[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 05/17/2000]
“Who’s been hit? WHO’S BEEN HIT?”
Television is, above all else, a writer’s medium. Whereas movie scripts can be changed and revamped beyond recognition by a Hollywood director, TV allows the writer to have near-complete control of his work. This, in fact, is one of the reasons I prefer television over film – the creative process of the writer is often far more prevalent onscreen.
Now this is not to say that television directors don’t deserve any glory. While they aren’t quite as influential as their filmmaking counterparts, the best of TV directors can take a good script and bring out its best qualities, using skill and creativity to make the final product as entertaining as possible. And if, on the rare occasion, a writer and director go hand-in-hand, said final product could prove to be not only entertaining, but magnificent.
Thomas Schlamme, in addition to being an innovative and talented director, provides the perfect counterpoint to Aaron Sorkin’s scripts. Said scripts are significantly longer than those of the average forty-two minute dramas, requiring the actors to deliver their dialogue at a near-breathless pace. Schlamme thus lends energy to the dialogue-heavy scenes, with gliding cameras down long hallways creating tension in the moment, a technique which has been dubbed “the walk-and-talk”. The dialogue and camerawork combine to clue us in on the fact that these characters lead busy lives, and must work as quickly as possible.
But Schlamme’s directorial skill extends beyond moving cameras. As the series progresses, he gives rise to some of its most visually stunning episodes. Season Two will show Schlamme at his best, elevating the act of camera placement to a veritable art form. But “What Kind of Day Has It Been” already shows how impressively talented the man is.
The teaser sequence, upon first viewing, is both confusing and esoteric. Characters refer to events we haven’t seen explained, seemingly out-of-place references dot the proceedings, and the sweeping hand gesture the characters make to one another is just plain odd. The opening scene is done in classic in media res style, and the events in it will only be explained in flashback, once we’ve passed the opening credits.
What’s remarkable about this opening is that, despite the fact that we initially have no idea what’s going on, Schlamme is still able to generate tension and excitement. The West Wing has always been a fast-paced show, requiring viewers to keep up if they don’t want to risk getting lost. And the quick cuts in the teaser sequence – skillfully interchanging perspectives from eight different characters – enhances the excitement while encouraging us to try to keep up with the goings-on. Further, the use of several long shots outside the Newseum establishes the idea that someone is watching President Bartlet and his staff exiting the building. We even get an unsettling shot from inside the room the gunmen inhabit, as they lock and load their guns, before the camera pans down to the President and gathering crowd below. These factors heighten the suspense, and leave us breathless right up to the moment that Gina Toscano looks up and sees the two gunmen ready to fire.
Before I get into the meat of this episode, I’d like to quickly make note of two criticisms I see commonly leveled at it: (1) The flashback-device is merely that – a device – and doesn’t add anything to the overall episode, and (2) the cliffhanger ending is just that – a cliffhanger – and it’s calculated simply to ensure that viewers tune in next fall.
Both these criticisms, as far as I’m concerned, are invalid. But I’ll get to them later.
“What Kind of Day Has It Been” is a title that Sorkin clearly loves – it’s also the name of the Season One finale of Sports Night, as well as that of Studio 60. The reason, Sorkin explains on the West Wing DVD commentary, is that this title is reflective. Specifically, it invites the viewer to look back on the season, and see just how well it’s progressed the characters and storyline.
And the first season finale of The West Wing very much feels like a reflective point, a chance for most of the regular characters to get a moment in the sun and let us appreciate how far they’ve come in a mere 22 episodes. Apart from its ending, “What Kind of Day Has It Been” is not an earth-shattering finale, but that works to its benefit. By keeping a basic low profile, it allows for some of the strongest character work the series has given us yet.
The episode covers two separate story threads which bear little overall connection, outside of a humorous hand gesture which is meant to signify an airplane taking off. Initially, the gesture is used as a signal which confirms the rescue of a trapped military pilot. Once the pilot is safe, however, the hand motion is used to communicate that a faulty space shuttle has safely reentered Earth’s atmosphere. The signal is a clever nod to the fact that the Bartlet administration has gotten so adept at relaying messages that they are now able to communicate with one another without even speaking, and the recycling of said signal is an example of their growing ability to prioritize.
I should point out that not all the administration members are all that caught up on the signal’s use. Bartlet and Leo are perplexed by the gesture itself, and Leo even falls behind when the staffers switch the meaning of it. It’s thus a sign of maturity for the younger staffers, and their ability to utilize more modern techniques to get the job done.
Speaking of younger staffers, Charlie takes a crucial step forward in this episode. While the other characters continually stake their claims with heavily speechified dialogue, Charlie has always been a man of few words. At most, he has functioned as a sounding board for Bartlet, abetting even the President’s most absurd humorous observations with a smiling “Yes, sir.” But in recent episodes, Charlie has begun to grow into his own, and dating the President’s daughter has firmly integrated him into the show’s continuity. In this episode, Charlie – with a little push from the gleefully impetuous Zoey – sheepishly suggests some material for the President to use in his speech. When Bartlet does make use of it, the result is a wave of pride for Charlie, who – in one of the episode’s best little character moments – responds to Josh’s sentiment about the feeling of working for the President in “A Proportional Response” with “You’re right… It doesn’t go away.”
