June 16, 2015
The West Wing: "In Excelsis Deo"
‘It was such a powerful and moving story,’ Richard Schiff noted. ‘After every take, I broke down and cried.’(1)
“In Excelsis Deo” is the best episode of The West Wing’s first season. It does everything that the series has been doing so far, only it does it better and with such surgical precision that it rises head and shoulders above what’s been aired before. From hereon in, this is the new standard for excellence in the series. It juggles numerous storylines, but it also juggles comedy and drama. It provokes genuine laughs, and follows them up with poignant and serious moments. It fools around with the audience in a light-hearted manner – this is the Christmas episode after all – and then spontaneously punctures that light-heartedness with something heartbreaking.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the middle of the episode: Bartlet is fooling around with a group of third-grade schoolchildren when he momentarily called away by Charlie. Someone has died, tragically and horribly. Not only does the scene give us time to soak in the full human drama of the tragedy, but it then guides us back with Bartlet to the children where he begins his clowning act again. The start and the end of the scene are the same: Bartlet acts the fool, the children are delighted and we – the audience – are left with the knowledge that it’s only a mask, and we’re as weighed down with sadness as Bartlet is.
The episode’s origins lie with writer Rick Cleveland, who joined the writing team of The West Wing to generate plots and ideas that Aaron Sorkin could use when scripting the series. Like many members of the writing staff Cleveland was hoping to also get his own scripts on the air, and so developed a script titled (in different drafts) “A White House Christmas” and “Bellwether”. While the primary plot of the episode was rejected (it was based around Abbey Bartlet’s pet cat), a subplot involving Toby’s attempts to have a homeless Korean War veteran buried at Arlington National Cemetary caught Sorkin’s attention. Together with Cleveland he drew the subplot out into the primary storyline of “In Excelsis Deo”.
The idea of Walter Hufnagel, the Korean War veteran who dies from the cold in a Washington park, came from Rick Cleveland’s own life. His father was a veteran of the Korean War, and suffered badly from alcohol addiction. When his father died, Cleveland had not seen him in a decade. The storyline was first scripted for Sam Seaborn, but it was felt the episode would be stronger if it was Toby who received the call from the D.C. police.
‘It was written by someone who hadn’t written for the show before,’ Richard Schiff said, ‘and when I saw the script I was really angry, then I emotionally lost it. I cried. In it Toby became reluctantly involved in the man’s death. It was insulting. I thought if this is what America thinks my character is all about, then I haven’t been doing the job I set out to do. I went to Aaron and Tommy and they said not to worry, that we’d work it out. We worked around the clock and rewrote it.’(2)
The episode defines Toby's character, particularly when he attempts to explain how his Washington connections can assist in arranging Hufnagel's funeral. Never has somebody ever been so uncomfortable saying out loud 'I'm a powerful person'.
Speaking about the episode in 2007, Schiff recalled ‘there’s something that I did with that line, I found myself utterly embarrassed to be saying it out loud. I realised it was a defining moment. I realised, wow this is who this guy is. He is someone who, when he has to say the words “Listen, I’m powerful”, is embarrassed. So I remember that moment because it set my direction for the next six years.’(3)
It’s a very accurate assessment: “In Excelsis Deo” is, more than any other character, Toby’s episode, and it manages to truly cement the character down. He’s irascible, hugely intelligent, pessimistic, highly strung and combative. At the same time he is paradoxically embarrassed by the very power his vast skills and knowledge have earned him. It’s a contrast that gives Toby a lot of depth, and makes him far and away one of the most rewarding characters in the series to watch.
The episode develops back-story and character for Mrs Landingham as well. Until this point she’s been an entertaining but comparatively insignificant character. Her brief monologue to Charlie about the death of her twin sons in the Vietnam War transforms her – both as a character in isolation, and as a significant supporting figure in the series. This significant is increased in future episodes – particularly the second season’s “18th and Potomac” and “Two Cathedrals”.
