Shipping Josh Lyman and Donnatella Moss is not for the weak.
Cue the training montage, because you’re going to need your strength for this. I charged full-speed-ahead onto the Josh/Donna ship in the “In Excelsis Deo” episode of season 1 of The West Wing (“I meant it.”), and then promptly proceeded to wait six long seasons for these stupid soulmates to even kiss. (So quit your bitching, Nick/Jess fans.) To you iron-willed people who managed to live out this tension in seven years real time: BLESS YOU. I am in awe of your patience.
But, you know what? I wouldn’t trade it for anything. These characters, this story – looking at it from the other side, there isn’t a moment that was unnecessary. I wasn’t planning on a follow-up post to my 10 Reasons to Marathon The West Wing list, but there I was, the night after watching “The Cold,” turning on my bedside light and writing down notes.
As a connoisseur of television, my pet peeve is when a series assumes that its audience is gullible. For example: don’t just plunk two people down next to each other and then tell me they’re OTP material. Josh and Donna were an accident. Something was happening there with those actors, and Sorkin was intuitive enough (and ruthless enough – surprise, surprise) to shitcan Moira Kelly; stop trying to make Mandy/Josh a thing; and put Queen Donna Moss in the place of honor she so rightfully deserves.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t walk on hot coals to have the privilege of being yelled at by Josh Lyman, but he can be kind of a dick. And Mandy wasn’t up to the task of being his love interest. They were going for the combative thing with those two, but it MADE NO SENSE. Josh already has a combative relationship with nearly everyone, including himself. Enter Wisconsin’s finest, who we find out in the season 2 opener basically showed up out of the blue and hired herself. Suspiciously magical, yes? That explains so much. The woman isn’t an assistant. She’s a guardian angel.
From that moment, Donna is Josh’s Girl Friday. They traipse around those White House halls, looking adorable and trading witty banter. Donna holds his life together, and he relies on her completely. Despite how they somehow resist feverishly making out in supply closets every other day, they are reckless. They are reckless in allowing an intimacy beyond the professionally appropriate to develop and to let it be so obvious to the outside world.
I mean, who talks to their boss like this?
We could talk about Christmas and how Josh has Donna shop for presents for his entire family, but he’s had a gift for her picked out for a month. (“I’m not tellin’.”) Or how he admits to Sam that he does his best to sabotage all of Donna’s dates. Or how Donna is the one who first notices after Rosslyn that Josh isn’t really okay. Or “Those are good stories about you though. Those stories would make me like you.” Or the way they look at each other a tiny bit differently when they’re all glammed up for a White House affair. Clearly, I need to learn how to tie a bowtie for someone. Guaranteed simmering sexual tension or your money back.
But my all-time favorite moment of what I’ll call “Admin!Josh/Donna,” is the snowball scene from “Inauguration, Part II.” All you need to remember here is that Josh just realized that Donna is taking the fall for her Department of Defense boyfriend for an anonymous comment he made to the press.
How do I love this scene? Let me count the ways: 1) The whole good cop/bad cop routine, 2) “DON’T YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT TELLING ME WHERE TO KEEP MY VOICE, GET DOWN HERE!”; 3) The way Josh has his coat off to put over her even before she’s out the door; 4) That MAGNIFICENT pause; 5) How he gentlemanly holds out his arm for her; and, flail to end all flails, 6): “You’re gonna have to sit on somebody’s lap.” Are these people trying TO KILL ME?
And just beyond the adorable, there’s that vicious loyalty. Josh is offended that Jack thinks it’s okay to throw Donna under the bus, because he doesn’t think her career is as important as his. So Josh brings Toby, Charlie, Will, and Danny with him to Donna’s house to show her just where she stands and who stands with her.
It’s on. It’s totally on.
Wait, it’s not on yet? Oh. Perhaps I interest you in some “Gaza”/”Memorial Day” creys instead?
Gaza’s the turning point. Unfortunately, it turns Josh and Donna in opposite directions.
