OK so as we all know, The West Wing is one of the best TV shows ever made. It was clever and funny and hopeful about the nature of humanity. My Dad says that watching West Wing is like a shower for the mind; you come away feeling all clean and fresh.
It was also very creative in it’s direction and storytelling. Their ‘walk and talk’ scenes are famous, as is the fast-rhythm of the dialogue that often is only a couple of syllables away from being actually poetry.
Today I want to do a post dedicated to one of the West Wing’s less talked about storytelling flourishes; I call the technique ‘The Final Note.’
Most West Wing episodes ended like many other TV shows, with a poignant scene, a slow fade to black with some gentle music tinkling in the background. But in some episodes, often when there is a discord or an uneasy ending, the audio noises of the scene would linger on just a second or two after the scene faded to black. It often gave a chilling disquiet to the close of the episode that at times literally gave me shivers.
Here are the five best examples I could find….
1. The State Dinner, Season 1 – ‘Hold On’
I think this is the first time they use the Final Note technique in the show. A hurricane that was heading to Florida suddenly changes path and heads back out to sea. Relief is short lived as President Bartlet is informed that the hurricane is now bearing down upon a fleet of Navy ships.
With no other way of helping or supporting the ships, a radio link is set up between the White House and a single ship in the fleet. President Bartlet speaks to the only person available, a young officer who reports that the engine room is on fire, that he is on own. His speech is disjointed and confused. We learn that he has hit his head.
The shot slowly zooms in from a wide group shot to take us closer and closer to the President as he says to the boy, ‘listen, I’m going to stay right here until the radio cuts out…’
The screen fades to black and just before the credits roll, President Bartlet says:
2. What Kind of Day it has Been, Season 1 – ‘Who’s Been Hit?’
The famous shooting scene at the end of the season one finale was a dramatic change in tone and action for the series. We are used to the tension in West Wing to be played out in dialogue and uncomfortable meetings, but in the last two minutes of What Kind of Day it has Been our beloved characters come under a very real danger as teenage terrorists begin shooting into the crowd as the President walks the rope line.
We see and hear chaos unfolds, car windows smash, secret service agents man handle the President, guns are blasting. In the midst of the noise we can hear the secret service agents shouting down radios to one another. As the screen fades to black we hear one of them yell down the line:
‘Who’s been hit? Who’s been hit?’
Our thoughts exactly but we have to wait until Season 2 episode 1 to find out.
3. The Portland Trip, Season 2 – Coming in to land
A change of pace for this final note. In The Portland Trip President Bartlet, Sam, Toby, Charlie and CJ are on a late night flight. Whilst they are up in the air the President is inspired to try some zero-gravity thinking, and Sam is on the same page.
The script says explains it better than I can:
President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet: A long flight across the night. You know why late flights are good? Because we cease to be earthbound and burdened with practicality. Ask the impertinent question. Talk about the idea that nobody has thought about yet. Put it a different way…
Sam Seaborn: Be poets.
Education is the main theme of the night, and they latch on to the idea of sending 10,000 teachers to college on scholarships. The idea is fantastic except, as Toby points out, they have no money to fund it. The whole episode is about the tension between the big ideas and the practicality of life. As the episode is coming to a close, the staff have to put away the big idea for something more reachable…a pilot programme for 100 teachers. It’s a start but you feel that our dreamers wanted much more, they lean back in their seats, the screen fades to black and we hear the plane come into land just to reinforce that idea of coming back down to earth.
4. Noel, Season 2 – Sirens
I really hope as I write this that there aren’t any West Wing newbies reading this because the last thing I want to do is to spoil the episodes for you, especially this one. Noel is one of those episodes that comes back to you when you let your mind wander. Josh is struggling with the impact the shooting has had on him and is set down in a meeting with a trauma specialist who asks him to recall the events of the past couple of weeks.
By the end of the episode…and please stop reading now if you haven’t watched it….Josh realizes that the sound of music is triggering panic attacks where he relives the night he was shot. The reason? In his mind whenever Josh hears music it reminds him of police sirens.
After the meeting Donna takes Josh to hospital to fix up his hand. As they walk out of the White House they pass by some carolers at the gates. They stop to listen for a moment before walking on.
The carolers sing on as our screen fades to black and then when all is dark the singing gradually melts into the wailing sirens and we hear the same thing that Josh has been hearing all along.
5. 17 People, Season 2 – Da-Thump,
Even though Noel gives me shivers, I actually think the West Wing’s best use of the Final Note is in 17 people. The episode begins with a montage of Toby thinking through a puzzle over the course of a few days. He spends a lot of his thinking time in his office bouncing a ball repeatedly against a wall….da-thump, da-thump, da-thump.
Eventually he solves his puzzle and asks Leo why it is that the Vice-President believes the President Bartlet isn’t going to run again. Seeing that the truth will have to come out, Leo sits Toby and President Bartlet in the oval office and the President reveals that he has MS.
They have a heated and tense conversation throughout the evening, whilst in the other room Josh, Sam, Donna and Ainsley are working on jokes for the Correspondence Dinner. Oblivious to the meeting in the Oval Office they are teasing one another and laughing and generally having a good night.
At the end of the episode Toby weighed down with thoughts of a difficult future ahead and disillusioned with his President, enters the joke-writing room. The others are bubbling over with lines they want to run past him. Someone throws him his ball as he sits heavily in a chair. The camera pulls close to him, we can hear the laughing noise of the staff but Toby’s face has the same seriousness it did at the start of the episode. The screen fades to black and talking fades away too, but just before the credits roll we hear the ‘da-thump’ of the ball. Letting us know that Toby has more long nights of thinking ahead of him.