[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 05/16/2001]
“Watch this.” – Leo
Hyperbole is the underhanded enemy of the aspiring critic. When called upon, he is asked to dole out due praise onto the TV series or film he’s reviewing, to capture his excitement and wonder in the essence of the written word. And the better in quality the object of his critique is, the more he feels compelled to praise it, and the greater the risk that he’ll detach himself from his true feelings and float away on a fancy-free festivity of fondness.
This is not so much a problem when reviewing bad television, mind you – criticizing something invites more flexibility in writing, as a critic can be by turns aggressive, sarcastic, and ironic. But good television must be approached with care and analyzed with seriousness – should a critic falter at his task, his very opinions turn ripe for mockery.
In writing these last 21 episode reviews, I’ve doled out a great deal of praise. And with good reason – Season Two of The West Wing is an outstanding year of television, for reasons I’ll gladly recap in the season review. Yet even while speaking of such miniature masterpieces as “Noel” [2×10] and “17 People” [2×18], I’ve had to keep my praise curbed to a point. Why? Because even as I understood the virtues and merits of those episodes, I further understood that there was still something… better.
With “Two Cathedrals”, we’ve reached the end of our journey through The West Wing‘s second season. But more importantly, we’ve reached the end of my self-imposed limitations on the season’s praise. Because “Two Cathedrals”, my friends, is the season’s very own “something better”.
It would be an understatement to say that “Two Cathedrals” is an excellent finale to a remarkable season of television. I could do that compliment one better – and still brook little opposition – by saying that “Two Cathedrals” is the finest episode in The West Wing‘s seven-year history. But that, too, would be an understatement.
I’m posed with the question: Is “Two Cathedrals” the greatest episode of television ever?
Granted, there are many shows with their own share of golden episodes, all worthy of comparison. And true to my thorough brand of critiquing, compare them I shall. For my money, “Two Cathedrals” has some solid competition in dramatic TV. If you want to tell me that an episode like “The Body” or “Long-Term Parking” or “Family Meeting” or “Ozymandias” stands as the crowning achievement of television drama, I’ll certainly acknowledge that any and all of those provide “Two Cathedrals” with some bona fide competition. But I’ll still respectfully disagree.
So it’s fairly clear I regard “Two Cathedrals” as the high end of the measuring stick of drama. But the “best episode ever” blanket also covers comedy. In truth, that makes for a tough comparison. But I’d put “Two Cathedrals” above any of my most cherished episodes of TV comedy, including “The Contest” and “Marge vs. the Monorail”.
Here’s where the ice begins to thin. Do I start comparing it with the best movies I’ve ever seen? Do I want to weigh this episode against Citizen Kane? What about books? Does “Two Cathedrals” viably compete with the works of Dickens and Dostoyevsky? (Or, if I call upon comic book lore, to Miller, Moore, and Morrison?)
It’s becoming increasingly more obvious that I need to lay down an ultimatum regarding my feelings about this episode, something clear-cut and simple to avoid being bitten by the dreaded hyperbole bug.
So here it is: “Two Cathedrals” represents the most satisfying experience I have ever received from any piece of entertainment, be it filmed, printed, or otherwise.
That should suffice.
For an opener, anyway.
“Two Cathedrals” is an exceptionally produced and emotionally draining piece of television, the culmination of two seasons’ worth of development building to one of the show’s defining turning points. And it’s all constructed around one phase in the incredible journey of Josiah Edward Bartlet.
The episode pulls no punches, be they in story, structure, or form. It builds directly off the end of “18th and Potomac” [2×21] in a way that is never overt but always apparent. From the early scenes, in which Toby and Josh and Sam and CJ bustle their way through the offices, there is a lingering sense of discomfort and uneasiness. They joke, but they do so without the dry wit that has become associable with the show’s signature walk-and-talk scenes. The talking has lost its brighter flavor, and the walking now lacks that extra bounce.
Breaking the news of the President’s multiple sclerosis to the public gives the staffers something to feel uneasy about. But the cruel, sudden death of Mrs. Landingham makes their path even more difficult to navigate. Whatever we didn’t know about Mrs. Landingham, one thing was certain: She was there for the President. Until now. Now she’s gone, and the fear lingers that Bartlet’s sense of confident decision-making has gone with her.
In order for us to understand just how integral Mrs. Landingham was to Bartlet’s life, the show takes us backaways, back to a time decades past. And it does so not as a retcon or as a shortcut to feed into emotions of the present – it does so to finally, fulfillingly show us just who Jed Bartlet really is.
