. It’s easy to get lost in an ensemble cast as good as this one.

This show would not work if the characters President Jed Bartlet and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry didn’t work. I mentioned Allison Janney as the heart of this series, and I stand by that statement (which I wrote earlier in the post), even though there’s plenty of heart to go around, I think. But, it’s the acting clinic being conducted every episode by Martin Sheen and John Spencer that connects the performances of the entire ensemble. I wouldn’t hesitate to call this duo the linchpin of this cast. These two actors have to do a lot of the dramatic heavy lifting in the show, and there are none more capable.

I’m tempted to wax rhapsodic about the seemingly everlasting string of guest stars on this series as well. I’ll refrain from waxing, to keep this under 2000 words, maybe, but I feel compelled to list some names: John Amos, Marlee Matlin, Hal Holbrook, James Brolin, Timothy Busfield, Joanna Gleason, Ron Silver, Matthew Perry, Adam Arkin, and Matthew Modine, to name just a few. Even Clark Gregg appears a couple of times as FBI Agent Casper (even though we know he was just Agent Phil Coulson working undercover).

I could go into more detail about the issues-of-the-week during the season. There are plenty of international crises featuring foreign places I couldn’t find on any map. There’s shot-down spy drones. Diplomatic stumbles. Stuff about bills and committees and elections. None of these are the reasons I watch this series. And, definitely none of these are the reason I love the series. I couldn’t begin to gauge whether or not you would enjoy these parts of the show, assuming you’re more politically savvy than I am. Is there a liberal bias? Certainly, and unapologetically so. I would characterize myself as more of a Libertarian-leaning Centrist, but even that’s probably a lie. I don’t watch The West Wing for the politics, and I won’t recommend it to you for that reason.

I am a fan of story, above all else. This series offers that, in spades. The political stuff is all set dressing to me, and seems convincing enough. As I’ve said before, at its best, this series shows me how I hope politics work in Washington, D.C.; at its worst, it shows me how I’m afraid politics works.

This was the middle season of the entire series. Only three more to go. Unfortunately, in addition to losing Rob Lowe, Season 4 also marked the last season for Aaron Sorkin and fellow executive producer Thomas Schlamme, who left due to internal conflict with Warner Bros. TV. It seems all of the drama didn’t occur on-screen. I’m not sure what effect this will have on future seasons. I’m still cautiously optimistic.

Firewater’s There-Are-Bicycles-and-Goats-in-My-Office Report Card: A

The dialogue remains crisp and the stories interesting, even when there’s little on-screen action. I’m looking forward to the remaining seasons.

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