[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 10/17/2001]
“I’ve never been nervous talking in front of big crowds. It’s talking to one person…” – Bartlet
You can thank a substantial lack of action, less eye-opening flashbacks, or a more leisurely pace when noticing that “Manchester” doesn’t rank quite as highly as “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” when it comes to season openers. But for all its relative shortcomings (it may be the least noteworthy of the four Sorkin premieres), the episode is still crucial to setting up valuable character and thematic information that will play out over the course of the season.
Fans complain about the levels of animosity exhibited between the characters in Season Three, but I find very little of it to be contrived. What we have in “Manchester”, for example – and Part II in particular – are a group of people still reeling from the massive events that have transpired in the final stretch of Season Two. As I mentioned while discussing “Manchester (Part I)” [3×01], they’re overconfident, a trait which caused CJ to bumble into her angry remark in the Press Room. Now, Part II shows us that the staffers have become so swept up in the political repercussions of their situation that they’re blinding themselves to the personal ones.
Bartlet has not apologized to the public for withholding information from them, but more to the point, he hasn’t apologized to his staff. And that’s no small error on his part – we saw how harshly Toby reacted to the news in “17 People” [2×18], and he’s certainly not the only intellectual and egotistical employee to work closely with the President. We’ve only briefly touched on the other characters learning of the news, and much of the processing was in silence. How, in reality, does Sam feel about not knowing the news? How does Josh?
Josh, in fact, is a special case amongst the staffers in that we’ve seen him cope with the rising MS scandal in his own way since that fateful end run of Season Two. He’s become increasingly more invested in staving off an FDA bill that could cause trouble for the President’s reelection campaign, and he only grows more agitated at the start of this season once he realizes that Leo’s insistence to keep off the bill has left his hands tied. (His realization near the episode’s end – “This is gonna be a very close election” – is one of many examples we’ll see throughout Season Three of how the grueling grind of the campaign affects the characters’ decision-making skills and built-in ideals, all of which only intensify the faults of the anticlimactic early episodes of Season Four.)
Josh at least manages to get by with his own coping mechanism, but the speechwriters don’t have that luxury. Toby and Sam are tasked with writing the reelection speech, but how can they be expected to put words in the mouth of a President who has not been honest with them with his own words? Again, the characters justify their anger as stress induced by their now-fragile public image, rather than their soured feelings toward the President who has lied to them. It takes Connie and Doug – a pair of outsiders, fresh in their opinions and close enough to Sam and Toby to see where their feelings are rooted – to make them realize that although they don’t feel that Bartlet need apologize to the public, he has the moral obligation to apologize to his own staff. (Doug, the episode’s all-around punching bag, is especially direct, pointing out that Toby is unconsciously diverting his anger away from Bartlet and toward him.)
The new speechwriters are crucial to our main characters’ self-realization and understanding of how the MS scandal has affected them emotionally – and it doesn’t stop with those two. Bruno Gianelli, introduced last episode as an uptight, unflinching, and tactless campaign manager, becomes more relatable once we see how he was hired. Much like Oliver Babish, he accepts his task despite (in fact, perhaps because of) the mammoth amount of work ahead of him, but he wants to ensure that Team Bartlet will follow his orders every step of the way. Leo, still the most grounded of the White House staff, understands that it will take someone like Bruno to move the campaign mountain, and we see him at work in the teaser scene when he quells the flames at a speechwriting session with one of the oddest-worded yet most hilarious threats ever delivered in the series. Bruno gets everything he wants – except unrestricted access to the President.
That’s because the President, as you might expect, is having some troubles which need to be distanced a few feet from a campaign manager, or a campaign in general. He doesn’t view the cover-up of his MS as a case of lying – rather, he sees it as withholding information. And with all the time he spends using this excuse to justify his position to the public, he doesn’t even think to justify it with his own staff.
It takes two people to change his perspective on the MS scandal. The first is Abbey – she’s known about his disease for as long as he has, so there’s no “withholding information” excuse he can use to face her. She’s angry with his decision to run again, but she also has a point – Bartlet had originally run for President with the agreement that he would not seek a second term.
Although she’s not pleased with Bartlet’s decision, Abbey soon recovers – as we know from last season, she’s staunchly determined to stand by her husband – but it takes longer for him to realize that than her. Without Mrs. Landingham around now to trade refreshing barbs with each morning, especially in the wake of the serious Haitian crisis, Bartlet has grown more introverted and obsessed with what aspects of the country he can fix. (One key present-day moment finds him on the night before his New Hampshire campaign announcement, looking over his speech while sitting in the same stands that a great many ordinary Americans will fill just a few hours later.) It finally takes a grand gesture on Abbey’s part – introducing him at his campaign rally – to make him realize that she is in fact on his side.
Then there’s CJ. As mentioned in my last review, CJ was the first to suffer the consequences of the Bartlet administration’s newfound overconfidence. Her stress levels reach their breaking point in this episode, and she prepares to resign over her error. Here now, for what may be the first time, Bartlet openly acknowledges what a crucial player CJ is to his political world – and by extension, he acknowledges to himself how important all his staffers have been to getting him elected. “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” may have showed us how the group all came together, but never has their effect on Bartlet’s future been as openly acknowledged as it is here.
CJ is just as important to the team as Josh or Sam or Toby (and as time goes on, she will eclipse them, first through becoming the show’s emotional linchpin and then by growing higher in stature), and Bartlet recognizes just how much he needs her, not to mention all her coworkers. When he does apologize to them, it’s in an open and honest way, reminiscent of the open and honest Bartlet we knew before a scandal and a drunk driver turned his life upside-down.
Although this two-part season premiere ends on a happy note, however, it is not especially indicative of the season to come. Here, we only get brief glimpses of the dents made in Bartlet’s moral fiber, and even they seem to have been smoothed out by the time he walks out onto his platform to greet the New Hampshire crowd. But effects will reverberate throughout the season, both on a story and subconscious character level. Season Three is The West Wing at its darkest, and even if that level of darkness doesn’t nearly measure up to some of its cable-TV relatives, it will still provide us with some incredibly juicy and thought-provoking material going forward. Any exhibitions of animosity between our much-beloved characters here is definitely not coincidental.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Leo talking to Margaret about Bruno… without realizing he’s right outside.
+ Bartlet speculating on whether he could have been an astronaut.
+ Know what? “Torpor” is a cool word. Next chance I get, I’m using it in a conversation.
– Come to think of it, didn’t Bartlet apologize to Toby in “17 People” [2×18]? Oh, well. Chalk that one up to either “Continuity error” or “Hey, he’s Toby”.
* Bartlet and Leo want to settle the Haiti situation peacefully. Leo even states that if Bazan behaves while being flown to the US for asylum, “we won’t shoot him in the head”. Some dark implications to that line once we’ve finished the season.