Who was Jed Bartlet, once upon a time? He was a boy who had everything he wanted, and he had it for free, despite the fact that it would take no real effort for him to earn it. He landed a spot in a fancy prep school, complete with the first of the episode’s titular cathedrals, because his father was the headmaster. He was given free tuition, the dream of any aspiring teenager. Yet it was this easy form of living that drove him to his early benefaction of the school – surely he had to give something back, the better to even the scales.
What is Jed Bartlet? He’s a Catholic – a religious identity he inherited from his mother. He goes to church. He respects the church. And he doesn’t put out cigarettes on the floor of the church. He’s the good religious boy we always wanted to be, assuming we were all raised as Catholics. (We weren’t, by the way. But you get the idea.)
The Jed Bartlet we see at the prep school is charming and handsome, but never suavely so. He betrays himself with body language and is no more above making mistakes than anyone else his age. But that’s not something a young man with the level of self-confidence that he has can figure out for himself. And it was thus inevitable that he someday meet a woman like Dolores Landingham.
“It was a non-denominational service,” Mrs. Landingham remarks one day after church. She finds that idea appalling, considering it an easy, general way to please the masses. Non-denominational services, to her, are the pure definition of “middle of the road”. And as someone will tell Jed a good many years from now, in the present-day world of “The Short List” [1×09], the middle of the road is “just a long, thin line painted yellow”.
But Jed has a ways to go before then – at this point, he simply disagrees with Mrs. Landingham’s interpretation. “‘Our father’ is not non-denominational,” he explains, going on to state that Catholics distinguish themselves by addressing their Lord in a non-paternal manner. How fitting, then, that Jed practices Catholicism within the walls of his school. Although he is constantly in close quarters with his father, Jed never refers to him in a paternal manner, opting instead for the professionally-tinged “sir”. His excuse is that he doesn’t wish to make his friends uncomfortable; Mrs. Landingham doesn’t buy it.
But she does buy the fact that Jed has plenty more potential than he’s letting on, and only needs the opportunity to unearth it. She studies him closely, deciding that he needs a big sister and that she’s the perfect woman for the job. And Jed, ever the intellectual, eventually gives her something to latch onto: “Show me numbers.”
Jed thrives on numbers. And he likes to see them balanced, just as he’s done his best to balance his own scales with the school. And when Mrs. Landingham presents him with a financial issue and an opportunity to do something about it, he is compelled to listen. It’s a crucial moment in his young life, as this hopeful and encouraging woman scratches away at his surface to reveal the first glint of a political pioneer. She gives him the push he needs to charge at his very first hurdle.
But it was not a hurdle to be cleared. Jed’s father has him on a tight leash, and it’s a leash that tightens when Jed attempts to approach his father. Among his many talents, Jed has a skill with words. He loves banter. He thrives on repartee. But his father will have none of it. Jed’s most reliable defense mechanism is shot down by a man who hates the very idea of being “clever with words”. (And thus does Jed’s father commit what is perhaps the greatest cardinal sin in the Sorkinverse.)
Jed speaks out against a professor who banned books from the school library, with the help of a quote from Ray Bradbury: “If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you will never learn.” But Jed learns something of his own: He hides his ignorance, yet his father still hits him. Mrs. Landingham had faith in him, but his first challenge as a political activist was not one to be overcome.
These flashbacks comprise a bitter note in Josiah Bartlet’s legacy. But it was a necessary step, for it launched the journey he would embark on over the next several decades, culminating in his election as the leader of the country.
Those flashbacks display the first time that someone showed faith in Jed Bartlet as a politician. And now, for the first time since that day, that someone is no longer at his side.
The flashbacks comprise the bones of the episode. The present-day drama supplies the meat. And as with any compositional structure, the meat and bones are tightly connected, with many of the themes of the flashbacks spilling over into the present timeline. But the episode doesn’t stop there.
A common trope employed by many television writers – sometime across multiple episodes and seasons – is a little something called Chekhov’s Gun. Bearing no relation to that fellow from Star Trek, Chekhov’s Gun is a principle that states that every object introduced in a story (a gun, perhaps) must at some point have concrete relevance to that story.
“Two Cathedrals” is overflowing with Chekhov’s Guns, albeit mostly the subliminal kind. There are objects and events (the cigarette stamped out in church, the tropical storm, the wind tunnel to the Oval Office), motions (Bartlet’s three-step example of body language), and lines (“I just haven’t gotten to it yet” and “Then God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you”). Several of these little details, Sorkin understands, increase the close-knit relationship between the two time periods – or even work as foreshadowing in a single time period – and add to the effect that the past has on the present.
