In the twenty-second and final episode of the second season of The West Wing, Bartlet ponders his own future as President. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
Sweet babies, what a fantastic episode, y’all.
I really think that Sorkin and company had to focus largely on President Bartlet in this finale, and it’s the best way for this season to end. He was the person closest to Mrs. Landingham in an emotional sense, and that’s why we get such an intimate look at him as he tries to figure out if he’s going to run for a second term. Of course, everything was a clusterfuck of a mess before Mrs. Landingham died, so there’s a relentless sense of being overwhelmed at work here. How is Bartlet supposed to make a decision about his future when one of his best friends has died? Or when there are 55 people trapped in an embassy in Haiti? Or when he’s revealing to the world that he lied about having MS?
That’s why I ultimately appreciated that this finale didn’t solve every crisis. (Literally in one case, but I’ll get to that.) There is no easy solution to all these problems. Instead, Sorkin uses some cleverly inserted flashbacks to help us understand Bartlet’s decision in the final moments of “Two Cathedrals.” He also does this so that he can take our hearts, which were already withered from the end of “18th and Potomac,” and smash them under his heel because why would you do this to me.
I seriously can’t deal with how perfect Jason Widener and Kirsten Nelson are as younger versions of Jed Bartlet and Dolores Landingham. That is some flawless casting. But as ridiculous as I’m being, these flashbacks don’t exist just to pull our heartstrings. No, we get a chance to see how the two met. We see how Mrs. Landingham used her quick wit and her tenacity to fight for pay equity at the boarding school where she worked. We get this amazing opportunity to see why they care for one another and why Mrs. Landingham always got to speak to the President however she wanted.
Of course, I can’t speak about this without bringing up Jed’s father. You don’t really get a sense for his personality until that scene near the end about book banning. When he’s introduced outside the cathedral, he just seems like any other father, if a bit stuffy. We know that he’s the headmaster and that Jed has a sort of reverential respect for him. But Mrs. Landingham is aware that Jed’s father has a different side to him that Jed hasn’t seen yet. It’s important that she goes to Jed first, not his father, to try and get equity on campus. Obviously, she knows he’s intelligent and that he can get shit done. But I think it’s significant that early on, there’s that scene where she is confused about why Jed refers to his father as “sir.” To me, I thought that was her first indication that despite being the headmaster’s son, Jed had no real interest in being the exception to the rule. He wanted to be a student without the benefits of being the headmaster’s son. That’s why Jed worked so hard to be successful.
Mrs. Landingham sees this, and she realizes that he might very well be the best person to breach the topic of pay equity to Dr. Bartlet. It’s because she believes in him. She believes that Jed would stand up to his father instead of sucking up to him. Then we get to see him do this by contributing a quote to an article criticizing an English Lit professor who bans books! There’s a purposeful effort on Jed’s part to be nothing more than a student instead of the headmaster’s son. I imagine that this and Jed’s brilliance is precisely why Dr. Bartlet strikes his son. I mean, Mrs. Landingham spells this out later when Bartlet imagines speaking to her in the Oval Office. She tells him that his father was a prick who resented his son being smarter than he was. But that doesn’t mean he gets to take the easy way out. That’s what she convinced him to face in the past and what helps Bartlet make his decision in the present.
Of course, in present times, it’s a rough journey to that point. For most of the first third of “Two Cathedrals,” Martin Sheen plays Bartlet as glassy-eyed and shocked. He drifts from room to room, focusing on tiny details or the oncoming storm (literal, in this case, not metaphorical). He’s definitely unable to deal with his best friend dying in such a cruel way, and that’s what we see during his stunning monologue in the National Cathedral. Like, watching that half-English, half-Latin rant, I knew this was a big scene. A memorable scene. Something I’d recall for years to come. And this show has done that so well. I think that largely, The West Wing aims for subtlety, but when it’s not subtle, the writers and the cast bring out the big guns and blow us all away. Look, I’m an ex-Catholic who could never rectify my own traumatic experiences with the message my religion tried to get me to believe: God is merciful, and He cares about you. (Which isn’t to suggest that’s your experience, obviously.) I didn’t ever really get over this feeling by the time I realized I didn’t believe in God, but in “Two Cathedrals,” Mrs. Landingham scolds Bartlet for not realizing how much better he has it than other people, for thinking that he can give up on running for re-election just because the path will be difficult and challenging. So? This is exactly what Bartlet needed to hear, which makes me sad because Mrs. Landingham will never be around again to give him this advice.
For the most part, all the other characters take a backseat, and I’m fine with that. Like I said in the opening, this needed to be about Bartlet. I did like that Leo gave Toby a lifeboat specifically so he could reject it. C.J. is on fire here, and I don’t envy a second of her job here. Donna is adorable and supportive. Who’s surprised? NO ONE.
I really didn’t need a verbal confirmation of Bartlet’s decision, and using a visual method to communicate this to us was BRILLIANT. It’s a way to reference Mrs. Landingham’s influence on Bartlet in a sweet, loving way. I adore that Leo just says, “Watch this” to Toby. He knows Bartlet is going to be Bartlet, and it’s wonderful.
What an incredible season, y’all. I’m so excited to start season three.
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