[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 10/10/2001]
“Our numbers are less then yeasty.” – CJ
Something is different.
That’s an observation which can be easily applied when comparing the first two seasons of The West Wing with the third. Something is different, as real-world events made the series into something tonally dissimilar than Sorkin’s original intent.
Yet the observation goes beyond that. Even in the in-universe context of this very episode – written and produced entirely before the events of September 11th – something is different. The end of Season Two left the Bartlet administration with a great many pieces to pick up, and the premiere picks them up in stylized and unexpected ways.
Consider the opening scene. It’s the final scene from “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], slightly edited and with no Dire Straits on the soundtrack. The scene presented here is instantly less fantastic and engrossing to the viewer, focusing only on the bare bones – CJ briefs the press on speculative Congressional hearings, Bartlet walks in and calls on a reporter, said reporter asks if he plans to run again, and, after a brief pause, he responds in the affirmative. Only the rising swell of music near the scene’s conclusion hints toward the drama that unfolded in Bartlet’s life mere hours before he met with the press.
That’s because “Manchester” is simultaneously a direct follow-up to the events of “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] and a world away from its events. It’s a new season for the series – and with that comes a whole new set of themes to explore.
In its first two seasons, The West Wing has examined the concepts of coming to grips with power and utilizing that power in an idealistic fashion. In skillfully smooth fashion, Season Three bridges off that latter theme – in some ways, this season’s messages will be the antithesis of those in Season Two. Indeed, Season Three is all about the downsides of using power idealistically.
Bartlet has just gone through his own rite of passage – he’s been completely torn down and built all the way back up. He has a renewed sense of confidence in his administration – but to newcomers, it feels more like overconfidence.
One drum that’s consistently beat during this episode involves the fact that Bartlet has not apologized for withholding information from the public. Little time is spent debating whether or not he has something to apologize for (Is withholding the same as lying, in this case?) and more time is spent with Leo and Toby refuting the idea that Bartlet should spend time asking the public for forgiveness. At the end of last season, we saw these characters resigned to take on anything and everything that would be thrown at them following Bartlet’s MS admission. An apology could potentially mute the effect, to the point of making Bartlet look weak in the eyes of his opposition.
Bruno and Doug are new faces, brought aboard to spruce up the campaign. We can assume they know a thing or two about getting votes, and they’re consistently perplexed by the stubbornness on display in the Bartlet administration. Because this perceived state of overconfidence is not just reserved for Bartlet – Josh is still fighting dangerously hard against Big Tobacco, and ignores any advice Joey attempts to give him, while CJ… well, CJ has a few problems of her own.
We’ve gotten to know CJ quite a bit over these last two seasons, but her arc is nowhere near complete. In fact, “Manchester” sees it take a big step forward, beginning with its very first scene. Watch that “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] closing scene from the third season premiere’s point of view, and it almost looks like a scene focused on CJ – the reporters haggle her endlessly, her sense of humor falters, and then the President doesn’t even listen when she tells him to call on a prepared questioner. Bartlet, of course, has had the far more interesting day. But CJ is going through an experience of her own.
In flashback, we see her finally lose her cool when a reporter asks one too many questions about the MS scandal, and she makes an angered remark about the situation in Haiti. The episode has spared little expense in showing us how serious things have gotten in Haiti and how heavily Bartlet and Leo are treating them, and that makes her outburst in the press room sting all the more. The Bartlet administration has grown overconfident of their stamina in light of the MS reveal – and CJ is the first staffer to cross the line.
The CJ we witness in present-day New Hampshire is, by contrast, the most reserved of all the staffers. She does her best to avoid talking to the reporters, and is uneasy about responding to a proposed FDA bill. The flashbacks of the episode (themselves following through nicely on the events of “Two Cathedrals” [2×22]) mesh well with the present-day scenes showing up how the immediate aftermath of the reveal has affected the members of the Bartlet administration, for better or for worse.
And this being The West Wing, there are indeed a few “betters”. One comes by way of Charlie, a character who has less reason to feel overconfident about his role in the White House (he’s still very much a sideliner, after all), yet displays an air of self-assurance anyways. Charlie’s scenes in this episode are among the most liberating – not only has he made himself ready for anything the upcoming weeks and months of depositions will throw at him, but he can even take the time to clean Toby out in a game of pool. It’s comforting to see that a Bartlet staffer we haven’t witnessed developing that much has still come into his own as a self-made member of the administration.
Still, Charlie’s development here is still minor compared to Bartlet’s. The president is a changed man in the wake of his spiritual realization from “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], but we’re not initially certain if this is a positive thing. In the conference flashbacks, for example, he’s dismissive of any opposing opinions regarding the Haiti situation. Granted, it’s not the first time he’s displayed stoicism under pressure, but this is a globally relevant situation he’s dealing with here. Could it be, we wonder, that his talk with the ghost of Dolores Landingham has driven him too hard in getting the job done? Could it be that his yearning for reelection is spurned by personal pride?
But “Manchester” ultimately shows us that Bartlet still has a clear vision in mind, as it moves the actions to… well, Manchester. For the first time, we visit Bartlet’s homeland, as rural and serene as the White House is busy and industrious. (Except, as Leo notes, for all the floodlights and metal detectors.) Here, we see Jed Bartlet the man, rather than the President – he’s a farm boy leaning on a wooded fence, gazing out at a calming pasture. There are no cameras or reporters around to influence or impede on his image – what we get is pure, 100% Josiah.
And when we hear him restate his goal, and repeat the line from the beginning of the episode – “And I’m gonna win” – there’s no chance for it to ring falsely. As “Manchester” opened, we were treated to Bartlet giving an answer we had already predicted at the end of “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], and thus the full weight of his verbal response didn’t quite register. As Part I draws to a close, however, it registers pretty damn well.
Season Three is rife with uncertainty, as we try to comprehend characters’ motives and intentions as they pull themselves into increasingly dark and questionable territory. The theme kicks off here, but it really gets going as we head into [3×02″].
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Sam and Toby talking in sync. “Okay, let’s try not to do that a lot.”
+ Charlie cleaning Toby out in a game of pool.
+ I just love Bruno. How can you not love a guy who hates everyone?
* CJ’s angry press room outburst preludes the more emotional and devastating outburst she has in “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” [3×18].