Greatest Hits: TV Episode Version
I’ve been in Rerun Land lately as I write my thesis (I haven’t been blogging much because all of my Writing Energy is taken up writing my student teaching blog and my thesis–neither of which are for public consumption, certainly not at this point) and it has gotten me thinking about what makes a perfect episode of television. Why do I return to certain eps over and over and over? What makes them so close to flawless?
With that as my guiding question, herein find what is the first part of a discussion of my favorite episodes of my favorite shows:
THE WEST WING
Two Cathedrals, 2.22
This is one of the most flawless episodes of television I’ve seen. It opens just after Charlie delivers the news to Leo that the President’s longtime secretary, the wonderful Mrs. Landingham, has been killed by a drunk driver on the way back from purchasing a new car. It also comes on the heels of a half season plotline in which the entire staff has been reeling from the knowledge that the President hid his diagnoses of MS from not just the American public but his staff, the people who love him and are fiercely, fiercely loyal.
TWW didn’t engage in flashbacks all that often, but when they did–see, for example, the marvelous S2 two-parter opener, In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Parts 1 and 2–they were often excellent. These flashbacks go back the meeting and longtime partnership between Bartlet and Mrs. Landingham. She was his teacher in his prep school, the one where his father was principal. As it turns out, his father was a jackass. When a young Mrs. Landingham asks a young Bartlet to consider the fact that the women at the school are paid less than the men, she knows he’s going to do it when he smiles and looks away. It’s a pleasure to see these glimpses of their early relationship echoed in their modern-day relationship.
Over the course of the episode, Bartlet must prepare for a statement to the press about his MS and coverup as well as attend Mrs. Landingham’s memorial service. This leads to two of the best moments ever seen on television. Let’s start with the famous scene shot at the National Cathedral, right here in Washington DC. After he flashes back throughout the service to his meeting with Mrs. Landingham, Bartlet asks for the cathedral to be cleared and proceeds, essentially, to curse out god. The way his voice breaks on the word “son”–as in, “what was Josh Lyman, a warning shot? That was my son” is heartbreaking. He breaks into Latin, which Sorkin apparently wanted to use because he wanted Bartlet talking to god in god’s language. He calls god a “feckless thug” which is just fabulous. And he closes with an angry “you get Hoynes!” and puts out a cigarette (that cigarette is why no one else can shoot in the National Cathedral) and storms out. This deeply religious man, standing in one of the best known churches in the world, screaming at god–it is something I think we can all relate to, that urge to curse the universe, whatever god you may believe in, when someone you love dies too soon.
Mrs. Landingham returns in a vision–not a vision like on Charmed, as a figment of the President’s imagination–to tell Bartlet that god has nothing to do with car crashes and he knows it, and to echo what she said to him many years ago: if he doesn’t want to run for office again because he doesn’t want to, that’s fine. But if he doesn’t want to run because he’s scared, or he thinks it might be hard–well, she doesn’t have time for that nonsense.
As the song “Brothers in Arms” starts up, Bartlet gets into his motorcade and heads to the presser. Instead of calling on the science reporter first, as CJ has ordered, he calls on an average reporter, knowing he will get The Question. Sure enough, the reporter wants to know: will the President seek a second term?
Jed Bartlet asks her to repeat herself. She does. The cameras click. He puts his hands in his pockets, looks away, and smiles.