But ah, what of that present? As I’ve mentioned earlier, there’s a dour mood in the White House this day, and none exemplify it better than Jed Bartlet himself. He walks in almost a daze, and speaks in slow, wooden sentences. When he lectures Charlie in matters of trivia, he does so with a distant look in his eye. The warmth and humor that characterized the paternal Jed Bartlet is gone, replaced by a hollow man with no urge to continue his work. The scene he shares with Abbey – one of the few moments in the episode in which he shares a one-on-one conversation with another existential individual, affirms that he has no concern for the physical matters of the situation. The drunk driver, the fate of the Democratic Party, the support of John Hoynes – all of these pale in comparison to the non-existential crisis currently heating to a boil in Bartlet’s mind.
The death of Mrs. Landingham could not have come at a worse time, and Bartlet knows this all too well. It feels like a cruel coincidence, but Bartlet, still an advocate of Divine Providence, doesn’t believe in coincidences. He sees it as a sign, a message, a punishment… and he reacts in kind.
It’s in the second of the episode’s cathedrals that the drama of the episode reaches its (initial) climax. We get a sense of the building’s massive scale even before we lay eyes on it (Bartlet’s “Laying the Washington Monument on its side” line), and when the camera first pans over its sweeping grandeur, it’s difficult not to marvel. This is the National Cathedral, a building so majestic in scope and architecture that the voices of the priest and various readers echo across the crowded nave.
And then the building clears out, giving us the illusion that it is bigger and more spacious than ever before, and leaving Bartlet alone with God. And it is here that the episode strikes the perfect harmony between writer, director and actor.
Let’s examine them in that order.
If you spend enough time around television websites and chat rooms, you may start to notice a familiar pattern involving the mention of Aaron Sorkin. A person wanting to praise a writer or TV series or episode he loves will emphasize his point by comparing that writer or TV series or episode to Sorkin.
Say, theoretically: “If Aaron Sorkin had written The Sopranos, every episode of the show would have ended with Tony standing up and making a speech about a little girl who cut open a tomato and found that the inside formed the face of Don Corleone.” Or “If Aaron Sorkin had written Breaking Bad, Walt would be surrounded by people preaching to him about the dangers of meth cooking.”
Well, today’s the day we look at things from the flipside. Because no one – not Joss Whedon, not Vince Gilligan, not any of the Writer’s Guild’s famous Davids – could have written this scene in the context of the episode as effectively as Aaron Sorkin did.
Sorkin thrives on speechifying. He thrives on self-importance. He thrives on chutzpah. This scene delivers all three of those in spades. Every line of dialogue exists to build into the next. English and Latin are woven together with unrivaled skill, to the point that subtitles would be superfluous. The dialogue, quite literally, speaks for itself.
Then there’s the direction. Thomas Schlamme has previously done some impressive work for the series, from his trendsetting rendition of the “Pilot” [1×01] to the flamboyant in media res stylings of “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22] to the haunting still-life painting of “Noel” [2×10]. Here, he delivers his finest work, framing the most powerful man in America against the all-commanding house of God, underscoring Bartlet’s smallness at the start of his soliloquy and then slowly, subtly allowing him more and more of the camera’s space. Schlamme stamped the series forever with his walk-and-talk directorial style, and for all the times people have mocked the series for the apparent in-story pointlessness of the “walking” aspect, Schlamme makes the most of it. The more Bartlet walks, and the more he talks, the greater the tension mounts.
And then there’s that acting. As most every West Wing fan knows, the series won a huge deal of Emmy Awards throughout its run, yet not a single one went to Martin Sheen. (In a way, this stings more than a snub for someone like Sarah Michelle Gellar, since the Emmys barely acknowledged the existence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the first place.) Far be it for me to appear as though I have something against actors named James (both Gandolfini and Spader did plenty of great work on their own respective shows), but Sheen proves beyond a doubt with this scene that he can easily stand as one of the best actors to ever grace television. In the course of three minutes, he projects fury, sadness, frustration, betrayal, indignation, and heartbreak, never faltering in his depiction of the grieved and angered Jed Bartlet. It’s a mesmerizing performance, one that should have made him an Emmy magnet. (In fairness, Sheen had won a Golden Globe for his work on the series prior to this episode. But do people pay attention to Golden Globes?)
So much talk about the schematics of the scene, and we haven’t even gotten to how it works within the story.
