While I’ll admit that the quality of the series has been somewhat variable since the fourth season (and yes, that includes the fourth season!), I can’t find much in this episode to fault. I had my attention from the very beginning, and I found the interplay of all three plot threads to be equally compelling. I’ve been waiting for this kind of moment since the beginning of the season, so it makes sense that it would happen now, at roughly the halfway point of the season.
Taking an incident like this and making it the literal and metaphorical meltdown of the Vinick machine could have been overdone; certainly, some episodes in past seasons would have played it to the hilt. Instead, the president demonstrates much of his old fire while the two campaigns play a wonderful chess game. Each side is waiting out the other, as if playing a schoolyard game of chicken, and a part of me wished that it could go on for another hour.
Perhaps the most important element to the episode is consistency. Vinick’s defense of nuclear power was firmly established in previous episodes, as well as his tendency to speak out of turn. Thus his downfall was crafted very well, allowing the character’s own personality and platform against him. Santos’ camp was completely consistent as well, with a minimum of preaching. Sure, there was no sign of the strain between Matt and Helen from a few episodes back, but this wasn’t the time or place.
Of course, one of the strengths of the scenario, the fact that it threw an unexpected wrench into a campaign season that was effectively static, is the scenario’s main weakness. It’s an accident that just happens to be conveniently tied to Vinick, taking place at the most convenient moment possible for Santos, evening the odds. It doesn’t require anything special of Santos beyond restraint. For critics of the writers, who sometimes deify Santos, this is just another example of letting the character coast towards a victory.
But it’s not as if the incident gives Santos a massive edge; it just takes away Vinick’s invincible lead. It makes it a fair fight, and as I said, something like this was completely predictable. That being the case, I couldn’t let that get in the way of the fun. It was one hell of a chess game, with both sides losing resolve over one pivotal night. Great drama, in my book.
All of which would have been beside the point if the White House plot threads were somehow lacking. But the writers delivered on that element as well. Sheen was at his best in this episode; Bartlet hasn’t been in the spotlight that much in a long time. I was quite pleased, since in many respects, there was a resonance with the better Bartlet moments of the early seasons. This episode made it very clear that the winning candidate will never be Bartlet’s replacement, only his successor, and that made this one of the best episodes of the season for me.