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Ode to 'Hartsfield's Landing' — 'West Wing' Episode to Be Reenacted Thursday on HBO Max
October 15, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe): "You never were going to sell them the destroyers."

President Josiah Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen, top): [shakes head, no] "But everybody wakes up alive in the morning and saves a little face."

Seaborn: [amazed] "I don't know how you…I don't know the word…I don't know how you do it."

President Bartlet: "You have a lot of help. You listen to everybody, and then you call the play."

     — from 'Hartsfield's Landing,' The West Wing, Feb. 27, 2002    

First off, don't call it a reunion episode. Surviving cast members of The West Wing reunite Thursday for a theatrical stage reenactment of the 2002 West Wing episode Hartsfield's Landing, to be streamed on HBO Max.

Please don't call it a reunion episode, though, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin begged viewers this past Friday on Stephen Colbert's Late Show. It is what it is, Sorkin said, in not so many words: a verbatim reenactment titled, somewhat awkwardly, A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote. The idea is to encourage people to vote regardless of who that vote is for.

For 43 minutes, give or take, The West Wing's Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, and Dulé Hill will take center stage for a word-for-word recreation of Sorkin's original script for an episode that first aired on Feb. 27, 2002.

The role of fictional White House chief-of-staff Leo McGarry, originally played by John Spencer — he passed away during The West Wing's final season in 2005 — will be played by Emmy Award-winning drama actor Sterling K. Brown, best known for his head-turning roles in This Is Us and The People v O.J. Simpson. The West Wing special is shrouded in secrecy — or about as much secrecy as a faithful recreation of a decades-old episode of a broadcast network drama can be — but now is as good a time as any to look back on an hour of primetime TV that, at the time, aired during calmer, more sober political times when, despite the recent memory of the 2001 terror attacks, anything seemed possible and a glowingly idealistic portrait of a fictional U.S. White House and its equally idealistic president didn't seem too much of a stretch.

Sorkin viewed his creation as a paean to public service, as it aired at a time when public service was considered a virtue, not something to be belittled and demeaned.

A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote has been designed to raise awareness of the non-profit organization When We Vote, chaired by Michelle Obama. When We Vote's mission statement is to encourage people to participate in one of the most important acts any thinking person will perform in their lifetime in any working democracy. The original "Hartsfield's Landing" was a tribute to just that, voting, and watching it again today in October 2020 is to marvel at how vibrant and current it seems nearly two decades later.

Past is prologue. Sorkin penned the original script and received sole writing credit; the episode was directed by Vincent Misiano (the HBO Max recreation is being shepherded by Sorkin and his longtime West Wing creative partner, lead director, and co-executive producer Thomas Schlamme).

Sorkin applied creative license to what was, after all, a fictional premise, even if it was rooted in reality. Hartsfield's Landing is a fictional town in New Hampshire, loosely based on the real town of Hart's Location, with a population of 63, of whom 42 of them are eligible voters. In a peculiarity of geography and time zones — and Sorkin's active imagination — the people of Hartsfield's Landing vote earlier than in other polls in the primaries; the vote of these 42 people has "accurately predicted the winner since William Howard Taft."

(In the real world, Hart's Location is an actual town in Carroll County, New Hampshire, with a population of 41, according to the 2010 census as recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau and American FactFinder. According to a story in the Boston Globe in 2008, the town has traditionally been one of the first places to declare its results for the New Hampshire primaries. Hart's Location was incorporated in 1795, but the practice of calling presidential primary results early originated in 1948. Now you know.)

Against this quirk of election timing, Sorkin crafted a complex, ever-shifting tale, full of varying emotional beats, in which President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) challenges his deputy communications director, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), and communications director, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), to separate but simultaneous games of chess in adjoining rooms on the eve of the presidential primary for reelection, all while playing a game of brinkmanship with mainland China, who are rattling sabers — metaphorically speaking — over Taiwan. China is staging war games in the Taiwan Strait, but rumors that Taiwan is threatening to test-fire recently acquired U.S. Patriot missiles to see if they work has the Chinese threatening to turn war games into the real thing if Taiwan overplays its hand.

(Fun fact: In the original episode, China's ambassador to the U.S. is played by the consummate character actor, James Hong, who had a small but memorable role in the film classic Chinatown and a similarly memorable role in the original Blade Runner, among countless other film parts over the years.)

Bartlet spends the night toggling between chess games, all the while juggling the China crisis and monitoring the primary results from a town that, despite its tiny population, will monopolize the news cycle until other precincts start reporting their own election results.

Sorkin's story bobs and weaves timed to Bartlet's chess moves; at one point, after Bartlet's follow-up meeting with the Chinese ambassador, Sam Seaborn asks him how the meeting went. Bartlet asks him how he thinks it went, then counsels his deputy communications director to, "See the whole board."

It's counsel that applies to chess, of course, but also the way a president must juggle several pressing issues at the same time, whether it's stopping a war in the 110 mile-wide strait that separates Taiwan from mainland China or divining how the vote of 42 people might play out across a nation of 233 million eligible voters — not all of whom vote. (Little more than 55 percent of the U.S. voting-age population cast a ballot in the 2016 election, according to the Pew Research Center, which is why the emphasis on getting out the vote this time is so crucial.)

The original "Hartfield's Landing" ends with Bartlet telling Sam Seaborn that he's convinced that he will run for president himself one day, that he shouldn't be scared, that good people can and do rise to the occasion, and that he believes in him. The moment is pure Sorkin, and the final moment is the decisive move in their chess game. Who wins? No spoilers here.


A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote streams Thursday, Oct. 15 on HBO Max.

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