I’m currently watching The West Wing from the start, blogging my thoughts as I go. Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to Season 2, Episode 10.
There are several well known tropes and styles in US television. Actually, that is a little unfair, as there are only so many story themes in the world, as well as a number of techniques used to tell them. That seems an odd thing to say, but there are only 72 keys on a piano, it is the way and the order that you press them that makes for almost infinite complexity and variation. Three of these tropes are
- The Season Ending Cliffhanger
- The Two Part Special
- Getting The Band Together
Just about every long running TV series will feature at least one example of the above at some point during its run. With The West Wing, the final episode of Season One, plus the opening two episodes of Season Two pull off the pretty amazing feat of combining all three.
Things start quietly enough at the end of Season One finale “What Kind of Day It Has Been”, with what seems to be a tightly focused episode. Our heroes are faced with two dilemmas, a rescue mission to retrieve a downed pilot in Iraq and trouble aboard (presciently enough) the Space Shuttle Columbia, which is having problems re-entering the atmosphere after a mission. Problem is that Toby Zieglers brother is aboard Columbia.
To take a small detour, this latter thing is a bit of a swerve. Several members of the cast remark to Toby that they never even knew he had a brother, let alone one who had gone into space several times. This seems massively out of place, even for someone so famously self-contained as Toby. He is one of the characters that I’ve grown to really like over the first two series – clearly a hard nut, but capable of great moments of quiet subtlety. I like the way that Richard Schiff plays those moments, generally looking away when he is telling someone something personal and supportive, as if he doesn’t want to let other people see the mask slip. As the day progresses and President Bartlet holds a town hall meeting that, at times, sounds like a standup gig, Toby tries to hold everything together while worrying deeply about his sibling.
Eventually we get a lovely little series of signals which let him know Columbia returned successfully, played with a light touch. The President concludes his meeting and the group head for the cars back to the White House.
And then the shots are fired.
There is a sense of inevitability that the story would involve an assassination attempt. The writers throw in a curveball, as the target of the gunmen is not the President, but his daughter Zoe and his aide Charlie. The pair have been having a relationship which, due to the fact that Charlie is black, has attracted the ire of white supremacists who have decided to take a rather twisted stand. Although I haven’t been a fan of the Zoe/Charlie relationship, I thought this was a good illustration of the problems any high profile person and their family faced. It also managed to have the cliche of a shooting without the actual cliche of it being at the President.
If that episode is all set up, ending as the trigger is pulled, then the two part opener to Season Two “In the Shadow Of Two Gunmen” is a little bit of aftermath, but a whole lot of story. We discover that the President has minor wounds but Josh has taken a bullet to the chest and is in a serious condition. From here, the episodes flash constantly between the current timeline, the episode goes back and explores how all the main players were recruited to Bartlet in the first place, starting with Toby and Josh and then moving onto Sam, CJ and Donna. In between the drama of Joshs fight for survival, the various back stories are explored.
I am a big fan of this way of story telling. My favourite episode of Firefly is “Out of Gas” which bears a lot of similarities with “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”, a main character shot and close to death, jumping back to how he and his friends met each other. When done effectively, and here it is done very effectively, the viewer switches back and forth very quickly between darkness and light, concern and comedy. If the viewer has invested the time in meeting the characters beforehand, it becomes a very powerful emotional rollercoaster.
It is also kind of interesting to see that Josh and Leo become the real power behind the throne. Bartlet is clearly not sure he has what it takes to be come President, despite Leos faith in him. Toby is shown doubtful of his abilities. Josh is working for Hoynes, the prohibitive favourite at that point. Yet Leo know who to get and how to get them. Josh knows how to beat Hoynes, and is not only willing to do so despite working for the guy, but absolutely capable. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think Bartlet was sitting fourth in the nomination race when Josh joined him – such a turnaround is utterly remarkable.
I really warmed to Josh during these two episodes, a guy who clearly does his job because he wants to make a difference, not because he wants power. There is a revealing scene where Hoynes – the future Vice-President – effectively fires Josh because he refuses to keep playing the percentages, demanding that his candidate stands for something. Leo McGarry pops up as a sort of Grand Vizier, manipulating behind the throne and getting Josh to see what he could do.
The recruitment of Sam and CJ is much more light hearted. Again, I’ve really warmed to Rob Lowe as Sam over the first series, playing against type as a nerdy, clumsy kind of guy. He is smart, but also socially inept. The scene where Josh recruits Sam contrasts what we have seen – two smart, driven operatives – with a couple of guys who were just drifting along in their respective careers. Sure, they were successful and making money, but they really want to make a difference. I loved the fact that Sam knew what happened to CJ – initially I suspected some kind of concussion or PTSD, but the reveal that Sam, quite literally had CJs back was beautifully done.
CJ is in clumsy mode for her back story. I’ll write more about her in another post, but I don’t really like it when CJ is clumsy or dumb. This isn’t the fault of Alison Janney, more that it just doesn’t feel right. This is a woman who, in front of the press, is always smart, always prepared and one of the fastest thinkers on their feet you could want. To have her turn up for work in her dressing gown, half blind and then fall into a pool after getting fired… it just felt that the comedy was forced. CJ is better than that – though her honesty in the discussion with the Hollywood big shot was hilarious and pure CJ.
The recruitment of Donna was a lovely scene as well – it always seemed odd how she would end up in the White House, being so utterly good at her job while being completely loopy. As Season Two has progressed, Donna has become much smarter, but it was nice to see the early interplay between her and Josh and the beginning of their relationship.
Finally, I loved the future President in these two episodes. Martin Sheen showed a real vulnerability throughout, irritable and cranky in order to hide his lack of self-confidence. The “What’s next?” discussion was brilliantly written and, of course, sets up the final punchline. But Sheen also showed the quality that made Bartlet President in the scene at the airport – the fact that he would forget himself and offered to accompany Josh to his family. At the start of that conversation, Bartlet looks small and tired. By the end, he looks Presidential.
Of course, the whole 120 minutes builds to the final payoff line. And when it comes, it was a real punch the air moment. Joshs’ survival was never really in doubt, but the final scene reinforced that the West Wing isn’t about politics, but relationships between people just trying to do a job. The last line elevated the three episodes right up with my favourite TV of all time.