"Manchester, Parts 1 And 2" (season 3, episodes, 2-3; originally aired 10/10/01 and 10/17/01)
The team head to Manchester four weeks after Bartlet's big announcement
West Wing viewers who watched the show's original airing—and patiently waited all summer for the show to return—were in for a massive disappointment. On October 3, 2001, the show opened its third season with "Isaac And Ishmael," an episode written shortly after the attacks of September 11 and rushed into production. There would be no resolution of the beautiful cliffhanger of "Two Cathedrals," only a "special episode" that though I haven't seen yet, I'm not thrilled to take on. I hear it's not great. It must have really sucked to expect one thing and get something else entirely.
And thanks to the power of hindsight, I won't put you all through that again. Look for "Isaac And Ishmael" next week, but for now, we're back to the good stuff. “Two Cathedrals” really threw the show, and everyone inhabiting it, for a loop. “Manchester, Parts 1 And 2” is meant to center the characters and the audience after the announcement. And like most things on The West Wing, it’s a long, messy, spectacular road to a perfect (likely quippy) end.
Both episodes have scenes from two points in time, the first being the events of the President’s press conference—last season’s cliffhanger—and the events immediately following. Not even the "Previously on The West Wing section of "Manchester, Part 1" can do "18th & Potomac" or "Two Cathedrals" justice, so we're thrust back into the thick of it right from the get-go. CJ is doing damage control; the press recently learned that for the last few years, President Bartlet has been hiding his MS from the American people. His doctor wife administers treatment, and outside of her, only a tiny handful of people know, including longtime friend Leo. This time, we don't see Bartlet approach the press conference in the pouring rain, we only get a soaking-wet Bartlet at the podium, calmly calling on the one person CJ told him not to call on. The one who's going to ask if he's running for reelection. She asks once. Bartlet asks her to say it again, and speak up. He puts his hands in his pockets.
The first time through, these events were heightened and sensationalized by the preceding Mrs. Landingham storyline. Today, they're told from the perspective of someone sitting in that press room, waiting eagerly for Bartlet's response. Everyone is quiet. This is no longer Bartlet's story; it's being handed over to the press. And Bartlet sure knows how to do that:
"Yes, and I'm going to win."
We don't hear those words again until the end of "Part 1," when Bartlet and Leo meet at the Bartlet estate, out in the field. The second storyline of both “Manchester” parts takes place four weeks in the future, chronicling the road leading to the President’s official announcement that he’ll be seeking a second term. This particular moment is a few days before the speech, and the team’s only recently arrived in Manchester. Dressed in farm clothes out in the open, it's easy to forget Bartlet's the President. The way he says "And we're going to win," it sounds like he's the captain of some bowling team talking down a pessimistic teammate. The gravity of the race he's about to enter—the gravity of the man himself—is lost for a moment, and much like "Two Cathedrals," we see a fragile guy blindly hurtling forward because he's got nowhere else to go.
For the rest of the episode, though, Bartlet is the President. Make that The President, capital The. He's a figurehead, an idea, a force to be reckoned with. Fittingly, he barely appears after ending that press conference and reemerging on the farm. There’s business that needs attending in the meantime. Once the initial press conference ends, Bartlet is whisked into the Situation Room to hear about a developing problem in Haiti, and he’s forced to forget about his recent announcement and make a hard military decision. Four weeks later, he’ll give the magical speech that launches his campaign; first, though, we have to slog through semantics arguments, whether a word is too smart or not smart enough, whether the man should apologize or not. The West Wing spares us no details.
The narrative construction of “Manchester's” two parts allows ideas to be teased, then immediately followed up on in full-blown fashion. When the President returns to his residency from the Situation Room, his wife is there to greet him. “It looks like some guy went in front of millions of people and totally screwed his wife.” Bartlet shrugs it off. Four weeks later, though, CJ is staging photos of the President with his wife—or trying to, at the risk of losing her cider—simply to provide an alternative to all the President solo pictures; the marriage is on the rocks. After the President’s announcement, we’re taken to the communications office for one of the most epic walk-and-talk, yelling-over-each-other scenes in West Wing history as the team simply attempts damage control. Four weeks later, they’re at a bar in Manchester, calmly (relatively) rewriting the speech from scratch, and Bruno notes the President needs to apologize—a point everyone immediately shuts down as if they’ve been dealing with this for a month. One month earlier, though, we hear Sam ask for one.
If the show does one thing really well—and it does several, obviously—it’s to draw us in as the good guys go up against the bad ones; then, when I’m convinced I know who the bad guys are, it noticeably and deftly chinks the good guy armor. In most cases, the good guys are Josh, Sam, CJ, Toby, and Leo, or some combination thereof, and the bad guys (at least so you think) are the visitors and guest stars. I’ve started to notice a trend with substantial West Wing pinch-hitters like Oliver Babish, Joey Lucas, or Bruno and his team: They all approach the White House crew with a healthy dose of skepticism that, c’mon, these guys can’t be that brazen. “Really?” I can hear them all say in their heads. Most inevitably give in, realizing that it’s simply what they’ve got to work with. For now, it’s kind of enjoyable to watch Doug and Toby have at it, or Connie (aka Mrs. Coach, who’s odd without her Southern drawl) sweet-talk Sam. They see the reality of the situation as dictated by perceived public opinion and market research data. The team sees the reality of the situation as dictated by ideals and Sorkin’s version of integrity.
