Top TV #2: Two Cathedrals

Today’s post continues this week’s series of ‘my favorite television episodes’.

Once again, a caveat: These aren’t necessarily my permanent Top 5, and I certainly won’t claim that these are the best tv episodes ever; they just have a special appeal to me, for one reason or another. They’re also in no particular order, and mostly spoiler-free. Episode title links go to the Wikipedia or similar page for that episode, if you want to cheat and read the synopsis without watching. Now, on with it…

Up next in the queue is the second season finale of The West Wing, entitled “Two Cathedrals.” I’m a huge fan of this series, having gotten hooked in reruns during season four, and this episode is one of my absolute favorites.

As a season finale, it’s obviously got a lot of backstory and buildup from earlier in the season, though a great deal of this occurred at the end of the immediately previous episode, in which President Bartlet (played by the amazing Martin Sheen) loses a close personal friend. Much of “Two Cathedrals” deals with that relationship in flashback, with a ‘Chekov’s Gun’ that will show up later.

This Chekov’s Gun (a literary technique whereby an apparently irrelevant element is introduced early in the story whose significance becomes clear later) comes from what that now-departed old friend says in flashback: “You already decided. You put your hands in your pockets, you looked away. And you smiled.”

What I love most about this finale are its last six minutes (click the link for a Youtube video). You go into that with a grieving President beset by scandal – his hidden multiple sclerosis now revealed – on the eve of the night where he will announce whether he’ll be running for a second term. Set against the atmospheric pouring rain, lightning, and Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”, it’s an emotional powerhouse that gets me every time.


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