There was this one day in 2000 where I kind of lost it. Bush was looking like he was going to emerge victorious from the Florida clusterfuck, and the Republicans had won back both houses of Congress. I wasn’t so much angry about the temporary shift in power as I was discovering what it felt like to be disillusioned with politics in general. If our country keeps with this back-and-forth in prioritizing, I thought, then nothing was ever going to be accomplished. The feeling hasn’t dissipated in 10 years. When I start to feel hopeful about something, like the passing of gay marriage laws or a comprehensive health care bill, there are always plenty of detractors that, somehow, are always louder than the proponents. What’s worse is that even when nothing’s on the table, those detractors are furious. Their hateful screeds find audiences on a purely emotional level alone.
Then, just the other day, Obama had a Bartlet moment in which he directly addressed the building of a “ground zero mosque” (though it appears it’s not really a mosque nor is it truly “at” ground zero) and told detractors, essentially, to shove it. It was beautiful and immediately shit upon. This country makes me angry in the worst kind of way: I feel totally helpless because, truly, there is almost nothing I can do besides vote and hope for the best. [Cue someone lecturing me about political activism; fair enough.]
But for a few minutes at the end of “Two Cathedrals,” I witnessed the most pure, least distilled act of political optimism I’ve ever seen. It was such a moment of catharsis that I burst into tears.
Where do I even begin talking about these two unbelievable hours of television? How about that brass knuckle to the face that was the end of “18th & Potomac”? The episode had such an extraordinary amount of build. The communications team is preparing for the announcement and ensuing press conference that will define their political careers, and as the news of Bartlet’s startling omission seeps through the White House, a startling silence has gripped the staff. That’s to say nothing about a growing situation in Haiti during which the country’s new president finds himself in the trunk of a car to escape a political coup. Tensions are high, and the only thing the administration can possibly hold on to is that no matter how bad things get, they’ve got their people to rely on.
Of course—of course—it couldn’t be that easy. And geez, I’m using the term “easy” very loosely here. For just when there was that faintest flicker of hope, The West Wing snuffed it out in the least frillsy, most realistic way I’ve ever seen a TV show treat a death. There was no big send-off of Mrs. Landingham in “18th & Potomac”; her death was announced quietly, as one would probably receive news they simply cannot believe is true. Mrs. Landingham spent her final episode (sort of) bantering with Charlie and Bartlet about cars and paying sticker price, which was a choice I was led to believe would illustrate her stickler-ness for the rules, and perhaps make the big reveal of Bartlet’s MS more painful than originally anticipated. Last week, actually, I wondered at one point what it was Mrs. Landingham and Charlie did to complement each other, and if both were really necessary in the organizational structure. I truly felt blindsided by this sad piece of news.
In the case of assistants on The West Wing, I get the sense they are far overqualified for the jobs they hold. (Well, I guess it's mostly Donna, who has really been knockin' these episodes out of the park lately. Her collected reaction to hearing Bartlet's news from Toby, followed by her muted excitement in telling Josh she knows—just so thrilled to truly be able to be there for him—was unbelievably sweet.) They stick it out because they ostensibly love the people they work with and for, plus they work at the freakin' White House. Even among all the assistants, though, Mrs. Landingham seemed to come from another era. She was powerful and held a unique kind of influence over the President Of The United States, yet had zero ego about it. She did her (at times) menial job with no complaining because that's just the way things happen. She almost never missed a day of work, and never let up on the President about the tiniest things—just because he's the most powerful man in the world doesn't mean he is excused from not learning how to work the intercom. And when the President has made a decision that puts him in jeopardy of losing the trust of a nation if not all of humanity, he cares most deeply about betraying the trust of this woman. She is important in all the ways The West Wing rarely talks about, yet in all the ways The West Wing excels. It's uncanny how perfectly gut-wrenching her death is.
I'd be lying if I said my judgment of "18th & Potomac" is balanced. After all, 41 of the minutes in the episode had nothing to do with Mrs. Landingham's death, yet that final minute is seared in my brain. On a purely emotional level, I initially had a hard time remembering anything that happened before Charlie breathlessly informed Leo of the news, and Leo told the President as we watched through closed glass doors. But there was so much about "18th & Potomac" that made it one of the finest West Wing episodes so far. I especially loved the little ways the show—and the administration—has retained its sense of humor during these cloudy times; fittingly, the jokes have delved into darker territory. The pre-credits sequence, for example, found a stone-cold Joey Lucas delivering the polling results (with the President speaking for those watching at home and questioning the trustworthiness of the interpreter). Nothing was good. If those Michiganders are any indication of how the rest of the country is going to react, Bartlet is screwed. And…cue opening credits! Plus, when CJ's under the gun, her sarcasm/wittiness circuit goes into overdrive. She avoids a reporter's question, and when that reporter follows up not surprisingly with, "You didn't answer my question," CJ's retort is, "How 'bout that?" As CJ herself says, the water is exactly at her head, and the same goes for the entire team. If learning the Bartlet news mirrored the steps in the grieving process, everyone is at "acceptance" now, and the undeniable forward momentum, in the face of potential professional heartbreak, makes the other 41 minutes of "18th & Potomac" a cohesive piece of West Wing drama and wit.
