Guides | March 25, 2008 | Comments ()
No matter what he does with the rest of his career, Aaron Sorkin will be known as the man who created “The West Wing” and shepherded it through its first four years, years of towering faith and moving drama and contentious political discourse, and that is no small thing. In fact, while the series’ first four seasons are light-years beyond its final three in intelligence, structure, and plain old storytelling, subdividing those four years into rankings of better or worse is almost impossible. Each season offers something different and powerful, and together those four years — those 89 hours of television — add up to something more wonderful than maybe even Sorkin had a right to expect. But Season Two of “The West Wing” remains its best because it is the tightest and truest manifestation of the show’s core essences of emotional resonance, pitch-perfect writing, and an unabashed sense of hope that the hearts of men and women can lift American society and its government from its typical vulgarity and elevate it to something like poetry. The first season’s glory was just slightly marred by a casting misfire, while the fourth seemed to occasionally sink toward the end into a kind of unshakeable funk that mirrored the earthshaking changes the series would face with that season’s story developments and the departure of Sorkin. Season Three is beautiful in its own right, and nearly made the cut as the “best” of the show’s first four years. But when it comes down to the wire, Season Two possesses a mythical element that gives it an edge, and it brims with an energy and verve the burned brighter than at any other time in the show’s seven-year run. It’s a sweeping human drama about what it means to struggle against impossible odds, to know that a loss is inevitable but to fight nonetheless simply because it’s the right thing to do. As President Bartlet would discuss with a staffer a season later, it does indeed matter how a man falls down: When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal.
The season opens with a two-part episode, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” which would set a pattern Sorkin would follow with similar two-part openings in Seasons Three (“Manchester”) and Four (“20 Hours in America”). The first-season finale ended with gunfire an assassination attempt as the President was exiting a building in Virginia after giving a speech, and “Gunmen” opens with a riot of action and momentum that years later are still downright jaw-dropping. Written by Sorkin and directed by longtime collaborator and “West Wing” executive producer Thomas Schlamme, the extended episode is a flawlessly choreographed exercise in relentless narrative and heartbreaking personal drama. Although Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was hit by one of the bullets, the worst injuries were sustained by Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), the deputy chief of staff whose emotional journey would do the most to color the second season. Through a series of flashbacks, Sorkin’s script follows the aftermath of the shooting while also tracing the disparate events that united what would become the senior staff of Bartlet’s Democratic administration: Lyman, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney), and Josh’s assistant, Donna (Janel Moloney). It’s a phenomenal episode for many reasons — the scene where Josh and the President discuss fathers’ pride in their sons will draw tears from even the most hardened men — but it’s a key to the season and series as a whole for three reasons: (a) It explored what would usually be considered the most dramatic storyline possible for a presidential drama (an assassination) and moved on, in effect raising the stakes; (b) It silently eliminated the character of Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), a PR operative from the first season who never remotely gelled with the rest of the cast; and (c) It set up a season-long arc of how the President would address his multiple sclerosis, which had been revealed in the first season and which was still a secret being kept from most of the staff and the world. Excising Mandy from the cast made sense — her presence was odious at best, and she never became a valued part of the show’s universe — and though Sorkin chose for some reason to simply ignore her disappearance instead of tossing in a line of dialogue explaining her away, it’s a forgivable sin given the payoff. But the other two points are really important. By moving past the almost obligatory story involving a shooting, Sorkin freed up the series to go further and explore everything from the traumatic fallout of the event to the ultimate issue of what it means to live in a morally gray world where the leaders of the nation struggle with the choice to protect the very people who would do them harm.
The first half of the season deals with Bartlet’s struggles to govern while dealing with a Republican-controlled Congress, but compounds the issue with the introduction of Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), a Republican lawyer who demolishes Sam in a point-counterpoint debate on a political talk show and winds up earning a job in the White House Counsel’s Office. It’s Bartlet’s idea to hire her, despite the fuss it kicks up with the senior staff and the fact that Ainsley herself has to overcome enormous personal and political differences with the administration when she takes the job. But that’s Sorkin’s whole point: By placing a Republican in a Democrat-run environment, he not only achieves some nice dramatic friction but also strives to show that there is more that unites us than divides us.
But Sorkin is also careful not to become bogged down in heavy drama or sentimentality without the balance of humor, and Season Two of “The West Wing” features some of his best-written scenes and jokes. “Shibboleth” is a moving Thanksgiving-themed episode that primarily deals with the plight of Chinese Christians who escaped persecution and are seeking religious asylum in the United States. Meanwhile, one of the side stories involves Charlie (Dule Hill), the President’s personal aide who’s been sent by Bartlet on a never-ending hunt for a quality carving knife, only for the President to eventually present Charlie with an heirloom blade forged by Paul Revere. Charlie’s blown away by the President’s thoughtfulness, and Bartlet simply says, “I’m proud of you Charlie.” And yet running parallel with these plotlines is one in which Bartlet is required to pardon a turkey, and Sorkin plays it for all the believable wackiness he can get. Sorkin’s dense, quickly paced speeches give the series a feeling of screwball humor, and the series is amazing at capturing the mercurial shift between angst and levity that so many others have striven for and failed to achieve.
