The West Wing: In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part 1

"If I see the real thing in Nashua, should I tell you about it?"

This episode follows straight on from the dramatic cliffhanger that ended season one, and details have therefore been redacted until after the break. In the meantime, enjoy this publicity shot and contemplate why CJ and Toby are holding hands. And why Rachel is naked on that Friends poster where they're all on the bed. I've always wondered about that.

The question that ended season one, "Who's been hit?" is answered - the President (non-fatally, clean exit wound, no organ damage), Ron Butterfield (in the hand) and Josh (critically, no exit wound, collapsed lung, lacerated artery). This episode deals with the aftermath of the shooting, interspersed with flashbacks showing us how Josh and Sam came to work for the Bartlet campaign, how Toby managed to continue to work for them despite an unfortunate incident involving drinking in the middle of the day, and, indeed, how Bartlet ended up running in the first place.

Poor CJ is flung right in front of the press corps within hours of a near death experience, while Josh is still in surgery (the direction emphasising the disorienting effect of their flashing cameras and its similarity to the flashing lights at the scene). Danny pesters her about the twenty-fifth amendment (he does apologise at least, but a single "Are you OK?" might have helped) and the news reports that she seemed "shaken" (what a surprise). The episode ends with her still disoriented, wondering who it was who pushed her down when the shots were fired.

My favourite scene (somewhat sadistically) is Donna's arrival at the hospital. This is her first scene since becoming a member of the main cast and focuses on the plot most significant to her character, which is of course her relationship with Josh (and while this fits the annoying paradigm of a woman in a subservient role whose entire character arc is focused around a man in a superior role and her romantic feelings for him, I'll let it go this time, because the relationship is built largely on the natural chemistry between the actors and Donna has a pretty awesome personality of her own anyway. Certainly way better than Mandy).

All the aides and assistants are pretty upset, of course (Toby hugging Ginger is adorable) but it's clear that two of them have closer relationships with Josh and the President than merely boss and assistant. Mrs Landingham (who often behaves in a motherly way towards the President) running to Bartlet's side is moving, but it's Donna's reaction that really gets me. Having rushed over to see the President, she has to be told about Josh and her reaction is perfectly played shock, as she asks Toby in confusion "hit with what?" It's clear from the way the others look at each other that they know how hard this will hit her.

In amongst all the drama, this episode also introduces Anna Deveare Smith as Nancy McNally, the National Security Advisor. In a ballgown (among her first lines is a demand for a change of clothes because she "looks like an idiot" but honestly, her ordering the armed forces around in that outfit is all kinds of awesome). She's not a regular character, but she's an important recurring one, and the fact that she's a woman of colour in a significant military position, with neither her race nor gender ever being commented on (and the fact that she's the most gung-ho of them all) goes a long way toward redressing some of the issues of early season one, when the show was a bit too much of a (white) men's club.

Bartlet, bleeding all over the place, in an utterly undignified position with his legs splayed out while medics cut off his clothes, manages to give Leo a series of instructions to control the security situation, protect the stock market from total collapse, cover up his MS and make sure the anesthetist doesn't kill him due to his MS, before giving him a kiss to reassure Leo and going under. This is why people wished he was really the President. Of course, he fails to specify who is in charge under the twenty-fifth amendment, but still.

In flashback land, Josh left Hoynes and Sam left a lucrative job at a law firm because they realised that Bartlet was the 'real deal', which Hoynes most emphatically is not. In the present timeline, Hoynes is bustled away by security - I always feel sorry for him when they rush him away, sheer panic on his face - then thrown into the situation room. He relies on Leo, which you can't really blame him for, but it does reinforce the running theme that Hoynes is a politician out for power, his sole goal being to win elections, while Bartlet is a man who wants to do a job he feels confident he can do, to the best of his ability. Bartlet's admittance in flashback that he screwed over dairy farmers for higher reasons also reminds us of the difference in their priorities.

This is high drama, played brilliantly. As a season opener it's very effective. The flashbacks, together with the small scenes of everyone coming together as they find out about the shooting, remind us who all these people are and what their relationships are with each other, while also showing them under extreme stress (even more than usual) which is always revealing. The cast have really gelled now, and their relationships are starting to feel very real and lived-in. It also sets up a number of threads for the season - but we'll say no more about that for now.

Bits and pieces

 - Moira Kelly is no longer in the opening credits and Mandy does not appear in this episode or, indeed, ever again. The lack of explanation for her departure is a little odd, but presumably no one wanted to interrupt the dramatics to cover it, and honestly, her disappearance is too much of a relief for me to mind. The character just wasn't working.

 - It always seems weird to me how long it takes them to realise the President's been shot, but it is a nice dramatic opener to see Ron suddenly notice the blood in his mouth.

 - Poor Josh is on the ground even longer (and facing completely away from anywhere near the shooters, by the way) before Toby finds him.

