I am currently watching The West Wing in its entirety for the very first time, blogging my thoughts as I go. So HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to the end of Season 3, Episode 2.
I see the story framework of flashbacks and two parters that I liked so much about the end of S1 start of S2, was kept for the end of Season 2 and start of Season 3. Thematically, it was a very different 120 minutes and in fact, was a pretty difficult watch.
In reality, the end of Season 2 builds a couple of episodes before “Two Cathedrals”. The storyline of Bartlet suffering from MS reared its head again. Originally, I thought the appearance of the disease in S1 was a little hokey and unnecessary. Whether it was intended to set up the story arc for S2 and S3 I’m not sure but it became the focal point of the season climax.
The problem I had was that it wasn’t the focal point. The writers threw in the dramatic reaction of the likes of Toby Ziegler, who, in a surprise turn, lost himself in front of the President so much I suspected some kind of MS-related guilty secret. The build up to Tobys discovery was superbly handled in a fantastic pre-credits sequence as that magnificent political brain in a bald head slowly pieced together the clues.
Additional to the MS plot line and the decision to both tell the staff and then the world, there was a crisis in Haiti in contend with, a tropical storm threatening the East Coast, bailing out Mexico and then, with sudden swiftness, the death of Mrs Landingham.
It felt like too much was piling in on the story. I know that the various plot strands of an episode interweave, but the “big” stories are usually given focus and time to breathe and when several stories move together, they tend to be lighter. These episodes piled crisis upon crisis and when Charlie told Leo of the death of the Presidents secretary, my reaction was “Not that as well!”
I think that trying to carry all their weight overwhelmed things. The S2 closer, “Two Cathedrals” is a great 40 minutes, but not exactly a fluid one. It functioned less as a story and more of a series of set pieces. We are whizzed back and forth in the timeline, between young Jeb being introduced to the middle-aged Dolores Landingham (brilliantly played by Kirsten Nelson) back to the preparations for the public admittance of MS, the funeral of Mrs L and the decision whether to stand for re-election.
“Two Cathedrals” may not have been a story that flowed, but made up for it being being comprised of several fantastic moments, none better than when Bartlet asked for the National Cathedral to be sealed, before delivering an angry tirade at the Lord Almighty. It is brave speech to put on TV, not least for having part of it in Latin and calling God a “feckless thug” in prime time? The act of defiance with a cigarette is a great touch – as is the final parting shot at what Bartlet thinks God deserves, his vapid Vice President – “You get Hoynes!”
Then a moment of sheer theatre, a conversation in the Oval Office with the now dead Mrs Landingham. A great little two-hander than left me wishing that the character of Mrs L had been expanded more, instead of being a slightly quirky focal point for comedy. Her depth was intimated in the S1 episode “In Excelsis Deo” and I thought we could have done with more of that.
Would it be wrong to interpret a conversation with a ghost as Gods reaction to Bartlets earlier rant in the Cathedral? Why not, I suppose, given the injection of magical realism into a resolutely realistic and grounded story. The Ghost of Mrs L is the thing that persuades Bartlet that he still has job to do, despite the personal cost to his health and possibly his marriage. What else was going to get him to change his mind?
Finally something that is a cliche, but when done well, is incredibly powerful – the President deciding to speak to the nation set to music, in this case Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms”. That piece of music has been used before in my favourite scene in, of all things, the TV series of Miami Vice. As the West Wing staff anticipate the “No” decision, we are left with the cliffhanger which really isn’t, as everyone knew we would have a Season 3. Rewatching the clip again, I love the little touches, the way the West Wing staff fall into line behind the President, CJ’s humour and calm (“I can only answer 14 or 15 questions at once”) and then Leos “Watch this…”
Next blog post will be about the two part opener to Season 3 and taken as a triumvirate, I think S1/S2 worked better than S2/S3. The stories were more focused, the flashbacks less forced and hurried. As 120 minutes of drama, “Two Cathedrals” and “Manchester” did not reach the heights scaled by their predecessor, but when adding up the individual moments over a 40 minute timespan then “Two Cathedrals” is definitely the standout episode thus far.