Disclaimer: I own neither the characters nor the universe of The West Wing, and make no such claim upon them. I'm simply having some fun here.
Sam declines to return to Washington. He tells Josh he has a fiancée whom he loves, and he gets home from the office by 6:30 every night, and it never snows, and it's not muggy, so why would he come back to the pressure of D.C.? He saw what it did to Josh, and doesn't want that for himself.
Josh returns disappointed, to a transition team headed by Barry Goodwin. The President-Elect listens to Goodwin in a way he doesn't to Josh, and Josh finds himself having to fill over a thousand positions with not enough qualified people for the task. This is the downside, he thinks, to a successful insurgent campaign. Not enough people he can trust, not when the party seemed to write Santos/McGarry off as a lost cause right out of the gate, not when they had no support from the White House.
And he was going to rely on Leo for advice. And now Leo's dead of a heart attack.
Fortunately he has Donna, and that God for that – he doesn't know what he'd do without her. Her mere presence makes his life so much better, and takes off some of the pressure. Sure, their relationship isn't as effortless as it was during President Bartlet's first term, but they're getting back there, he thinks, even if he's far more weary and she's far more jaded than either of them ever was before everything went off the rails. He tries to pinpoint in his mind just when they went off the rails – when she quit, or Germany, or the Carrick fiasco, or the re-election, or Amy or Cliff – but it doesn't really matter to him. They're together.
And then she sets a deadline, and it's just one more weight added to him that he doesn't need. Four weeks to figure out what they mean to each other.
He thought it was pretty clear what they meant – he'd been waiting nine years for this, for her. But when she sets that deadline, things become less clear. Maybe she doesn't know what they are. They never talk, after all – she comes over some nights, and they fall into bed, make love (at least that's what it is in his mind – he's not so sure now what it is in hers), and fall asleep, exhausted. They never get up together – usually she leaves first, and the morning of the deadline, he gets up first, hours before she does.
He had thought she felt the same way. But maybe her refusal to stay with him, even when her apartment was sublet out, was a clue. Maybe it's just sex for her, some kind of fling. After all, she's had lovers over the years, and what seems like infinite dates with the District gomers, and he's basically just had Amy. And that was him trying to get over the hurt from Donna's time with Cliff Calley. It didn't work, either time.
So by the very fact of Donna setting a deadline makes him re-examine his view of things. "The Observer Effect", he thinks, remembering tenth-grade science from three decades before.
He can't help but resent her for it.
She begins her countdown. "Three weeks, six days." This becomes the metric of his life.
He still doesn't have a deputy. With Sam gone, the natural choices are Donna and Lou, but Lou has made it clear she's heard what being Deputy Chief of Staff did to him, and wants no part of it. She's sticking with Communications Director. So he goes to Donna, offering basically the same job she asked for after the convention. He tells her she knows the job in and out, from watching him for eight years, and he tries to make a joke of it, saying she's been Deputy Deputy Chief of Staff before, and at least he won't ask her for coffee this time around.
This turns out to be the wrong thing to say, and the reminder of their eight years together seems to make her frown for some reason he still can't fathom. He remembers so many good times from those years, but she seems to only remember the "grunt-level servitude". Not that they've talked about this. They don't talk. They just sleep together.
She's been offered Chief of Staff to the First Lady. He doesn't think it's a better position, but she does, because she can't work with him any more. That stings, even if it's probably true. She takes Mrs. Santos' offer.
When she comes over after midnight, it's not to make love. Their sex is passionate and lust-filled, but devoid of tenderness. He thinks this is more her doing than his. Afterward, he's spent but unsatisfied. He can't sleep. "Three weeks, five days," she says as she leaves at four that morning, without a goodbye kiss.
The next day, he blows up at Otto for the second day in a row. He knows that Otto's doing his best, but right now he doesn't care. The staff starts avoiding him, all except for Ronna, who remembers the early days of the primary campaign, and doesn't hold his outbursts against him. He appreciates that kind of loyalty, and wishes she had experience enough to make her his deputy. After Sam and Donna, there's no one around he trusts more.
