Two Cathedrals

The West Wing – Season 2, Ep. 22, “Two Cathedrals”

Original Air Date: May 16, 2001

Today, the day after the anniversary of the JFK assassination, it seems fated that the concluding chapter of my “Five Hours” series should cover “Two Cathedrals,” an episode which deals with a death in the White House family and the political ramifications of a potential change at the top of the Executive Branch. The difference is that nobody killed the President this time, although his spirit has been put to the test, if not broken. NBC’s “The West Wing” was an award-winner for much of its run, and always deservedly so, but it was particularly good in Season 2. “Two Cathedrals,” the season finale, was a culmination of that year’s hard work from cast and writing staff alike, and represents “The West Wing” at peak efficiency.

President Josiah Edward “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) begins “Two Cathedrals” in the midst of a scandal, having covered up the fact that he’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Even fellow Democrats are advising him not to seek a second term. Bartlet has also been rocked by a recent personal tragedy. His personal secretary and surrogate big sister, Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) had recently bought her very first car. At 18th and Potomac, a drunk driver struck Mrs. Landingham’s vehicle, killing her. News of this incident has Bartlet in a funk, reflecting back on how the two first met when Jed was a student at a school with a rather stern headmaster: his father (frequent “The West Wing” writer & producer/MSNBC news anchor Lawrence O’Donnell). Kudos to the casting department: Actress Kirsten Nelson instantly makes you believe you’re looking at a thirty-something Mrs. Landingham.

What these flashbacks are a reminder of is just how important a figure Mrs. Landingham was in the life of the President. Even in his youth, whenever he was unsure of himself, there she was to deliver a swift kick in the pants to help keep him motivated. In this particular case, she’s using the agenda of equal pay for female staffers at the school as an excuse to get Jed to stand up to his father. That the ensuing conversation never allows an opportunity for Jed to bring up the issue isn’t important; that he’d made up his mind to actually try to talk to the man is.

“Two Cathedrals” is named so for the two buildings in which Bartlet, at different points in his life, summed up the strength to talk to a father figure, only to have his words fall on deaf ears. The second such scene takes place in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where Mrs. Landingham’s funeral is held. After the service is over, President Bartlet asks that the doors to the church be sealed so that he might have a private conversation with God. Angry, Bartlet really lets Him have it. A learned individual, he slips into Latin once he crosses over the altar. After making his point, he informs God that He’ll have to rely on Vice President Hoynes, because Bartlet intends not to run for re-election.

It might have ended there but, in the midst of an out-of-season tropical storm, Bartlet again faces a crisis of conscience. Talking to himself (though, in his mind, talking to Mrs. Landingham), Bartlet argues a point/counterpoint on whether or not he should seek re-election. Similarly to her younger self, the vision of Mrs. Landingham suggests that his decision on whether or not to run for a second term should not be based upon how hard he thinks it will be. Contrary to his posture throughout the episode, as though a weight has been lifted from his shoulders, President Bartlet now stands up straight and walks with confidence towards the awaiting press room to make his official statement. In a nod to the earlier flashbacks, the President stands tall in front of the podium, stuffs his hands in his pockets and smiles, indicating that his mind is made up. That the President’s final decision is not definitively stated at the end of the episode is not a problem. The implication is that he will run for re-election.

Martin Sheen has long been one of my favorite actors, and his involvement was in large part the main factor which drew me into watching “The West Wing” during its original run from 1999 to 2006. With “Two Cathedrals,” and in Bartlet’s conversation with God in particular, Sheen delivers one of the best performances of his career. Showrunner Aaron Sorkin (who bowed out after Season Four) was also up to the task as this episode’s writer, proving just why he continues to be highly sought after by television and film studios alike. I’m also very pleased with the choice of music during the episode’s final scene. Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” is the title song of one of the top five best albums of the 1980’s. The song itself may specifically be about the Falklands War in 1982 between the United Kingdom and Argentina, but this episode makes great use of its “unity in the face of adversity” message.

This great hour of television has so much going for it that one would do well to tune in. One would also do well to come in already familiar with everything that’s going on, but it wouldn’t be a total crime for this to be your introduction to the show if it makes you interested in seeing all that came before and after. If you decide not to watch because politics are a turn-off, I can respect that (politics being one of my two least favorite subjects).  But if you skip out on this show because you think you can’t be entertained or think it a waste of your time, then, as Mrs. Landingham would say: “I don’t even want to know you.”

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    So glad you used Mrs. Landingham’s great line as your final line in this excellent review which would definitely make me want to see it if I hadn’t already seen it three times!!!!

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