The greatest West Wing episodes (Season 2)
So now to Season 2 and still a long way off from the Santos/Obama prophecies. TWW had definitely got in its stride in this season – it was gritty and punchy, and still gripping. I think it is actually even better than the 1st Season.
The hand of Sorkin could be felt throughout, even in the episodes for which he didn’t take the final writing credits. We knew the main characters well by now, but there was still much to learn – and the series ventured into more backstories than the first season (eg how the staff was recruited onto the original campaign, Toby’s marriage to Andi, Bartlet’s relationship with his father and with Mrs Landingham etc). It was very hard to choose which to include, with some great set pieces. For example:
- CJ falling into the swimming pool when Toby comes to LA to recruit her
- Josh’s counselling for his post-traumatic stress.
- The the deliberations about who would sit where at the Leadership breakfast only to realise they’d left the President out
- Ainsley Hayes’ first (disastrous) meetings with Bartlet
- the epic Senate filibuster by Stackhouse etc.
But here are my stand-outs:
- 2.1 & 2.2 – IN THE SHADOW OF THESE GUNMEN (pt 1 and pt 2) – you really need to take these 2 together. Fascinating to see how the team came together – especially because Bartlet doesn’t come across as particularly attractive character to begin with. This also sows the seeds for big questions that will come towards the end of the series, namely who is in power when Bartlet is unconscious.
Josh: The Democrats aren’t gonna nominate another liberal, academic, former governor from New England. I mean, we’re dumb, but we’re not that dumb.
Leo: Nah, I think we’re exactly that dumb.
Margaret: I can sign the President’s name. I have his signature down pretty good.
Leo: You can sign the President’s name?
Leo: On a document removing him from power and handing it to someone else?!?
Margaret: Yeah. Or do you think the White House Counsel would say that’s a bad idea?
Leo: I think the White House Counsel would say that’s a coup d’état!
Margaret: I’d probably end up doing some time for that.
Leo: I would think!
(Margaret retreats to her office as C.J. enters)
Leo: And what the hell are you doing practicing the President’s signature?
Margaret: It’s just for fun.
Leo(*to C.J.): We’ve got separation of powers, checks and balances, and Margaret vetoing things and sending them back to the Hill!
- 2:4 – IN THIS WHITE HOUSE – the one about AIDS in Africa. I’ve mentioned this episode in a previous post. It is one of the best of the best – it avoids both an easy slam of pharmaceutical companies (even though they of course have much to answer for, they are not entirely dens of iniquity), and rosy-tinted or naïve solutions for Africa. Pres Nimbala of the fictional Equatorial Kuhndu is played by the wonderful Zakes Mokae (right), with real dignity, agony and integrity. The impact of this episode has not diminished since the first time i watched it – and having known friends die of AIDS in E Africa, and seen the tragic cycles of violence and corruption that compound the problems, it is painfully close to the bone. The conclusion of the episode breaks your heart – but is all too realistic. But as ever, the intensity and seriousness is given Shakespearean counterpoint, with the whole sequence of Ainsley Hayes’ drubbing of Sam and her subsequent recruitment.
Leo: (closes the door) Were you offered coffee or something to drink?
Ainsley: Yes, the woman who works out there, who I imagine is your secretary, offered me coffee or something.
Ainsley: She was also kind enough to ask for my coat.
Leo: Excellent, and…
Ainsley: She seems to be a very good secretary.
Leo: She’ll be happy to hear that, she’s standing right outside the door.
(He thumps his hand on the door.)
Margaret (Voiceover): Ow.
Nimbala: It’s a terrible thing to beg for your life. Terrible. My father… [slips back into mother tongue]
Interpreter: [to Nimbala] A proud man.
Nimbala: Proud? Ah. My father was a proud man. He built homes. He wouldn’t like what I came here to do.
Toby: Yes he would, Mr. President. I swear to God, he would.
Nimbala: [after a long silence] Thank you, sir.
