Over 14 years after the airing of its season finale, The West Wing, created by Aaron Sorkin, is back with a bang.
In early October, HBO broke the news that pretty much every fan of the early-2000s political drama was waiting to hear: a reunion. Well, a one-episode, charity reunion benefiting Michelle Obama’s nonpartisan charity When We All Vote, but still, a reunion.
The episode chosen for the reunion is a love letter to democracy, Season three, Episode 14: Hartsfield’s Landing.
Here’s the plot: as the Taiwanese and Chinese face off in the South China Sea, the fictional town of Hartsfield Landing in first-term President Josiah Bartlett’s (Martin Sheen, perhaps getting too old for this) native New Hampshire heads to the polls for the presidential primary election. In the show’s world, the man who received the most votes in Hartsfield’s Landing has gone on to win the White House every time, and that means the Bartlett Administration is on edge (although this is a primary election, so that doesn’t really make sense, as critics point out). Hartsfield’s Landing is based on the very real town of Dixieville Notch, N.H., which votes every year at midnight on election day, though its predictive power is entirely contrived.
The reunion episode was really more of a dramatic reading, as actor Bradley Whitford points out in the beginning of the special. It takes place entirely on the stage of the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, Calif.
The central scenes of the episode are quite simple, and thus, lend themselves to simple staging. While juggling the situation in the South China Sea and a reelection bid, President Bartlett plays chess with his Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff, grouchier than ever) and Ziegler’s deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe, more jaded than he should be). With Ziegler, he discusses reelection, and with Seaborn, the China problem.
There are some pointed jabs in this episode’s choosing. Bartlett’s presumed opponent in the 2002 Presidential Election is Lionel Richie, the unfiltered, unapologetic Republican governor of Florida. Richie forces Bartlett into a corner, afraid to appear too smart and professorial. Ziegler urges the president to make the election about “smart and not … engaged and not … qualified and not,” a potential shot at President Donald Trump, who has faced many of the same criticisms The West Wing brings up in Richie.
Also poignant is the situation in China, which is threatening Taiwan ahead of the latter country’s announcement of free elections. As they play chess, Bartlett tells Seaborn to “see the whole board.” China has been a big issue in the campaign between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, with both arguing that the other is not seeing “the whole board.”
Adding comic relief to these tense back-and-forths are the shenanigans of Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Whitford, clearly loving this reunion) and his assistant, Donna Moss (Janel Maloney, exactly as we all remembered her). They try to reel in the votes of one family, the Flenders. Lyman sends Donna out in the cold to make calls from a pay phone (to avoid the appearance of campaigning from the White House — those were the days, right?). After trying to move the Flenders on a ridiculous set of issues, like a pulp mill closure, Lyman finally gives up the ghost and lets the family vote. It is unclear at the end of the episode who a) wins Hartsfield’s Landing or b) who the Flender’s vote for. Spoiler alert: Bartlett wins in a 419 electoral vote landslide that November.
The actors, all 18 years older than they were when “Hartsfield’s Landing” aired back in 2002, shined, but none more than Schiff and Moloney. The two played their roles, if possible, even better than they did in the original. Schiff, now older, brings needed age to his exasperated character and Maloney somehow manages to be the long-suffering but sassy character we all fell in love with.
Perhaps it was the voting PSAs from the likes of Michelle Obama and Lin Manuel-Miranda, but the episode and reunion special does seem like a love letter to American democracy. In the closing scene of the episode, a newsreel plays from the vote in Hartsfield’s Landing. One girl, an 18-year-old, casts her very first ballot to the applause of the town’s 41 other voters. It is a weird story, but that’s almost the point. American democracy is weird, and it can be amazing. (Please note that I wrote this before Election Day so if things go south, please don’t hold me to that last line, thanks).