"Hartsfield's Landing"
Episode Airdate 02/27/02

"How long do you usually make people your bitch?"

From now on, if I ever refer to "Mr. Magoo", I am talking exclusively about President Josiah Bartlet. He's fumbling, folksy, and frustrating, but in the end, he somehow seems to bring it all together and teach everyone a lesson.

Not in this episode…

Merely minutes into this broadcast, Bartlet is master of his domain. He walks with purpose from room to room, deftly maneuvering his staff across his playing field like the pieces on the storied chess boards he gives as gifts throughout the episode. Sure-footed and goal oriented, Bartlet knows what all the parameters are and what the consequences of every action will be. He "…sees the whole board."

We already know that each member of the West Wing staff is smart and ultra-competent. We didn't know that Bartlet still has a lot to teach them. His gifts from the Prime Minister of India, chess boards of immense quality and even greater history, are symbols of the entire plot. He gives these boards to members of his staff and teaches each of them not necessarily how to play chess, but how to play the situation.

At the same time, the main storyline of a disruption in relations with China over missile testing by Taiwan unfolds across the breadth of the episode. As tension mounting and plot driving as this is supposed to be, the China story quickly becomes a mere tedious vehicle for the real plot, the exciting one, of watching as Bartlet's staff plays the game and wins. After each taking a personal loss two episodes ago, it's great to see their karma re-aligned.

Poor Toby. He went to blows with Barlet and has been skulking around ever since. Now, the Prez invites him into the oval office alone. If I were Toby, I probably would have been brushing up my resume in anticipation of sudden unemployment.

But Barlet is a lot smarter than that. He knows Toby's previous vitriol was meant well…it just didn't come out the way it should have. He also knows that it taught him some very deep lessons. Now it's Bartlet's turn to teach Toby a lesson…that of forgiveness and respect.

As they sit to play chess on the board once played on by Prime Minister Nehru and Lord Montbatten, Bartlet stops just short of thanking Toby for his curt and candid opinion, then goes on to ask Toby for more. Toby does not disappoint. He asks the Chief to be smart…to play the game with gusto and intelligence. He asks the President to run his campaign the same way the producers and writers ask us to view "The West Wing."

Sam Seaborn proved the most interesting character in this episode. Even before presenting him with one of the chess boards, Bartlet almost fawningly thanks him for his work on the State of the Union address. This is the first reference in this episode to a potential foreshadowing that makes for magnificent storytelling. As Sam's first chess move unfolds, Bartlet mentions his Fibonacci opening…a terrific allusion to the great mathematician and Sam's way with facts and figures.

Even more exciting is watching as Bartlet sits with Sam and throws out alliterative phases and parables in a very Confucian manner. The master is clearly sitting with the student…and Bartlet relishes in it. As the chess game progresses, Sam may be losing on the board, but he is winning the greater game by learning the lessons being taught.

Eventually, Bartlet states emphatically that he knows Sam will one day run for President…the second reference to a future that induces spine tingling storytelling.

Do I need to drone on and on about each and every staff member? OK, I will…but only because they are so worth mentioning. Josh badgers Donna into not-so-subtly inducing some primary voters into seeing the Bartlet way, only to beg off after he learns to "see the whole board" and tells everyone what a great opportunity it is for each American to vote with complete freedom. CJ and Charlie go mano-a-mano in a practical joke rivalry that is aggressive, intelligent, and ribald. Leo manages the China crises with dilettante and aplomb.

The First Lady is missing in action, as is Josh's new girlfriend and that sweet, sexy, sassy, Republican basement wonk who appeared all too briefly in the last episode showing off her stuff and stealing the show. Why can't we remember her name???

How completely refreshing is it to see television that doesn't pander to the lowest common denominator? I'm not talking about white trash shows or public access quality. I'm talking about a show that sets out to target a sophisticated audience and then stays sophisticated and doesn't care if the viewer can't mentally follow the nuances and subplots, much less the main storyline. It shoots for telling a story with truth and dignity and not by assuming the participant is ill-educated or unexperienced. It scores with directness.

I am sorry to report that this is only television. One wishes Mr. Magoo were really running the Oval Office with such charismatic capability. Instead, we have illiterate and ill-spoken George "leading" us thru a "war" and shooting our economy in the head. Déjà vu 1991. Why do I have to look to television for hope? (Oops, was that too much editorializing? My bad.)


Kully Mandon

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