- 2:8 – SHIBBOLETH – the one about Chinese stowaway immigrants arriving over Thanksgiving. As ever, high drama is interwoven with absurdity and comedy (this time provided by CJ’s agonised decision about which turkey the president should ‘pardon’. But it is not everyday that you get justification by faith discussed in earnest (albeit incompletely) described in a top tv show. It is very moving indeed.
C.J.: They sent me two turkeys. The more photo-friendly of the two gets a presidential pardon and a full life at a children’s zoo, and the runner-up gets eaten.
Bartlet: If the Oscars were like that, I’d watch.
Bartlet: How did you become a Christian?
Jhin-Wei: I began attending a house church with my wife in Fujian. Eventually, I was baptized.
Bartlet: How do you practice?
Jhin-Wei: We share bibles–we donít have enough. We sing hymns. We hear sermons. We recite the Lord’s Prayer. We are charitable.
Bartlet: Who is the head of your church?
Jhin-Wei: The head of our parish is an 84 year old man named Wen-Ling. He’s been beaten and imprisoned many times. The head of our church is Jesus Christ.
Bartlet: Can you name any of Jesus’ disciples? If you can’t, that’s okay. I usually can’t remember the names of my kids, or for that matter…
Jhin-Wei: Peter, Andrew, John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon, Judas and James. Mr. President, Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts. You’re seeking evidence of faith, a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise for a better world. For we hold that man is ‘justified by faith alone’ is what St. Paul said. ‘Justified
by faith alone.’ Faith is the true… uh, Im trying to… shibboleth. Faith is the true shibboleth.
Bartlet: Yes, it is. And you sir, just said the magic word in more ways than one. Thank you. It was a pleasure to meet you.
- 2:18 – 17 PEOPLE – the one where Bartlet’s MS comes centre stage. It is quite brilliantly constructed and written, as we watch Toby over a number of days working out what has been going on all the time. It is tense. And it begins Bartlet’s bullishness about his failure to disclose that will last right into Season 3.
Sam: I flat out guarantee you that if men were biologically responsible for procreation, there’d be paid family leave in every Fortune 500.
Ainsley: Sam, if men were biologically responsible for procreation, they’d fall down and die at the first sonogram.
Toby : Leo said you had an attack last year.
Bartlet : Huh?
Toby : Leo said you had an attack last year.
Bartlet : Yeah.
Toby : Couple of nights before the State of the Union.
Bartlet : Yeah.
Toby : Wasn’t that also the night you saw satellite pictures of India moving on Kashmir?
Bartlet : Yeah.
Toby : India and Pakistan were staring each other down and control of some nuclear weapons had been put into field.
Bartlet : Yeah.
Toby : So in the middle of a– I don’t know what you call it.
Bartlet : An episode.
Toby : You were in the Situation Room as commander in chief.
Bartlet : I know. I can’t believe we’re all still here.
- 2:22 – TWO CATHEDRALS – the season climax, and what a climax! The focus is of course Mrs Landingham’s funeral in the National Cathedral, but serious issues weave in and out (the crisis in Haiti, the legal battles with big Tobacco, the questions over whether or not Bartlet will stand for another term). This episode is TV drama at its absolute peak – and it breaks the heart with its raw, intense grief and its profound articulation of doubting God’s goodness in the face of suffering. We see Jed’s boyhood battles with his stern uncompromising headmaster-father and the beginnings of his relationship with Mrs Landingham. This all lays the groundwork for the extraordinary final scene. From a theological point of view, however, the reason that Bartlet is so angry is partly because he has a works mentality that assumes life is a divine/human quid-pro-quo. But that aside, if you’ve never been tempted to utter such pained and extreme grief-filled doubt, then you’ve never really suffered. Here are two longer quotes, one with Bartlet alone in the Cathedral, and the second with him discussing his situation with the imaginary ghost of Mrs Landingham.