The fear in Brad’s face in the scene where they first hear about the bombing – he’s just heartbreakingly brilliant in this arc. This is a man who barely leaves his office to go home and shower. Yet, he’s on a plane to Donna’s bedside without a second thought, leaving the international crisis in other hands. Germany is where Josh realizes he’s in love. Germany is where Donna realizes that she needs to break free.
Welcome to The Evolution of Donna Moss. It took a near-death experience and some C.J. Cregg real talk (“It’s not the White House, it’s him.”), but Donna’s making moves. (Cue Diana Ross’s “I’m Comin’ Out.”) Backup Girls all over the world, listen up: she doesn’t do it to make Josh chase after her. For the first time in a long time, this isn’t about him. I love that she goes to Will for a job, and not to C.J. or Sam. She’s friendly with Will, but he wouldn’t be as compelled to do her a favor as the other two. He hires her because she’s competent and capable. And she goes off to get bangs and kick ass.
You know how people say things like “I’d fall apart without you” and it’s hyperbolic? Well, Josh ACTUALLY falls apart. Campaign Josh makes White House Josh look like a healthy and well-adjusted person. There’s that fifth season episode where an article reports that Josh once mailed a dead fish to a Congressman, and you’re like, “Josh is high-strung, but I don’t think he would ever do THAT.” And then you meet Campaign Josh and you’re like, “I think that man could kill someone if he had to.”
Then this sweet, witty ship becomes something regretful and sad. Josh is lonely and bereft and so, so angry. Donna doesn’t know how to get him to let her close enough to explain her reasons for moving on. And then there’s the whole “King Corn” episode and those parallel 5:45am wake-up calls and WHO SAID YOU COULD DO THIS, RYAN ADAMS?
Like good little Democrats, Josh and Donna unify their own party of two after Santos gets the nomination. Well, Donna pretty much just hires herself again. Josh doesn’t really ever have a say in these things, nor should he. Josh’s self-righteous feelings of betrayal start to dissipate when she sees firsthand just how GOOD she is at the work and how much she loves it. They’re coworkers again and are edging closer to regaining that friendship. But this time, the playing field is leveled.
After months of stress, sleep deprivation, and hotel room coffee makers, there’s a moment of actual triumph. Not a celebration of someone else’s failure – just a real, honest-to-god victory. And for a few precious seconds, these two get to have it all to themselves. And that’s when it happens. If you didn’t scream at this, I assume you are a corpse.
It makes sense that the first big change in Josh and Donna’s relationship is sex and not a grand declaration of love. That’s what their dynamic had been missing, after all. The love part? That was never much of a secret.
Let’s reflect on the masterful way in which Donna Moss, A) was 100% the seducer of Josh Lyman, while B) simultaneously making it clear that she was absolutely not going to be a fling, and c) somehow pretending, for his sake, that he’s the one making that decision. She had to take charge, as she knows that Josh’s brain can only handle one major concept at a time. And the Josh-brain was, at that point, occupied by one giant, neon sign that read, “MUST. WIN.” Hardly space left to process, “that cute blond I’ve been staring at for the better part of nine years is acting like she might finally be serious about sleeping with me.”
In “Requiem,” Josh asks Amy if she has designs on rescuing him. Amy answers, “I decided a few years back that wasn’t an efficient use of my time.” Donna’s got it covered, but she made sure to rescue herself first. As torturous as it was to wait seven seasons for these imbeciles to get their act together, I don’t know that things would have turned out very well if they hadn’t. Like Mulder and Scully, one of my other all-time, gold-standard OTPs, Josh and Donna spent years putting each other in the roles usually filled by family, friends, confidantes, and even boyfriends and girlfriends. A relationship this heightened could easily crash and burn. By the time Josh and Donna really hurt each other for the first time, they were somehow able to stumble their way into fixing it.
And we get our happy ending! The series ends with Josh and Donna in a relationship and serving as the President and First Lady’s Chiefs of Staff – basically they’re Mr. and Mrs. “Guy Behind the Guy.” Since then, they’ve been keeping us posted on their lives via (what else?) Twitter. Follow @joshualyman and @donnatella_moss if you too would like to experience the very particular disconnect from reality one feels when shipping the fan-run Twitter accounts of fictional characters.
I promise I will shut up about The West Wing now.