Well, the impact of this one has certainly changed a bit since it aired. And, honestly, I think it might be even more relevant. The show hasn’t changed, of course, but the reality in which I watch it has been shifting for the last few years. The portrayal of the White House during what is essentially the Clinton Era Pre-Scandal is so starkly different to the subsequent portrayals that have colored most of my lifetime that it seems impossible to me that it’s the most accurate one, but, with limited exception, this seems to be how the White House has worked since WWII. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, because politics is run by people and people are ridiculous. Sometimes it’s overwhelmingly serious, because holding political office is dealing with situations and situations are serious. The balance shifts depending on the world, not the administration. The administration merely follows the world. The West Wing managed to portray all of that coherently.
The show takes place in the West Wing of the White House during the Presidency of Democrat Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin “You know damned well who I am” Sheen), and covers the day-to-day work and life of Bartlett and his staff: Leo McGarry (John Spencer), the White House Chief of Staff; C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), the White House Press Secretary; Josh Lyman (Bradley “Stop thinking of me from Billy Madison” Whitford), the Deputy Chief of Staff; Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), the White House Communications Director; Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), White House Deputy Communications Director; Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), Josh’s assistant; and Charlie Young (Dulé “Doughnut Holschtein” Hill).
While all of the characters in the show are amazing, and each could merit an entire entry’s worth of discussion, the focus of this episode is going to be on President Bartlet, because anything less would be spitting on a profound performance. The President actually wasn’t even supposed to be a character on the show. Aaron Sorkin originally planned to show him only in passing and only in a few episodes, but Sheen’s performance was so powerful that he quickly became the lead. Bartlet is a Democrat, a devout Catholic, a polymath so learned that it pretty much only can exist in fiction, a patriot of the highest order, a gifted speaker, and a caring man who balances his love of the country with accepting how much he has to deceive and bargain with both the people and other politicians in order to be allowed to do what he knows is the right thing.
In the first season, it is revealed that the President has a relapsing-remitting form of Multiple Sclerosis that he has concealed since before he ran for office. In this episode, he discloses it to the world, while the Democratic Party basically tells him that they would not endorse him to run another term because of it. The condition doesn’t impact him more than once every few years, and usually not too severely, but it is a neurological degenerative disorder, and it could potentially make him unfit in the future.
Right before this episode starts, the President’s executive secretary, Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten and Kirsten Nelson in flashback), one of the most lovable characters ever on television, is killed by a drunk driver. She had just bought a new car, and the president had asked her to come show it to him. Flashbacks of his adolescence with her as the secretary at the school his father ran occur throughout the episode. A large part of the episode is set at her funeral. Afterwards, the President asks to be alone in the National Cathedral. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the National Cathedral, but it is a breathtaking building, regardless of your faith or lack thereof. And this episode is the last time that anyone has been allowed to film in it, which makes it only the more fitting that Martin Sheen delivers one of the best monologues on film to the figure of Christ.
Bartlet is vocally a Christian, and he is not a hypocrite about it, which is basically inconceivable for any modern politician. He has the Bible memorized, and has read more commentary on it than most people would even guess existed. He quotes verses throughout the series, but still understands that it is the responsibility of his faith to shape him, not his policies, which are shaped by being an American first. That’s why it’s all the more stunning when he starts it by telling God “You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?”
Bartlet then proceeds to unload on God for the unfairness of life, in a way that should be all too real for anyone who has ever had faith. He talks about how he sinned by lying about his disease, but that it’s not fair that such a thing would outweigh everything else he’s done. He’s been faithful, he’s done good works, moreso than almost any President at the time. And yet, the sweetest person in his life, one of the most sincerely good people he’s ever known, was killed the day she bought her first new car by a drunk driver. As Bartlet puts it. “Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 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?”
He ends with the lines “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. [roughly translated, because I haven’t taken Latin in a decade: Should I believe these things are from a pious God? A just God? A knowing God? Damn your punishments! I was your servant on Earth, I was your messenger; I did my duty. Damn your punishments. Damn You.] He then smokes a cigarette, the thing that his father had admonished him against during his youth, puts it out on the floor of the cathedral (which is why they banned filming there), and says “You get Hoynes,” the less morally-sound Vice-President who is presumed to be the next presidential candidate for the Democratic Party.
The staff are then told that the President will not seek re-election. The only ones who appear to believe that he might change his mind are Toby and Leo, the two people who convinced him to run in the first place.