Three weeks, two days to go, and Josh isn't sleeping at all. Goodwin keeps proposing total idiots for Cabinet, and it's all Josh can do to make the President-Elect not just agree with Goodwin on everything. CJ is breathing down his throat on the President-Elect's comments on Kazakhstan, and Josh wonders whatever happened to the friendship and trust the two colleagues once shared.
He needs a vacation. He knows it. But there's no time in transition, not if he wants a recognizable government at the end of it. He knows he won't get it if he leaves Goodwin unchecked. Maybe in January.
People keep telling him he looks awful. He's heard more than one Night of the Living Dead comment, although Otto makes an Evil Dead reference or two, which brings him back into Josh's good books, as Josh remembers the movie from his law school days. He and Chris saw it together – Amy didn't want to come with Chris that night. Something about horror movies being relentlessly misogynist. She was probably right about that, although the movie was fun.
And now she's here, because the President-Elect has hired her for Legislative Affairs. Josh tries to tell him this is a bad idea, that yes, Amy is brilliant and driven and filled with the holy fire, but she goes off the reservation at the drop of a hat, and always at a time that does maximum damage to the Administration. It's a terrible idea, no matter that he actually still likes Amy personally. But the President-Elect doesn't see that.
Donna, of course, thinks this is somehow his doing, and doesn't come over at all that night. Not that Josh has much time, anyway.
She leaves him a voice mail the next morning. Three weeks, one day. Her voice contains no warmth.
Two weeks, six days to go, and Josh still doesn't have a deputy. Two names come to mind – Cliff Calley and Will Bailey. Calley actually has the job now, and has been doing well at it, even if he is a Republican. The President-Elect has been muttering the standard bipartisan crap, and if he's not going to listen to Josh that it's a bad idea in general, maybe this will mollify him. Of all Donna's past boyfriends – Dr. Freeride, Commander Wonderful, Heathcliff, Gomers 1 through n, he's the one Josh hates the least. He screwed over Donna with the diary, sure, but he kept his end of the deal, and did Leo a good turn that one time. Josh can work with him.
Donna once pointed out that Calley was the only one of her exes Josh didn't bestow some derisive nickname upon. That's true enough. Josh won't mention it to Calley, though.
Calley is receptive when Josh proposes it. The President-Elect needs to approve it, but Josh is confident he well.
And then he finds out about Vinick for Secretary of State, and Goodwin and the President-Elect didn't even run it by him. So Calley would be one Republican too many, considering Josh has already hired Ainsley Hayes for White House Counsel. So Will it is. At least he's competent.
Donna is surprised but happy when Josh tells her Will is the new Deputy. He doesn't feel the need to tell her he was considering Calley. She spends the night. It's nice. Very nice. Right up there on the niceness scale. Passionate and sweaty and everything it should be, but afterward, she rolls off of him and faces away from him. She's gone before sunrise.
Two weeks, four days to go, and it's Thanksgiving Day. Josh is working – he's the only one at the office, but he needs to get stuff done, and at least Goodwin is gone and the President-Elect is gone and he can hear himself think. He promised Donna he'd be home at four, and they'll cook a chicken or something together, but there's a lot of work to do and not enough time.
When he comes home at six thirty, she lets him have it with both barrels, and tells him how he needs to make time, and if this is how it's always going to be, maybe they don't need the rest of the time, the two weeks, four days, to make a decision. Maybe this isn't going anywhere, and why won't Josh have the talk with her, and why is this so hard for him? And it's one more load on his back, and he snaps.
He rants and raves about all the pressure, how he's supposed to be Chief of Staff but the President-Elect won't listen, and Goodwin's undermining him, and CJ keeps calling to berate him, and no one is letting him do his job, and now this stupid deadline of Donna's is making things so much worse. And he yells that he loves her, and has loved her for years, but this God-damned deadline is too much, and he doesn't have time to think about what this all is on that time frame, not with Kazakhstan and staffing and all this shit, and can't she just lay off for a moment, just give him some god-damned space?