Josh himself gets his own minor thread in the episode, which does a good job of assessing the strengths of his character. In a scene complementing his talk with Hoynes at the end of “Five Votes Down”, Josh has a discussion with the VP in which he provides a well-reasoned and convincing argument to back the President. For the first time, we see Hoynes impressed by Josh’s political savvy, to the point that he wonders whether or not he should have paid more attention to his ideas back during his election campaign.
Josh has definitely proven himself to be a smart and capable politician, but his methods are not without their flaws. His defining of the trapped military pilot as an opportunity to gain more Presidential points angers Leo, who’s spent the last few episodes on pins and needles trying to help the administration retain their likability while still strategizing to become more popular. Josh, who profusely apologizes to Leo for his misdeed, is a person who struggles to correlate his political savvy with an acute personal touch, and Season Two will present us with a more openly sympathetic side of his character.
The marooned pilot situation also puts CJ under pressure, although she’s able to handle it with finesse. A concerned Leo tells her to lie to the press, giving her careful instructions to ensure that she won’t let her personal attachments get the best of her. His concerns are unfounded – CJ delivers a false briefing without breaking stride, the last in a long list of signs which proves she’s finally escaped the confines of her Press Room bubble.
CJ’s presence here is thus a benchmark, preparing us for her even more dramatic development in future seasons. But of all the character threads in this individual episode, it’s not the most relevant story-wise. More important is that of Toby, who lends this episode the most emotional weight he’s given the show since “In Excelsis Deo”.
Toby initially seemed to be the most emotionally distant of all the regular characters – he rarely smiled, and rarely brought his personal life into the workplace. The immediate assumption was that Toby was so dedicated to his work that he was able to avoid concerning himself with personal issues entirely. But in recent episodes, this assumption has changed. When Toby met with Andy in “Mandatory Minimums”, we saw a man who attempted to avoid personal conversation, even to those once personal to him.
Now, the details of their divorce remained fuzzy, and we could have been left to assume his reluctance around her was a byproduct of a bitter break-up. But “What Kind of Day Has It Been” assures us to the fact that Toby struggles with personal relationships. Not only has he never talked about his brother around the office, but he wasn’t even aware that said brother was currently out in space. Richard Schiff masterfully conveys the subtlety of emotions that wash over Toby as he digests the information while attempting to disguise the fact that he doesn’t know about it. The quiet levels of concern he feels for his brother’s safety are among the most emotionally affecting aspects of the episode.
Best of all is the scene he shares with the President, who tries to comfort Toby while still aware that chances for his brother’s survival are slim. Toby’s dwindling hope for the space shuttle survivors, along with his too-late concern for his brother, are key factors that will heavily influence his development in the show’s later seasons, and a retrospective viewing makes the scene in this episode between him and Bartlet that much more difficult to watch.
Bartlet himself, fittingly enough, is the central figure of this episode, and his actions serve as both a continuing representation of his development and a reflective point with which to tidily summarize his character. As with much of the season’s previous episodes, Bartlet spends much of “What Kind of Day Has It Been” in a jovial mood, dispelling the tension building among his staffers with a sharp and reassuring quip. Now steadfastly assured that he can be a firm and strong leader, he has regained his outward sense of humor, and then some.
But for all the bravura Bartlet displays on the exterior, he is still weighed down inwardly by many individual conflicts, which leave him personally concerned. This is not entirely unexpected – Bartlet is more invested in his country than ever, and with that investment, the bruises sting all the more. In “A Proportional Response”, we saw him respond to the death of a friend with anger and the need for harsh violence. Now, just a little bit wiser, his compassion for American victims – be they stranded Air Force pilots or struggling astronauts – still stings hard, but he is able to work with his emotions to more constructive ends. He asks Fitzwallace for the trapped pilot’s name and age, and gives the man’s parents a call once he learns that he’s been rescued. No longer just a man governed by his own conscience, Bartlet has learned to spread his wings out over the country, aligning the concerns of the American individual with his.
When Bartlet speaks to the large audience at the Newseum, it is less the sight of a leader addressing his nation than that of a man chatting up his buddies. He jokes about politics, and speaks candidly about the younger generation. When he politely asks if he can take off his jacket without making a fuss (“It’s a little hot under these lights”), the audience applauds. It’s an inaugural moment, as Bartlet transcends the stuffy professionalism associated with a US President while still maintaining an air of respect.
It’s a moment we see twice during this episode – during the teaser sequence, and during the “recapping” at the end of the episode. This brings me around to my earlier point about the episode’s in media res structure, and how it’s used to enhance the overall episode.
