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  • Writer's picturecasey

The West Wing episode 4.20 "Evidence of Things Not Seen"

Have you ever noticed how the biggest names behind the camera tend to have close relationships with a handful of actors who are in everything they make? Aaron Sorkin is no exception, and honestly, I feel like I understand why. His work is so specific, just like Tarantino’s or Scorsese’s, and when you have such an identifiable style, I think it either clicks with you or it doesn’t. When you find people who click with you, whose brains meld seamlessly with yours, it really is a euphoric feeling and I imagine you’d want to keep those people close.

Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney in "Evidence of Things Not Seen". Image Courtesy of IMDb.

The West Wing, and Aaron Sorkin, click with me. Sometimes I watch a show and the thrill is having no idea what’s about to happen; I’m along for the ride in a vehicle that I barely recognize, let alone know how to drive. I would never be so bold as to think I could have taken the wheel of The West Wing, but to keep the comparison going, putting an episode on feels like getting into your mom’s car. You know all its little nuances, where the cupholders are, and how it’s going to feel on the road (and when to grab the handlebar).

“Evidence of Things Not Seen” has everything I love about The West Wing; it’s a fun one, but an inspiring one too, and it even guest stars- get this- Matthew Perry, fresh off of Friends. All the characters are mostly off the clock in this episode, so it’s time for a good poker game. Leo and the President are excited to kick back over a game of cards; Leo even has a full spread prepared, and tbh nothing makes me laugh like his reverent demand of CJ to “oooh squeeze this piece of rye bread”.

But the relaxation will of course be interrupted. The President will have to step in and out to negotiate with Kaliningrad- their government spotted an unmanned spy plane that we were flying over there, and Bartlet needs to talk them into giving it back. Our cover story: it was an environmental mission studying coastal erosion (Chinese spy balloon anyone?). Josh will have to do some back and forth too, interviewing a candidate to replace Ainsley Hayes as associate counsel.

Amid all of this, it’s the equinox, and CJ is convinced that at “the exact moment of the equinox” you can stand an egg on its end, and it won’t tip over. She’s carrying an egg around, but she hasn’t pulled it off yet and skepticism abounds.

All of Sorkin’s characters speak with what’s become his trademark cadence and tone so at times I see them as somewhat interchangeable- he just likes the sound of a group. But “Evidence of Things Not Seen” highlights the individual personalities and ideological differences that actually are present and consistent once you get past the similar speech pattern.

We’re launched into the title sequence with Bartlet giving the egg thing- and this coastal erosion cover story- a shot, but the egg topples over. His subsequently loaded “yeah, this isn’t gonna work” is about a lot more than the equinox. Compared to CJ, he’s always been a pragmatic optimist, entertaining every romantic idea but not expecting all of them to pan out. CJ, meanwhile, will always stick her neck out to vouch for the idealistic solution, even when it’s not even in the realm of realistic. She’s also usually right. In a previous episode, when everyone else guessed that the president’s approval rating had remained the same at best, she wagered that they had gone up 5 points, a number so preposterous Leo wouldn’t even repeat it to the President. Turns out she was lowballing. She’s also the voice of the iconic line “it’s about going to the blackboard and raising your hand- if you think you get it wrong sometimes, why don’t you come down here and see how the big boys do it.”

Martin Sheen in "Evidence of Things Not Seen". Image courtesy of IMDb.

Toby’s even more complex than either of them, which I’d go so far as to say is the reason he also has the most complex individual relationship with almost every other character. He and Bartlet are a story for another day, but Toby and CJ’s deep, often wordless friendship really run wild in this episode. Toby’s created the image of himself as the pessimistic curmudgeon, but it’s a defense mechanism for the red hot idealism he’s carrying around. He’s so often disappointed, and he’s tired of it, but he can’t help but see so much potential in the world, even if he won’t admit it.

Will’s being in the Air Force won’t come up again after this episode, but it comes up in this one to serve the theme of Toby and CJ’s dueling worldviews. He’s heading to Wyoming to address a situation in which two launch crew officers who were slow to react to a threat of an incoming missile from North Korea. Turns out it was a good thing they asked some questions before enacting protocol, because it wasn’t a missile- it was a meteor from space. But they’re still being court-martialed because if it had been a missile, they wouldn’t have reacted in time. Toby can’t help but burst out laughing at this story (“Why do we think at this point that North Korea is attacking the East Coast of the United States?” “There are transcripts that show that surprise was expressed at that”). Then he turns it on CJ: “We failed on both a mechanical and human level. So tell me again what you have faith in”.

“Us. Because with what little free time he has, Will is going to Wyoming to defend one of these guys, and I don’t think it is failing on a human level”. Instead of responding, Toby lays down his cards, expecting to win the hand. But, in another symbolic move that speaks to a lot more than poker, CJ lays out a full house, sweeping up the chips in her unexpected win.

Allison Janney in "Evidence of Things Not Seen". Image courtesy of IMDb.

While this weighty discussion hung in the air, Will, Toby, and CJ had another thing to attend to- a bet amongst men that the other couldn’t hurl a playing card into the podium from the fifth row in the press room. They head down there, with CJ tagging along hoping to see them both fail- no one’s taking her very seriously tonight, after all. Instead of settling that debate, they’re interrupted by three gunshots slamming into the press room window. Will’s military training kicks in and he drops to the floor and rattles off ballistics to the secret service agents that instantly burst in, but CJ freezes. It’s Toby who pulls her to the ground in the heat of the moment.

