How The West Wing’s difficult assassination attempt episodes were accomplished

How The West Wing’s difficult assassination attempt episodes were accomplished

In the world of television, few series have managed to capture the political zeitgeist quite like “The West Wing.” The show’s two-part Season 2 premiere, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen,” stands as a testament to its ability to blend drama with real-world issues. These episodes, which revolve around an assassination attempt, were not only pivotal for the series but also a masterclass in storytelling and production.

The groundwork for these intense episodes was laid in the Season 1 finale, “What Kind of Day Has It Been.” This cliffhanger left fans, affectionately known as Wingnuts, in a state of suspense. The finale’s chaotic ending, with gunfire erupting and key characters in peril, set the stage for a summer of speculation. Who was the target? Was it President Bartlet, his daughter Zoey, or her boyfriend Charlie? The uncertainty kept viewers glued to their VCRs, analyzing every frame like the Zapruder film.

Thomas Schlamme, the executive producer and director of these episodes, played a crucial role in bringing this vision to life. His direction earned him an Emmy, and the show itself won the award for Outstanding Drama Series. However, the process was far from straightforward. Schlamme and series creator Aaron Sorkin had to navigate the complexities of shooting scenes months apart, ensuring continuity and maintaining the high stakes of the narrative.

When filming the Season 1 finale, Schlamme and his crew captured fragments of footage at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum. These snippets would later be woven into the Season 2 premiere, creating a seamless transition between the two seasons. This approach required meticulous planning and a deep understanding of the story’s emotional beats.

The timing of these episodes’ release added another layer of complexity. Premiering in September 2000, they came on the heels of the Columbine High School massacre and just before a contentious U.S. presidential election. The episodes were not eligible for Emmy consideration until 2001, and the awards ceremony itself was delayed due to the September 11 terrorist attacks. This context imbued the episodes with a sense of urgency and relevance that resonated deeply with viewers.

Schlamme recalls that the decision to include an assassination attempt was not initially about targeting the president. Instead, it stemmed from the backlash the show received after depicting an interracial kiss between Charlie and Zoey. This controversy led to the idea of Charlie being the intended target, highlighting the show’s willingness to tackle difficult social issues head-on.

The execution of these episodes required a delicate balance of drama and realism. Schlamme and his team had to recreate the chaotic scene of the shooting, matching the footage shot months earlier. This involved securing the Newseum location again and working under tight time constraints. The result was a gripping portrayal of the immediate aftermath of the attack, with characters like Josh Lyman and President Bartlet themselves being shot.

One of the most powerful moments in the premiere is a press briefing by C.J. Cregg, played by Allison Janney. In her speech, she addresses the broader issue of gun violence, a poignant reminder of the show’s ability to weave political commentary into its narrative. This scene, like many others in “The West Wing,” was not about making a political statement but about reflecting the reality of the world the characters inhabited.

The emotional weight of the episodes is further amplified by the performances of the cast. Dulé Hill, who plays Charlie, delivers a stunningly nuanced performance when he learns he was the intended target. His reaction, conveyed through a few simple “OKs,” captures the shock and complexity of the moment.

Another layer of intrigue is added by the revelation of President Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis, a secret shared by the First Lady with his anesthesiologist. This subplot underscores the show’s ability to blend personal and political drama, creating a rich tapestry of storytelling.

The production challenges of these episodes were immense. Schlamme recounts how they had to resort to guerrilla filmmaking techniques to complete the shoot, working with a skeleton crew and limited resources. Despite these hurdles, the final product is a testament to the dedication and skill of everyone involved.

“The West Wing” has always been more than just a TV show. It offered a vision of what government could be, a narrative of hope and idealism. In times of political turmoil, it provided a comforting escape, a reminder that leadership could be principled and compassionate.

The legacy of “The West Wing” endures, with new generations discovering its timeless appeal. The show’s ability to tackle complex issues with grace and intelligence continues to resonate, making it a touchstone for political drama. The difficult assassination attempt episodes are a shining example of the show’s brilliance, a masterclass in storytelling that remains relevant today.

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