So this summer is quickly becoming the Summer of Sorkin here at Bitch Stole My Remote. In addition to covering his new HBO series The Newsroom (starting Sunday June 24th at 10 EST), I will be diving back into the second season Aaron Sorkin’s little man-behind-the-White-House-curtain drama The West Wing. Every Wednesday (the same night it aired back in 2000-2001 on NBC!), I’ll be posting a flashback recap of the next episode of Season 2. So if you’d like to join me, watch one episode each week and visit here on Wednesdays so we can bitch it out. How well does the season, which is arguably the meatiest and best written of the series, hold up twelve years later? Is Sorkin’s optimism regarding the federal government still relevant? Is CJ’s hair still somewhere between atrocious and sad? Let’s find out!
So as our fictional POTUS loves to ask, “What’s next?” Find out after the jump…
This two-part season premiere is one of the series’ most ambitious premieres, which is saying something. It tries to balance two major narratives – the formation of Bartlet’s senior staff three years earlier, and the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Roslin. Because it tries to tell so many stories, it doesn’t always succeed. But damn if they aren’t two compelling episodes.
The first episode picks up right where the first season finale ends: by revealing exactly who has been shot. While President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is taken to the hospital to undergo minor surgery, being hit but not critically injured, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) isn’t so lucky – he has a collapsed lung and a major artery is damaged. The rest of the staff, meanwhile, is left to deal with the aftermath of the shooting, both personally and professionally. It’s these scenes, when Sorkin and his cast explore how these complex characters react as individuals, as members of a work family, and as public servants to a nation under attack, that really make the premiere great.
Press Secretary CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) spends the episode fending off chain of command questions from reporters, but fixates on the necklace she lost amidst the confusion. It’s a great little detail to show that what she’s really wondering about is her own brush with mortality. Under the guise of placating reporters investigating a change in Secret Service procedure, Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) talks to Agent Ron Butterfield (Michael O’Neill) about releasing the memo he wrote requesting the change. Between handling his professional responsibilities and worrying about his friend’s fate, Toby is dealing with the guilt of a political maneuver – making the president seem more accessible – that resulted in disastrous consequences for his president and his friend.
If only the whole episode were this well done. Peppered between the a-story are flashbacks to how most of the senior staff joined the Bartlet campaign and how they won the Democratic primary. Some of the flashbacks are sweet (even enlightening). Of course Donna’s (Janel Moloney) first attempt at getting Josh to hire her as his assistant is trying to trick him into thinking she already has the job. But what’s so fitting is that she finally gets hired because he sees how eager she is and make something of herself no matter what. And in Toby’s flashback, we learn just how desperate his situation was before he finally scores a big win with Team Bartlet – he’s never actually won a campaign before, and he’s coming out swinging with Bartlet only because he’s got nothing left to lose.
I’ve had conversations with friends who find the show’s self-righteousness hard to stomach. To me it seems that while the characters can be self-righteous at times, the show itself isn’t – even if the characters can’t always see their own weaknesses, The West Wing doesn’t try to hide them. With that in mind, I can see their point in this episode, particularly after re-watching the flashbacks involving Josh, CJ and Deputy Communications Director Sam (Rob Lowe). The flashbacks are meant to show how three adults, fed up with moral ambiguity they’ve accepted in their careers, reject their comfortable livelihoods for the duty of “true” public service. Instead they show three adult-looking children throwing temper tantrums when their lives aren’t going how they’d like. We’re supposed to be on Josh’s side when he gets fed up with Senator Hoynes (Tim Matheson) and his staff for not focusing his primary campaign on issues, and we know this because of the way the female campaign aide nasally compares their campaign strategy to a magician’s “misdirection.” But when Josh’s impassioned insistence that social security be discussed is compared to Hoynes’s pragmatic, level-headed approach, Josh seems less like a hero and more like a petulant poli-sci student venting to his friends because no one is commenting on his blog.
Despite my issues about some of the flashbacks, this episode is a great season opener (and an easy way to start a flashback recap!). There’s nothing like Josh opening his eyes on the operating table and whispering “What’s next?” to the president to whet my appetite for the next episode.
Some stray observations:
- Rest in peace, Kathryn Joosten, who died this week at age 72. I can’t imagine another actress giving Mrs. Landingham as much sass and sincerity as you.
- Tonight’s Classic Leo (John Spencer) and Margaret (NiCole Robinson) Moment: Margaret reveals to Leo that she can sign the president’s name to which Leo responds: “We have checks and balances, separation of powers, and Margaret, vetoing things and sending them back to the hill.” Their relationship just kills me.
- Moloney gives a great performance this episode, showing how deeply Donna cares for Josh without resorting to histrionics the way a lesser actress would.
- Likewise, Dulé Hill as Charlie Young is only in this episode for a few minutes, but he makes them memorable. Just with the line “Oh. Okay. Okay well. Okay. Thank you Mr. President,” Hill is able to show the shock and fear of a kid learning that his friends and colleagues were shot at because someone was trying to shoot him.
- No, you’re not seeing things: Jane Lynch (Party Down, Glee) is the unnamed reporter with three lines!
Now it’s your turn! Which was your favorite flashback? Does the aftermath of the shooting live up to the intense season 1 finale ending after all these years? And should CJ have retained those adorable curls she rocked when she lived in California? Sound off in the comments below!*
*One request: No matter how awesome/sad/annoying something is in the next episode, let’s keep the comments to what happened in this episode so that anyone seeing it for the first time isn’t spoiled.
And remember to join me next Wednesday when I recap 2×02 “The Midterms”