And she rants back, and tells him how he just can't handle her standing up for herself, and she's not going to be his doormat for another eight years, and tells him to take all the damn space he needs, and picks up her purse and throws on her jacket on and leaves, angry tears running down her face. And Josh is angry too, and throws the chicken she made into the trash and collapses on his couch, where he doesn't sleep. And every moment he sits on the couch, he thinks of two things – how she's left him again, and how she didn't even seem to notice or care that he said he loved her.
There is no more time counting down any more. Donna is not talking to him. He calls her phone, but it keeps going to voice mail, and he's not going to leave a damn message about this. And she's always with Mrs. Santos, so he never sees her anyway.
The news of their breakup travels quickly. Josh didn't think it was a breakup, but apparently Donna did. He tries to call again, but gets nowhere.
The staff almost completely avoids him now. They all like Donna better, and think he's a bear, and the only one on his side appears to be Ronna, who remembers how Josh used to look in the primaries when he'd have a run in with Donna. She tells him she never trusted Donna, and how she knows how hurt she makes him, and she warns him when Donna comes his way. Josh doesn't have the energy to correct her, to let Ronna know how good Donna used to make him feel when they would banter back in the West Wing. It doesn't matter anymore. She's gone again.
He's yelling all the time now, and the staff thinks that he's always been unstable, and had driven Donna away. He hears mutterings that he's going to have a nervous breakdown, and he's sure Donna thinks he's going to have another PTSD episode, but he doesn't talk with her about that, and she doesn't talk to him, about that or anything else.
And Josh doesn't have a nervous breakdown. It's a heart attack instead, just like Leo, eleven days after Thanksgiving, and seven days to go on Donna's now-irrelevant schedule.
He wakes up at GW, and hears voices outside his room. Arguing, and then he hears crying. The crying fades. His mother comes into his room, and lets him know she loves him, but he can't do this to himself, not anymore, and she's not going to let him work himself to death. He's given so much for the White House, he's nearly been killed, and it's time to stop now, she says.
And he agrees. He doesn't have the energy, the strength any more.
The President-Elect visits later that day, and says he won't accept Josh's resignation yet. He asks Josh to take a week to think about it.
Josh gets visitors the next day, but his mother is keeping vigil, and they only come in one at a time. If anyone says anything too stressful, his mother shuffles them out quickly.
President and Mrs. Bartlet stop by, and Josh is grateful. Mrs. Bartlet tells him it's time to slow down, and Josh surprises her by agreeing. Sam sends flowers. So does 'Bob'. Amy stops by, and is surprisingly sweet. He'd forgotten that part of her personality, eclipsed so often by her ambition and talent for sideswiping his agenda with her own. CJ comes to visit, and they have a short conversation filled with phrases of condolence and friendship, but they really have nothing left to say to one another. It's been a long year.
It's been a long year with someone else, too, and Josh asks his mother if she's come by. His mother said she did, just before he woke up, and that Donna would be back tomorrow, but his mother wasn't going to let her through then, as it would be too much stress.
His mother used to adore Donna, and would let Josh know how good she thought she was for him. After she left for the Russell campaign, she would tell Josh he needed to speak with her, to not let the rift between them grow. Once he started sharing the results of their encounters in the primaries, his mother stopped asking about her. When he told her how Donna said "I had a good teacher... I meant Will," his mother seemed more hurt than Josh was. When he told her they had begun seeing each other on election day, he thought his mother would be overjoyed. He didn't expect her to be so wary, or to be so unsurprised when he told her that things with Donna had apparently ended.
When his mother does let Donna in to see him the next day, Josh watches the glances Mom sends her way. It's clear she blames Donna for his heart attack, at least partly, even though Josh doesn't. It's also clear Donna blames herself. She touches his hand, and he doesn't pull away, but when she hugs him, his hug is weak and tentative. He really doesn't have the energy for this anymore.
She brings up their last conversation, and asks if he meant it. He says he did. She says, "did?" and starts to say more, but he interrupts her, and tells her he's quitting. He can't handle the pressure anymore, can't handle any of this, and he doesn't want to die. He's going to go back to Florida with his mother for a while.
