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The West Wing: fathers

Have just come off a major The West Wing binge. One of the themes which becomes more obvious when you're seeing the show in such a concentrated form (we're talking the first four seasons in a couple of weeks here!) is how almost all of the characters have father issues:

  • Bartlet's father was patently jealous of his own son, the cause of the President's innermost neurosis.
  • Leo's father was an alcoholic (as was his father before him) - the "it ain't nothin' but a family thing" was passed on through the Y chromosome.
  • Josh's relationship with his father was good, but Josh suffers from guilt over his untimely death in the middle of Bartlet's first campaign (though, granted, this guilt doesn't compare to the guilt he feels about the death of his sister).
  • Sam lost confidence in his father after he was discovered to have led a lifelong affair with another woman.
  • Toby's father was a criminal, a source of considerable tension between the two.
  • CJ's father suffers from Alzheimer's.
  • Charlie's father ran out on his family when Charlie was a boy.

In fact, Donna, Mandy and Will Bailey are the only regular characters introduced during Sorkin's reign that don't have conflicted feelings about their fathers... and in Mandy and Will's case that might just have been because Sorkin didn't spend enough time with them before they or he left the show.

Even secondary characters have paternal line issues. For instance:

  • Stephanie Gault's grandfather in "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's going to Jail" was revealed to be a spy. (Though, granted, that was an obvious contrivance to parallel Sam's own family situation).
  • In "The Two Bartlets" UFO guy Bob was motivated because his father died, and became a more moving figure because of it. (Again, this may have been to resonate with Bartlet's own father issues made explicit in this episode.)
  • In "Dead Irish Writers" Lord John Marbury even compares the sins of nations to the ties between fathers and sons.

Several of the regular characters are fathers - Bartlet, Leo, Toby - but none are mothers. And just as Bartlet's relationship with his own father was strained, so is his relationship with his children, notably Ellie.

In contrast mothers are virtually non-existent on The West Wing. With the exception of Josh, we don't hear about any of staff's mothers at all, let alone see them on screen. And certainly none are a vital part of the characters' backstories.

And while some of the recurring characters are mothers, you wouldn't really know it:

  • Abby Bartlet is a mother, but we never (from what I can recall) see her in that role, only as Jed Bartlet's wife or a political player and doctor in her own right.
  • Mrs Landingham had two sons, but they were killed long ago, and her relationship with POTUS was explicitly described as that of a "big sister" rather than mother figure.
  • Toby's ex-wife, Congresswoman Wyatt gave birth to twins, but it's Toby's bond with his children which was the focus of that storyline (understandable of course, given that Richard Schiff is a regular cast member and Kathleen York a recurring guest star). And Wyatt, like Abigail Bartlet, is presented mainly as a foil to her partner, even to the extent that she politicises her own pregnancy.

This "child (most often son) and father" theme also played out on Sorkin's Sports Night. Casey McCall's relationship with his son featured in some episodes and Sam's father's infidelity first manifested itself in Jeremy's father under near-identical circumstances.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 13, 2005 12:27 PM.

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