A review I found of The Grey recently (not mine) pointed out that it’s not often we see poetry in the movies. Nor are we likely to find it on television, particularly when there is after all so much donkey semen to be consumed, and so much ritual humiliation to be suffered, in pursuit of cash and prizes. In a way though, it’s not really surprising. The production of episodic television can best be likened to a meat grinder churning through product ever faster. Compromises are the order of the day to meet the schedule; creativity takes a distant back seat to speed. Poetry, by contrast, is meditative and contemplative – it takes time and care to compose, and even more time to read and reflect upon. That is why the rare occasion one does come across televised poetry is such a gift. James Lipton called The West Wing‘s “Two Cathedrals” the finest hour of television ever produced, and I’m inclined to agree. Written by series creator Aaron Sorkin with his usual brilliance and flair, it is an allegorical story of Job, a story of a man, the President of the United States – ostensibly the most powerful man in the world – whose faith is tested to its limits. A man who is forced to confront his innermost demons, who is pushed to the edge, to breaking, and finds solace and strength once more to stand against the coming storm. A story of the true bravery of which human beings are uniquely capable.
The setting: The White House. As re-election looms, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is about to reveal to the world that he has multiple sclerosis and did not disclose it during his first run for high office. His beloved long-time secretary and confidante Mrs. Dolores Landingham has just been killed in a car crash. Tragedies and misfortunes pile on and the President finds himself questioning what he sees as God’s plan, wondering if God is, in fact, merely a feckless thug. In a series of flashbacks we see young Jed demeaned by an imposing, small-minded father who seems to resent his son’s very existence. When the President curses God in Latin (“Cruciatus in crucem – eas in crucem”) and crushes out a cigarette on the floor of Washington’s National Cathedral, he is rebelling against God and his father as one. He has sunk to his lowest and is resigned to defeat, advising his staff he does not intend to seek re-election. An hour before a press conference at which he plans to announce the same to the world, Bartlet sits quietly in the Oval Office, preparing himself for the grand humiliation to come – when suddenly the door is blown open by the wind and his conscience reasserts itself. In the form of a conversation with an imagined Mrs. Landingham, Jed reminds himself – through the voice of his departed mentor and friend – that the fight is worth the struggle, that he is in a unique position to help so many faceless people, and he cannot and will not be undone by the failings of the father. He walks outside, and as the haunting guitar of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” starts up, Bartlet is baptized by the driving rain. At the press conference, he throws away the script and invites the question of whether he intends to run again. It’s established earlier on that when Jed has made up his mind, he smiles and puts his hands in his pockets. Without speaking, he does so again, and his journey is complete. He has descended to the depths, walked through the fire, and emerged whole and greater.
One cannot watch the episode without feeling a similar lift, regardless of whether or not one is a person of faith – and that, to me, is one of the triumphs of “Two Cathedrals.” The allegory of God/father vs. Jesus/son is plain, but it is handled so delicately that even though the underlying themes of the episode are highly religious, it does not come across as a sermon, but rather a paean to the faith a single human being can have in himself, and the ability to overcome any amount of doubt in order to do what is morally right. There will likely be a time in every man’s life when he looks to the image of his own father and questions why he is here, or what purpose, if any, his suffering must serve, very much as Jesus on the cross cried toward heaven asking why his father had forsaken him. It is the paradigm of the relationship between a father and a son. The clarity and certainty Bartlet finds as he stands in the rain is to be admired, and in many ways, to be envied as well. We should all be so lucky to understand ourselves and our place here on earth. Where “Two Cathedrals” helps is in throwing down the challenge, forcing us to ask the question – one of the most terrifying any man can ask, because the answer can truly shape the rest of his life. It can come to define the limits of who he is and everything he will ever be. That is more than mere poetry – it is the essence of truth.