I don’t love this being the second time CJ’s been “saved” by a man in this show (Sam did the same thing at Roslyn), but this interaction with Toby feels a lot more organic than that did, and so does the way they address it. On the whole, everything about an active shooter and subsequent crash of the building is a tired plot at this point. I’d actually go as far as to say this entire episode is pretty unoriginal- a criticism I read when doing some research on this episode. But I think the familiarity of the situation is exactly the thing that gives this episode that fun, cozy, President-in-a-sweatshirt feel. We’ve done the defcon 1 “can you believe it?!” active shooter plot before, so now we’re able to have some fun with it (“fun” on The West Wing is a relative term).

The secret service herds Toby, CJ, Will, and Josh into the oval office to make sure there’s eyes on everyone. Charlie and Debbie are already accounted for, but they don’t have code word clearance, so they’re not allowed in the Oval, where the spy plane discussion is still ongoing. At least, according to the Secret Service. Bartlet good naturedly explains that “if Charlie heard there were bullets, he’s gonna overpower whoever’s trying to—” and he’s cut off by Charlie, sure enough, bursting into the room. The President grins, we grin, he pulls Charlie in close and promises he’s okay. Satisfied, Charlie marches right back out. Then Bartlet says “I’m surprised you guys managed to keep Fiderer in her chair, I’d have thought she’d be the first one to- oh no here we are!” as she too fights her way in the room, looking the President up and down and declaring that she will be back to take his blood pressure shortly.

In a beat amidst the commotion, CJ asks Toby if he knew that a day on the moon and a year on the moon were the same thing. He did. The moment hangs there. Then she says, “I thought my reflexes before, in the press room, were cat-like.” And then we cut away. I love how little we have to say in this episode, and it’s our familiarity with these people, these rooms, and this situation that really let us all just play here in “Evidence of Things Not Seen”.

And nowhere is this episode having more fun than it is with Josh and the unexpectedly incredible chemistry he has with Matthew Perry’s Joe Quincy. Throughout this entire episode he’s back and forth between advising the President and interviewing new associate counsel Joe Quincy. Joe is quiet, collected, funny, and overqualified, but something is off about him, and Josh can’t figure out what. In an aside to Donna, Josh muses that “it’s the strangest feeling. It’s like… a really good baseball player is standing in the other team’s locker room for the first time.” To which Donna says, “I don’t understand, are you writing poetry about this now?”

Matthew Perry in "Evidence of Things Not Seen". Image courtesy of IMDb.

But his gut is onto something, and he’s trying to figure out what- amidst it all, though, he’s also starting to like him. Josh is amused that the vetting team made Joe fill out the psychological part of the questionnaire- something he can relate to, and I’ll come right back to that in a second. Josh asks a question I think we all probably wonder when filling out forms like this but have never thought to put into words:

“Question 1: a) I do not feel sad; b) I feel sad; c) I am sad all the time and I can’t snap out of it; d) I am so sad or unhappy that I want to kill myself. You chose a) I do not feel sad.”

“Yes.”

“Good. Ever?”

“No.”

“No, you don’t ever feel sad, or…?”

“No, there are times when I feel sad.”

“Yet you checked the first box, why is that?”

“It said, ‘I do not feel sad’ and I didn’t at the time I checked it.”

This exchange, and their whole dynamic, feels both funny and poignant, but the tables turn when the shooting happens in the very next scene. Donna is instantaneous in checking on Josh, worried about the shooting stirring up his PTSD and telling him, against his wishes, that she is going to be giving his therapist a heads up that he might be calling later.

When Josh explains the building crash to Joe, he says he didn’t hear the shots, but “I heard a brass quintet playing The First Noel, so I just assumed someone somewhere was locked and loaded.” Joe doesn’t hesitate to reply with “You know, not for nothing, but the people that I talk to don’t believe that story, and the people that you’d like don’t care.” He doesn’t say it unkindly, but like I said, funny and poignant.

But it’s not only the sentiment that throws Josh off, it’s the wording. Finally, Josh puts it together- Joe is a republican. Once his secret is out, Joe explains that he’s gotten himself in bad standing with the rest of the party by voicing an unpopular opinion, but he wants to work at the White House because, of course, he has a sense of duty. The whole thing is a soft, respectful, and incredibly loaded homage to both Ainsley Hayes and arguably the show’s best episode, “Noel”. And, just like Ainsley, Joe finds himself fitting right in, even as Josh tries to fight it. He recommends him to Leo and gets him the job.

Still from "Evidence of Things Not Seen". Image courtesy of IMDb.

I really love this episode for all the same reasons I think it often flies under the radar of West Wing greatest hits. It’s not remarkable, it’s not doing anything we haven’t done before, but it has its finger right on the pulse of every one of these characters. It’s exactly our deep familiarity with everyone and everything that lets the slightest touch hold so much significance, depth, and humor.It just takes half a sentence for a character to say something profound about another, or to call back to nostalgic characters and plot points.And I almost forgot to mention- we end with CJ standing an egg on its end. I well up every time.

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