"How could you stop?"
That's the question I was asked after stopping last summer's TV Club Classic coverage of The West Wing with the season one finale. Asked by everybody. A malnourished, palefaced creep had given a signal to two gunmen stationed in a nearby building, and shots had been fired. At the White House team, at civilians, at the President of the United States. And…scene. How could I stop? It was really, really, really hard.
The truth is, I didn't really stop. As soon as the credits rolled, I surfed on over to surfthechannel.com* and watched the first few minutes of the next episode like grandma watches her "stories." (Actually, my grandmas aren't into that kind of thing—one doesn't even know what the Internet is, and still calls it, "an Internet," like you can only have one. *Also use of surfthechannel.com is not officially condoned by The A.V. Club or one of its many subsidiaries.) It starts in the Presidential limo immediately after the attacks. Bartlet is delirious, still in a tizzy over the events and shouting incessantly to know the health condition of his daughter. There's little information, little comfort to be found anywhere. In a mere moment, the fragile world of The West Wing had been shattered. Speeches, promises, action, and concern were all out the window; these were people capable of taking a bullet and dying like anyone else, and in that moment of crystallization, Bartlet needed to know his team was accounted for. Then…wait…there's blood on his shirt. Pause. "GW, move!" the Secret Service shouts as I sit, unable to breathe.
Right at that instant, my first peek into the "future," I willed myself to stop watching. Surely, this was the start of something I wouldn't be able to tear my eyes away from, and I didn't want to taint my inaugural viewing experience come next summer. So it's here that I picked up The West Wing yet again, but to my surprise, it's not the moment that punched me most painfully in the gut. No, that moment came roughly 20 seconds later, when the team, surveying the damage at the scene of the crime, notices Josh down for the count. Wow. Cue sweeping credits music, and the realization that, man, I sure have missed these people.
Welcome back to The A.V. Club's summer coverage of The West Wing, a place where a red phone ringing can turn a regular night at the hospital into the most unforgettable evening of everyone's lives. Fittingly, this two-part season two premiere ranks as some of The West Wing's finest, as it offers up fresh details to devoted fans and serves to indoctrinate viewers who may have missed the premier season.
In part one (though the episodes sew together almost seamlessly), the tragedy draws the characters—wordlessly and without hesitation—into the same hospital room via a series of heartbreaking moments. Mrs. Landingham, not one to freak out over anything, hears the news that the President has been wounded, drops her calm facade, and high-tails it out of the White House. Donna arrives as her chipper self, thinking the quickly recovering President was the only one hurt, and has an internal collapse when she sees Josh hooked up to life support; then she slowly drives herself mad trying to figure out what she should be doing. The President, about to go into surgery, forces the doctors to keep him lucid just a bit longer so he can talk to Leo one last time—and kiss him on the cheek. Abbey, having arrived with the determination of someone who knows the real gravity of a situation, corners a doctor and quietly reveals the President's secret struggle with multiple sclerosis. The stakes are some of the highest they've ever been on this show; the screen about to burst with palpable dread, those earlier small moments hanging in the air. And now, after all that, the characters are forced to wait for any morsel of information. And wait. And wait.
But The West Wing fills the down time with the rich story of how the team came together, told as flashbacks induced by the trauma. It's three years earlier, and Josh is working for Hoynes in DC. Sam is at a hoity-toity law firm in Manhattan (though Josh can't remember the name). CJ slings half-assed PR for a terrible film. Toby…well, he's working for Bartlet already, but barely hanging on. Their existence is empty, their aspirations dulled. We see them for who they are and—those who knew them last season—what they can become. They just need a sign.
The stories are all flashbacks, and maybe it's because Lost just ended, but I immediately paralleled those segments to the flashsideways of season six. [Stop reading this graf if you don't want to read Lost spoilers, but I'll keep them very vague.] All this season, we watched the characters on Lost exist in this other world as they always have, but something was missing. They might not have known it at first; it's more of a nagging feeling that they couldn't quite qualify. Then suddenly, the catalyst occurs, and their eyes are open. They track down their friends, marvel in the beauty of having a shared purpose, and it's see you in another life, brutha. And in this case, Leo is the Desmond.
