"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.