In The West Wing, I believe that character is Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) and the relationship is between Josh and his long-time assistant Donna Moss (Janel Maloney).
On the surface, there is no question that this is a conventional story arc designed to provide a bit of heart in a show preoccupied with cold, hard politics. There is only one problem with this reading: creator Aaron Sorkin left the show after its fourth season. It is only my speculation, but I don't think this is how Sorkin meant for this storyline to play out. And that's a problem.
It's a problem because I think that Sorkin's writing has, at the very least, distinct traces of misogyny. Sorkin's recent films--The Social Network, and, especially, Moneyball--have little room for women. They are homo-social dramas about male ambition and relationships. This is the realm in which Sorkin seems at ease. Women drift in and out, but they are accessories, little more.
For instance, in Moneyball, Billy Beane's relationship to his ex-wife is left undeveloped, although it seems clear that it is an important part of his personality, whether he understands it to be or not. This is the issue with Sorkin's writing: he has a masterful ear for the nuances of the professional arena, be it a tech company, a baseball team, or the White House, but is largely tone deaf to the complex personal relationship. It is little wonder that the one non-baseball relationship glimpse of Beane's is to his daughter; when Sorkin does write relationships, his grasp of their subtleties is childlike at best.
Fortunately, I was recently exhorted to give the series a second chance. Although the fifth season is indeed a bit of a dud, the nomination and presidential campaign of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and the waning days of the Bartlett presidency make for compelling viewing.
This is why the end of the show is entertaining, but not why it is important. For that, we need to return to Josh and Donna. Why do these two central characters finally give in to the latent desire they have (apparently) felt all along?
It is not merely vicarious fulfilment for loyal viewers who have stuck with the show through it all. No, rather, it is the logical consequence of a fundamental change in their dynamic.
In the sixth season of the show, Donna comes to realize that she will not find career advancement working for Josh, who sees her only as his assistant, not as a potential peer. She leaves to work for the Vice-President and his campaign for the Democratic nomination, in direct competition with Josh and his candidate: Santos. In the intervening year, as the leadership campaign runs into Presidential campaign, Donna ascends through the ranks, ultimately being promoted to spokesperson for the Santos campaign. Only then do she and Josh begin a relationship.
The salient point here is that Donna can only connect romantically with Josh once she has overturned the power dynamic in their relationship. This functions as a neat metaphor for the changes in the show. As long as Sorkin was at the helm, female characters generally remained either subordinate to men, or stereotypically feminine in a way that was clearly disempowering.
Like Josh in his relation to Donna, Sorkin's The West Wing sees women as incidental to the important business of governing. The most significant female character on the show is C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney). As Press Secretary, C.J. is clearly important. Yet, she is also the only member of the inner circle to shed tears in the White House. This is not to say that emotion is in itself a sign of inadequacy. The issue is that C.J.'s tears represent a failure to understand larger implications. She cries for the individual, and in the process, loses sight of the collective interest. Worse, her tears fulfill a stereotype of femininity that says that women aren't cut out for rational political work.
Perhaps the best exemplification of Sorkin's attitude towards women comes in a sequence of scenes in which Sam Seaborne (Rob Lowe) interacts with Associate White House Counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor). Sam tells Ainsley that her outfit is "enough to make a good dog break his leash." He is then informed by another woman in the office that this was an offensive and demeaning comment. Sam obsesses over whether she was right, even asking Ainsley herself, who tells him she thought it was a compliment. Ultimately, the sequence culminates with Hayes confronting Sam's accuser (a woman named Celia who otherwise does not appear in the show) and telling her: "The point is that sexual revolution tends to get in the way of actual revolution. Nonsense issues distract attention away from real ones like pay equity, childcare, honest to God sexual harassment..." (See below for the extended sequence to appreciate the full context of these remarks.)
Through Sam, Sorkin is espousing a particular brand of feminism that works for men like him: he thinks women deserve equal pay, but he also wants to ogle them to his heart's content. This scene is disturbingly close to one that might occur in Mad Men, yet Sorkin tries to pass it off as progressive.
The remarkable thing about attitudes to gender in The West Wing is how much they change after Sorkin leaves the show. C.J. ascends from her position as Press Secretary to Chief of Staff and handles the job adroitly. Moreover, whereas, in the early seasons it is the male leads who struggle to balance relationships with their all-consuming work (leaving us to feel that their partners are being unreasonable to ask for more from them--another troubling gender dynamic), in the last season it is C.J. who has little time for her long-time love interest Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield).
In the latter seasons, a new female character is added to the cast: Deputy National Security Advisor Kate Harper (Mary McCormack). She is thoughtful, dignified, and tenacious--perhaps the first significant role for a woman on the show that does not feel gimmicky in some way. Santos' campaign advisor is Louise Thornton (Janeane Garofalo), a more serious version of the grating Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) character penned by Sorkin in the first season.
And then, of course, there is Donna, who blossoms after Sorkin's departure into Josh's equal (at least professionally, she still outstrips him by a considerable margin emotionally).
This would doubtless be more satisfying if Sorkin had still been pulling the strings on Josh--one wonders how he will write women in his upcoming HBO series The Newsroom (a show that steals its title from an earlier CBC series).
People often talk about the "progressive" end of the series, referring to the character of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), his race, and the fact that he seems an even more liberal successor to the Bartlett (Martin Sheen) regime, but it's really in the representations of women that the show grows over its lifespan. Without Sorkin at the helm, The West Wing comes, contrary to all expectations, to outgrow its creator. I'm not sure she would admit it, but I'm pretty sure even Ainsley Hayes would appreciate that.