The Pentagon gave the production their full support for this episode, not only allowing The West Wing to shoot at Arlington National Cemetery but also providing a genuine honour guard of Marines for the funeral scene. John Wells said: ‘They gave us the Arlington location and the Marines and set up the whole funeral for us because they had read Aaron's script and felt very touched by it and wanted to help in any way they could.’(4)
In the original script, President Bartlet was going to join Toby and Mrs Landingham at Hufnagle’s funeral. This was changed during production because, in Sheen’s own words, ‘it took away the power of Mrs Landingham and Ziegler, who were deeply affected by the incident: a woman who had lost two sons and a man who gave the guy clothes to keep warm. Had the President been there, it would have taken away the poignancy of the scene.’(5)
Alex Graves made a change during editing to cut back and forth between the funeral and the choir singing “Little Drummer Boy” back in the White House. These were originally two separate scenes. In combination, however, it generates the emotive climax of the episode.
The other main storyline of the episode is that of teenager Lowell Lydell, a young gay man bashed to death by a gang of 13 year-old boys. The storyline was directly inspired by the death of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year-old student at the University of Wyoming who was tortured and murdered by two men in October 1998. During the murder trial, witnesses stated Shepard had been targeted because of his homosexuality. The murder and subsequent trial sparked fresh debate regarding ‘hate crime’ legislation that would provide specific penalties for crimes committed for animus towards specific classes of people. In a fashion already seen in “Mr Willis of Ohio”, The West Wing took an important social issue, fictionalised it, and then debated it between the characters on national television.
Allison Janney later said: ‘It touched me emotionally on so many different levels because of the horrendous, horrible thing that happened – the actual act of what happened.’ (6)
Some months after the broadcast, “In Excelsis Deo” was awarded the Emmy for Best Writing in a Drama Series. At the ceremony, while both Sorkin and Cleveland took to the podium to accept the prize, only Sorkin spoke. Cleveland was ushered off the stage without being able to say a word. It was the sort of thing that happens on awards shows all the time – winners only get so many seconds to speak, after all – but Cleveland had personally requested to Sorkin via e-mail that he be given the opportunity to dedicate the win to his father. Sorkin’s slight, intentional or otherwise, sparked media interest in the writing practices of The West Wing.
The series was being written unlike any other drama series. In a typical drama production a room full of writers would write the scripts in turn: breaking the story beats out together, and then going away to write their individually assigned teleplays. In the case of The West Wing the writer’s room was existing purely to supply Aaron Sorkin with plots and concepts – in the first four years of production, only three out of ninety episodes were written without his direct involvement. On the Mighty Big TV web forum, Sorkin wrote: ‘I write the scripts with the enormous help of a staff that provides research and kicks ideas around with me as well. It's like a new play being written every week. They work really hard and do a great job and they're all going to write their own scripts one day, so by way of a gratuity, I give them each a Story by credit on a rotating basis. That credit comes with money.’(7)
Regarding the specific circumstances of “In Excelsis Deo”, Sorkin added: ‘In the first season, I was doing both The West Wing and Sports Night at the same time and I wanted to try seeing if The West Wing could run like a normal TV show. I gave a staffer named Rick Cleveland a script assignment. He wrote a script called “A White House Christmas” wherein the First Lady’s cat trips a Secret Service alarm. I can't recall much else except mention was made of a business card found in an old coat of Toby’s that he’d donated to Good Will. I threw out Rick’s script and wrote “In Excelcis Deo”. Because Rick had worked for months on his, I gave him, rather than a Story by credit, a co-written by credit and put his name ahead of mine. For my script, he received a Humanitas nomination, an Emmy Award and a Writers’ Guild Award. Every Emmy nominee gets a letter from Don Mischer, the producer of the telecast, very clearly saying that only one person is allowed to speak when accepting. After that person is done, the orchestra will play you off. Rick could’ve done the St. Crispin's Day speech that night for I cared. It wasn't my call.’(8)
