Very few shows have done political drama as well as The West Wing. For seven seasons, the series followed the personal and professional lives of President Jeb Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his quick-witted staffers, including Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Toby Zeigler (Richard Schiff), and CJ Cregg (Allison Janney). Each week, viewers were treated to the Bartlet administration leading the country with integrity, strength, and gravitas.
True to its name, many of the best episodes of The West Wing take place in the White House. Others find President Bartlet and his staff at various locations around the nation and the world. The most important episodes of the series, however, explore the fundamental powers of the executive branch and the inner workings of the US political system.
"Two Cathedrals" marks the end of the second season of The West Wing with an emotional sendoff to President Bartlet's secretary and friend, Dolores Landingham. Mrs. Landingham's life was cut short by an inebriated driver in the episode "18th & Potomac" while driving back to the White House to show Bartlet her new car. As her funeral approaches, Bartlet is flooded with memories of their time together.
Bartlet has known Landingham since she worked as a secretary for his father, the headmaster at a boarding school. During "Two Cathedrals," viewers travel with Jed back in time to some of the early exchanges between Landingham and Bartlet. She was very much an older sister figure to Jed, and her passing shakes him to the core.
At the National Cathedral, where Mrs. Landingham's funeral is held, Bartlet unleashes his frustration, heartache, and pure anger about her passing at God himself. Bartlet swears at God in Latin before lighting a cigarette and intentionally putting it out on the floor of the church.
Season 2 of The West Wing picks up right where Season 1 left off: an attempt on President Bartlet's life. The culprit hits his mark and President Bartlet is rushed to the hospital. Though serious, Bartlet's condition is not as dire as that of Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, who is critically harmed in the event.
As Josh enters surgery, the episode flashes back to the lives and careers of the White House staff before they joined the Bartlet campaign. The two-part episode reveals how the staff became such diehard Bartlet devotees. More is revealed about the president's health and his multiple sclerosis diagnosis.
In "Twenty Five," Jed Bartlet has to choose between his dual roles as a president and father. Following the abduction of Zoey, Bartlet's youngest daughter, the president faces the possibility that the act may be intended to sway his political decisions in the Middle East. Unable to remain impartial while Zoey's life hangs in the balance, Bartlet decides to invoke the 25th amendment and suspend his own presidential term.
With the vice president having resigned in a previous episode, the line of succession falls to Speaker of the House Gary Allen Walken, the leader of the opposing political party. Walken immediately clashes with the White House staff.
This was a bold move for the The West Wing and reminded the audience that the president - even the one on television - is fallible and vulnerable. It was also the last show on which Aaron Sorkin, series creator and writer, served as showrunner.
While President Bartlet is under congressional investigation for concealing his multiple sclerosis from the public, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry flashes back to the early days of their first presidential campaign. Leo's flashbacks take viewers to New Hampshire, where he first convinced Bartlet to run for president, and where he witnessed Bartlet experience an attack of MS right before an important debate.
Leo's vulnerability is as clear as his devotion to Bartlet throughout his testimony. When he returns to his office after the ordeal, his boss is waiting for him. In the closing moments, the president presents Leo with a gift: the napkin upon which Leo wrote "Bartlet for America" several years before.