It feels like this episode is a long introduction for the next two. Padded out by playing the introduction as a fast-forward opening, and replaying it again at the end. An amicable ‘town-hall’ speaking engagement for the president in Rosslyn, Virginia. Its sole purpose: to set up a cliffhanger ending.
The word cliffhanger has a disputed parentage. There is a school of thought tracing it to a literal cliffhanging episode in 19th century literature. An equally devoted school of literalists insists that it came into common use in the USA in the early 20th century, albeit without specifying the original intent, beyond crude methods to ensure patronage for continuing serials.
I prefer the apocryphal and quite likely unfounded dinner table story that cliffhanger derives from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Final Problem’, originally published in The Strand magazine in 1893. The story leads the reader to believe that Holmes and Moriarty had both fallen off a ledge at the Reichenbach Falls. When Conan Doyle resurrected the supersleuth, the explanations include a struggle with Moriarty, and clinging to a cliff face. It strikes me as better dinnertable storytelling than some waffle giving the bromidic Thomas Hardy credit for anything but ennui, or reaching for the foregone conclusion that it’s an American invention of uncertain origin, which is simultaneously also an invention conveniently claimed by the Italians, Russians, or some other New York ethnic enclave.
It might be less controversial to propose that we all agree on roughly what it means to us today: an ending that begs an explanation via a continuation, or a vulgar sequel.
Ending the final episode of the first season with gunfire raining down on the presidential retinue, without showing the consequences of that gunfire, fits the meaning well without coming within miles of any cliffs. If the audience had not already read in the trade press that the show had been renewed for another season, it might be obvious that the first episode of the second season would have a Conan Doylish series of glib explanations for Holmes’ resurrection. It would have been annoying to be made to wait five months for such explanations. Still, this is the trite business of chasing ratings.
The other three storylines—a technical problem on a space shuttle, a downed fighter pilot in Iraq, and CJ Cregg’s misleading of the media—could have made this episode stand on its own feet, but I suspect too much dramatic impact was intended to be preserved for the ending. And the unsubtle invitation to watch again next season.
The shooting aside, we are presented with the revelation that Toby Ziegler has an astronaut brother who is involved in some mechanical emergency preventing the safe return of a space shuttle. After a setup that might have led to tragedy, it turns out to be a soluble problem.
We are also presented with a seemingly pointless storyline about a downed pilot in a war zone, who is recovered successfully by military rescue mission. Again, this seems like a blind alley with no particular point to make, unfolding as a potential for disaster, but ending happily for all.
Only CJ Cregg’s handling of that situation is worth remarking on. This time the senior staff do not lie to her, but expect her to mislead the press. She cannot tell all who would like to know that a rescue mission has been launched, misdirecting the press corps instead by suggesting a diplomatic effort was underway. Of course this leads to a scene that almost requires the Scarlet O’Hara heaving bosom as she has to defend herself against recriminations from Danny Concannon. But I’m with Cregg on this one: lying to the press to mislead the enemy, and give the rescue mission a chance of success, is precisely what she should have been doing. It is one of the few occasions on which outright lies and misinformation are not only justified, but should actually be anticipated. After all what is the counter-argument? ‘Our readers deserve the literal truth even if it costs the life of the downed pilot.’
It has always struck me as odd that the press, long known to be an uncritical recycler of corporate and state propaganda, should work itself into such a lather when it is exposed as lazy and credulous in repeating what it is told without conducting its own investigation. Why are so-called journalists always so indignant about being lied to when even kids know that this is what business and government does as a matter of routine? What the hell ever happened to the press function of checking out stories and facts independently?
Concannon’s lines are tempered by the ridiculousness vanity of bemoaning that Cregg should have chosen him to lie to, rather than some other press gallery popinjay. It is not the lie, he seems to be saying, but the lie to him personally that smarts. Is it that the press were as contemptuous as they are made to look here, or is it Sorkin’s judgement of them. And is Sorkin’s judgement as damning as I take it to be?
There’s a tiny glimpse at the future in this episode. Josh Lyman and Vice President John Hoynes jogging. Most unusual: outdoors, out of suits. The admission that Lyman once worked for Hoynes, and might have made him president, had he not changed candidates. Now, whatever made him do that? Have to wait for the next season, won’t we.
Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. First aired on 14 May 2000.
Headline cast in opening credits: Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn; Moira Kelly as Mandy Hampton; Allison Janney as CJ Cregg; Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler; John Spencer as Leo McGarry; Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman; and Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet.
Special guest stars: John Amos as Percy Fitzwallace; Tim Matheson as Vice President John Hoynes.
Guest starring Timothy Busfield as Danny Concannon, Jorja Fox as Gina Toscano, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet, Suzy Nakamura as Cathy, Michael O’Neill as Ron Butterfield.
Co-starring Kathryn Joosten as Dolores Landingham, NiCole Robinson as Margaret Hooper, Kim Webster as Ginger, Devika Parikh as Bonnie, Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick, Kris Murphy as Katie Witt, Charles Noland as Reporter Steve.