[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: John Sacret Young & Josh Singer | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 5/19/2004 ]
“Today’s priority is not world peace.” – Leo
Since John Wells took the reins from Aaron Sorkin at the start of this season, we’ve watched him tug them this way and that. At various points in Season Five, The West Wing has been a bipartisan political drama, a romantic soap opera, an examination of Bush-era policies, a pulp novel, and even (shudder) a documentary. There hasn’t been a consistent tone, or even a consistent arc for the show to use as a guidepost. The season wanted to be too many things, and ultimately, it didn’t succeed at very many of them.
Now, we reach the end with “Memorial Day.” Like the season which built to it, the episode wants to be many things: A character piece, a love story, a political critique, a spy thriller, and a dramatic finale. From its intense opening to a Hail Mary-style cliffhanger, the episode really wants to make up for the many missteps that have plagued the season.
From the outset, the result may not seem successful. “Memorial Day” is easily the weakest of the seven West Wing finales, perhaps the only one that can be described as a disappointment. But when comparing it to episodes like “Posse Comitatus” or “2162 Votes” (let alone “Two Cathedrals”), anything would be a disappointment.
I’m here to judge “Memorial Day” on its own merits, but it can be difficult when it clearly takes inspiration from the past. The episode it owes the greatest debt to is Season Three’s excellent “Bartlet For America,” which highlighted the relationship between Bartlet and Leo – perhaps the most integral relationship in the entire series.
“Bartlet For America” underscored the loyalty that Leo showed to Bartlet, and the friendship that the President showed in kind. “Memorial Day,” however, takes a tack very similar to the season that led up to it – it focuses on the more negative side of the Bartlet/Leo relationship, demonstrating how extenuating circumstances can sour even the most undying of pacts.
Much like “Bartlet For America,” “Memorial Day” uses flashbacks to contrast the past and the present. In the former episode, though, the flashbacks focused on a dire moment between the two friends (when a drunken Leo accidentally betrayed Bartlet’s secret to a political opponent), as opposed to the way the present-day scenes underscored the fervent loyalty between them. In “Memorial Day,” the flashbacks (taking place shortly after Bartlet won his first Presidential election) paint Leo as Bartlet’s most trusted advisor – contrasting sharply with the present day, when Bartlet ignores Leo’s advice to retaliate against Palestine.
The flashbacks here are brief, and not particularly eye-opening – we’ve known since at least “A Proportional Response” how much Bartlet values Leo’s input. Still, the little snippets from the past do give the episode something that other Season Five episodes often lacked: a spine. The severing of the bond between the President and his Chief of Staff could make for great drama – and when Leo realizes that Bartlet is disregarding his advice in favor of more pacifistic plans, the look on John Spencer’s face alone speaks volumes.
Too bad, then, that the rest of the episode is too busy to give the Bartlet/Leo scenes the proper time they need to sink in. Instead, we get lots of predictable romantic tension between Josh and Donna as the latter lies recuperating in a hospital bed. (Wells just can’t seem to keep his shows out of hospitals.) On top of that, we also get scenes of Josh Lyman, Secret Agent, which is too serious to be funny and too rushed to be taken all that seriously.
Oddly enough, the person stitching the whole episode together is Kate Harper (who, though she only debuted three episodes ago, has had more of a substantial effect on this season’s home stretch than any other character). It’s Kate who guides Josh on his undercover mission, and it’s Kate whose advice Bartlet heeds while simultaneously ignoring Leo’s. Kate may be new to the series, but she’s already established herself better than any other that Wells has introduced thus far. (Too bad the last two seasons will keep her locked in static, wheel-spinning mode.)
The best scenes in “Memorial Day” are so tense – and the rapport between Sheen and Spencer so good – that one could almost overlook some of the more glaring flaws. But it’s during the climax that the episode betrays its hand, featuring a last-minute, extra-plotty cliffhanger that screams “See you next fall!” (Granted, “What Kind of Day Has It Been” featured this sort of cliffhanger as well. But that episode’s ending was a heck of a lot more exciting than this one.)
Still, the final shot is one to remember. Bartlet stands poised in the center of a baseball field, an allusion to Leo’s comment from “Bartlet For America” where he compared the President to a pitcher working the mound. Bartlet is now working the mound all on his own, out in the open, to crowds that cheer him on. But there is uncertainty as he winds up, tension as he pitches – and the “thwack” of the ball hitting the catcher’s glove is a chilling death-knell to the season.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Carol walking through the halls of the White House and passing snippets of TV news stations along the way. A nice variation of the “walk and talk” the show often uses for exposition.
+ Flashback Bartlet on Fitzwallace: “Remind me to fire that guy.” That was… uncomfortable.
+ Josh’s ringtone. A cute tune, delivered in beeps. How charmingly 2004.
– Bartlet’s comment about William Howard Taft. I don’t think it’s proper for a President to refer to one of his predecessors as “Fatty.”