Friday, December 15, 2006

On The Road / West Wing rules, okay?

Cormac McCarthy's new novel The Road is striking in more ways than one. But let's pare it down to one irrelevant detail, because that's what we do here at The Electric Goose. Yep, I'm talking about McCarthy's use of the word 'okay'.

Just like most road movies or 'road novels', there's not much of a plot to speak of (does anything actually happen in On the Road or Easy Rider? Answer: no.) but the story, such as it is, concerns a man and his young son on a journey through a post-apocalyptic America depleted of resources, trying to survive.

Along the way, there's a lot of sparse, Waiting for Godot-like dialogue but it differs from Samuel Beckett's play, in that the circularity is avoided, in this case by the boy's continual grateful acceptance of his father's plans. Which means many of the short sections end with 'okays'. For example:

You want to stop?
I always want to stop.
We have to be more careful. I have to be more careful.
I know.
We'll stop. Okay?
We just have to find a place.


So when are you going to talk to me again?
I'm talking now.
Are you sure?

These near-monosyllabic chunks of dialogue with their unerring final resolutions capture the hopelessness of their predicament, in which the pair are forced to accept a world where everything is not 'okay'.


I wonder if McCarthy has been spending his time immersing himself in The West Wing. Scenes in Aaron Sorkin's near-perfect political drama also often end with an 'okay', but Sorkin, like a highly versatile magician, uses the word in an endless number of ways. Frequently it underlines the sagacity of the characters, who are quick to realise when are things they can't change or argue with.

Josh: Intelligence says neighbours in [war-torn country] Kundu are sleeping in each others houses.
Charlie: What does that mean?
Josh: It means they're making people in the same house rape each other on the promise that their lives will be spared.
Charlie: Okay.

Inauguration Part I, Season 4

Of course, it's usually not so bleak, and more often used for comical purposes:

Laurie: You want to buy me a drink?
Sam: I have to say, that sounded very professional to me.
Laurie: Shut up.
Sam: Okay.

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, Season 1

There's an unusual moment in one episode when Leo McGarry (played by the late great John Spencer) is having an argument with the Secretary of Defence, who he believes has massaged the figures on 'force depletion' (basically a theoretical call on how many soldiers are expected to die if sent to war). Things get highly charged.

Leo [yelling]: The numbers [are] inflated all to hell. It's 150, not 1,000.
Secretary: And that's acceptable to you, in Kundu?
Leo: I don't know what you mean when you say 'in Kundu'. [pause, realisation dawns] Yeah. Yeah, I do.
Secretary [as he storms out]: Go to hell.
Leo [shouting, in voice both angry and weirdly geeky]: Okay.

Inauguration Part I, season 4

Usually in The West Wing, each 'okay' is startlingly eloquent. Here, it is a rare sign of inarticulacy, of not having an answer. Sometimes, however, it just means 'okay'. We'll finish with this scene in The US Poet Laureate episode:

[Toby re-enters the room where the President is sitting to give him a quick briefing before the next satellite link-up interview begins.]

Toby: Okay.
Bartlet: Okay what?
Toby: Nothing, I just meant, you know, okay.
Man: They're back from commercial in 20 seconds.
Bartlet: Drilling/exploring.
Toby: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Saudi Arabia bad.
Toby: Saudi Arabia very bad.
Bartlet: Okay.
Toby: Okay.
Bartlet: Why are you smiling?
Toby [ironically]: Happiness is my default position.
Bartlet: Okay.

The US Poet Laureate, Season 3

Search West Wing transcripts
for instances of the word 'okay'


* (asterisk) said...

I used to love The West Wing but I accidentally tuned out about 3 years ago when moving house. And then Sorkin left and I could no longer muster the enthusiasm.

I've not read The Road yet, but it's on my Christmas list, so I'm looking forward to it!

So glad you haven't changed to Beta, so I can still comment here at least.

kearns said...

Hmmm, I'd never thought of the West Wing as a "political drama" before. It makes sense though doesn't it.

Will said...

DAMN YOU KEARNS. By 'political drama' I did of course mean 'sitcom'. You know, like 24 or House?

PS *, I'm tempted by Beta, but I've been holding off because I think it'll break everything. I'll hold off a bit longer, as you are my Comment Saviour.

Astrid said...

I don't think I can leave another reply than "okay."

Sue Ellen Mischke said...

Wow. That was impressive.

Kasha said...

I was wondering if anyone had written about the genius use of "okay" in The West Wing, which I am rewatching for the, oh, 5th or 6th time. I searched "west wing okay" and got this post, the only reference I found to the phenomenon! Thanks!

Will said...

Heh, glad I'm not the only one in the world who notices the okays...

Bucko said...

The West Wing.. aka 'The Okay Show'... So its not just me? Others have noticed? Never seen the series till this week, a friend has given me Series 1 to watch.
4 shows in and I'm continually distracted by 'okay'. Did he set out to put in a set number in the script each week then join the dots (okays)? Its not just 'okay' though, its the simplistic, quick-fire "yes" or "yeah" interspersed between "okay" and whatever nonsense they're being oh-so witty about.
Dont get me wrong, its a funny show and I'll plough through the box-sets but I just cant get okay out of my head this week.. okay?

Will said...

I feel your pain, Bucko - it can get rather irritating. Been getting back into Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin's follow-up show, recently, and he even drops a few in there, too.