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TV Review: 'West Wing' wraps season with dark but moving finale

Wednesday, May 16, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

What was once a hopeful, uplifting series has become dark and dispiriting as the revelation of the disease afflicting President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) comes into the national spotlight on "The West Wing" (9 tonight, NBC).

"The West Wing"

WHEN: 9 tonight on NBC.

STARRING: Martin Sheen.


If that weren't bad enough, there's a crisis in Haiti, a tropical storm is racing up the East Coast toward D.C., and, hitting closest to home, the president's faithful secretary, Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), is dead.

That horrible -- but effective -- shock at the end of last week's episode permeates tonight's moving, cathartic season finale, "Two Cathedrals."

Written by series creator Aaron Sorkin and directed by executive producer Thomas Schlamme, tonight's "West Wing" touches on the enduring themes of religion, friendship, loss, forgiveness, anger and atonement.

Though Bartlet has plenty of other things to worry about -- including whether or not to seek re-election in a climate he knows will be hostile because he withheld the truth about his multiple sclerosis -- he's fixated on Mrs. L. Throughout the hour Bartlet remembers his years as a prep school student in New Hampshire, where he met a young Mrs. L, secretary to Bartlet's father, the school's headmaster.

These flashback scenes -- masterfully cut into the present day -- show the young Bartlet (Jason Widener) and young Dolores Landingham (Kirsten Nelson) and just how much of an impact she had on the future president by challenging him to confront his father about pay inequities between male and female teachers at the school.

"You've never had a big sister and you need one," Mrs. L tells young Bartlet.

Nelson sounds remarkably like Joosten, the actress who played the modern-day Mrs. L., and Widener gets Sheen's mannerisms down pat. Flashbacks can sometimes be mawkish, but not on "The West Wing."

It's a dark episode to be sure, and some viewers are likely to attribute this turn to Sorkin's own personal problems with drugs. Whatever the reason, Bartlet's anger toward God in a scene at the National Cathedral is as real, brave and powerful a scene as you're likely to see this sweeps month.

Sorkin gets the bulk of the credit for "The West Wing," but Schlamme is just as responsible for the success of this season finale. Whether it's crosscutting between decades or the lonely, lingering shot on Mrs. Landingham's empty desk, Schlamme expertly helms tonight's hour.

Unlike last year's season-ender, this "West Wing" doesn't end with a cliffhanger, although loose ends dangle. The feeling that Sorkin has painted the series into a self-destructive corner lingers (another reminder of Sorkin's real-life troubles), but the conclusion also offers hope that the idealistic spirit of "The West Wing" will return in the fall. In the meantime, savor the show's finely crafted downbeat drama.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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