Put in a nutshell, the scene works brilliantly. Anything and everything we’ve learned about Jed Bartlet in these last two seasons feels as though it was building to this moment. We were first introduced to the President as he delivered a monologue to put a group of religious activists he disagreed with in their place. Now he takes on God, the root of all religion, in a speech that completely dwarfs his original in a hail of anger and passion. It would almost be considered blasphemous television if not for how well we can understand the hurtfulness in his voice as he singles out a few events that have touched him in the most stinging of ways – the shooting of Josh Lyman, the sinking of the tender ship from “The State Dinner” [1×07]. (The former gains special attention as it features Bartlet referring to Josh as his son – reminding us of the loving flashback scene they shared after the death of Josh’s real father in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part II)” [2×02] – while the latter, being a cause of natural disaster, is the sort of thing Bartlet can easily attribute blame for to God.)
All these years have not stunted Bartlet’s equalizing impulses, and he feels wronged. Wronged because he feels he’s done well as President, and that one lie should not bring this punishment down on him. And to add to the barbs in his voice, Bartlet begins speaking directly in the language of the Church – a language he has so lovingly, so playfully spoken to his staffers in the past, introducing them to phrases that may someday be on their (unreadable) tombstones. It’s the ageless language of Latin, and as I’ve stated, it’s so perfectly woven into the tapestry of the speech that a translation would be wholly unnecessary. But what the heck – I’m leaving no stone in this forest of an episode unturned:
“Am I really to believe that these are the acts of a loving God? A just God? A wise God? To hell with your punishments. I was your servant here on Earth. And I spread your word and I did your work. To hell with your punishments. To hell with you!”
And even as the reverberating tension of the scene finally begins to diffuse, Bartlet commits his own physical act of defiance – an act that strikes out against his own father as well as his Lord. He lights a cigarette, simply for the purpose of extinguishing it on the church floor, before delivering his first line vividly relevant to the present state of his once-beloved world of politics since Mrs. Landingham’s death: “You get Hoynes.”
It’s rare that a scene of an episode of television can send actual chills up my spine, but this one quite justifiably qualifies. And even more astonishing is the fact that it’s not the only scene in “Two Cathedrals” to do so. But we’ll get to the other one at the end.
At this point in the episode, Bartlet is at his most broken and emotionally drained. There’s hardly anything that can devastate him further. Rightfully, then, the episode spends some time focusing on the other characters. Season Two opened by showing us how all these people first came together, and now, it ends by showing us that they can’t be torn apart. Leo knows that Toby would never think to accept the golden parachute he offered him, and wants to remind Bartlet that, through the thickest and thinnest of perils, they’ll all stay right at his side.
“Let Bartlet be Bartlet,” Josh states in an early scene. Despite a tumultuous year in which results rarely matched up to efforts, the staffers have not forgotten who and what put them on their path in the first place. The theme of Season Two – how power can be harnessed idealistically – has by this point been thoroughly explored and scrutinized. And now it’s time for that theme to reach its conclusion.
For all the bumps he and his administration have experienced in the past year, Bartlet firmly believes that he has done well as President. His belief that Mrs. Landingham’s death is a form of Divine punishment that has stemmed from his once-fervent Christian values, and his conviction that God is raining vengeance down on him is helped by the literal rain of the tropical storm. (Bartlet even has Donna research the phenomenon to convince him of how unusual tropical storms are in this area, at this time of year- yet another example of his “Show me numbers” philosophy.) But now, in the most spiritual moment of the whole episode, he finally gains a new perspective.
The appearance of Mrs. Landingham can be rationalized as a hallucination brought on by Bartlet’s incredible stress, or as something beyond the explanation of human science. I lobby for the former, particularly because the lesson Bartlet is about to learn is something he needed to come to grips with himself, without the hidden help of God. And by this point in the episode, Bartlet is just desperate enough to conjure up the image of the woman who inspired him all those years ago, in the hopes that she can inspire him once again.
She can’t, of course. She and Bartlet had their final conversation in the previous episode, and anything she says to him here is just his own mind conjuring up her thoughts. When he finally tells her that he has MS, it’s a man unburdening his soul too late to benefit him. When she informs him that “Your father was a prick”, it’s him putting the words in the mouth of a woman he’s always trusted.
But still, he learns something. Mrs. Landingham can no longer show him numbers, but he has plenty of them on hand. Poverty, crime rates, drug use – these are all issues with high numbers, waiting for him to lower them. And he now has the power to do so.
