17 People (West Wing)

05/21/2014

If you’re a West Wing fan, 17 People – episode 18 of season 2 – is arguably one of the best episodes. In fact, it starts a run of several great episodes at the end of the season, culminating with the Emmy-award winning Two Cathedrals, that ends the season (with a cliffhanger; but it’s obvious now what Bartlett’s answer will be at the end of that episode).

Jon White has created a brilliant analysis of this episode on his website Seventeen People. As he says, it’s the “best non-Dire-Straits-featuring episode.” (That’s a reference to Two Cathedrals, which features Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms over the last 5 minutes.) White shows just how much Aaron Sorkin could pack into a 42-minute West Wing episode: “It is, simultaneously: a story of intrigue, of persuasion, of drama, of comedy, and of romance.”

Seventeen People is about Toby Ziegler finding something out; something only known by sixteen other people. White fortunately does not say what Toby finds out, though if you’ve seen the West Wing, you know what it is. His analysis of this episode shows just how essential each and every line of the script is to the story, how President Bartlett has to juggle serious crises in addition to dealing with Toby. And how what Toby learns sets the stage for the next couple of years of his presidency.

If you’re a West Wing fan, you’ll find this analysis a brilliant break-down of the episode. If you’re not, read the introduction, and go buy The Complete West Wing on DVD (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). It’s $125 in the US, and only £48 in the UK. (Or, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can watch them free in HD; the HD versions are only available from Amazon Prime and iTunes, there’s no Blu-Ray.) Seriously, if there’s one TV series I’d take to a desert island, it would be The West Wing. If you haven’t watched it yet, you should.

Speaking of Two Cathedrals, here’s the last 5 1/2 minutes, the part with the Dire Straits music. I can’t watch this without tearing up, but also without appreciating the astounding direction by Thomas Schlamme, and the brilliant editing that tells this story. Watch the fluidity of the movement as Bartlett heads out of the Oval Office to his motorcade. Watch all the tiny details; the cigarette in the church, the shots in the press conference before Bartlett gets there. Watch Martin Sheen’s face and body throughout this segment, showing what makes him such a great actor, and how he totally inhabited this character. And the moment when Lea McGarry says “Watch this.”

If you’ve not yet seen the West Wing up to this point, it would be better to not to watch this, because there is a major spoiler…