The presence of that napkin is a bit of a tell. It reveals that deep down, the people behind the awkwardly named “A West Wing Special To Benefit When We All Vote” know who their audience is. It’s not the audience they’re hoping for, necessarily—WWAV is a non-partisan non-profit organization that works to “increase participation in every election and close the race and age voting gap by changing the culture around voting, harnessing grassroots energy, and through strategic partnerships to reach every American,” and was founded by, among others, Michelle Obama and Lin-Manuel Miranda, both of whom make brief appearances in the special. The aim of this reunion, as stated often throughout the evening, is to encourage first-time and unlikely voters to vote in this and every election. They’re hoping that on the other side of the set, they’re connecting with people who might otherwise not cast a ballot, who’ve been told lies (about voter fraud, say) or who are likely to react to any ambiguity with suspicion (if the results aren’t returned immediately) or who simply don’t believe their vote could make a difference.
It’s an admirable goal, but that napkin tells a different story. It says that the “People’s Choice Award-nominated cast of ‘The West Wing,’” as Bradley Whitford describes himself and the rest of the company, know perfectly well that the vast majority of the people watching are no strangers to the Bartlet Administration. And while what they offer that audience is different from what they’d offer their intended viewers, it’s just possible that it’s of equal, if very different, value.
If nothing else, old hands won’t need much context for “Hartsfield’s Landing,” a top-tier episode of the show from one of its best seasons. That said, Schlamme, Sorkin, and HBO Max chose their episode well. “Hartsfield’s Landing” is an episode small in scope and long on character, relying on the long histories between the characters and the richness of the ideas (some of them, anyway) and language to carry the day. It’s situated about two-thirds of the way through the third season, which begins with President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) announcing his intention to run for a second term despite a major ethical scandal (by 2002 standards, not 2020 standards) and ends with him gearing up for a contentious election against a George W. Bush-like opponent. The titular New Hampshire town is the first to vote in the first Presidential primary of the election cycle, and one storyline centers on the efforts of Josh Lyman (Whitford) and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) to ensure that two of the town’s 42 voters cast their ballots for the President. (The poor Flenders.) Meanwhile, Bartlet has returned from a trip to India bearing chess sets, which he gives as gifts to speechwriters Toby (Richard Schiff) and Sam (Rob Lowe) before challenging them to play.
But it’s not that simple, of course. (And no, that’s not a reference to the storyline where Dulé Hill’s Charlie and Allison Janney’s C.J. get into a prank war, a subplot that hasn’t aged all that well.) No, what matters about those two chess games—the two chambers of this episode’s heart—is the backdrop for each. Behind Sam’s is a diplomatic crisis involving the sale of arms to Taiwan, militaristic posturing from China, and tenuous steps by the former toward free and fair elections. Behind Toby’s, the question of how Bartlet can reconcile the two halves of himself: the warm, approachable, grandfatherly figure unlikely to frighten any moderates away, and the man of towering intellect, commitment, compassion, and strength, unafraid to say what he believes and to fight for what’s just, even if it’s not popular.