The West Wing – 1×02: ‘Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Original Air Date: 29th September 1999

In lesser hands, The West Wing’s second episode would be an obvious hour of television. Its final moments are very much sign posted from around the middle of the episode, and yet it still hits hard. Sorkin’s scripting here makes those final moments a devastating blow for President Bartlet, but there is a brilliant pulling of the cord by Sorkin’s scripting here that indicates that The West Wing’s ‘Pilot’ was no fluke, and even when throwing plot developments that you see coming, it can still be a brilliant viewing experience.

Although it will take until the next episode for Bartlet’s talk of not being a violent seeking man to be taken through its paces, the second hour of Sorkin’s political drama manages to make everything here be its own thing, even if elements of it are in the process of setting up where the show is going to go in the next episode.

It’s also a gentle reminder of the high stakes world these characters are working in. Certainly, the show can do comedy very well; the series clearly has a lovely way to be light on its feet, with walks and talks that are combined with those fast paced, witty lines of dialogue.

There is of course still some dramatic heft to the events here before we get to those dramatic final few moments that sets up ‘A Proportional Response’. One of the most tantalizing plot lines of the episode is the reveal that the West Wing staff have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the Vice President, John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), which adds to the sense of backstory and world building going on in these early episodes.

The casting of Tim Matheson is a clever stroke in that he has the look of a good looking liberal presidential candidate the type of which Hollywood loved during the 90s. That was something that was part and parcel of Sorkin’s previous foray into the world of politics with The American President, not to mention Independence Day (about as far from Sorkin as you can get, admittedly) but it also shows that amongst all the fun there is to be had with insulted Ryder Cup Team members and the President’s way with Latin, there is also a bit of rot within the happy White House.

Whatever drama went down between the characters isn’t revealed, but there is so much that is said and unsaid and it makes for tantalizing drama. Hoynes referring to Bartlet as ‘your pal’ during his heated discussion with Leo would be a dramatic enough way to end the episode, but Sorkin shows that he also a knack for toying with the audience in a brilliant manner.

The chemistry between Bartlet and his new physician Morris Tolliver, coupled with Bartlet’s talk on not feeling comfortable with the Joint Chiefs is clearly foreshadowing, although since this is The West Wing, it makes it work and any lack of storytelling subtleties is made up for by the chemistry between Sheen  and guest star Ruben Santiago-Hudson which flows from the screen, even though they only share one scene together.

When the episode looks as if it’s going to end on a more upbeat nature with the Sam and Laurie pursuing a platonic friendship (the only storyline on the show that so far is dead weight), it then cuts to a more serious demeanour with Bartlet being told by Leo that Morris is dead in an attack on his cruise carrier by the Syrian military.

The scene itself is expertly staged, well written, while also indicating just how flexible the tone of The West Wing can be. There is drama to be had here, mixed in with gentle humour and witty dialogue coming out of every pore of its scenes,  but the final moments of ‘Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc’ shows a clear willingness to partake in many of the facets of political office, and that extends to bigger stories with bigger stakes.

Best of all, the show’s commitment to dazzling wordplay even extends to putting into the words of its characters dialogue that would destabilise any other show. If a character in another series dared to tell another character that ‘I’m going to blow them off the face of the Earth with the fury of God’s own thunder’ you would laugh it out of the room, and yet the moment works. It’s hard to know whether or not it’s the commitment of Sorkin to such wordplay or the brilliance of how Martin Sheen delivers it, but whatever the magic alchemy is that makes it work, the one thing that cannot be denied is that it makes for brilliant television.

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