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The West Wing: “Requiem” — More of a Celebration, Really

I almost subtitled this article “A Study In Game Face”, because that’s the thing I love about it the most. Everyone talks about “The Supremes”, and while I love that one too (and its mind, and its shoes), I think “Requiem” is my favourite post-Sorkin era episode. It’s a tearjerker—beloved actor John Spencer had unexpectedly died, so the writing team had to scramble to rewrite the final episodes of the show to incorporate the death of his character, Leo McGarry. Harder still was the job the actors had, to play out their personal grief in front of a TV audience.

According to actor Martin Sheen, the plan had originally been for Republican Presidential candidate Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) to win the election. I would have been fine with that. Even though he’s technically not a Sorkin Republican, I think of Vinick as one. Sorkin Republicans, to quote Will McAvoy, “believe that hurricanes are caused by barometric pressure and not gay marriage”. Vinick is a good, reasonable man (and pro-choice), and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t often wish him non-fictional and on the real Republican ticket, especially this year. When John Spencer died, that plan was changed, and Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) took the White House.

The three Bartlet daughters seated together at the funeral

“Requiem” is set on the day of Leo’s funeral. The entire cold open is the aforementioned study in game face, a montage of every character getting ready to go, steeling themselves however they need to face the day. It’s not the first funeral for this show, but unlike Mrs Landingham’s, Leo’s funeral is fraught with complications, along with the grief. Cast members we hadn’t seen in ages are seen at the service—I can’t imagine it was hard to round them up (Ainsley Hayes, how I missed you). The Santos team has the difficult task of finding a replacement for Leo, who would have been Santos’s Vice President. Mourning must be pushed aside while Santos conducts interviews with everyone on the short list, who all have the same thing to say of the funeral—“not so much a funeral as a celebration, really.”

Josh (Bradley Whitford) isn’t handling Leo’s death particularly well, but at this point in the series, he is burnt, exhausted, and not handling anything particularly well. He’s of course his usual super competent political wunderkind, but personal relationships and communication were never his strong suit anyway. There’s tension between him and the new President-Elect—Josh expected to be the one heading up the search for a new VP, and his feathers are ruffled when Santos gives that job to someone else. Really, Josh had spent a lot of the campaign trying to get Santos to fit into his mold of what a candidate should be, and Santos’s insistence to be his own man has been a source of friction between the two. “If you’re looking for a yes man, I’m not it,” Josh says.

President-Elect and Mrs Santos, outside the church after the service

I think some part of Santos was looking for a yes man, since he’s such a maverick. However, in this case, I think Santos is being kindly. He knows Josh and Leo had been very close, and I think he is trying to be considerate, and give Josh some space to grieve, in hopes that Josh will exhale even a little bit (he doesn’t). Someone has to keep the wheels turning, and Santos (while mourning Leo himself) is willing to spearhead that. Not only is he President-Elect, so it’s his job to do so, but he acknowledges that his own grief over Leo is nothing as compared to Josh’s.

Grieving even more than Josh, of course, is President Bartlet (Martin Sheen). Not only had the President and Leo been best friends, Sheen and Spencer were close friends as well, so the tears we see on Sheen’s face are the result of more than him being a great actor. In the previous season, President Bartlet and Leo had had what was, as we know, the worst fight of their long friendship. The President stormed off, and Leo (who had just offered his resignation, and been accepted) suffered a heart attack, collapsing alone in the woods of Camp David.

President Bartlet and Margaret at the wake

Leo eventually recovered enough to join the Santos campaign at Josh’s urging, but his bond of being President Bartlet’s Chief of Staff (in addition to being his best friend) was strained. The two had managed to put their friendship back together, but then Leo was on the campaign trail, and time together was scarce. I’m sure the President was still carrying guilt about the fight, and that he hadn’t tried to stop Leo campaigning for the VP spot.

From the beginning of the episode, much of my own focus is on the President’s wife, Dr Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing). Channing too was very close friends with John Spencer, and Abbey Bartlet certainly had her own friendship with Leo, but from the very start, her focus is on her husband. President Bartlet’s health hadn’t been the greatest, due to his multiple sclerosis attacks getting worse, and in addition to his grief, she is worried what a shock like this will do to him. This day, Leo’s funeral, is all about Jed for her, whatever he needs. Even her body language seems to relay “I’m here for you, but I’m respectful of your space.”

Dr Bartlet helps her husband get his game face on for the reception

Former Chief of Communications Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is caught in the middle of a scandal that I am not going to get into (that could be an article all on its own, about how badly he was treated by the end of the show), and thus he isn’t able to mourn Leo with everyone else. He comes to the service, but has to sit alone at the back, and when it’s time to leave, he has to sit there and wait until al the press has gone away, lest he send the wrong message. Charlie Young (Dule Hill), President Bartlet’s former body man, and current Assistant to the Chief of Staff, is ever astute and kindly. He hangs back and waits with Toby, says nothing judgmental about Toby’s situation, and suggests they leave together, since a photo of the two of them hardly makes the front page.

I wish I could get on Vice President Russell’s (Gary Cole) case for thinking of himself at a time like this, but I can’t. Leo was only 58 when he died, and I can’t blame “Bingo Bob” for feeling the need to see his doctors for checkups, and maybe a colonoscopy. I scheduled my own two days after Chadwick Boseman’s untimely death (here’s hoping the insurance companies will agree to lower the standard screening age)…I can’t imagine I’m the only one in my age bracket to do so.

CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) has been the Chief of Staff ever since Leo’s heart attack, and when we join her in this episode, we get the news that she and Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield) have finally gotten over the hump, pun intended. Even if it was grief sex, it was a long time coming, pun also intended. For CJ, whose entire life and career is built on her unfailing ability to words, it’s a blessing for her to have any situation thar isn’t about talking. “Everyone keeps thinking I have something to say, and I don’t seem to be coming up with anything.” Of course, that respite proves brief.

Danny Concannon is trying to explain something to CJ, who is trying to work

Not going to lie, I get a little cranky with the post-Sorkin treatment of Danny, with regard to his relationship with CJ. These are the last days of the most important job she’ll ever have—can’t he back off a little, and stop pressuring her to talk more than she wants to, or make relationship choices he may be ready for, but maybe she isn’t? Danny, I crush you hardcore, but she’s got stresses you don’t have (especially right now), it would be nice if you could chill and let her be how she needs to be, just for another few weeks. It’s cute how she gets neurotic about the possibility of Donna wondering where CJ is spending her nights (and cute that Donna gets neurotic too, not wanting to let on about her and Josh yet), but Danny, that is her choice, and it’s Leo’s wake, and you need to not make it about you and your being disgruntled over lack of sex. Get over it.

Speaking of boys who need to get over it, Josh needs to join Danny on that bus. It’s nice that the ship of Josh and Donna has finally sailed—and it’s good that they left it for the end of the series, IMO. And Donna is just this side of saintly when it comes to navigating their burgeoning relationship. She’s been calling her own cabs, not making demands, and she’s the only one not concerned that Josh hasn’t offered her a place on his staff. It’s clear to her that no matter what their personal relationship turns into, there’s no way she can go back to working for him, whether or not he realizes that. She’s even willing to play dumb in the face of Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker) who, even at a wake, is so very Amy Gardner.

Josh Lyman talks to the President-Elect

I always feel like someone as smart and aware as Amy should have sensed something has changed between Josh and Donna the second she sees them together—though, to be fair, she’s used to sensing things about them, and them denying it. Amy and Josh are both so socially clueless, of course both find it appropriate to pursue Amy’s agenda at an occasion like this—though really, political fencing was always the basis of their relationship, so that’s got to be a little comforting now.

That post-funeral reception at the White House (and later, the gathering in the Residence) is what the episode is really about. President Bartlet screws his game face to the sticking place, and we watch his transition from grieving friend to President and First Dad, taking care of everyone else, making sure Leo actually does get the celebration he deserves. He demands cheer, and at his urging, Carol (Melissa FitzGerald) brings out a boom box so they can have music. Ever the Chief of Staff, the first thing CJ does when the President enters the room is point him toward Margaret (NiCole Robinson), Leo’s assistant of (we presume) much of his career. She holds court, regaling everyone with Leo stories. The President lets her go on—he won’t make Leo’s death about him, at least not in public. When someone tells the President how sorry they are for his loss, President Bartlet’s response is immediately “it’s a loss for the entire country.” Abbey, ever vigilant, ever proud of him, watches from the sidelines.

Dr Abbey Bartlet watches her husband work the room at the wake

Later that evening, the Leo love-fest continues in the Residence, with just the core cast. This is really where you get the feeling that you’re not watching a TV show, you’re watching a bunch of friends get together and remember their comrade. Largely, this is the unspoken gift to President Bartlet that he had pre-emptively reciprocated to everyone else earlier. Everyone’s heard the parka story about him and Leo a billion times, but going through it is the medicine they all need, especially the President. Death always makes people ponder their own mortality, but this has got to be an extra existential crisis for the President, since he’s also leaving the last job he will ever have.

A lull in the chat, the clock says 10:30 PM, and the First Lady calls it a night. The President could have kept on, I’m sure, but no one is going to compromise his bedtime if they can help it. And everyone else is tired…they’ve all done their public mourning, and now they need to go their separate ways and move on to the private phase, however they do that. President Bartlet bids them all goodnight (he only ever calls her Claudia Jean at their most personal moments), and Josh is the last one out the door. The President’s last show of game face for the evening, when he tells Josh, “Leo and I are the past. You’re the future. It’s up to you now. We’re counting on you.” When Josh leaves, we get to see the game face relax, and the unspoken exhale between President Bartlet and his wife speaks volumes.

Alone with his wife, President Bartlet finally relaxes

Josh leaves the White House, tears in his eyes. Even though he knows he will be coming back to the White House as President Santos’s Chief of Staff, he knows it’s going to be a different White House. The gate clangs shut behind him, and it’s the symbol of the end of an era. The family is going their separate ways, the way families do. Really, they’ve been doing that for a couple of seasons now, with the campaign and everything, and the feeling of the tight-knit team that was the core of the show is long gone. And I suppose that’s an inevitable part of life, but it’s more than a little sad in the context of a show like this, that was about the team. “Requiem”—whether it was their primary objective or not—brought the band back together one last time (it also bears mentioning that they kept John Spencer’s name in the opening credits), and I think it was balm for the collective soul of the show, the cast, and the audience.

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Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

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