After losing track of what made the characters of The West Wing so memorable, John Wells found a way to fix the show: just make as many new characters as possible, and focus on them instead. It was a bold gambit, but one that paid off handsomely, turning a horribly staid program into something that actually approached the old energy that used to roll off it effortlessly. One could see the transition in the quality dips the sixth season took when it returned to the White House after breaking from the campaign trail.
Happily, the writers understood what worked best about the sixth season, and the vast majority of the show's final season excels, ironically, by all but entirely abandoning its previous episodes. The White House where the show made its home for six years suddenly becomes the abstract that we typically view the president's home as: for all the sunny idealism, the other seasons de-romanticized and made concrete 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Now, it exists as the goal for Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Rep. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), the prize for besting the other in the presidential race.
In Vinick and Santos, we have evenly matched -- intellectually and morally -- nominees, an ideal situation for an audience who has only ever known one clear frontrunner (even if that person lost) and a joke of a human being. The West Wing itself already played into this idea by projecting frustrations with George Bush by setting up a caricature of him to go against Bartlet's reelection bid. It was a farcical bit of plotting -- not least because the least offensive aspect of Bush was his intelligence, which took a distant back seat to his corporate cronyism and penchant for declaring war crimes legal -- but it was oddly familiar. Vinick and Santos offer the possibility for a different kind of campaign one that works on rhetoric but actually addresses the issues in a substantive way.
For the first part of the season, Vinick and Santos solidify their positions. With the Vinick the clear frontrunner for having no serious competition for his nomination, he gets the majority of press coverage, but that also brings more scrutiny. His socially liberal views -- pro-choice, hands-off the issue of gay marriage -- win him independents but sorely cost him among the Religious Right that has taken over the Republican Party. Still, with the Democrats disorganized from the tight primary race and Bartlet having proved how successfully a president could cross the aisle without watering down his achievements, Vinick could steal away liberal voters.
With Santos trailing, Josh scrambles to find ways to boost his candidate's profile. Vinick changes the election strategy: his home state is California, making Democrats fight for a major state they typically assume will go to them, and his socially liberal policies allow voters who might have been alienated by religious pandering to consider a conservative. Santos brings in a media consultant, Louise Thorton (Janeane Garofolo), and for all their head-butting, Josh and Lou line up on most issues except the policy of negative ads. The public loves them, but they also hypocritically look down on the first nominee to slam the other. Lou knows that a slash-and-burn policy will give them such gains that the fickle tut-tutting of the electorate will fade quickly, but Josh sticks to conventional wisdom.
But then, nothing about Santos lines up with conventional wisdom. He may have the onus of proving himself, but he actually has it easy compared to Vinick, who makes gains in states that would almost never consider a Republican but also begins slipping in the strong block of Southern voters. Santos, then, has the luxury of making his own image without pressure from a major section of party supporters.
As with Obama, Santos sidesteps the negativity (and the negativity leveled at him) and targets the vein of betrayed optimism the voters always feel. Constantly vexing Josh and Lou by managing to say the least politically nonthreatening thing, Santos then sends their jaws to the floor again when he works his way out of the pit, delivering a speech that clarifies his stance until those most opposed are cowed and those on the fence are turned into wild believers. The biggest issue facing him is a racial one; just as Obama must tiptoe around any racial component to come across his desk, so too must Santos delicately handle the subject of a black teen shot by a Latino cop. But he finds a way to avoid defining himself as just "the Latino nominee" with a speech at the boy's funeral that avoids finger-pointing and finds a way to push for greater understanding without turning a young man's death into an excuse for a "Kumbaya."
Undoubtedly the centerpiece of the campaign storyline is "The Debate," which NBC aired live on the east and west coasts. Half-ingenious, half-unbearably awkward, "The Debate" strives for the feel of a real debate but breaks from the format instantly to let the nominees speak directly to each other and have an actual discussion rather than a regurgitation of talking points. When Alda and Smits get into, they are brilliantly, but everything surrounding them is just a haphazard ratings stunt, and the flimsy construction threatens to undo the episode before the two actors rescue it once more. Besides, the episode does succeed in painting a clear portrait of where the two split on their positions and how they approach each issue.
If Vinick and Santos look like equally valid choices to the show's audience, they also look like that way to the voters in The West Wing's diegesis, and the election comes down to a hair. Vinick manages to talk his way out of a near-meltdown of a nuclear plant he firmly supported by somehow promoting the virtues of nuclear energy when people are in a panic, salvaging an event that should have delivered the presidency to Santos in a hand basket. Santos, on the other hand, continues to prove himself, and he even gets the Republican on national security as he's still a reserve pilot in the Marines.
The rise of Santos makes up for the slow spiral of the Bartlet administration, which features majorly in episodes that suck the life out of the main storyline. Bartlet's middle daughter gets married, leading to a farcical in-White House wedding that fails as levity against the severity of the campaign and only exacerbates the lazy rewriting of most of the original cast into parodies of their former selves. Furthermore, the writers attempt to capitalize on the Valerie Plame scandal by introducing a White House leak of their own. But because this is Bartlet and not that pampered puppet who ceded control of the presidency to Dick Cheney, the leak goes from a petulant burning of a CIA operative as revenge against her anti-Iraq husband to a much more understandable release of information. With a group of astronauts stranded in space with dwindling oxygen, someone in the West Wing leaks knowledge of a secret military space plane that frees it up to be used in a rescue by removing the secret. There are military considerations, sure, but none on the level of blacklisting an intelligence agent and putting her sources in jeopardy. Many would sympathize with the decision, cutting out a great deal of dramatic weight when the person responsible -- or at least the person who confesses -- should be seen as a hero.
When election day nears, The West Wing hits a frenzied note that rivals the chaos of the most bewildering and tense moments of the show's early days. The strain of too many firm handshakes gives Vinick a hairline fracture, while sleep deprivation has Santos so on-edge he nearly snaps at his family with a sea of cameras nearby. The real life death of John Spencer forces the writers to deal with Leo McGarry, and an already tight election night compounds when Annabeth discovers his body in a hotel room before the polls close in Western states. The tension is unbearable, and when the final state pushes one nominee over the top, the results are not so much triumphant but relieving. At last, we can get some sleep, even if the characters can't.
That's the fatalistic humor of the last third of the show's season: after fighting so hard to get the presidency, the Santos crew now has to immediately start planning his first term. This should not come as a surprise, given that we spent years watching people like Josh frantically pace around the White House working for a sitting president, but the election proved so dramatically satisfying after the bloat of the rest of the Wells years (and even the end-run of Sorkin's time on the show) that it's shocking to remember that now the real work begins.
And so, the last days of The West Wing run out in quiet yet tireless terms, with the characters preparing for the next major shift and emotional closure amazingly coming from people who seemingly ran out of dramatic meaning long ago. The writers bring back long-lost characters like Sam Seaborn to show just how far the series has progressed, and without wishing to keep beating this horse, I wondered if the sudden welling of emotion I felt in the last few episodes was what I was supposed to feel with Lost's final hours. Though John Wells and some of his new writers seemingly did everything in their power to ruin the cast we came to know and love, they manage to achieve an elegiac view of the show as a whole. I may not have felt as deeply about Charlie, C.J. or Toby personally as I might had the series ended with its fourths season, but I felt an overall sense of loss leaving the Bartlet White House, and the tinge of desire I had to stick with Santos came with the understanding that it was better to let go. The West Wing allowed us all to imagine a world free of Bush during its run, but by the end, the allegory disappears and I was left mourning the show's loss and its loss alone.