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''The West Wing'': The Long Goodbye

By RD Heldenfels Published: April 7, 2006

I have reservations about Sunday's episode of ''The West Wing.'' I'm not saying you should not watch it, because I would have even if I did not receive an advance copy. While I see the numbers saying that the ''West Wing'' audience is a fraction of what it was, there's still something -- maybe sheer stubbornness -- that will keep me watching to the end of the series.

Still, I have issues. For one thing, this show has had one long election day and night, with the outcome kept in doubt through most of this episode, which continues from last week's. (I am not revealing the winner here.) And, although Leo is officially dead relatively early in Sunday's episode, it just begins the other characters' farewells to him. The following week's telecast will be built around Leo's funeral.

In fact, only one character gets a really extended reaction to Leo's passing in Sunday's episode. It's Josh. Part of that is for dramatic tension, since Josh is also central to the election-night drama, so he's going back and forth between two different emotional roller-coasters. But I also think that, besides Bartlet, Josh deserves the most time saying goodbye to Leo.

(Although, again, I wish that we weren't getting such a stretched-out story. Juxtaposing Leo's death with the election means that the story has to fight for time with how Santos is feeling, how Vinick is feeling, how the results are going. There are some good things in there, notably when each candidate has to think about how to consider if a close finish merits bringing in the lawyers. It's still stuff taking us away from Leo, teasing us for one more week.)

Anyway, to understand why Josh's reaction to Leo matters, look past Josh's getting Leo to run for vice president. Go back instead to the second-season opener, ''In the Shadow of Two Gunmen.''  That's the two-parter using an assassination attempt on Bartlet as the basis for flashbacks revealing how the Bartlet team came together.

The episode tells us a lot about the Bartlet-Leo relationship, how crucial Leo was to getting Bartlet elected, how he was the guy who could give Bartlet bad news (and tough love). But it's also where we see that Leo did not merely bring Josh into the campaign. (And then Josh brought Sam, while Toby -- saved by Leo -- brought in C.J., so it really all came back to Leo.)

Although he and Josh did not know each other well -- Josh speaks very formally to Leo at first -- Leo was a friend of Josh's father. And when Josh's father dies in ''Shadow,'' we can see how Leo became a father figure for Josh. Bartlet stepped partly into that role, too, in the airport scene. But even there, Leo was close by Bartlet.

I'm going over some of this old ''WW'' history because it informs what happens Sunday night. It also reminds me that, as hard as ''WW'' has tried to be great again -- and as much as I have liked some the presidential-campaign arc -- it still isn't quite what ''WW'' used to be.

''Shadow'' suffers from excess ambition, from trying to do too many things at once and from what I still consider a continuity flaw (CJ's having worked in Hollywood, when an earlier episode indicated she knew nothing about the entertainment business). It still has moments of real greatness. Sunday's episode also tries to do too much, only its best moments are merely good, not great.

Put it another way: Parts of Sunday's episode stirred me some. Parts of ''Shadow'' tore at my heart, even all these years after I first saw it.

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