[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 05/14/2003]
“It’s… just a political reality.” – Josh
Ah, that final shot.
That final shot is an evocative one for a number of reasons, not least because it represents the final moments of The West Wing that Aaron Sorkin himself ever gave us. Though the last three seasons (and the final one in particular) certainly have their strengths, “Twenty-Five” can’t help but feel like the end of an era, as Sorkin departs the series he has overseen since its inception.
In a way, the final shot can be taken metaphorically, as we watch a leader choose to step down from his lofty position for what he presumes to be the greater good, allowing another man who has never been a direct presence on the series but has been involved in crucial behind-the-scenes work to take his place. The circumstances between Bartlet and Sorkin, and Wells and Walken, are of course quite different, but it’s difficult not to notice their facile similarities.
Equally as noticeable is the music that plays as Bartlet exits the Oval Office, having surrendered his power over the life of his daughter. Snuffy Walden’s West Wing theme plays out on woodwind, evoking the show’s more inspirational moments. (The hyper-optimistic first season used that music all the time.) Although Bartlet’s invocation of the 25th Amendment may feel like the most distressing move of his career, we are reminded of what a noble move it truly is. Way back in “A Proportional Response” [1×03], Bartlet was willing to spark a vicious retaliation when some guerrillas shot down a plane which was transporting his close friend, and was only talked down by Leo. Here, it is Bartlet who talks himself out of reckless behavior – having been through numerous military attacks and hostage crises in the last four years, he understands the severity of the current situation.
So the themes of Season Four finally come full circle. The season’s early arc feature Bartlet trying to retain the Presidency through reelection – now, Bartlet surrenders the Presidency of his own volition.
It’s perhaps not as impactful as it could have been. Season Four remains the most unwieldy and uneven season of Sorkin’s tenure, as well as the second-weakest season of the series, and its lack of focus and high stakes have made some of its punches feel rather muted. But “Twenty-Five” makes do with what it’s given quite commendably, and shows signs of improvement from the season’s earlier missteps. Robert Ritchie was and remains the worst political caricature the series has ever given us, and his lack of presence robbed much of the reelection arc of its potency. Not so with Glenallen Walken. Though his appearance at the end of “Twenty-Five” is limited to but a few minutes, he immediately establishes himself as a strong, forceful politician, prepared to handle Zoey Bartlet’s kidnapping rationally yet firmly. As with Bartlet’s first appearance way back in the “Pilot” [1×01], Walken makes his presence felt with an imposing speech that perfectly defines him while putting any member of his opposition in their place.
Walken’s sudden usurpation of Bartlet is but the latest in a long line of spontaneous plot developments that have occurred in these last few episodes, after the sudden ousting of Hoynes (who would otherwise have taken Bartlet’s place) and the kidnapping of Zoey. The latter development borders on ludicrous, and feels awfully like Sorkin attempting to sabotage his own show on his way out the door. (It’s not the only time an exiting showrunner chose to blow everything up right before their exit – see David Greenwalt’s third-season finale of Angel, or Amy Sherman-Palladino’s sixth-season closer to Gilmore Girls.)
And yet, at least in The West Wing‘s case, the kidnapping story works. The season itself has been highly erratic, to the point that we’ve become primed for pretty much anything to occur. More importantly, “Twenty-Five” never for a moment undermines the severity of the situation. What it gives us are forty-three minutes of tense, gripping television, filled with passionate, psychosomatic behavior – Charlie attacking Jean-Paul, Abbey’s desire to make a direct appeal to the kidnappers – that keeps us riveted to the screen.
And like so many of the show’s other great storylines, the emotional crux is relatable and humanly simplistic. As Will sums up Bartlet’s decision, “It’s a fairly stunning act of patriotism, and a fairly ordinary act of fatherhood.” The bond between father and child is portrayed here at its most gentle (Toby meeting his kids for the first time) and its most fragile (Bartlet rationalizing his internal struggle between the fate of Zoey and the fate of the country). And even at one extreme, there are traces of the other – Toby’s daughter is named after the Secret Service agent killed on Zoey’s watch, while the episode itself opens with docile childhood pictures of the youngest Bartlet girl. The West Wing has always done an excellent job of grounding the most complex of stories in basic human emotion, and “Twenty-Five” is no exception.
But like I said, it’s all about that final shot.
Jed Bartlet is no longer President. At this moment, he has no political power at all. He is in the weakest position we’ve ever seen him, in a more fragile state even than the time gunmen opened fire on his assembly, or the time his mentor was killed by a drunk driver, or the time he gave the order to assassinate a foreign diplomat. Yes, Jed Bartlet has been stripped of everything that, only minutes earlier, had made him the most powerful man in the world.
But there is no sense of gaping tragedy to that final shot. Certainly, the impromptu inauguration of Walken has given Bartlet’s political opponents a sudden edge. But the circumstances surrounding Bartlet’s surrender of power only serve to remind us of his nobility and selflessness. In a strange way, the Bartlet who exits the Oval Office at the end of this episode may be the most powerful Bartlet we’ve ever seen.
The West Wing still has three seasons of story to unfold, all of which will occur under the management of executive producer John Wells. Wells’ tenure, while certainly not without problems, will take the Bartlet administration in several new and fascinating directions, honoring Sorkin’s vision while building the series into something significantly different. As if the ending of “Twenty-Five” wasn’t indication enough, the story is far from over.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The slow-mo shot of Zoey’s photos falling to the floor, followed by the glass shattering, is spectacular.
+ Aww… Toby’s kids are cute.
+ Toby whacking the exit sign on his way out of the hospital.
– “Lyman Hoes”? Seriously? Was “LemonLyman” not bad enough?
* Toby to Bartlet: “There’s no one in this room who wouldn’t rather die than let you down.” That’s sweet. And, in retrospect, sad.