It’s a situation meant to drive each camp to wit’s end. The West Wing takes its time, too. The team members argue at the bar. They argue in the barn next to snakes. They argue in every room of every Manchester house they find themselves in. They argue about simple math (“Bartlet rules America. America rocks. Therefore, Bartlet rocks”) and how much multiple sclerosis public education is too much multiple sclerosis public education. And after two episodes of this, I’m ready to tell these campaign strategists to shove it. That is, until Doug finally reaches wit’s end and tells Toby off.
It’s not these new guys Toby hates, it’s the President for putting him in this position. For putting everyone in this position.
And we’re back to this thing: Is Toby—plus the rest of the team for that matter—angry at The President with a capital T, or Jed Bartlet, the man? I really buy Toby’s pain because I believe it’s both. Near the end of “Part 1,” CJ makes a terrible mistake. She’s running a press conference about the situation in Haiti, but reporters are only interested in bringing up questions about Bartlet’s MS and the fact that he might stand trial for what he did to the American people. Flustered beyond belief, CJ (who’s proven herself able to roll with just about any punch), cracks. “I think the President is just relieved to be focused on something that mattered.” That little word, “relieved,” sends up infinite red flags, and CJ loses her shit. Fast forward those four weeks, and CJ is talking to Leo about quitting her job. Something similar happens in these two episodes to Josh—who’s largely on the sidelines, occasionally popping up to give Joey Lucas orders. An announcement is scheduled from the FDA for the same day as the President’s speech, wherein they will approve RD-486 for use. Josh can block the announcement if he’d like; he has no jurisdiction over the FDA, but he knows the head of the organization, got him his job, even. He really wants to make the call, and no one will give him the final okay. We learn in the final moments of “Part 2” that it’s misplaced guilt: Josh leaked a tobacco press release earlier on, thus cutting out support from three states the President would probably need to be reelected. He’s let down the President of the United States and also his friend, Jed Bartlet.
It’s savvy of The West Wing to make a show about the President of the United States that only occasionally features the President as the central character. Throughout the series thus far, Bartlet’s managed to swing in and out of focus, and I’ve barely noticed. I had to consult my notes to remember that it’s Leo, not the President, who sits in the Situation Room as the helicopters attempt a rescue in Haiti. In “Part 2,” Bruno is called to the White House. He’s a campaign consultant that we’ve met already, four weeks later in Manchester. Now we witness his taking of the actual job, and one of his demands is that he be granted unfettered access to the President. It’s a deal breaker, he says. Leo laughs; the President is more kind, but also refuses. Much like Bruno, I feel like the show never grants us that kind of access to Bartlet. And also much like Bruno, when we’re in his presence, we get a little flustered and forget what it was we were even talking about or what our “deal breakers” even were.
That’s because The West Wing presents a third option. 1) Jed Bartlet is a man. 2) He’s also The President with a capital T. Now 3) He’s also a President—one of a very select group of people, one who will be remembered for all of time. This is the United States, and he's one of the motherfuckin' Presidents. It’s humbling. Standing there, watching Bartlet about to give the speech that will alter the course of history forever, CJ has forgotten she ever wanted to quit. Josh has forgotten his tobacco boo-boo. Toby’s hatred for the man has dissipated, his hours crossing out “Bartlet For President” and replacing it with “Bartlet Is President” now seems like time well spent. “Break’s over,” Bartlet says. It’s the kind of pithy, quippy episode end The West Wing does all the time, but watching it again, after so much time off, I can’t find fault in the tactic.
- "At the moment, I'm leaning towards voting for you." A wonderful way for the show to tell us Bartlet and the Mrs. are on the mend. Also great to see Stockard Channing added to the opening credits.
- Also a great tiny moment: Margaret annoyed that Leo scheduled his own meeting with Bruno.
- "Don't ever come to me again with 'unnamed sources.'"
- Interesting to see how this season is going to inadvertently tie into Obama's run for reelection. I've spoken before about Bartlet/Obama similarities, and as Bartlet points out, his campaign is going to be one where he says what he truly wants and hopes America comes along for the ride. Here's hoping Obama does the same.
- "Yeast is a fun word to say."
- "This reads like an Andy Williams special!"
- Toby reciting the speech from memory = impressive. Wish I could write like that. I've been sitting here working on this piece for… a while.
- "…doesn't want Dr. Kevorkian running." Too soon?
- Next week, I'll tackle "Isaac And Ishmael." Oy.