An Unfortunate Episode – The West Wing S5:E18: Access

EMT’s head towards the cabin to deal with the wounded child, but then – and remember that all of this is like a radio play since the TV cameras on scene aren’t close enough to see the cabin – something explodes and there is gunfire, and CJ tells Carol to get her ten minutes in the Oval Office. I’m with her, I do my best thinking in spaces without corners.1 Reporters on scene report the absolutely nothing that they can, reporters in D.C. shout a storm of questions at CJ and her flock of staffers as they zip away. CJ whirls around and sharply quiets everyone with a firm “No comment!” She is press secretary, hear her finally roar.

And now… the Eagle Rangers are getting some quick face time with POTUS? …I can’t even. The narrator explains that the administration quickly resumed its normal day, leaving everyone uncertain what was happening/did happen on the island. Necessity and all that. But still. UNEARNED TONAL SHIFTS. Back in the press room CJ turns the podium over to Agent Casper (nee Casper) who reveals that basically every supposition and theory by the media over the course of the day was completely wrong, the feds were completely right, everyone (except for the dog2) survived and is generally fine, etc etc etc. Buttons get put on all the earlier business, smiles return to faces, and things on this totally normal day go totally back to normal.

Carol talking heads that CJ is the best boss. Sweet, yes, but we didn’t even see CJ be a boss much today, so… Leo stops by to compliment CJ and fill her in on the broad strokes of what’s going forward – apparently the bad guy was part of something a lot bigger, a domestic terror conspiracy that resulted in 11 arrests – so this was a big win for the FBI, and “all of us” notes Leo.3 John Spencer and Alison Janney win for most natural in the ‘natural’ filmed parts of this fake doc. Some final thoughts from CJ about how getting hit in the short run is better than the long run but by this point I just don’t care. There’s not a satisfying end to this episode. There was when I first watched it ten years ago since the very closing narration notes that CJ stayed on with the administration through the end of the second term, and while that did remove any real drama about impeachment or getting fired or anything, it’s always nice to hear about Claudia Jean Cregg succeeding.4

Some closing thoughts on how we wound up in this mess: Even with ‘Shutdown’ and a strong Republican presence (John Goodman, Stephen Culp) season five felt like it was treading water – and in a lot of ways it was. Creator and primary writer Aaron Sorkin had left at the end of season 4, and co-executive producer John Wells switched to primary writer and showrunner. It wouldn’t be until season 6, however, that two frequent directors – including Alex Graves, who directed ‘Access’ – became executive producers, doubtless taking some pressure off Wells and Thomas Schlamme. Into this period of transition was (seemingly, I have no firsthand knowledge) thrust writer Lauren Schmidt, who only had three writing-related credits on the series prior to this episode, and was tasked with contributing to a show searching for its new voice with, for whatever reason, something fairly out of character.

Really, what did this episode do? It added no new knowledge about characters or in-universe situations. It was more tone-deaf than most in how it mixed the lighter and the serious. Its pacing was a mess, but that didn’t matter since it added nothing new… The episode’s purpose, if it had one, became highlighting CJ, and there it found its one saving grace. Janney would wins her 4th Emmy for her work this season, and ‘Access’ was justifiably submitted as part of her showcase.

  1. It’s why I’m typing this from a hyperbaric chamber.  
  2. And those meddling kids.  
  3. Accordingly, it’s never again mentioned on the show.  
  4. Yes, the specifics of the closing narration make it sound like she was press secretary for both terms, a fact that’s undone half a season later when she becomes Chief of Staff. The writers can’t be blamed for failing to see the future, though.  

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