Television’s Greatest: The West Wing’s Two Cathedrals
(This article contains spoilers for The West Wing Season 2 Finale)
In the stories I’m most fond of, characters overcome external conflicts by conquering their internal struggles, empowering them to face the world with renewed resolve. The greatest challenges faced by The West Wing protagonists aren’t political ones. It’s their self-doubt and lack of conviction that undermines them. When they rise above these, their ingenuity and tenacity is boundless, and their difficulties seem far less daunting.
In no episode is this more apparent, or more potent, than in Two Cathedrals.
Bartlet has to grapple with two crises. The first is the death of Mrs. Landingham, which, beyond causing him considerable grief, also puts his faith into question. The second is the revelation of his multiple sclerosis to the American public and his deception thereof.
In the midst of all this, he has to make the crucial decision of whether or not to run for a second term. Bartlet is in grief, guilt-ridden for his deception, and facing a crisis of faith; not the ideal mental state to be in when making a decision that will affect hundreds of millions of people.
Through osmosis, Bartlet’s mental state infects that of his staff; they’re all fighting without hope. Josh writes up a scathing remark for political opponents regarding a setback involving Big Tobacco, which CJ asks him to ‘put away for a while’, setting the tone for much of the senior staff’s demeanor in this episode.
Even the White House, and the world at large, is consumed by Bartlet’s internal struggle. The East Room, where they would have held the press conference for revealing Bartlet’s MS, is closed down because they found asbestos in it. A White House room suddenly discovered to have a toxic chemical within its walls neatly mirrors the president’s own health deception. “They have to seal it off,” Sam says matter-of-factly and promises to find a list of alternative rooms, unaware of the dramatic irony; earlier in the episode he angrily rejects the notion of considering other democratic presidential nominees.
A tropical storm threatens to reign chaos, and Bartlet reads this as a message from God. The storm is a nonrecurring, unpredictable phenomenon, not unlike Bartlet’s presidency and his chaotic state of mind.
Finally, there’s the Oval Office door that won’t shut. Much as Bartlet is tempted to walk away from all this, he can’t shut the door on his own conscience, on the moral imperative to lead because he believes he’s the right man for the job.
The titular two Cathedrals aren’t really those at the school and the funeral. The White House is the other hallowed ground in this episode. Bartlet gains no absolution or catharsis at the actual cathedral. He confronts God in a manner he presumably never did with his actual father, but knows deep inside that he’s merely admitting defeat.
It is in the Oval Office, talking to Mrs. Landingham’s memory, that he realizes that this wasn’t about his fury with God, or his anger with his father. It was about doing the right thing. It wasn’t about a storm he couldn’t control. It was about the American people and what he could do for them.
Earlier in the episode, Donna comments on Leo and Bartlet holed up in the Oval Office, deciding whether Bartlet’s going to run for reelection. “Two people, in a matter of minutes? This is how it works?”
It turns out to be even more intimate than that. It comes down to one man, talking to himself, deciding the fate of his country.
Sorkin’s electric dialogue gets much praise, but just as masterful is his command over when not to use words. It is telling that one of the most memorable sequences in this episode and the entire series has minimal dialogue.
Bartlet walks out into the unprecedented storm that has arrived at his doorstep, and we know that he’s ready to face the unknown once more.
The melancholic Dire Straits score arrives, segued beautifully by the sound of thunder. The flawless cinematography of this episode reaches its zenith, cutting seamlessly between CJ fielding the reporters’ questions, and Bartlet and his staff making their way to the press conference. Watching all these characters walking through the West Wing corridors feels familiar, yet alien, because for once they’re doing it silently, lending the scene gravitas. Every gesture, glance and stride speaks volumes; two seasons of character building coming to fruition.
Bartlet arrives at the podium, looks to CJ’s handpicked reporter who would lob him a warm-up question, then looks away and calls on a different reporter. He doesn’t want the easy way out any more. When asked the inevitable question, he puts his hands in his pockets, and looks away and smiles. And we’re in.
The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.
External conflict is seldom what’s most interesting in great fiction. In The West Wing, the stakes are fungible, and acquiesce to the demands of the plot. But the show exercises much restraint in creating dramatic tension through external circumstances. The hostages, Big Tobacco, multiple sclerosis and the reelection in this episode are ostensibly important, but nevertheless fade into the background, dwarfed by Bartlet’s internal journey. It’s the abstract weather phenomenon that takes precedence, playing the foil for the president; a gambit the show would repeat with asteroids and nuclear threats, among other things. The President withdraws from the weighty problems his staff grapples with, becoming preoccupied with the tropical storm and what it means to him. His conflict subsumes the others within itself.
The West Wing’s Two Cathedrals succeeds as one of the great episodes of television by exploring one character’s internal turmoil. Bartlet makes his decision by talking to himself, with God and Mrs. Landingham’s memory acting as illusory listeners. His solitary journey and lonely conversations in this episode are all the more poignant for existing in a show that thrives on lively discourse between its characters. It shines a light on the burden of the presidency; Bartlet must reckon with his struggles alone, because no one else could hope to understand his position. And so he does.