Now, as far as "Two Cathedrals" goes, the episode everyone I know has cited as one of the best episodes of television ever and hailed as my favorite even before I had started the series…well you know how this all turns out. But watching "Two Cathedrals," with all that build-up, was, as much as I hate to admit it, a process. First I was looking for everything good, because of course there couldn't possibly be anything bad about this episode right? Next I found myself in the middle of the flashback scenes (they cast both young Bartlet and young Landingham really well) wishing I was back at the modern day White House. Then Bartlet sealed off the church and started talking to God about how the Landingham death was punishment for Bartlet's sins and that Josh's near-death was a warning of worse things to come. I was turned off by how weird it was in the moment.
But now having finished the episode, I see that scene fitting in so perfectly. Though Bartlet doesn't talk much about it, he's a Christian man—as I'm sure all our Presidents will be forever more—yet he fought for truly nondenominational services at school. His faith is important but not all-encompassing. Fitting, then, that in this time of ultimate hopelessness, he would turn to God. At its base level, religion exists because humans, by their very nature, are unsettled by questions they don't have the answers to, like "What happens after we die?" and "What is the meaning of life?" Religion fits that void perfectly, so you can argue that it's because some all-seeing something-or-other made it that way, or that it exploits a shockingly basic psychological principle as only a man-made creation can. We'll never know (unless you guys comment the shit out of this article; all of humanity's greatest moments of clarity can usually be traced back to The A.V. Club's comment boards), though I will say that even though I'm in the atheist camp, I do find it comforting to think about loved ones going somewhere after they die, instead of going nowhere.
Point is: This scene is the ultimate portrait of a broken man consumed by nothing other than the pursuit of an answerless question, with only flimsy unrelated evidence to nudge him in what he perceives to be the right answer. The question is, "Why?"
If Sorkin means for us to question Bartlet's morality, he doesn't give us much time. The flashback scenes paint Bartlet as a sympathetic lost boy with a heart of gold who goes out of his way for others even if it gets him slapped by his father. As a young Mrs. Landingham puts it, Bartlet never had a big sister, and he needs one. Mrs. Landingham puts him on the right path, but then Bartlet doesn't need much help. He's made a career out of following his gut and doing what's right (as CJ points out, there was a "fire" he and his administration had during the primaries—an unwavering optimism they weren't afraid to articulate). For an episode about Bartlet deceiving the country by covering up his MS, "Two Cathedrals" rarely talks about Bartlet deceiving the country by covering up his MS. In fact, the entire speech he gives to the nation, Abbey by his side, is lost during a West Wing commercial break. The worst thing we see Bartlet do is once again smoke in church.
Then came that final series of scenes to not only nail the point, but put that nail in the coffin of any Bartlet hesitations I'd had throughout the show's run. Bartlet has a conversation with his projection of Mrs. Landingham (to put it in Inception terms) during which he's reminded that not only is there always something to be done, but that there's always always something he can do—no matter the obstacle. All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. And what got me wasn't just the perfectly poetic chat and closure he enjoys with the beloved Mrs. Landingham, but the way Sorkin demonstrated this vigor in the simplest way possible. Bartlet doesn't even speak, he just rises from his chair and stands outside in the pouring rain. Charlie rushes over to offer him a jacket, and Bartlet brushes right past his aide with such purpose, such poise. He enters the press room soaking wet. Eyes turn to him as he approaches the podium. And rather than take the only lifeline he has in this whole kerfuffle—taking the first question from a medical reporter—Bartlet knows nothing is easy. Nothing can be escaped. Integrity is forged in passion and determination. So let's get right to it: He takes the question first that everyone wants to know, "Are you planning to run for reelection?"
Bartlet knows the answer to this. He makes the reporter repeat it anyways.
There he stands, hands in his pockets, a grin forming on his face just as Mrs. Landingham had noticed. So much of this show has been complicated, but the final moment of "Two Cathedrals," one of the finest I've ever seen on television, is deceptively simple. The essence of The West Wing is that the most complicated problems always have the simplest answers. Why answer 14 or 15 questions at once when you only need to answer one?
"18th & Potomac": A
"Two Cathedrals": A+
- I'm glad Sam suggested they call the whole thing off. It's an option I had been wondering for a while, and it's smart of the show to at least address it.
- Again: Wow.
- So season three, I'm told, starts with a 9/11 episode, so I think I'm going to watch it after I move to New York next week and post the review on 9/10. After that, we'll table things until next summer when hopefully I can pick back up with the non-"very special episodes."
- For those of you who have been following this column: Thank you so much. It's been a real honor to take up this post again, and I'm humbled by your generosity with your time reading and commenting on the posts. Sappy as it sounds, The A.V. Club really does have the best comment boards, and I look forward to keeping the discussion going with you all.