With this one scene, Season Two’s messages come full circle. Bartlet has prided himself on an active stance all year long, and it’s brought him nothing if not trouble. But that’s simply the flaw that makes the machine worth fixing. No matter how hard the President tries to fix his country, there will always be more troubles, more conflicts, more numbers. And that should only make him try harder.
At the start of the season, Bartlet was shot. He survived. There’s nothing to indicate he won’t survive this, too.
In his head, Mrs. Landingham’s parting words ring out: “If you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run ’cause 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.”
And that’s the clincher. Bartlet was in danger of forgetting his ideals – and as we’ll see in Season Three, he’ll be reshaping a few of them – but it all comes back to the very first time he decided to take a stand. Only this time, no slap from his father is going to stop him.
The buildup of this episode all on its own paves the way for a bravura culmination, but the episode grants its last few minutes an even higher pedestal by scoring them to Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”. I have mixed feelings about song endings in general – if not overused, they can provide a strong emotional close, but they always run the risk of coming off as heavy-handed. But “Two Cathedrals” soars with its soundtrack choice, a song that is simultaneously solemn and liberating, matched up perfectly with Bartlet’s walk to the press. The scene itself is similarly solemn and liberating, in particular the moment when the cigarette Bartlet put out on the cathedral floor is cleaned off.
Bartlet is returning to his ideals, stronger and more confident than ever. He knows now that there are no shortcuts, no cheats he can take – he must be prepared to meet the challenges ahead with everything he’s got. Despite all the storming, he doesn’t put on a raincoat. Although his staffers arranged an interrogatory safety net, Bartlet calls on one of the regular reporters. In pure Bartletian tradition, he refuses to follow the example of another Presidential figure.
(That was a Freaks and Geeks reference, for all you less cultured folks.)
And just to make sure that everyone in the auditorium is clear on the question being asked – just to make sure that everyone will be completely focused on his answer – Bartlet asks the reporter to repeat it. Not even a bit of noise is going to ruin his moment of truth.
And it’s a moment as perfectly executed as you can dream. Bartlet does not give a vocal answer (though for continuity’s sake, he will in “Manchester (Part I)” [3×01]), but he doesn’t need to. We’ve followed him closely these last four acts, we’ve watched him hit rock bottom and then work his way back up, and we can see the three signs as they occur in the episode’s final shot. We don’t need to hear the answer.
In fact, there’s really just one answer you all should hear, and it’s in response to the question, “Is ‘Two Cathedrals’ the greatest episode of television ever?” Having gone over every aspect of this episode and praising every virtue I can think of, I can only respond with my most enthusiastic “Yes”.
It’s rare to find an episode of television brimming with so much insight and development, and so perfectly executed on every technical level, from the writing to the direction to the acting to the music to the production. Even rarer is to find it at the end of such a marvelous season of television, and an even more marvelous final stretch of episodes. To say that “Two Cathedrals” lives up to the episodes and the season preceding it would be robbing it of its true accomplishment. It’s an episode that rewards on multiple viewings, with each new rewatch only emphasizing its depth and brilliance.
I myself have watched the episode numerous times, and I never turn down the opportunity to see it again. Whenever a friend of mine is in a West Wing mood and asks me if I want to join them in revisiting “Two Cathedrals”, there’s only one thing I can do.
Well, actually three things.
I put my hands in my pockets. I look away.
And I smile.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Hats off to Kristen Nelson, the unsung hero of the episode. Her portrayal of the young Mrs. Landingham is just perfect – you can totally believe this woman will grow up to be Kathryn Joosten.
+ Speaking of Kathryn Joosten, let’s give a round of applause to her as well. She did a great job in this episode, as she did in anything she appeared in before her death in 2012. RIP, Ms. Joosten.
+ The segues between the flashbacks and present-day sequences are very well-executed. Particularly the final one with Bartlet closing the door of his father’s office/the Oval Office.
+ Sandy, the reporter who asks Bartlet the fateful question at the end of the episode, appeared briefly at the very beginning of “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” [2×13] – arguably the episode that first kicked off the MS arc. This makes her appearance at the end of “Two Cathedrals” give things a full-circle close.
+ Bartlet’s father is played by Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr., a writer on the series in its first two seasons, and again in its last three. “Two Cathedrals” marks the last time he and Aaron Sorkin would work directly together (since Sorkin was not involved with the last three seasons), so the cynic in me can’t help assuming there’s some sort of writer/showrunner subtext in having O’Donnell smacking Sorkin’s most prominent mouthpiece, Jed Bartlet.
* The abuse Bartlet suffered at the hands of his father heralds the darker and more psychological take on his character in Season Three.