Bartlet: You’re a son of a bitch, you know that? She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What? Was that supposed to be funny? “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours except praise his glory and praise his name? There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the North Atlantic last year, 68 crew. You know what a tender ship does? It fixes the other ships. It doesn’t even carry guns. It just goes around and fixes the other ships and delivers the mail. That’s all it can do. Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico. Increased foreign trade. Thirty million new acres of land for conservation. Put Mendoza on the bench. We’re not fighting a war. I’ve raised three children. That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto, a deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem. Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui. Officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem!
Bartlet: Damn it! Mrs. Landingham!
Mrs. Landingham: I really wish you wouldn’t shout, Mr. President.
Bartlet: The door keeps blowing open.
Mrs. Landingham: Yes, but there’s an intercom, and you can use it to call me at my desk.
Bartlet: I was…
Mrs. Landingham: You don’t know how to use the intercom.
Bartlet: It’s not that I don’t know how to use it. It’s just that I haven’t learned yet.
I have MS, and I didn’t tell anybody.
Mrs. Landingham: Yeah. So you’re having a little bit of a day.
Bartlet: You gonna make jokes?
Mrs. Landingham: God doesn’t make cars crash and you know it. Stop using me as an excuse.
Bartlet: Party’s not going to want me to run.
Mrs. Landingham: Party will come back. You’ll get them back.
Bartlet: I’ve got a secret for you, Mrs. Landingham. I’ve never been the most popular guy in the Democratic Party.
Mrs. Landingham: I’ve got a secret for you, Mr. President. Your father was a prick who could never get over the fact that he wasn’t as smart as his brothers. Are you in a tough spot? Yes. Do I feel sorry for you? I do not. Why? Because there are people way worse off then you.
Bartlet: Give me numbers.
Mrs. Landingham: I don’t know numbers. You give ’em to me.
Bartlet: How about a child born in this minute has a one-in-five chance of being born into poverty.
Mrs. Landingham: How many American’s don’t have health insurance?
Bartlet: 44 million.
Mrs. Landingham: What’s the number one cause of death for black men under 35?
Mrs. Landingham: How many Americans are behind bars?
Bartlet: 3 million.
Mrs. Landingham: How many Americans are drug addicts?
Bartlet: 5 million.
Mrs. Landingham: And one-in-five kids in poverty?
Bartlet: That’s 13 million American children. 3 and a half million kids are going to schools that are literally falling apart. We need 127 billion in school construction and we need it today.
Mrs. Landingham: To say nothing of 53 people trapped in an embassy.
Mrs. Landingham: You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run because you think it’s going to be too hard or you think you’re going to lose well, God, Jed, I don’t even wanna know you.
There are loads of these articles around which compare the USA2008 election to Seasons 6 & 7 – but here is one of the better ones (HT Brie Barton) – Following the Script (NYT Oct 29 08)
Can’t quibble with your choices – you’ve named all of my favourites too. However, given your education you could have translated the Latin for the lay masses.
Fair point, Ross. Here they are:
Gratias tibi ago, domine. = I give thanks to you, O Lord.
Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto, a deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem. Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui. Officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem! =
Should I believe this is from a good God? A just God? A wise God? May your punishments be crucified on a cross (colloq: to hell with them). I was your servant on earth, I was your messenger, I did your work. To hell with them! To hell with you!
Thanks – I’ll now know how to sound very smart when cursing someone – only joking!
That rant reminds me of Masterpiece Theatre’s showing of God on Trial last weekend – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/ . Sometimes God is a bewildering mystery, but sometimes that’s all we’ve got, for a while. A little cognitive dissonance is a powerful teaching tool — if we remember to assume in our perplexity that the problem is not God but our fallen understanding of him.
I wasn’t a follower of West Wing when it was airing, because I assumed it would be typical Hollywood left-wing propaganda. Nice to know this series had the guts to examine complex issues and not pigeon-hole followers of Christ. I’m intrigued.