Josh Lyman Sucks, Again

In award-winning prestige-drama television series The West Wing, season 4, Episode 10, Arctic Radar, there’s a story about the challenges of writing a 500 word speech for the President of the United States as two speechwriters clash in their own ways, old guard and new guard; Sam Seaborn’s Senatorial campaign picks up and CJ clashes with a reporter who dislikes their seating assignment, which you know, feels kind of like the jousting with Danny from earlier seasons but whatever, am I right.

In all of this political maneuvering, there’s a minor plot dotted throughout the episode where Josh Lyman, hero of the people and voice of a political generation of frustrated fighters who just wants to get into a brawl with the other guys, soul and heart of the series and lovable everyman, takes time out of his day to stop a government worker of some level of forgettableness from wearing a Star Trek pin.

I’m not exaggerating. It’s a minor detail in the episode but it takes up two scenes, scenes in which Josh mentions to Donna – his personal assistant – that he saw a government worker in the White House wearing on her suit a Star Trek pin. Not a uniform, not an outfit, but a pin. A worker who I will remind you has a dress code for her job, a dress code she must otherwise be complying with (or they’d send her home).

The whole association is fucking gross, though, because like, the conversation also includes such lines as ‘she was wearing a pin’ and then the shocked response ‘it’s a girl?’ like there’s something dehumanised about wearing a Star Trek pin. And then, in the first scene, we get this note – Josh wants her to not wear the pin – then there’s a followup scene, where Josh finds that she is not wearing the pin any more, and thanks his personal assistant for it. She notes that the woman in question is bothered by it, so Josh goes to talk about it with her.

Now let’s be clear, Josh talking to someone is narrative antimatter. Consistently, if Josh talks to someone, he will say something that should achieve the exact opposite of what he wants it to in the narrative, but somehow it doesn’t. And Josh walks over and talks to her, and the conversation that ensues is somehow absolutely fucking ridiculous and so perfectly in keeping with The West Wing as a genre where you win if you Make A Good Speech at something, but also, what constitutes a ‘good’ speech is much more about if you command the screen for a while.

See, she tells Josh, when he comes to talk to her, that she’s appealing his request to stop wearing the pin. She is complying, but going through proper channels to appeal his instruction to stop wearing the pin (instruction he passed through his personal assistant to her superior). And he then indicates that he’s in charge of the woman who he’s appealing to, which seems to indicate there’s no point her doing the right thing and going through channels, with an appeal that has a reason, which is just a great way to assert that the rules don’t matter, what matters is his opinion.

And then she makes something of a misstep, in that rather than pointing out simply that she isn’t violating dress codes and there’s no reason to ask her not to wear the pin, she explains why it means something to her. What Star Trek means to her. And then we get Josh Lyman’s Speeching For The Win, which like almost every time an Aaron Sorkin Series Character gets speeching is really convincing and compelling until you think about it.

I’m a fan. I’m a sports fan, I’m a music fan, and I’m a Star Trek fan, all of them. But here’s what I don’t do.

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: Let’s list our 10 favorite episodes. Let’s list our least favorite episodes. Let’s list our favorite galaxies. Let’s make a chart to see how often they appear in our favorite episodes. What Romulan would you couple with a Cardassian, and why? Let’s talk about Romulans falling in love with Cardassians and then let’s do it again.

That’s not being a fan. That’s having a fetish.

And I don’t have a problem with that except you can’t bring your hobbies into work, okay?

Josh Lyman

And she nods and accepts and relents and there’s a joke and the implication is that Josh is right and this one-scene wonder intern played by a character actor has learned her lesson about bringing her hobbies to work, which is what she did by wearing a small pin of a symbol from a classic TV show.

This speech drives me nuts. I want to argue with every part of it. I want to argue with it in particular because it’s all just so fucking disingenuous: Josh saying he’s a Star Trek fan is completely bullshit. The fact that Josh has nothing in his life except this job and complaining about baseball is a recurrent thread throughout the whole series, and you know where he complains about baseball, repeatedly? In the office in front of his coworkers, many of whom ask him to focus on his job and not on the baseball he’s mad about. And you see how by starting arguing with that first point I’m mad at another part, and it’s not even the most berserk thing in this whole fucking spiel.

Because she didn’t do any of those things! She didn’t list her ten favourite episodes, her favourite galaxies (and if you were a Star Trek fan, Josh, you’d know that’s a stupid fucking thing to say, there’s a whole movie about not being able to leave the galaxy), she didn’t start talking about Romulans and Cardassians, she wore a small piece of iconography. She wore something that meant something to her and it was unobtrusive to everyone but you. This entire exchange is about Josh telling this woman to her face she is a strawman, and her accepting his insightful assessment and no longer being a fan of one of the most mainstream things in a place where someone might see her.

One of the more horrifying things about West Wing is its eerie intersection with reality. For a start, the show is almost designed to be read as a roman a clef — a piece of fiction that should be seen as overlaid with real historical events. It’s a mulligan on the Clinton Presidency, a wish that things could have gone differently, an alternate history that drew on real people to inform the cabinet of President Bartlett, and real events to fill the sequences of narrative. Some things were timeless, some things weren’t — in both the real world and fantasy of The West Wing, the United States’ solution to international terrorism was engaging in international terrorism, for example.

Particularly what’s weird is that, like, Josh kinda exists. Josh was created inspired by some real dudes who exist, particularly Rahm Emanual, who you might not remember except as a dude from the Obama White House and then go ‘oh, was he a cool guy?’ and to get your answer to that I suggest ask a Chicago schoolteacher. But by being on TV twenty years ago when the current generation of up-and-coming 40 year old wonk dorks were geting their wheels under them, a lot of people wanted to be Josh Lyman. And now there are a bunch of Josh Lymans in the real world, who are this synthesis of real people into this unreal guy who then reached out into the real world to shape them.

And we know Josh shaped the real world because multiple times, Josh is used by the writers to express impolite or impolitic opinions about the events of the day or the opinions around the show, to the audience of that show. Famously, there’s a whole episode where Josh gets into a pissing match with a forum of his own fans and the Press Secretary informs him that he’s to never do that again (wise) because these people are mentally unwell (man, fuck you). And that’s what we get here, in this speech, again.

Josh is talking to someone about being ‘too much of a fan.’ He is lecturing someone he has never fucking talked to before this about how she’s too into Star Trek because she wore a tiny piece of iconography that he alone could recognise. He picked her out of a lineup and sat her down and gave her a talking-to at work because she’s the wrong kind of fan, the wrong kind of way. It’s really hard to not see that as the authors of the series taking a swing at people watching the series, again, especially because it’s so out of type for Josh. Suddenly, and for these two scenes only, Josh cares about Star Trek.

Maybe he’s just mad that an actor from Star Trek was fucking the girl he had a crush on a few seasons back, hell if I know.

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