The President then flashes back to his childhood where his father hits him for writing an article opposing book-banning, and derides his intelligence by saying that Jed is only at the school because his father is headmaster. In the present, he sees a vision of Mrs. Landingham who tells him to consider all of the people who have it worse than him, but, unlike most people when saying this, she means that he needs to think about how many people need his help. He recites the problems that he wants to fix, problems that have remained relevant, sadly, since this episode aired. She then says to him the same thing she told him when he was a boy:
“You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run ’cause you think it’s gonna be too hard or you think you’re gonna lose… well, God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”
The President then walks outside and stands in the presence of the strongest storm to hit DC in May in history, before going in front of the White House Press Corps. Bartlet chooses to avoid the softball question that the team had prepared for him, instead choosing another reporter who asks him directly if he’ll be seeking a second term. Bartlet puts his hands in his pockets, looks away, and smiles, something that Mrs. Landingham said is his way of saying “I’ve made up my mind to do it.”
One of the things that most amazed me was that the show doesn’t say what the Two Cathedrals are, and, within the episode, it could be interpreted several ways. They could be the Cathedral shown at Jed’s School in the flashbacks, where he first put out a cigarette and met Mrs. Landingham, and the National Cathedral where he puts out another one and says goodbye to her. But, I think the two Cathedrals are the National Cathedral and the Oval Office, and I’ll tell you why (because it’s my list and you can deal with it).
At the National Cathedral, Josiah Bartlet renounces his faith. He renounces his faith in God, obviously, but along than that, he renounces his faith in himself and America. He doesn’t believe he can hold the office anymore, and he doesn’t believe that America wants him anymore. He thinks he isn’t enough, as a Catholic, as a son, as a President, as an American, and he is resentful that he could have worked this hard and done this much and still feel like he is a failure and that he’s being punished for it. He ends it by telling God to go to Hell, in so many words, and condemns America to a lesser president. He’s done with America, he’s done with God, he’s done believing in things.
And yet, a few hours later, at the Oval Office, he finds it all again from a vision of Mrs. Landingham. She clearly is just a manifestation of his own subconscious, because she says to him all the things that he already knows: His father was a prick, God doesn’t send drunk drivers to kill people, and that there is more work to be done. Bartlet’s greatest strength as a president is that he cares about all of the people behind the numbers. He recites the statistics of children born into poverty, the collapsing schools, the uninsured citizenry, the drug crisis, the high rate of incarceration, but it’s clear that he doesn’t care that these things are holding America back, he’s upset because it means people are suffering that he wants to help be better. Regardless of party or philosophy or anything else, this is what should first define a presidential candidate. The fact that it doesn’t is the greatest flaw in a Democracy.
That’s what this episode reminds us: That our leaders need to be the people who are doing it for everyone else, not for themselves or their friends. Unfortunately, the episode also reminds us exactly why it’s so difficult for us to get those people: Because caring breaks people, and having to care about everyone breaks all but the toughest. Therefore, the people who make it further in politics are either the strongest, or the ones who don’t actually care. The problem is, the strongest won’t make it without stumbling. They will fail. They will lose faith. They will become angry that the world is not fair or just or merciful. They may give up. But they will come back. They will climb back out of that hole and they will conquer. Sadly, people will assume these moments of stumbling are a sign of weakness, which gives the advantage to the uncaring, something the show has pointed out on multiple occasions. The judgment of the masses feeds sociopathy, not courage.
Bartlet gets back up, and he baptizes himself in the rain as a sign of his renewed faith, not only in God, but in America. It’s a powerful scene that perfectly complements his anger within the church. It’s made even more lasting by having Bartlet and the rest of the staff come together to go to the press conference to the song “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits, signifying that Bartlet knows one other key to being a great President: To inspire great people to follow you.
All of the President’s staff, from the chief to the secretaries to the cooks, feel as if they are on the battlefield with him. They’re all part of the same team, and they trust that everyone on the team, even if they don’t agree how, is working for the benefit of the American public. One of my favorite lines on the show is that when one of the staff outlines the goals for the day, Bartlet corrects them and says:
“The first priority is always: How can we be making life better for American citizens?”
It’s corny, but it’s also exactly the kind of message that you need to focus on. We’re not lowering taxes, we’re not lowering unemployment, we’re not improving education. We may do all of those things, but they’re incidental to the goal of making life better for Americans.
It’s also worth noting that this episode does not portray Bartlet as being a self-made man. Far from it, it suggests that, while he had all the talent in the world, his ethics and success are the product of two women: His mother, who gave him his faith, and Mrs. Landingham, who taught him to use his powerful mind and will for the benefit of others. It’s an interesting window into the character.
This episode is the highest dramatic performance on the list. The only two remaining are comedies, and that’s a little bit because this one required watching the show up to this point to truly appreciate, whereas someone who knows nothing of the show could watch the last two. However, there is no doubt in my mind that this could easily be listed as the greatest episode of television by critics. Please, when you find an hour, watch it.
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