A Deeply Felt Ode to Josh Lyman’s West Wing BackpackPhoto Courtesy of Warner Brothers Television TV Features The West Wing
Earlier this year, Michelle Williams knocked the world—the portion of it watching Fosse/Verdon, anyway—on its ass, and she did it with a strange swipe of her hand. It’s snotty tear-wiping as demonstration of the great power of a certain kind of actor—the kind that revels in specificity. (See: Viola Davis; Matthew Rhys; Meryl Streep, whose ability to differentiate each and every “Let’s go” in a long string of nothing but those two words somehow made a phone call the most exciting scene in The Post).
Bradley Whitford is also one such actor. It’s true of his work in The Handmaid’s Tale, which earned him an Emmy (his third) last weekend. It’s true in Billy Madison, for crying out loud. And it’s true in all seven seasons of The West Wing, whose 25th anniversary we come upon this week. The series saw him imbue the charming, infuriating, brilliant, foolish and often broken Josh Lyman with plenty of oddball specificity. His walk changes. He stops breathing or blinks differently in moments of great emotion or bewilderment. He acts with his forehead sometimes. It is a masterpiece of idiosyncrasy. The Season Two standout “Noël” may be the best example, but pick any episode of the show (save the one where CJ goes to her high school reunion and knocks boots with Matthew Modine), and you’ll find loads of specificity. It is a triumph of eyebrow-wrangling, dramatic breathing, weight-shifting, slight adjustments in pitch, and this thing he does where his arms move separately from the rest of his body with a momentum all their own.
But this piece is not a tribute to the divine specificity Whitford demonstrates in The West Wing. It is a tribute to the divine specificity of Lyn Paolo, the costume designer credited on all 154 episodes of The West Wing, and property master Blanche Sindelar, credited on 151 of those episodes. This is a tribute—a full-throated, straight-from-the-innards paean—to Josh Lyman’s backpack.
Josh Lyman’s backpack rarely steps into the spotlight. To be fair, it’s not as if The West Wing is a show about the ways people choose to transport their belongings to work. Neither is his the only specific baggage choice: Leo McGarry carries a slick briefcase, Toby mostly just clutches stuff to his chest, you get the idea. Still, despite the unassuming nature of the bags Josh employs, it’s his backpack habit that makes the biggest impression. It is a choice that, because it is so specific, speaks volumes. It tells us about who this person is. It tells us about the person he’d like others to see. And, when deployed by a great actor, it sets the imagination loose to tumble around inside its pockets.
It is also just a backpack. But what the hell, just go with me on this.
“In your wildest dreams did you imagine that I’d walk in this room without knowing exactly who you are and what you do?”
Why does it stick out, the fact that this guy carries a backpack? It’s not because everyone else is carrying a briefcase. (Not everyone is.) It’s not because it looks wrong or inappropriate. It’s jarring; who expects one of the most powerful people on the planet to carry a bag they would have used as a high-schooler? Because of the setting, the stakes and the rest of the costume, it becomes striking because it seems so right. Wrong and right at once. That tension is what makes the backpack, which makes its first very brief appearance in the show’s third episode, memorable. That, and the way it’s carried.
It’s certainly not memorable just because of the backpacks in question. They are, with the possible exception of one bag with an enormous top-flap, utilitarian things, always dark in color and obviously selected for practicality and comfort. I say “they” because Josh went through multiple backpacks over the years—probably because he over-filled them and then worked 20-hours days, slinging the poor bag over his shoulder and trudging through D.C. like a pale, wired version of Reese Witherspoon in Wild. The fact that we never see the bag simply give out mid-stride, vomiting its contents all over the National Mall, is one of the more unrealistic notes in Aaron Sorkin’s fantasy of democracy; file it next to Bartlet’s “When the President stands, nobody sits” (**https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSXJzybEeJM) speech and whatever the hell that Toby/NASA storyline was supposed to be. But back to baggage. If you, like me, find yourself somewhat obsessed with Josh’s backpacks and go to the trouble to seek them all out, you’ll see a lot of similarities. There’s the occasional “high performance” strap, with useless rubber grippy things and other bells and whistles, but mostly they’re adjustable canvas, nondescript Jansport-style joints. They’re designed to get the job done, without communicating much else.