 - Before joining the campaign, Sam was going to marry someone called Lisa, about whom Josh seems to have had unspecified doubts. Evidently, that all went wrong sometime before he slept with a call girl in the pilot.

 - We discover that before Bartlet, Toby had worked on numerous campaigns and never won a single one of them. Which explains a lot about Toby.

 - The ER nurse is awful - who checks whether a thing is a drill before responding? And when told no it's not (since I guess she did have her reasons) keeps on as if it's a drill until the just-shot President is actually at the door?!

 - CJ asks "Is the President dead? rather than "Was the President hit? which seems kinda pessimistic (not to mention even JFK, who was pretty badly hit, wasn't declared dead until he got to the hospital).

 - During the campaign, Bartlet was concerned that he didn't want to appear to have a problem with his memory - and that worried him more than giving his opponent free advertising.

 - This time in uncomfortable real world events, Nancy McNally mentions that they don't know where (Osama) bin Laden is. This episode was filmed over a year before 9/11.


Medic: Do you have any medical conditions?
Bartlet: Well, I've been shot.
Very funny and, of course, covering up his MS.

Abbey: There are fourteen people in the world who know this, including the vice President, the chief of staff, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. You are going to be the fifteenth. Seven years ago, my husband was diagnosed with a relapsing/remitting course of M.S. When all this is over, tell the press, don't tell the press - it's entirely up to you.

Toby: He's hemorrhaging and he's supposed to draft a memo?

Leo: Because I'm tired of it, year after year after year after year, having to choose between the lesser of who cares? Of trying to get myself excited about a candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low, I can hardly look at it. They say a good man can't get elected President. I don't believe that, do you?

Dramatic and heartfelt, cracking stuff. Four out of four inappropriate ballgowns.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


Billie Doux said...

The first time I saw this episode, I thought of it as almost a second pilot. But it's different because we love these characters so much now and this is such a special show, and we're seeing these people coming together for the first time.

Donna's face when she was told Josh had been shot and it was critical -- wow.

In the meantime, enjoy this publicity shot and contemplate why CJ and Toby are holding hands. And why Rachel is naked on that Friends poster where they're all on the bed. I've always wondered about that. LOL, Juliette. :) It does often feel that Toby has a serious thing for CJ, but it's hard to tell for sure. The two of them as actors are so damned good.

ChrisB said...

I love the beginning of this season. As Billie says, it does feel like a pilot, but one in which we already know and love the characters. Somehow, watching them all come together as a group is more meaningful since we have seen how they interact.

The aspect of this episode (and the next) that always strikes me, however, is that of the news reports. When something like this happens (the President is shot, two kids shoot their schoolmates, two towers collapse at the bottom of Manhattan), we all become glued to our televisions, watching it all unfold. And yet, unless we are personally connected to the story, it is as if we are watching a television program.

For the people in the West Wing, it is not just the President and the Deputy Chief of Staff who have been shot. It is their boss and their friend and they must process all those emotions at the same time they continue to perform incredibly stressful jobs. For me, that is the most poignant part of this timeline.

As for the past, I love the scene with Josh and Sam. Obviously friends forever with a long, shared history, each is disillusioned with what he is doing and each is searching. I love it.

Suzanne said...

I just began watching West Wing for the first time. I had seen an episode here and there at the time it ran, but now I am really getting into it. Your reviews are wonderful! I really enjoyed all of your first season reviews and am looking forward to discussing upcoming seasons with all of you.

I agree with everything all of you said about this episode. It was amazing and as much as I liked first season, I can tell I will like this even better. Very glad to be rid of Mandy!!

The Bin Laden statement struck me, too, and I adore the new National Security Advisor. Hope we see a lot more of her.

Juliette said...

So glad you're enjoying the reviews Suzanne, thank you! Season 2 of West Wing is awesome (it all is, but especially season 2) so hopefully you have a treat in store!

Kathy said...

Just an FYI--

The fact that no one figures out that Bartlet has been shot until he bleeds from the mouth is a reference to when Ronald Reagan had an assassination attempt. He was also pretty much thrown into the limo, and the Secret Service agents didn't realize that he was shot until he started bleeding from the mouth.

While Reagan didn't have the MS and, as far as I'm aware the succession was clear then (but, then again, I was 2 years old when Reagan was shot), the joking while in the ER was also a reference to President Reagan. He famously told his wife, Nancy "Looks like I forgot to duck." He hoped that the surgeon was a Republican. (And, like Bartlet, he had an aide critically wounded. James Brady, who just passed away last week, the Press Secretary, was paralyzed from that moment until the day he died.)

Just a little history lesson for you. :)

This is actually one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing. When I first saw it, I called Mom and cried that Josh had been hit, because I absolutely adored Josh. Whenever I see Bradley Whitford, he still makes me happy.


Juliette said...

Thanks Kat! the double whammy of being too young and British means I know pretty much zilch about the Reagan assassination attempt (other than it was something to do with a crazy fan of Jodie Foster?!)

Kathy said...

Juliette, you are correct about that.