[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 10/04/2000]
“Sir, not that I don’t appreciate you coming down here, but there’s a ballroom full of people waiting for a victory speech.” – Josh
Two-part episodes are can be tricky to pull off. In crafting one, you’re attempting to sustain the drama of a single story over a period twice your normal length. If done well, however, they can be even more satisfying than single-part episodes, delivering a dramatic wallop to cap off a ninety-minute period.
“In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” remains one of the best two-part television episodes I’ve ever seen, sustaining drama and tension over its entire duration and brimming with insight and development all the while. It owes this debt partly to the end of “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22], which served as a direct springboard into the Season Two premiere, and provided it with enough energy to keep us breathless throughout that premiere’s running time.
“In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part I)” [2×01] was impressive and exhilarating on its own, and even had Part II failed to measure up, the two episodes would still amount to an impressive overall experience. Still, Part II most certainly does not fail. In fact, it builds on the drama of Part I, carrying the premiere to a slam-bang conclusion.
Whereas Part I gave us backstories for the male staffers, Part II provides us with info pertaining to the women. CJ Cregg shines in this episode, as we see her attempt to reconcile her job in both the past and present. In the former, she is a film publicist, taken to task for failing to earn a major Hollywood mogul any Golden Globes. In the latter, she is pressed by reporters to comment on the Secret Service “tent” that the President should have been protected by. The two timelines set up CJ’s developmental arc this season, which will feature her uneasiness at taking a stand and maintaining a commanding position at her job as Press Secretary.
For the moment, of course, the flashback works because it shows CJ as an honest, straightforward individual who can stand alongside the equally direct Sam, Josh, and Toby. She candidly tells the film producer that the movie she was detailed to market was bad, and no amount of publicity would have helped it. CJ is not the type who will throw a lot of glitz and glam around a product she knows is ultimately unsalvageable – and thus, she’s the perfect fit for a seat at the Bartlet administration.
But although this flashback tells us about how CJ found her way into working for the good governor’s campaign, its depth goes even further beyond the basic thematic relevance I discussed in my review of Part I. These flashbacks enhance her character arc and prepare us for the changes to come. In the past, CJ puts no extra effort into her job of promoting a film when she knows said film is a foregone failure – a move which subsequently gets her fired. In the present, she worries over how to respond to the press’ questions about the shooting, despite the fact that her coworkers assure her that she retains the right not to talk about security protocol. In the latter case, CJ fusses over the questions, because she believes she can and should say something in response. And eventually, she does come up with an answer, using the President’s shooting to sneak in a bit to the press about gun control. CJ saw potential in the subject, potential to straighten the misgivings broached upon it, and that gave her the incentive to work on showing it in a better light. That a flashback episode can not only tie its various backstories to a unifying theme, but provide highly relevant character insight to its major players in this fashion, is testament to the greatness of “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”.
CJ shares a poignant moment with Sam in this episode, where she presses him into admitting that he pulled her to the ground during the shooting. (Bonus Continuity Points: You can clearly see him pulling her to the ground at the end of “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22].) The scene is a light moment in the midst of all the somberness, as CJ’s grateful but independent demeanor easily lifts Sam’s thin veil of chivalry. More importantly, though, it establishes that although CJ was effectively “rescued” by Sam, she is not the type to consider herself a damsel in distress.
Donna, as opposed to CJ, will take a while to grow into a strong and independent character, but in showing her origin alongside those of the other characters, this episode opens us some interesting doorways. What’s most intriguing about her backstory is that it isn’t shown in flashback, but told in one. In one of the series’ more memorable walk-and-talk scenes, we watch Donna give a rapid-fire explanation of how she came to work for the Bartlet campaign, complete with the lengthy story of her romantic breakup, to her boss-to-be, Josh Lyman. The scene is funny, yet also poignant – it showcases the side of Donna’s personality that we’ve come to know and love, giving her an air of comic relief which nicely pads out a tragic and possibly (though also possibly not) dramatic backstory.
Subtly, the episode makes us ask ourselves a question we haven’t thought to ask in Season One: Who is Donna Moss? She’s a tremendously fun and funny character, but we know very little about her beyond her immediate connections to Josh. “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” thus quietly sets Donna’s character up to be a more prominent and potentially interesting character, playing her background up innocuously enough that it doesn’t feel as though it’s abruptly trying to shoehorn her importance into the series.
Donna’s relationship with Josh is toyed with in this episode, lending it some of its more heart-wrenching moments. In the present, we watch Donna as she nervously looks on at Josh’s operation, for once completely unable to assist him. Donna wants to help – at one point, she asks Abby if there’s anything she should be doing – but she’s caught up in a helpless situation, unable even to cheer herself up by bickering with her boss.