And that’s really the key to this, the first of the backpack’s accomplishments. It tells us that this is a guy who is all about the work. “My IQ doesn’t break the bank, and I wanted to do this, so I studied all the time,” he says in “H.Con – 172,” explaining his inept, childish attempts to communicate with a potential love interest. Not “be this,” but “do this.” Backpacks aren’t status symbols. They don’t communicate power. They are highly practical and durable, they can carry quite a lot, and they’re not outlandishly expensive. Josh didn’t choose a bag based on how formidable it would make him look. He chose based on how well it would allow him, a deeply disorganized person, to do his job—by keeping all the potentially important things with him at all times.
Then he carried it slung over one shoulder, like any high-schooler hoping to look cool might do. Though Josh didn’t choose the bag to look powerful, there’s no chance he’d ever want to look anything but cool.
“Plus, I’ve got that, you know, boyish thing.”
In the pilot, Josh tells his assistant/will-they-won’t-they, Donna (Janel Moloney), that he refuses to change his shirt before going to a thankless meeting. “All the girls think you look really hot in this shirt,” she tells him, not even attempting to make it sound convincing. He pauses, says nothing, and takes it from her. Later in the season, while trying to win over Marlee Matlin’s Joey Lucas, he wears an especially nice suit to work; when others notice, he insists it’s just his “regular Tuesday suit.” Like many a Cool Guy and Cool Girl before him, Josh Lyman wants to look good, but he also wants to look like he’s not trying to look good. Yes, he’s all about the work, rather than jostling for influence or chasing wealth, but he’s also about looking like the kind of guy who’s above such things. He’s genuinely not a briefcase guy, but he’s also interested in making sure everyone else knows that, too. Voila: backpack.
There’s another layer to that. In Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop RPGs—again, just stay with me here—players will occasionally reach a level that gives them extra bonuses—to charisma, stealth, athletics, whatever. The point is not the bonus itself. The point is that, if a player makes careful choices leading up to that level, they are sometimes able to stack their bonuses, adding potency to what’s already potent. Josh Lyman’s backpack is such a bonus. In season six’s “The Hubbert Peak,” he tells Toby that he’s got “that boyish thing,” but that quality would be obvious without the disclosure. What happens when someone who’s got that boyish thing carries a backpack? They get more boyish still—all while looking like someone who doesn’t care about how cool or powerful they look.
The backpack has a similar effect on what we know of Josh Lyman beyond the boyishness.
”Post — after hoc, ergo — therefore, so… After hoc, therefore something else hoc.”
If you asked me to tell you what’s inside that backpack, I could not. No idea. It’s not there to be opened. But I sure as hell could make an educated guess.
It carries, one assumes, manila folders filled with important documents. There are a great many pens, most of which have stopped working, and a travel mug or tupperware container that hasn’t been cleaned recently. Maybe it holds a pair of running shoes, on the off-chance that the only meeting he can get with John Hoynes is while jogging; Maybe his lunch is in there. Maybe a lunch from two days ago is as well. There’s definitely a bunch of loose Reece’s Pieces rolling around in some change at the bottom. You don’t have to see inside Josh’s backpack to know what it’s like in there, because you’ve seen Josh Lyman’s office. You’ve seen his wallet. You’ve seen his reliance on his assistant, and you’ve seen him asleep on his desk.
Perhaps the smartest thing about the choice to have Josh Lyman carry a backpack is the fact that, without ever doing much besides hanging off his shoulder, it reinforces so much of what we know about him. Hardworking, driven—but more toward purpose than individual glory. Uninterested in status symbols, but deeply concerned with the image he projects. Energetic and chaotic. Practical but sloppy. And a mess of contradictions.
It also tells us he prefers backpacks to other bags. And maybe that’s all.
Allison Shoemaker is a TV and film critic whose work has appeared in The A.V. Club, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, and other publications. She is also the co-host of the podcasts Hall Of Faces and Podlander Drunkcast: An Outlander Podcast, the latter of which is exactly what it sounds like.