And yet despite the show’s quick wit, the drama is what made it something special. Long after everyone thinks the effects of the shooting have dulled and that things are once again right with the world, Josh suffers a nervous collapse at work and spends the duration of the episode “Noel” explaining his actions and emotions to a psychotherapist (Adam Arkin). The episode is perfectly executed and deeply moving, and it’s no accident that it was once again written by Sorkin and directed by Schlamme. It’s tense and structurally satisfying on the most basic level — the characters work through the mystery of how Josh hurt his hand (he punched a window) — but it’s so much more than that. The shooting proved that these characters could be hurt, that their world could be invaded in a personal and terrifying way, and Whitford is absolutely amazing in the way he effortlessly carries the episode. His work here is what contributed to his Emmy win for best supporting actor for the season. (As long as we’re taking a pit stop to discuss awards, it should be noted that Janney won the Emmy for supporting actress and the series won for best drama, in addition to picking up a slew of other nominations and wins, including Schlamme for best director for the two-part “Gunmen.”)
Josh was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, but rather than be shuttled off to counseling or dismissed, he was warmly reminded of his importance by Leo in a heartfelt moment that recalled the way Josh had stood up for Leo when the older man was under investigation in Season One for a history of alcohol abuse. Josh was broken, and Leo helped put him back together because that’s all you can ever do. Sorkin kept circling back to theme of unavoidable tragedy and the way its victims always fought for a way to forgive and mend each other in its wake, from the President’s heartbreak over losing men in a rescue operation in “The War at Home” to Sam’s confrontation with his father’s infidelity in “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.” The latter episode is another painful look at a storyline Sorkin first introduced in his first series, “Sports Night”; both featured a man dealing with his father’s affair with the help of an external metaphor, whether it was a ship lost at sea during a race or the revelation that a decorated American officer was actually a Cold War spy. (I think you can figure out which series is which.)
It’s that sense of fighting in the face of insurmountable odds that runs through the last few episodes of the season, which focus on the spreading realization among senior staff and then the press that the President has multiple sclerosis. Bartlet had made a deal with the First Lady, Abby (Stockard Channing), long before reaching office that his disease ruled out any chance of seeking a second term, and that by opting not to run for reelection, he could somewhat assuage his guilt at keeping his condition a secret. But the bad news starts to stack up pretty quickly: Toby figures it out, then the President informs the Counsel’s Office, and then the senior staff start trying to figure out what they’re going to do. The final episodes of the season are dark, ethically ambiguous ones dealing with the cost of pursuing what you believe to be right despite the cost you pay to get there, and just when the series seems to waver on the edge of sorrow, it tips completely in its favor with the shocking, saddening death of Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), the President’s secretary who is killed in a car crash at 18th and Potomac. Her death pushes Bartlet into a deep despair — he’d known her for decades — and propels the action into the season finale, “Two Cathedrals,” the third Sorkin-Schlamme tag-team episode of the year. Bartlet is so pissed at God for Mrs. Landingham’s death that he curses out the Almighty in Latin — which is showoffy even for him — but it carries the right kind of shock. Bartlet is a man of faith, who almost wound up a priest, and whose struggles with the moral compromises of running the country have often brought him to his knees (cf. Season One’s “Take This Sabbath Day”). He’s even got a track record of bashing those who would pervert the Gospel for their own divisive ways, as he did in “The Midterms.” To lose Mrs. Landingham feels like God has taken his last support out from under him. This is worse than being shot; this is living through it.
But in the midst of his torment, Bartlet remembers the lessons Mrs. Landingham had taught him when he was a teen, and he knew that to avoid reelection simply because of the cover-up and later admission of his disease would somehow amount to cowardice. Just as they’d done all season, Sorkin and Schlamme pushed past the simpler ideas of right and wrong and forced the President to wonder what it would mean to keep going even as he admitted to his mistakes. The series transitioned from one kind of hope to another, from a more blinded optimism that everything would work out to the grittier belief that things would probably be horribly difficult but still worth fighting for; in some cases, even more than they were before. The season closes with a press conference where Bartlet is asked if he’ll run for re-election in the wake of everything that’s happened, and he doesn’t even have to answer aloud: His face says it all.
In his Emmy acceptance speech, Whitford thanked Sorkin and Schlamme “for pushing the most radical envelope there is, one of intelligence and wit and hope.” He nailed it. That combination of smart writing and optimism in the basic goodness of people was a departure from network TV just a decade ago and feels even farther from it now. Even within the canon of “The West Wing” — which, let’s be honest, really stops after Season Four and Sorkin and Schlamme’s departure — Season Two stands out as an amazing examination of humanity and a unique workplace drama. The season as a whole is tightly polished and consistently moving, and at its heart is a band of devoted men and women who want to change the world for the better, and who are willing to suffer all kinds of torment to get there. In the words of one of their own: Their intent is good. Their commitment is true. They are righteous, and they are patriots.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.