[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 10/04/2000]
“Tell me this isn’t one of the twelve steps.” – Jed Bartlet
The primary theme of The West Wing is power, filtered through the bright eyes of idealism. Or is it? Sure, the series is all about the most powerful people in America, and it makes them out to be far more optimistic than any of us would anticipate. But so much of the series focuses on the difficulties of having an immense level of power, and the decisions the characters must make are rarely clear-cut. The first season showed us an administration brimming with power but with great difficulty harnessing it. Season Three and onwards will see the show offering various perspectives on the continuing issues of power – maintaining it, mishandling it, renouncing it, and so forth. All of these topics prove quite fascinating, and the series explores each with intricate delicacy. But none of them seem perfectly optimistic.
Which leaves us with Season Two. Considered by a large portion of the fandom to be the best season in the series, Season Two doesn’t just explore a facet of power through an optimistic lens. It explores power through an optimistic lens itself. The theme of Season Two is the most concentrated of the show’s seven major themes, and is often viewed as the central theme of the whole series. Specifically, this season is all about how power can be used idealistically. And over the next 22 episodes, we will see how an idealistic government, while a fantasy in theory, is actually more grounded than we give it credit for.
The last few episodes of Season One began building on this theme, and the Season Two premiere completes the foundation. “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” is the strongest season premiere in the series, and the thematic cogency displayed by both of its parts is only one of the many reasons.
Perhaps the cleverest aspect of this premiere is the manner in which it so cleanly and subtly lays the groundwork for this theme, through a most unexpected device: flashbacks. On first viewing, I thought the flashbacks were simply a literary device in order to deepen our understanding of the characters. On rewatch, however, I find that they’ve taken on a new level of importance.
The “How they all met each other” episode is an occasional literary device that can provide us with entertaining and insightful character depth, and can even delve into the very heart of the series, so long as it’s properly handled. (Firefly did it memorably in “Out of Gas”, while The Shield botched it with “Co-Pilot”.) “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”, though, utilizes this device like none other. It shows us the story of how Josh, Toby, CJ, and Sam were all corralled into working for the Presidential campaign of Governor Bartlet. But more quietly, it asserts the theme of idealistic power that plays out over the course of the season.
Think back to “The Short List” [1×09], when Justice Crouch tells Bartlet how anticlimactic his Presidency has (thus far) been. During his campaign, Bartlet showed promise of delivering a better and brighter future, but so much of the first season saw him reining his power in. By the end of the first season, though, Bartlet’s administration has decided to take a bold step forward in the political world. So, now that we’re primed to see the President and his staff as they begin taking advantage of their power, what better time is there for us to look back and witness the driving force of idealism that inspired them to their position in the first place?
What we get in these flashbacks boils The West Wing‘s most concentrated theme – again, the one that drives this season – down to its rawest essence. We witness characters before they came to know Bartlet, struggling to fit in at jobs that they ultimately aren’t jelling with. Josh finds his voice drowned out at the Hoynes committee table by the candidate’s need for self-preservation, while Sam is confined to a less-than-glamorous job at a law firm. Both know that something is wrong with their lifestyle choices, but they don’t recognize it until Leo McGarry comes along with the promise – the slim but hopeful promise – of a better one.
Leo is the centerpiece of the flashbacks we see in Part I. He is the one who offers Josh Lyman a position on Bartlet’s staff. He is the one who fires all of Bartlet’s original speechwriting staff, with the exception of Toby. These two instances tell us volumes about the sort of government Leo is hoping to elect. Josh’s insistence that Hoynes should focus on tangible issues over personal imagery, as well as Toby’s straightforward, previously unsuccessful method of promoting honesty in speechwriting over whatever the public wants to hear, mark them as political pundits who can help build a White House on the grounds of integrity.
It is Bartlet, surprisingly enough, who has a thing or two to learn about optimism. At the time of the flashbacks in Part I, he hasn’t bought stock in Leo’s unnatural approach. In his home state, Bartlet has gotten himself elected numerous times with the help of ancestral nepotism, and believes he can continue his winning streak into the Oval Office without making any adjustments. But Leo has played the field, and he knows that Bartlet holds much untapped potential, the sort that can be brought out by shucking his personal ties and utilizing the honorable personality within. The flashbacks only confirm Bartlet’s sentiment in “He Shall, From Time to Time…” [1×12] – he could not have chosen a better Chief of Staff than Leo.
