Greatest TV Episodes: The West Wing - Two Cathedrals
The West Wing is a rare creature amongst TV gems – it packs a dramatic punch whilst always maintaining plausibility. Inspired by left over plot lines from The American President, an Aaron Sorkin film from 1995, the concept of The West Wing was made up on the spot by Sorkin when he had to attend a lunch where he was expected to pitch a new idea for a TV show.
Anecdotally, one of the main characters, Josh Lyman, is based on Rahm Emanuel who was an advisor to Bill Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign. While this has never been conclusively confirmed, it is most definitely true that an important character that appears later in the show's run was based on the then relatively unknown Barack Obama. Certainly, The West Wing's president and his administration faces many of the issues Obama has faced: introducing free health care, devising an exit strategy for a war started by a previous president and tackling the issues of privacy.
Aside from holding up a mirror to reality, The West Wing is great TV. It won award after award – if you've heard of them, it won them. It quickly established a template of handling the business of the day – from the boring form-filling bureaucracy of government, the personal issues of the senior staff to the high octane drama of assassination attempts – with fast-talking, glittering dialogue (that you can forgive for its repeated exposition).
As well as making excellent use of flashbacks and flash sideways, the show also invented the walk-and-talk – an on-camera device where the characters speed through important plot points while talking politics. A device that Sorkin has gone on to use in other dramas such as Studio 60 On Sunset Strip.
So, in all this gloriousness, how do you select just one episode that tops all the others? Oddly, it is pretty easy – Two Cathedrals. The series 2 finale picks up with Jed Barlett and his team during a period of great crisis. A civil war is kicking off in Haiti, there is a tropical storm wrecking havoc on the eastern coast, the president is about to be investigated for concealing personal medical information from the electorate and one of the team – the president's secretary and oldest friend - is killed in a car accident.
Mrs Landingham is the president's secretary and has known him since he was a boy. We also learn that she is the inspiration for his determination to be a better man. He isn't egotistical, cruel or glory-seeking. His determination to govern his country is simply to make it a better place and the loss of his friend means the president no longer has a grounding influence he has relied on for almost all of his life. Sometimes a little reserved, sometimes quite cranky, this episode exposes his most humble, bumbling academic aspect who hides from his immense grief behind charming facts and anecdotes. He is surrounded by his staff who are seeking to assist him in the leadership of the country through a military conflict.
Bartlett has to step up though, in the midst of his personal crisis, his team need strong leadership and the country needs to know they can rely on their president. He must resolve his personal conflict – how can he be president when none of the hard work he does seems to please his god. 'You're a son of a bitch, you know that?' he shouts accusingly at the alter in the Washington Cathedral before he is due to face his country at a press conference, while his team are back in The White House trying to plan for Plan A: that the president will run for re-election or, Plan B: that he won't, thus ending all their careers in the White House.
The beauty of the show is that the writers never forget that the characters are people. People doing intense, important and terrifying stuff but people nonetheless. Moreover, they are people with the same problems as the next person and doing all that while focussing on running the most powerful nation on Earth.
The thing about The West Wing is that it really makes you feel as though devoted people like these have walked these halls having these conversations and doing these things. After watching Two Cathedrals particularly, real life politics brings you back to Earth with a bump.