Flashback review – The West Wing 2×21-2×22: ‘18th and Potomac’ and ‘Two Cathedrals’

Courtesy of NBC via leavemethewhite.com

You know you’ve got a great finale if your protagonist stands in the middle of church and calls God a “feckless thug” and that isn’t even its most memorable moment. The end of the exemplary second season is upon us, and these episodes bring out the best The West Wing has to offer.

“What’s next?” Find out after the jump…

It’s taken me a few viewings of these two episodes over the years to truly appreciate how well-crafted they are. Sure, by re-watching any episode of The West Wing, I’ve usually picked up another literary joke or musical reference that I’d never heard before and it’s certainly helped me to better understood the politics at play. But as I sat down to take notes on these final episodes of S2, I saw just how meticulously planned and executed they are.

Look at how the tone of the episodes shift from the beginning to the end of  ’18th and Potomac’ and through ‘Two Cathedrals.’” We start out following the staffers down into an empty office in the basement under the cloak of darkness. Their meeting is kept covert by the code “Sagittarius” and a secret serviceman. Suddenly, this politically idealized television series has taken on the look and feel of a story better fit for James Bond or Philip Marlowe, and it’s never felt quite this exciting or dangerous before. But over the episode, we see that this story arc isn’t merely about figuring out how to reveal a damning secret to the public, but really about backing Bartlet (Martin Sheen) into a corner. From all sides, the President faces questioning about re-election, an escalating coup and military operation in Haiti, and finally the death of his secretary and confidant, Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten). And it’s particularly this last loss that turns the latter episode into a more thoughtful, introspective look at the forces that have shaped Jed Bartlet as a man and future leader.

It’s for this same reason that while the scene in the National Cathedral is an interesting moment, it isn’t the episode’s strongest or most powerful (although it may be its most memorable). The president has just told God to go screw himself! And he does so IN LATIN! What the WHAT?! It may be a clever way around network censors, but it’s a pretty weak moment for Bartlet – he’s simply pouting like a child because he feels that everyone and everything are conspired against him. It’s much more interesting to watch him work through his grief and try to process – thanks to his memory of Mrs. Landingham and what she means to him – his responsibility as the president and a man who will not forsake his principles. It’s fantastic to see his face lighten throughout the episode whenever he thinks of how she always expects more from him. And the scene when he finally lets go of his fears and insecurities as he lists off the problems still facing the US to his projection of her with the excitement of an idealistic young man is just so motivating.

Despite being such an acute psychological study of the Commander in Chief, almost everyone in the ever-expanding cast gets their own moment to shine throughout these episodes. I love watching Charlie (Dule Hill) process the news of Mrs. Landingham’s death. He simply stares at the phone in his hand, rolling it over, so shocked by what’s happened that he can’t even end the call. It’s a small moment, but it’s a beautiful, simple display of grief, and Hill sells it perfectly. It was also smart of Sorkin to not only show Donna’s (Janel Moloney) response to the President’s condition, but to write it with such gravitas. Donna is always the staffer who’s quickest to react passionately and give her opinion, whether she’s asked for it or not. So it’s inspiring that Donna is the staffer who responds the most professionally and compassionately, simply asking if the president is in pain before returning to work.

Other Considerations:

  • Again Sorkin piles on Hoynes in these episodes, concluding Bartlet’s little tirade to God with the statement “You’ll get Hoynes” like it’s a threat. I suppose he’s supposed to represent the mediocrity of most current politicians in the West Wing universe, but given that Hoynes has never lied about a serious health issue during an election, Bartlet really isn’t in the position to be dismissing him so thoughtlessly.
  • Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” has to be one of the series’ best musical choices. It’s the perfect song to score the President’s determined march to the press conference. It’s a little bluesy, which befits a leading man in mourning, but continues to build throughout as Bartlet becomes more and more sure of what his answer to the question about re-election will be.

That’s a wrap for season two! Now it’s your turn. Does the optimism of the finale still seem relevant all these years later? What is your favorite moment from the whole season? Sound off below!

And thank you for coming along with me as I revisited this fantastic season. See you all in a few weeks for the start of the fall season! Look for Bitchstolemyremote‘s ‘Watch With Us’ post early next week!

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