Television gets a bad rap. I can’t say its reputation for superficial stories and sensationalistic plotting is undeserved, either. The problem with television is systemic; television exists to sell ad space, which means the shows broadcast have to be good at keeping viewers in their seats for as long as possible. At best, viewers who turn on a channel should keep watching that channel from show to show. The best way of keeping viewers in their seats is not to present them with challenging art. It’s to put them into a trance. Flip through the dials and you’ll find that most television are carefully crafted to engage just enough of your brain to keep you watching, and no more.
The bad guy in television is not the medium itself, but the economic interests that fund it. Great television is possible, just not regularly profitable. Great art forces its viewers to think. Great art may bother people enough not to watch it. Great art may even cause its supporters to turn off the television when it’s done to give them some space. To let them meditate on what they’ve just seen. Meditation with the television off does not sell Clorox.
Every so often, a great show slips is way onto a fall schedule. Most of the time, it gets canceled before it gets a full season. A lucky few make it beyond that, either due to great ratings or that rarest of factors: a networking executive who appreciates art and is willing to take a hit in the wallet for the boost it gives to the image of his or her network. Homicide: Life on the Street stayed on the second way, lasting seven years despite lackluster ratings.
The West Wing survived the first way. It got great ratings, despite its often challenging subject matter. It did so because it cloaked its ambitions in humor, great direction and compelling characters. Despite all of this, though, the challenging part of the equation eventually got its creator and lead writer, Aaron Sorkin, fired. With him went his co-producer and best director, Thomas Schlamme. The thing with challenging art is that it’s as much of a challenge to create as it is to absorb; Sorkin’s show had budget and deadline problems that became more important to the network than the fact that they were producing one of the best shows on television. After all, the point was to sell ad space. A brain-dead show with the same ratings as a good show made just as much money. Why bother to let a good show be expensive and late when you can make more money by making it cheaper and less good?
What you lose when you sacrifice quality for dollars is the chance to get an episode of television like “Two Cathedrals.” The West Wing was, for all of Sorkin’s tenure as producer, an expertly written show. Sorkin’s dialog was consistently top notch, and the regular use of steadicam “walk and talks” kept things moving even when you had scenes whose sole purpose was to educate on the obscure political topic du jour. The show was also well plotted as a rule, mixing season long arcs with multi-episode and stand-alone stories in such a way that a newcomer has a lot to enjoy while they get up to speed. In fact, I came in mid-season two and, despite not knowing much of anything about the characters who earlier plots, was stuck in my seat nonetheless. What I’m getting at is that it was all really, really good. It was so good that it’s easy to misjudge just how good “Two Cathedrals” really is. It might look like just an exceptional episode of The West Wing. It’s not. It’s one of the best hours of drama ever filmed.
The West Wing followed the presidency of Jed Bartlet. It picked up during his first year as President, introducing us to his staff and the daily problems they faced. In early season 1, something was revealed that would fuel much of the later drama of the series. Bartlet had Multiple Sclerosis and had kept it secret during his campaign. When we learn of it, we also learn that only 14 people have been told. His doctors, his family, and the highest ranking members of his cabinet. For a long time, little attention is given to Bartlet’s MS. It’s relapsing remitting, meaning between attacks he’s fine, and his attacks are rare.
The MS poses a problem, though. When it comes time to reveal it to the public, will they be able to accept it? Were laws broken when it was not disclosed? Will Bartlet run again, despite his own fear and a promise to his wife not to seek reelection? And can he be expected to make this decision when his long time friend and assistant Mrs. Landingham dies just days before he must announce?
“Two Cathedrals” is a dense 42 minutes, and for most of it we’re with Bartlet. While he wants to run again, feels that his work his unfinished, doubts plague him. He’s worried about what this revelation will do to his family and to his staff. He’s worried that the public might not accept his reluctance to disclose a personal health problem. And he’s worried that, even if he does seek reelection, that he might lose. If he doesn’t run, at least his Vice President Hoynes has a shot at winning. And through all of it, Barlett remembers his first meetings with Mrs. Landingham when she is brought in as a secretary at his high school. And he remembers the way she challenged him then.
Two scenes stand out. The first follows Mrs. Landingham’s funeral. Bartlet orders the National Cathedral cleared so he can take a moment alone. Then he turns to the alter and begins an angered speech to God, mixing Latin with his own words. Bartlet is a religious man. He once considered going into the catholic seminary before meeting the woman who would become his wife. Bartlet’s anger at God isn’t borne of a weak, shattered faith, but of a man who’s conviction has left him confused and bitter. Gratias tibi ago, Domine (Thank you, Lord), he says, cursing the will of God that took Mrs. Landingham in an accident on the very day she bought her first new car. Haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito (Am I to believe these things from a righteous God, a just God, a wise God), he asks. Have the things he’d done for people in his country not been enough? Has he not been a good father? Was the assassination attempt just a year before that almost killed a staff member just a warning shot? Furious, he calls God a feckless thug. Then, remembering his father admonishing him for smoking in the cathedral at his school, Bartlet lights a cigarette, takes one pull and stomps it out on the floor. “You get Hoynes,” he says, and leaves.
The second scene takes place hours later, just before he’s due to announce whether he’ll be running for president again. He has a press conference and one of the reporters is bound to ask the question. To make it easier for him, the press secretary tells him to call on a health reporter for his first question, allowing him to answer a different question with some follow-ups, giving him time to get comfortable. Then he’s left alone in the Oval Office to think.
A freak tropical storm is battering Washington, and the door leading outside blows open due to a bad hinge. The storm blows wind and rain into the office. Bartlet shouts for Mrs. Landingham to close it. As he realizes she’s never going to be there again, Bartlet imagines her there. And, as goofy and cliched as it sounds, begins a moving conversation with the vision of his old friend that puts him back on track. “God doesn’t cause car wrecks and you know it,” she says, “Stop using me as an excuse.” They begin to talk about the problems still left to solve, about the things Bartlet is still passionate about. Then she accuses him of something she had accused him of as a child.
“You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run because 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 conversation ends, and Bartlet walks out into the storm, letting the rain and wind batter him. It’s time to go to the press conference. In two scenes, neither lasting more than 5 minutes, Sorkin gives us the full progression of Bartlet’s doubt and fears without cheapening anything. The speech in the cathedral, I think, should sound familiar to anyone of faith who’s had to face trials that seem to refute their beliefs. And Bartlet’s impassioned conversation with a memory of his friend reminds him and us of how difficult it can be to separate out the good reasons for not doing something from the fear and doubt that usually hangs us up. There’s not a bad moment of writing in the episode, but those scenes are as good as anything I’ve ever seen scripted.
One last thing, to end this article and the episode. In one of his flashbacks, as Mrs. Landingham tries to convince him to help increase the wages of the women at the school, Bartlet puts his hands into his pockets, looks away and smiles. Mrs. Landingham knows the sign. He’s made his decision and he’s going to do it.
When he arrives at the press conference, he takes the stage and looks at the health reporter he can call on first to give himself some breathing room. He doesn’t call on him. The first question comes: “Are you going to run for a second term?” Bartlet puts his hands in his pocket, looks away and smiles. The episode, and the season, comes to a close.
That’s what they call a home run, folks.