Leo knows what he wants: Get Bartlet, a man who not only purports to be a man of the people but is actually a man of the people, into office. He sees potential in the kind of straight-talk Bartlet fearlessly delivers like Obama could only dream of. He also sees potential in Josh, revealed to be the son of Leo's good friend. So he does what he can so Josh can witness the catalyst first-hand and invites him to New Hampshire to hear Bartlet speak. "You really think we can pull this off? I mean, Democrats are dumb, but we're not nearly that dumb," Josh fires back. Leo pauses. "Nah. I think we're exactly that dumb," he responds. Fast forward to that fateful New Hampshire speech, and Bartlet is not only apologizing to a dairy farmer for a piece of legislation that hurt the man's business, but he takes full responsibility. Josh is in shock. Toby, the man who told Bartlet to do that, is saved in a mass firing spearheaded by Leo. Converted, Josh and Toby go out to recruit the rest of the team: Toby serendipitously shows up at CJ's house just after she's fired (and witnesses an amazing slapstick comedy moment from CJ as she falls literally head-over-heels into the pool), and they talk shop; Josh only has to show his face in Sam's office and flash a smile, and Sam is on board.
It's fascinating to me how The West Wing treats the notion of "good" and "bad" in business/politics. It portrays our heroes partially as outspoken stalwarts with hearts of gold. They only want to do the right thing and tell the truth, but are punished for doing so. They're downright outcasts for it. It's all very frustrating. Then, at the forefront of this grassroots movement, is Bartlet, who just wants to speak his mind and be beloved for it. "What's not to like?" thinks the team, and the issue of taking the job vs. not is very cut-and-dry—CJ, without much thought, snatches it up despite a significant pay cut. The underdog prevails. Everyone is happy. The righteous path has been redeemed. Holy crap is it uplifting.
Normally, these types of segments would bother me. Obviously The West Wing is a love letter to politics in an ideal world, so I'm forgiving of its occasional sappiness (though sappy-for-sappy's-sake rarely ever comes into the picture). It's also flashbacks told ostensibly from the characters' perspectives, so there's bound to be some fuzziness. But mostly I'm not bothered when I think about when these episodes aired: mere months before the Bush-Gore Florida clusterfuck, arguably the most politically claustrophobic moment in recent history. To think straight politics would have any shot of winning, well, that's a fantasy I'm willing to indulge.
Of course, the harsh truth comes in the segments that take place in the flashless present. The past found the characters calibrating what they stand for; here, they're simply struggling to stand at all. Leo freaks out when the Department Of Defense demands the President take immediate action overseas, convinced these acts of aggression were related to a larger nefarious plot. CJ is so angry at herself for not remembering what happened at the scene of the crime, she fires endless sass at the press corp. Toby is willing to get himself in massive trouble and admit he was the one who inadvertently put the President in danger that night. Without their leader, and without their beloved Josh, these guys are lost. (Or, are they? LOST.)
The flashback segments are about finding hope from nothing, and the rest are about regaining hope when you're knocked to a notch lower than nothing: pure, unadulterated fear. The two storylines collide in a beautiful one-two punch of scenes at the end. First, there's Josh on the eve of Bartlet's win in the Illinois primary; his father, he learns in the moment of grandest celebration, passed away, and he's now waiting in the airport to head home. In walks the future President, abandoning his victory speech to offer himself at Josh's side for the funeral. How rare it is these people found each other, a confluence of factors almost beyond anyone's control. How moving a scene that screams this show's all about the politics, except when it's not. How brave of the show to tear down its characters so I can watch them build back up again and endear myself to them even more. What's next?
Grades: A for both
- Poor Charlie. He shows up for just a few minutes, and it turns out this whole thing was the stupid work of a bunch of racists. His storylines are the most heartbreaking; he's like the best person in the world who's never done anything bad to anyone. Maybe.
- Poor Donna too. I loved the scene that shows her force her way into the Bartlet campaign. I've been rooting for a Josh-Donna hook-up for a while (don't tell me anything!), and that scene pretty much sealed the deal, so to speak.
- Toby on never winning an election: "You've gotta be impressed with my consistency."
- Hey, it's Sue Sylvester!
- Hey, it's Lois Henrickson!
- Hey, Margaret can forge Bartlet's signature!
- As much as I enjoyed CJ telling the press corp about all the other gun-related happenings of the day, I couldn't help but think most of the people in attendance were probably rolling their eyes.
- "Don't mess with us tonight."