Now, I don’t believe the flashback-style mode of storytelling always works. Several shows simply make use of this device as a way of grabbing a viewer’s attention by presenting a character doing something strange or out-of-place, before cutting back to “(Certain Number of) Hours Earlier” to explain these events. If used too often, the device becomes a cheap bid for suspense. (Don’t even get me started on the number of times Alias used it.)
The West Wing will in fact take advantage of this device on several future occasions, to varying levels of success. “Life on Mars” uses it as a means of undercutting that episode’s shocking main event, in order to distract us from the risibility of it all. “Gaza” flounders awkwardly between flashbacks and flashforwards, turning an already troubled story into a narrative mess. But “What Kind of Day Has It Been” plays the trope straight, and works to powerful effect. With the teaser, it presents us with a series of confusing and inexplicable events, and then proceeds to show us just what kind of day it has been for Bartlet and his staff. By the time it’s over, we get the privilege of rewatching the teaser sequence, this time with an added level of clarity and understanding.
On a subliminal level, this mode of storytelling is a clever jab in the ribs to our own attention spans. The West Wing is a fast-moving and exhilarating series, and it requires constant attention to keep up with the ever-shifting events. When “What Kind of Day Has It Been” opens, we are so used to paying close attention to the show’s cadences that we’re fooled into thinking of the teaser as “just another opening”. We barely have any opportunity to remember that we’re supposed to be confused, and by the time the opening credits roll, the only thought in our minds is “What did Gina see?”
Which brings me to my last point: that season-ending cliffhanger.
Season-ending cliffhangers are a tricky television beast. Ever since JR Ewing got shot and Commander Riker told Mr. Worf to fire, cliffhangers have been a means of keeping a finale’s viewership on the edge of their seats – for a good four or five months – until the following premiere can resolve the tension. Around the turn of the century, though, the public began to tire of cliffhangers, recognizing them less as a topic of watercooler conversation to put a little spice in their summers and more as a cheap gimmick designed to keep up good ratings. (Perhaps this wasn’t so much due to the overreliance on cliffhangers as it was due to the annoying tendency of networks to cancel shows after they finish a season open-ended – I still haven’t gotten over the tragic death of My So-Called Life.)
The ending of “What Kind of Day Has It Been” was subject to a huge amount of criticism when it originally aired – so much so that the next season’s finale, “Two Cathedrals”, intentionally subverted a cliffhanger ending – but I don’t think much of the flak leveled at it was really deserved. In fact, I think the final scene of the episode is the perfect capper to a great season of television. (Granted, I’m a bit biased here, since I first watched this show on DVD, years after it aired, and thus did not have to wait five months for the Season Two premiere to resolve things. But hear me out.)
Throughout the first season, Bartlet and his administration have grappled with their newfound power, attempting to correlate their idealistic visions with the needs of the public. It was a daunting task, and, for much of the season, we watched the staff grow out of their backdoor politics and loopholes into a stronger and more capable administration. These last three episodes have shown Bartlet and his staff proverbially stepping out into the open, prepared to take on any troubles that hit them.
At the end of the first season, Bartlet and his staff step out into the open. And people start shooting at them.
It’s a remarkably tense moment, but more crucially, it’s a moment that expertly sets things up for the major themes in Season Two. As we’ll find out in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part II)”, the gunmen were specifically targeting Charlie, in response to his boldness in dating the President’s daughter. With boldness, this point asserts, comes a price – and much of the second season will show that price effectively combated.
“What Kind of Day Has It Been” thus serves as a bridge between the first two seasons, and a damn fine one at that. With terrific character development and thematic relevance, it provides a solid cap to a remarkable freshman season, and sets the stage for even greater things to come. To this effect it owes Sorkin, but also to the episode’s director. To paraphrase my review for the Freaks and Geeks finale: Season One of The West Wing may be on its way out, but it closes the door with a resounding Schlamme.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Leo getting confused over which message the signal is referring to.
+ Bartlet explaining his love of softball to Charlie.
+ Josh not realizing there’s no chair at his desk… and delivering another one of the show’s classic pratfalls.
+ There is a miniature plane in Gail the goldfish’s bowl. Gail is still awesome.
– Fitzwallace’s speculation regarding the eagle on the Presidential Seal and the direction it faces is amusing on paper… but it’s contrived, factually perplexing, and awkwardly out of place.
* Hoynes speculates whether if he’d listened to Josh during his campaign, he would have won the election. Josh replies, “No, sir, I know it for sure.” Josh’s self-assurance in his campaigning abilities is one of his character’s defining points, and will affect his arc greatly in the show’s final two seasons.
* Many aspects of the endangered shuttle storyline become harsher in light of the shuttle leak storyline in Seasons Six and Seven. Perhaps the most notable is the scene where Sam tries comforting a worried Toby by telling him that if there was real danger, they would alert the President. The President is alerted to shuttle trouble in “Things Fall Apart”, which could have told Toby something about the magnitude of the danger.
* Real-Life Foreshadowing: The Columbia’s reentry issues feel harsher in hindsight, following the tragic destruction of the Columbia in February 2003. The President’s semi-joking threat about invading Baghdad also raises a few eyebrows.