Back in the past, we watch Donna before she has settled into a comfortable rhythm of banter when she very abruptly breaks Josh’s happy reaction to Bartlet’s securing of the nomination with the simple sentence “Your father died.” Flashback Donna has a ways to go before she can comfortably communicate with her boss, and this scene hurts the way it does precisely because the two have yet to reach their mutual wavelength of communication. This flashback – along with Donna’s present-day grief – make us yearn for things to go back to the good old way they were back when we first met these characters, along with their friends, in the “Pilot” [1×01].
Poor Josh, as we no doubt notice, fares no better than Donna or anyone else in the Season Two premiere. Notice how much emphasis he puts in his smile in the flashback where he wordlessly tells Sam that Bartlet is the way to go. That’s the sort of keen little moment that makes the present-day scenes with Josh on the operating table even more uncomfortable than they should be.
Josh’s flashbacks seamlessly intertwine with Bartlet’s near the end of the episode, as the development we get for both characters builds to a satisfying conclusion. Bartlet has remained steadfastly detached from the group of staffers Leo has collected, hardly remembering their names and shunning off their criticisms with his standby “What’s next?” The phrase, as he explains to Josh, is meant to act as a transition, signaling that Bartlet has come to terms with an issue and is prepared to move on. And indeed, much of what we see Bartlet doing in these flashbacks involves moving on, as he pushes his own agendas forward and only reluctantly takes his staffers us on their ideas. Flashback Bartlet is an idealist, but he has difficulty compounding his idealistic views with those of others. Or, as Abby explains it, “He doesn’t like being handled.” But, she assures Josh, he’ll come around eventually.
Little does Josh, or anyone else, expect precisely how Bartlet will “come around”. The news that Josh’s father has died come swiftly and shockingly, and hangs a heavy pall over the joy that comes with winning the Democratic nomination. (Sorkin really hurts us by writing a happy, uplifting scene and then taking a sharp left turn into depressing territory. Let’s hope he never does that again.)
The scene where Bartlet consoles Josh in the airport waiting room is as heartfelt as any other scene in the episode, past or present. The tragic incident has opened Bartlet’s eyes to the human side of his staffers, and, in tune with his good nature, he takes time to talk to Josh about his father. What we see is the side of Bartlet we’ve grown accustomed to since early Season One – warm, gentle, caring, and humorous. The death of the elder Mr. Lyman, while unfortunate, has proven to be the access point through which Bartlet can begin relating to his tireless campaigners – for what may be the first time, he even remembers all their names.
Think ahead to that fateful church scene in “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], when Bartlet yells at God for, among other things, letting Josh get shot. “That was my son!” he angrily declares. In this episode’s flashback, we see how willing Bartlet is to view Josh as a surrogate son, as he offers to abandon the Democratic National Convention in order to accompany the young man on his flight home. (Sure, he may be joking – but at the very least, the offer does cheer Josh up.) The Bartlet who shunned outside help in favor of his own ideals fades into the past.
And we fade into the present, where Josh has finally awoken from his life-or-death operation. And the first words out of his mouth, whispered to and channeled through none other than the President himself, are “What’s next?” In what will become his most defining character trait throughout the series, Josh displays his staunch determination to move forward, no matter what troubles he has previously endured. Bartlet has inspired him with this phrase, even if it will take until “Noel” [2×10] for the point to be fully realized.
Bartlet has in fact inspired every one of his staffers, and will continue to do so, just as they will continue to inspire him. And “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” is an inspiring episode, with both parts combining to make an incredibly deep and satisfying ninety minutes of television. Part II carries the greatest momentum of emotion, and thus edges out to become the finer episode, but it still owes a debt of gratitude to the amazing Part I. Season Two of The West Wing is off to an incredible start, priming us for many more insightful and enriching storylines to come. What’s next, indeed.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The supremacist snuffs out his cigarette in a sunny-side-up egg. There’s just something so… evil about that.
+ Josh on the phone with the operator, desperately trying to find Sam’s law firm.
+ Sam reading Josh’s “poker face”. A nice bit of continuity from the previous episode.
+ Another season premiere, another CJ pratfall! Bonus points for Toby’s reaction: “CJ, you fell into the pool there.”
+ Good bit of acting from Dulé Hill when Charlie learns that he was the target of the shooters.
+ Margaret revealing her talent of forging the President’s signature.
+ Ron Butterfield is very much a background player during the series, but I can’t help but love the guy whenever he comes onscreen.
* Notice the “instant foreshadowing” in the airport flashback. “Instant foreshadowing” is a term I made up which refers to foreshadowing that occurs mere moments before the foreshadowed moment commences. In this case, I refer to the Secret Service agents who can be glimpsed at the airport before Bartlet steps into frame. By the way, I think that making up my own terms which I then have to explain to you makes me look extremely smart.
* CJ mentions that the Atlantis film she was assigned to promote was a bad movie. The summer after this episode aired, Disney released an Atlantis film – and it was a bad movie! (Apologies to those of you who liked Atlantis.)