She looks horrified, and asks if he's sure, if he wouldn't prefer to stay in D.C., and take a leave of absence, like... she doesn't say "like last time", but it's what she means. His mother says he needs someone to watch over him, just for a while, and it's clear she's the only one who can do it, so he has to go to Florida. Donna looks like she's been slapped. Josh sees that it's clear to her that his mother won't leave him in Donna's hands this time, not like six years ago. Josh says the President-Elect needs a Chief of Staff right from the start. It will probably end up going to Goodwin. It doesn't matter, anyway – it's not like under President Bartlet anyway. None of the old gang will be in the West Wing. They don't need him.
Donna looks stricken, and is about to argue, when his mother says that Josh needs his rest. Donna says goodbye, and that she'll see him soon, and even gives him a kiss on the forehead, but Josh knows it's the end, and after all this time he can't give her his heart anymore, not when it's so fragile, both figuratively and literally.
They leave for Florida the next day. On the seventh day after the heart attack, Josh sends a formal letter to the President-Elect, thanking him for the opportunity to serve, but making it clear he will not be serving as Chief of Staff.
It is the day Donna's deadline was to expire.
Once he recovers, he needs to do something with his life. Not for economic reasons, as he's quite comfortable from his father's inheritance, and it's become clear to him that at age forty-seven, there will be no kids to save money for. It's clear to his mother, too, but she doesn't say anything. The best candidate she once had for mother of her grandchildren is not her candidate anymore.
His mother says he should go into teaching, but Josh is reluctant to. He doesn't say why, but his mother knows, and says that she was wrong, and Josh was obviously a wonderful teacher. She points to the offers he's received from Yale, Stanford, Duke and Harvard.
In the end, he moves back to Connecticut, and teaches government and political science at Yale. Of the old gang, he really only talks to Toby as time goes on, and the bitterness from Josh leaving the White House still lingers for the older man. He gets the occasional email from CJ or Sam, and a nice note sometimes from President Bartlet, but the political world has moved on, and Josh is surprisingly content. That last year was exhilarating, but it destroyed him. He lost too much – Leo, his health, almost his sanity, her – and that killed any love for the game he had. He still gets offers, and expects that he's get a few for the upcoming 2010 midterms, but he's content enough to teach. He's good at it.
Donna doesn't call or email, but he doesn't call or email her. It was all too easy to fall back into their patterns from the 2006 primary season – the silent ones rather than the hurtful and bitter ones. Besides, she's busy. She crafts her own agenda for the First Lady, and when President Santos finally tires of Goodwin as Chief of Staff and promotes Will, Donna moves over to the empty Deputy Chief of Staff position. Apparently working for Will again is no problem, unlike working for Josh himself. He's not surprised. There's an editorial in the Hartford Courant saying she's not qualified because she has no degree, and Josh writes a blistering letter to the editor defending her and refuting him. They publish it. He gets some flowers the next day at his office in New Haven, but no note.
None of the old gang pass messages between them. Josh doesn't give any, and Donna must not either. Not that Toby would be a conduit for it, and CJ never mentions Donna to him. He doesn't mention her, either.
When the Bartlet Presidential Library opens, Josh is invited, of course. It's nice to see the old gang again. Will doesn't come – someone has to stay back at the White House, and President Bartlet made a point of insisting Donna come. She deserves to be there, of course, far more than Will ever would.
Abbey Bartlet brings Donna over to him, and comments how good Donna looks, how much more healthy Josh looks than he has in years, and asks Donna about how her relationship with that guy from Agriculture fell through. She tells Donna that Josh is single. It's embarrassing for both of them. They chat amiably for a few minutes, but it's not like it was. Not like it's been since before the re-election, really. The old banter doesn't flow anymore.
She gets a call from Will, and apologetically says she has to take it, and she'll come back in a minute.
She doesn't. Josh doesn't really mind anymore. This is how it will be for them now – weddings, dedications, funerals.
He never marries. She doesn't either.
[Author's Note: This ended up even bleaker than I intended. I think this kind of ending is just as plausible for Josh and Donna as the happier ones I prefer, especially after the events of the last few seasons. I'll try to make the next one I write about these two more upbeat.]