Talking Points
Talking Points

Vodka Yonic features a rotating cast of women and nonbinary writers from around the world sharing stories that are alternately humorous, sobering, intellectual, erotic, religious or painfully personal. You never know what you’ll find here each week, but we hope this potent mix of stories encourages conversation.

I didn’t expect the highlight of my year to be watching Netflix with my mother, but here we are.

As is the case for so many other millennials, 2020 has not proceeded according to my plan. I’ve spent more time with my family over the past few months than I have over the past few years combined. I live exactly 966 miles from my parents, but the transition to remote work has allowed for multiple extended visits over the course of the year. My mother and I consume media very differently — she usually can’t be bothered to learn about pop culture, and it’s a battle getting her to sit through an entire movie, while I tend to rattle on about the Academy Awards and Billboard charts to anyone who’ll listen.

But the Venn diagram for a piece of media able to capture our mutual attention happened to overlap with Aaron Sorkin’s seminal political series The West Wing. It’s a show that neither of us had seen before — and by the time we made it to the show’s first iconic “walk and talk,” we were both hooked.

At first it was fun to laugh at the pagers, nod in approval of Rob Lowe’s apparent refusal to age since the show first aired in 1999, and get swept away by Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue and endless shots. But toward the end of the pilot episode, Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet finally appeared with a clap of thunder — and my heart began to ache. My mother and I sat in silence watching this fictional president speak to his staff thoughtfully, with dignity, conviction and grace, and neither of us had to vocalize what we were both thinking. 

We certainly weren’t the only ones to dive into The West Wing as a quarantine watch, and many have already touched on the strange experience of watching this show in 2020. It’s both painful and hopeful seeing the people in the White House depicted as individuals who genuinely care for the American people and believe in the initiatives they are working to execute. (Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg, White House press secretary, is genuinely beloved and respected by the press!) The general consensus has been that so much has changed in the past 20 years — what a sharp departure we’ve made from the civility and nuance depicted in the show. What my mother and I were struck by as the episodes rolled on, though, was in fact the opposite — how frustratingly little has changed.

In the fifth episode of the first season, Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman has a brief moment of panic while in conversation with Janney’s Cregg about — what else — fear of an uncontainable, viral pandemic. “You get it, you carry a 10-foot cloud around with you — one in three people die,” he says, hardly taking a breath. “If 100 people in New York City got it, you’d have to encircle them with 100 million vaccinated people to contain it.” I glanced across the room to see my mother’s expression mirroring mine, slack-jawed and wide-eyed. Josh Lyman’s worst nightmare has come true. Here in 2020, though, we don’t have President Bartlet to lead the way.

The following episode featured Whitford’s Lyman complaining about the inefficiency of the United States census. That very afternoon, a masked government employee had knocked on our door to speak with my parents, despite the fact that they had already filled out and returned their census. The narrative throughout the first season of the show rings particularly, painfully true for us in another way — when the Bartlet administration works to combat gun violence.

My parents still live in Newtown, Conn. — my hometown. I was home for the holidays on Dec. 14, 2012, when my dear friend’s next-door neighbor brought a gun to the elementary school across town and stopped the country in its tracks by taking the lives of 20 children and six educators. President Obama came to my hometown and stood on the stage where my little sister was set to perform in the spring musical, and he promised change. Congress promised change. Eight years later, that change has still not come. The issues President Bartlet and his team discuss in that first season in 1999 are worse than ever today, and every piece of fictionalized legislation passed, every impassioned speech, only serve as painful reminders of that.

Despite the setbacks, the characters on The West Wing always return for another fight, each consumed by the desire to execute their jobs as well as humanly possible. Sometimes they seem superhuman — one step ahead, maintaining a steely composure in the face of defeat.

In one scene, President Bartlet encourages his staff with the line, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful individuals can change the world.” That might seem like an idealistic idea at first, but if we hope to watch this show another 20 years from now without feeling like we are in exactly the same place — or worse off — we need such thoughtful individuals more than ever before. Walk with me — we’ve got some work to do.

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