8.1/10. And I'm back to finally finish The West Wing, a journey I started a few years ago, and have picked back up in fits and starts over the years. For a season premiere, the show really picks up in medias res, with little time to catch your bearings after what happened in the Season 5 finale.
The big theme for the episode is whether Bartlet is going to give into the pressure from Congress, the American public, and his own staff, to retaliate in some way against the terrorist cells in Syria, Iran, the Palestinians, etc., or whether he can find a way to get Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table instead. There's some of the show's usual high-minded back and forth, and Barlet's idealism, particularly in the heated exchange with Leo about vengeance for the sake of vengeance and where all of this ends if he chooses to drop bombs in the Middle East.
The conflict between the two titans of this show is one of my favorite parts of this episode. The politics of The West Wing, or at least its conception of politics, doesn't always jibe with me, but I tend to appreciate the character dynamics more than the political ones. Seeing these people come together to solve problems and work with one another to overcome the week's obstacle tends to be more compelling that the latest Father Knows Best lesson to be learned. Leo and Bartlet are arguably the two closest friends on the show, and seeing the two of them so at odds creates a really tense and interesting dynamic that we haven't really seen before.
As for the actual conflict, it's par for the course for this show that there appears the option that would most likely happen in the real world (e.g. the bombing) and yet our heroes circle up, put their heads together, and find some magical different option that allows Barlet's optimism to flourish. That ties into the emergence of Kate, who as the newbie, is given the win here to establish that despite the fact that she is new to the President's inner circle, she can overcome her doubts after feeling like she gave him bad advice to help him find a way out of this morass. It's nice to see the show adding another female character and giving her a prominent role, but it's kind of new character writing 101.
Still, the idea of asking the Palestinians to turn over the terrorist mastermind behind the attack in order to get the Israelis to Camp David is a little too tidy and unlikely to work in the real world, but suffices for what the episode is going for. There's not so subtle commentary on the then in full swing Iraq war when Bartlet shoots down the idea of also bombing Iran based on sketchy intelligence that Leo tried to drum up. It's the show's usual bread and butter. But I appreciate the way in which the episode departed from what you might expect from The West Wing, both by preserving the disagreement and distance between Leo and The Preisdent, but also by having Barlet agree to bomb Syria even as he's achieved his diplomatic alternative. It's an intriguing bit of pragmatism from him that contrasts from the show's "just stick to your principles and the solution will come" ethos.
But the most successful element of the episode has little to do with politics. It's Josh waiting by Donna's bedside at the hospital overseas. I'm not a big shipper, and I think Josh has mistreated Donna a little too often for me to really root for the two of them, but the moment between the two of them when she's about to go under for surgery is heartwarming in a nigh perfect way. "Nice hat" scribbled onto the white board cuts the tension, and the single word "scared" imbues the scene with stakes. Romantic or not, Donna and Josh has been one of the bigger relationships on the show, and it's nice to see The West Wing lean into it here.
Overall, this was a nice step back into Barlet's America for me, after I'd set down the show for a couple of years. I'm excited to see where it heads from here, especially as we in the real world head into the heat of election season.