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The West Wing's "Hartsfield's Landing" Has Never Made Any Damn Sense

Three cheers for HBO Max's West Wing reunion, but the episode they're performing features one of Aaron Sorkin's most baffling errors.
  • Janel Maloney and Bradley Whitford in The West Wing. (NBC)
    Janel Maloney and Bradley Whitford in The West Wing. (NBC)

    When it was announced that The West Wing would be staging a reunion to air on HBO Max before the election, a great cheer went up among the show's faithful fans. The special is called A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote, which will benefit Michelle Obama's When We All Vote organization. The show was — and mostly still is — beloved for its unabashedly idealistic look at a fictional Democratic president and his administration, and a reunion has long been both rumored and clamored for. This particular reunion won't be a proper revival of the series, but it will be more than just a Zoom chat like a lot of shows have been putting out this year. Instead, HBO Max will air a staged production of the Season 3 episode "Hartsfield's Landing," performed by the original surviving cast members — Rob Lowe, Dulé Hill, Allison Janney, Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, and Martin Sheen — and directed by Thomas Schlamme. Creator Aaron Sorkin is also writing original material for the production.

    Questions abound about the project: It was originally unknown who, if anyone, would play White House chief of staff Leo McGarry, originally played by the late John Spencer. We now know it'll be This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown. Will any of the show's celebrated recurring and guest cast appear? What, if anything, will this additional material Sorkin is writing have to say about current events? But for me, this reunion, as announced boils down to one question: is Aaron Sorkin finally going to address the fact that "Hartsfield's Landing" has never made any damn sense?

    The Hartsfield's Landing part of "Hartsfield's Landing" actually isn't the main plot of the episode. Most critically, the White House is dealing with a possible armed stand-off between China and Taiwan, and the delicate diplomatic maneuverings President Bartlet (Sheen) has to go through in order to keep any missiles from getting launched. At the same time, Bartlet is engaging in simultaneous chess matches with his advisors Sam (Lowe) and Toby (Schiff). There's also a prank war happening between CJ (Janney) and Charlie (Hill), as a kind of comic relief runner. All good and fine and perfectly acceptable West Wing-quality television. And then there's the subplot about Hartsfield's Landing, a tiny New Hampshire town, population 63, who — in the kind of folksy civic quirk that Sorkin can never seem to resist — cast their ballots together at midnight on primary day, count them by 12:07 AM, and thus provide the news media with the only election results to report for the next 19 or so hours. Add to that the fact that, as CJ tells the press in her briefing, Hartsfield's Landing has "accurately predicted the winner in every election since Taft" and you can see why the folks on Bartlet's staff, laser-focused on news cycles as they are, would care about the outcome. So much so that when Donna (Maloney) gets word that longtime Bartlet supporters and Hartsfield's Landing voters the Flenders are intending to vote for Bartlet's Republican rival Bob Ritchie, Josh (Whitford) flips out and has Donna make a series of ever-more-desperate phone calls to the Flenderses to try to get them to change their mind.

    Here's the thing, though: it's the primary. Bartlet wouldn't be running against Ritchie until the general election in November (which, faithful to the calendar, The West Wing doesn't get to until early Season 4). Bartlet's opponent in Hartsfield's Landing and everywhere across the country on this night is whatever Democrat is making a cursory primary challenge against the sitting president. Which, given that earlier in Season 3, Josh had already swept away a primary challenge from Indiana governor Jack Buckland, the likelihood is that Bartlet is running unopposed in the primary. Ritchie would be battling with whomever the other Republicans in the race were. This is incredibly basic electoral politics at work here, and Sorkin just charges straight ahead into a lawless universe where party distinctions don't exist and primaries are chaos incarnate. The West Wing is engaging enough as television that most viewers just whisk past this canyon-sized plot hole that deep-sixes an entire subplot and makes it sound ridiculous and insane, but once you catch on to the error, it's impossible to watch the episode the same way again.

    In reality, there is indeed a small town in New Hampshire that votes all together at midnight on primary day. The impeccably named Dixville Notch, NH, does just that and was likely the inspiration for Sorkin's fictional Hartsfield's Landing. Dixville Notch had correctly predicted the ultimate winner of the Republican primary (not necessarily the New Hampshire primary, but the candidate who'd ultimately win the GOP nomination) since 1948, a streak that was interrupted, as all good things were, by Donald Trump in 2016. Again, though, that applied to one party's primary only. CJ's claim that Hartsfield's Landing correctly predicted the winner of the general election doesn't make any sense when discussing the primaries. Even if New Hampshire held a fully open primary that allowed voters to vote in whichever party's primary they wanted to regardless of affiliation (which it does not, although voters who register as "undeclared" may do so), the news cycle wouldn't be running Bartlet-vs-Ritchie results, they'd be running the separate primary results.


    Sorkin has his work cut out for him with the new material he's said to be writing for this production of "Hartsfield's Landing," especially if he's looking to make the Bartlet administration more applicable to 2020 political norms. But if he's making changes, he should really start with those poor confused Flenderses — not to mention Josh and Donna — who can't seem to tell the primary from the general, on the defining political TV drama of a generation.

    NOTE: An earlier version of this article speculated on who would play Leo McGarry; it is now known it will be Sterling K. Brown

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    A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote will be released on HBO Max October 15.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The West Wing, HBO Max, Aaron Sorkin, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Dule Hill, Janel Maloney, Martin Sheen, Richard Schiff, Rob Lowe