"'We hold these truths to be self-evident,' they said, 'that all men are created equal'."
After a long day in which a space shuttle (with Toby's brother on board) has failed to land and an Air Force pilot has gone missing, Bartlet drags Zoey along to an appearance at a Town Hall meeting.
This is one of those episodes that, when looking back on it, is inseparable from its final few minutes - which is probably why it's structured to begin at the end and fill in the backstory over the course of the hour. Interestingly, it isn't just the final attack that is sign-posted in the cold open, but the positive resolution to one of the stories that otherwise functions to ratchet up the tension during the day - we see Sam's signal that the space shuttle has landed and everyone's relieved reactions before we understand what it means.
That's partly because the two primary dramatic plots in this whole episode flashback are designed to increase the tension slowly and then release it, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before the dramatic concluding cliffhanger - if they've forgotten Gina's panicked expression right before the credits, at least. Tragically and rather horribly, watching the episode from the vantage point of 2014 results in both being far more uncomfortable viewing than they were intended to be at the time, because both plots revolve around preventing disasters that actually happened in real life within the next few years. The space shuttle that gets into trouble is the Columbia, which in real life disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, killing everyone on board. The pilot goes missing in Iraq, leading Bartlet to make a semi-serious offhand comment about invading Baghdad. It's hardly the writers' fault that these things happened - if anything, it goes to show how realistic this series can be sometimes - but it's hard to avoid thinking about while you're watching.
We learn in this episode not only that Toby has a brother, but that Sam didn't know that. It's not surprising that Toby is uncommunicative about his family, but it is revealing. Toby is embarrassed because he'd forgotten his brother had left the surface of Planet Earth, but he shows how much he really cares with his full knowledge of the mechanics and safety features on a space shuttle. We also see Toby's trademark pessimism - or, depending on your point of view, realism - and how much it can hurt him when he thanks the President for trying to comfort him, but points out just how dangerous space travel is and cannot accept reassuring platitudes.
In brighter news, CJ finally forgives Danny for publishing Mandy's note after he chews her out for picking on him to lie to in a briefing. Danny yells at her and she replies with a comment about it being a turn-on that both sexualises and patronises him - so it's good to know that the patronising and sexist attitude is more of a modus operandi for everyone in the White House rather than a purely chauvinistic thing, I guess? Anyway, it's nice to see them on good terms again as the episode opens/concludes.
Still, ultimately this is all about that final cliffhanger, which is a doozy. It's supremely dramatic while also being completely realistic, since sadly people shooting at American presidents is not confined to works of fiction. It reiterates one of the strengths of this show, which is that these people really do lead quite extreme lives, and of course it's a brilliant hook to bring people back for the second season as we end on an anonymous but frantic cry of, "Who's been hit?"
Bits and pieces
- Leo is furious with Josh for observing that they may get a 10-point bump if they bring the pilot back alive because he finds it offensive, which seems rather over the top for the White House Chief of Staff, who must know it's true, no matter how distasteful he finds that to be.
- Hoynes seems to be thinking about running for the Democratic nomination in the next election, despite Bartlet being a sitting President of only one term so far.
- Neither Scotland nor Bermuda are major players in international cricket (Bermuda are in Division 3 in World Cricket, Scotland are Division 1 but not as successful or prolific as England, India, Australia, the West Indies, Pakistan, South Africa... etc). And cricket really isn't that complicated. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with watching what I presume is women's softball, not 'girls' softball.
- Fitzwallace wondering if there are separate carpets for peace (Eagle facing olive branch) and war (Eagle facing arrows) and who changes them might be my new favourite thing.
- The shooter's accomplice in the crowd looks rather like Giovanni Ribisi in The X-Files' D.P.O., which just makes him extra creepy.
- The West Wing has an unfortunate habit of playing its usual jaunty theme music even after the most dramatic of episodes.
- Aaron Sorkin really likes to finish a first season on an episode called 'What Kind of Day Has It Been?' - he did so on Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as well.
Hoynes: You know something, Josh, sometimes I wonder if I'd listened to you two years ago, would I be President right now? Do you ever wonder that?
Josh: No sir, I know it for sure.
Josh actually doesn't sound arrogant for once when he's saying this - he's just stating a fact.
Charlie: Zoey, I work in a building with the smartest people in the world. Josh tries to sit down on a chair that isn't there.
Bartlet (to the recovered pilot in Iraq): Give me your parents' phone number, I never get to make this call.
"Who's been hit? Who's been hit?"
The cliffhanger is great, the rest merely good. Three out of four Eagle carpets.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.