Two weeks later Rick Cleveland fired off a response on the same web forum: ‘The "A" story is mine – not just the idea – all the way down to the name of the homeless Korean War veteran, Walter Huffnagel. Even Toby’s visit to his brother, although I didn't make him retarded – Aaron did. Other stuff is also mine – the new millennium stuff in the teaser, as well as the stuff about CJ’s secret service nickname – which was my wife’s idea, yes. Aaron’s a great writer, and he did a great job rewriting the script – but he didn’t write it alone. And he didn't “give” me a Written by credit – and what galled me on Emmy night wasn't that he didn't let me speak – it was that he ignored me completely. For the record, the writing credit on the script was indeed arbitrated by the WGA – they decided my work warranted a Co-Writer credit on the teleplay. Also, for the record, every script written the show’s first year by staff members was automatically submitted for arbitration – at the request of John Wells – as a measure of protection for us – to keep Aaron from poaching or cannibalizing scripts to the point where he wouldn’t have to give credit where credit was/is due.’(9)
Two days later Aaron posted an apology to Cleveland, which was quickly accepted. Shortly afterwards, both men were talking about the online spat to the media. ‘I reacted too quickly,’ Sorkin told the Washington Post, ‘I was simply responding to this person, not thinking that there were more than a dozen people in the room.’(10)
‘He said awful things about me,’ Cleveland told TV Guide, ‘I was deeply hurt. Deeply. Here is a guy with $15 million and I am a guy with zero million.’(11)
In the same article, Sorkin admitted ‘I realise that doesn’t matter how angry I am about all this; I made a guy I like feel very bad. I’d gone below the belt in assessing his work. So I thought if I post an apology maybe he will see it.’(12)
After leaving The West Wing at the conclusion of the first season, Cleveland moved on to write and produce for Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Nurse Jackie. He was one of the four writers credited with the screenplay to the 2003 legal thriller Runaway Jury.
“In Excelsis Deo” was the first episode of The West Wing to be directed by Alex Graves. Graves made his directorial debut on the independent feature film The Crude Oasis (1995), which he also wrote. He had directed for the television series L.A. Doctors, The Practice and Ally McBeal by the time he was hired to direct for Sports Night. Both Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme were quick to hire Graves for The West Wing.
Alex Graves ultimately directed 34 episodes of the series, making him one of its most prolific directors. He was – like Schlamme and Christopher Misiano – instrumental in pushing the visual aesthetic of the series further and further towards the kind of expansive photography and rich texture of motion pictures. “In Excelsis Deo”, with its strong editing and climactic funeral montage, was an important step in that process. From the beginning of Season 3 Graves acted as a producer on the series. He was promoted midway through the season to supervising producer, and then at the beginning of Season 4 to co-executive producer. At the beginning of Season 6 he was promoted to full executive producer, a position he held until leaving the series with “Election Day”. He has subsequently directed for Journeyman, The Nine, Fringe, The Newsroom and Game of Thrones.
If you want to read more, all West Wing posts have been indexed here.
1. Mike Colman, “Hanging up on Toby”, Courier-Mail, 23 August 2006.
2. Interviewed in London Theatre Guide, 10 February 2007.
3. John Allemang, “The money is the message”, The Globe and Mail, 22 January 2000.
4. Michele Sponagle, “The West point”, The Globe and Mail, 11 March 2000
5. Greg Heffernan, “Martin Sheen: Catholic President on Prime Time”, St Anthony Messenger, May 2000
6. Paris Barclay, “A Woman of Influence”, The Advocate, 13 February 2001.
7. Aaron Sorkin, posting at mightybigtv.com, 26 June 2001.
8. Sorkin, 2001.
9. Rick Cleveland, posting at mightybigtv.com, 6 July 2001.
10. Sharon Waxman, “Will West Wing Go Up in Smoke?”, Washington Post, 20 July 2001.
11. Mary Murphy, “State of Disunion”, TV Guide, 11 August 2001.
12. Murphy, 2001.