Bartlet’s integrity is vividly on display when he speaks candidly to a dairy farmer who presses him during his visit to Nashua. It’s almost surprising to see him so forthright, since the first season has typically shown him as reserved in the face of the public. The flashback thus prepares us for the Josiah Bartlet of Season Two – honest, caring, and unreserved. And that last trait in particular will be the thick underline of his development during this season, climaxing in the intense “Two Cathedrals” [2×22].
Thus far, I’ve kept this review focused on the flashbacks of the episode, as they hold the juiciest character and thematic material. But that’s not to say the rest of the episode is simple fluff. “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part I)” features some of the tensest present-day sequences the series ever delivered, beginning with the shocking opening scene in which we find that the President was among those hit by gunfire, and rarely letting up until the closing credits. Much praise here goes to the continued excellence of Thomas Schlamme, who keeps the camera moving, yet never directs it away from the most intense of moments. Schlamme directed several ER episodes before The West Wing began (including that show’s famous live episode), and so understandably, his camera feels right at home in the frantic hospital setting.
Emotionally, the present-day scenes of this episode are stunning. We watch as several different characters react to the shooting – a nurse on night watch, Margaret, Mrs. Landingham, and a grief-stricken Ginger. Each time, it hurts all over again. But perhaps the sharpest of the episode’s ice picks comes in the scene where Donna learns that Josh has been critically shot. Her face goes through a variety of emotions in a matter of seconds as we watch her struggle to comprehend that her boss and verbal sparring partner is in deadly danger. Janel Moloney was promoted to the show’s opening titles beginning with this episode, and she clearly proves that she deserved it.
John Hoynes also gets his own little moment in this episode, though it weighs less on emotion and more on dramatic irony. At the moment the President is shot, he is the center of attention, entertaining the press and loving every moment of it. Then, without warning, he is interrupted and whisked away by the Secret Service. One can only imagine his frustration at being “upstaged” by Bartlet once again – just as we are left to imagine his reaction upon learning that he can’t assume power because the President is not conscious top invoke the twenty-fifth. (Good thing Hoynes will never miss a chance to substitute for the President through the twenty-fifth amendment again. Oh, wait…)
Every character reacts to the news with a level of shock and dismay. Everyone except one, that is. Bartlet stays unflappable throughout the ordeal, maintaining a wry sense of humor even as the doctors prepare to operate on him. He remains the only sense of levity throughout the horrific events, and his lines, while humorous, sting with an acidic aftertaste. (The only think which could make his scenes any more hilariously painful would be him remarking to the surgeons as they wheeled him into the operating room, “I hope you’re all Democrats.”)
As with the flashback scenes, present-day Bartlet shows a staunch refusal to commit himself to “the plan”. He scoffs at anyone who tries showing him too much concern, even before we learn he’s been shot. He comforts the worried Leo with a peck on the cheek, assuring him that things will be okay. By distancing himself from the cold reality of the situation, Bartlet displays the personal integrity that has defined him since his Presidential campaign. And now, as then, he doesn’t acknowledge it. The realization of his many admirable traits will form the backbone to his arc in Season Two.
“In the Shadow of Two Gunmen: Part I” opens The West Wing‘s second season with a bang. (Or rather, right after one.) Things will only improve in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part II)” [2×02], which will take the character development and intense storytelling of Part I and build it to a remarkable crescendo. This is an excellent season of television we’re about to dive into, and rather fittingly, it kicks off to an excellent start.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The heart-wrenching moment when Toby finds Josh shot.
+ The little personal touches of the episode, such as the humanization of the night-shift nurse.
+ Smooth, seamless transitions between the present-day events and the flashbacks.
+ The first appearance of Nancy! For reasons I can’t quite explain, Nancy is awesome.
– What happened to Mandy? (There, I said it. Now let’s move on.)
* Abby tells the chief surgeon about Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis. This primes us for the major pivotal arc of Season Two.
* In his flashback, Toby is distressed about his position on Bartlet’s staff, and spends his time chatting with a woman in a bar. It’s comparative – though circumstantially different – to events that transpire in “Drought Conditions” [6×16].
* Real-Life Foreshadowing: Nancy briefly references Osama bin Laden. This episode not only aired less than a year before 9/11, but a mere eight days before the bombing of the USS Cole.