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Two Questions About The West Wing: “18th and Potomac” & “Two Cathedrals”

Nearly every critic’s list of favorite individual episodes of television contains The West Wing‘s finest moment, “Two Cathedrals.” 

Today, Sally J. and I will pick up on our previous TWW recaps with a slightly different angle. Slay Belle and I enjoyed talking about The Following and The Americans in this format very much, so Sally J. and I thought it would be fun to try here. Let’s see how it goes, shall we? As you might expect, there are spoilers all over the place in the text below.

When I posted the names of these two episodes in our planning area, Hillary said “I tear up just reading the titles of those episodes.” Mercy, yes. “18th and Potomac” and “Two Cathedrals” are some of the most powerful episodes of television I’ve ever seen. I remember watching both episodes on their original air dates, in the spring of 2001. From the shocking, but darkly foreshadowed, death of President Bartlet’s beloved friend, confidant, and secretary, Dolores Landingham in the last moments of “18th and Potomac” to the moment when President Bartlet curses God (in Latin, no less, and without subtitles) and extinguishes his cigarette on the cathedral floor, these two episodes are TWW at its very best.

“Gratias tibi ago, domine. Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto, a deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem. Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui. Officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem!”

I took Latin, but I forget how to say anything but “I love the farmer and his cheeses,” so I found this translation on The West Wing IMDB page.

[blockquote align=”center” variation=”deepblue” cite=”The West Wing on” citeLink=””]I give thanks to you, O Lord. Am I really to believe that these are the acts of a loving God? A just God? A wise God? To hell with your punishments. I was your servant here on Earth. And I spread your word and I did your work. To hell with your punishments. To hell with you! (Literally, “eas in crucem” translates to “may you go to a cross.”)[/blockquote]

Here are the two questions I asked Sally J.

1. Pulling from the details we learn in “18th and Potomac” and “Two Cathedrals”, what is Mrs. Landingham’s legacy?

Sally J.: I think it’s interesting that you learn more about Mrs. Landingham in these two episodes than in the last two seasons. Before these episodes, there’s a sense she and the president have history, but not what kind of history. I see her legacy as modeling behavior that’s above reproach, and perhaps as an influence that has endeared “the little guy” to the president. She tells him herself that he doesn’t have a big sister, and that he needs one. You can see she’s having the same influence over Charlie. Sigh.

2. What was the most effective moment in “Two Cathedrals”?

Sally J.: Do I have to pick just one? Really? I debated this until the president asked Leo to seal the Cathedrals. Then I got chills. And my answer. As the president unleashes on God, I can’t help but see parallels to what the senior staff would like to say to the president.

But I can’t pick just one. So here’s the other: the scene between the president and Mrs. Landingham’s ghost in the Oval Office. Here you see her legacy in action, insight to the president’s past, and him bracing for the future all in one.

And while I was jotting down my answers to Selena’s questions in my blue book, I asked Selena two questions of my own.

1. These episodes have two story lines outside the inner workings of the White House. What parallels do you see between Bartlet’s personal story line, the Haitian election/coup, and the tobacco lawsuit?

Selena: First, it’s so obvious we both used to be teachers.

This is a critical moment in The West Wing timeline. This is the first time the majority of the characters are finally in on the MS diagnosis, something the audience has been aware of for quite some time. The motivations of each of the characters can be traced back to their reaction to the knowledge. Josh is angry, so he takes it out on the congressmen who oppose the tobacco lawsuit. Bartlet is shown against the elected president of Haiti, who is so devoted to his country and his people, he’s willing to sacrifice his own life to defend its democracy. The Haitian president essentially martyred himself for democracy, while Bartlet was so disdainful of American democracy, he didn’t trust the electorate enough to tell the truth.

As for the tobacco lawsuit, poor Josh has never been great at directing his anger at those with whom he is actually angry. See: all the times he’s a shitheel to Donna. It’s one of the character’s least-likable, yet probably most-identifiable traits. In this case, he can hardly take out his anger on POTUS, and the closest targets are the two congressmen with mixed feelings.

Another interesting parallel, or at least an interesting plot point, is that this episode is the first time we get an inkling of who will ultimately be held responsible for Bartlet’s cover-up, and it isn’t the president. On original viewing, I was much more sympathetic to Bartlet overall than I am now, but I always thought the resolution was both 1. probably accurate and 2. a crock of steaming bullcrap.

2. The senior staff is put through the wringer in these two episodes. Side comments allude to their anger at the president’s cover up, while at the same time they rally the wagons around him. Whose reactions and actions struck you the most?

Selena: I think it’s very interesting, between sobs, that Mrs. Landingham never knew. Or, rather, Bartlet never told her. His last line to her, before she leaves to go buy her new car, was to ask her to come see him when she got back. I like to think that very little got past Mrs. Landingham, and I suspect that if she didn’t know, she suspected. At the same time, Bartlet was spared having to tell his “big sister,” the one person who’s opinion of him mattered more than anyone else’s, that he lied. Perhaps his conversation with her “ghost” in “Two Cathedrals” is a sign she did know all along, and she forgave him. If Mrs. Dolores Landingham, she of a moral compass so tuned she won’t even try to pay less than sticker price on her new car, can forgive him, maybe everyone else can, too.

As for the senior staff, it’s a mix between Donna and Toby. Toby knew before everyone else, so he had a chance to work off his initial shock and, to a lesser extent, his anger before the rest of the staff are told. I think his role, as the place the staff members can go after the secret was revealed to them, is very effective. Toby may not say many nice things to his co-workers, and I bet he doesn’t remember a lot of birthdays, but Toby will relentless protect those he cares about, even to his own detriment. Donna, on the other hand, isn’t angry at all, she’s worried about a loved one with a serious disease, who happens to be the POTUS. It’s equally eye-opening to Toby as it is to the audience, and I think it’s a moment that brings the staff from universally furious to pissed, but still ready to fight for Bartlet.

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

4 replies on “Two Questions About The West Wing: “18th and Potomac” & “Two Cathedrals””

Two Cathedrals is one of my favorite TV episodes of all time. It’s beautifully written. I’ve had the same reaction as you over various re-watches, that Bartlett was kind of an asshole about the whole thing. The scene in the cathedral though still gives me chills to this day.

I have only started watching the WW and I am obviously in love with it (and now I understand all the CJ love on this site!). It’s brilliant and heartbreaking and everything that I love in TV. I’m just getting to the end of Season 3.

One thing that has bothered me, though, is Charlie. Where is his character background? Why have we not met his sister? Why has there not been more shown about what must be a major conflict in his life: extreme work hours versus caring for a younger sister while they both go through a traumatic grief process? Even just mentioning that a relative cares for his sister would be something (did they do that and I missed it?) but his back story is not only never a storyline but it also doesn’t really match up with his work life. For the only black character on this show, it’s a little more than a little questionable.

The lack of diversity on the show in general bothers me, actually. Has anyone else thought this?

An interesting fact I just learned yesterday, from Pajiba: Sidney Poitier was offered the role of Bartlet, but was too expensive. (I love Martin Sheen like he’s family, but can you imagine how awesome?)

I think that’s an excellent point about Charlie. I don’t want to spoil anything about future episodes, but you absolutely have a point. I do think, that in addition to Charlie, TWW is responsible for two great roles for actors of color, Admiral Fitzwallace and Nancy McNally. That’s not an excuse for a general lack of diversity, but having the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the head of the NSA portrayed by black actors was (albeit sadly) a big step for the early 2000s.

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