In The West Wing episode "The Stackhouse Filibuster," CJ asks Sam who his favorite writer is.
"Favorite fiction writer?"
Sam looks at the TV. "You're listening to him right now."
Onscreen, Senator Stackhouse is filibustering, and he's reading Charles Dickens aloud in the U.S. Senate.
I mention this, because I find a lot of Dickens in Aaron Sorkin's writing. He has a way of creating multiple, concurrent story arcs, where each episode stands alone, while also furthering the season-long plot.
"A Tale of Two Cities" does the same thing. It was published in 31 magazine installments. Within each one, there was a fully developed story, sometimes with a horrifying cliffhanger. When reading the complete novel, of course, one need only turn a page (or, on Kindle app, touch the screen), and the cliffhanger is revealed.
"A Tale of Two Cities" uses the French Revolution as its backdrop. The novel is divided into three books. The first describes how Dr Manette, a former Bastille prisoner, is spirited out of France, to be reunited with his daughter, Lucie, in England.
From there, we meet various lawyers and scoundrels, patriots and murderers, gentlemen and rat-eating bastards.
And what glorious names! Dickens always has lovely, evocative names for his characters: Jerry Cruncher, Sydney Carton, and the ever-dependable Mr Lorry.
Lucie marries Charles Darnay, a French expatriate living in London. Turns out, Darnay's family were widely hated French aristocrats, and he cut himself off from them.
Eventually, he is called to go back to France, now embroiled in Revolution, to rescue the man left in charge of his family's estate.
Charles is taken prisoner, and is ultimately acquitted. Then he's arrested anew, and sentenced to die.
In Dickens' portrayal, the Revolutionaries are nearly as cruel as the pre-Revolution aristocracy. He does allow, in one character's imagination, that France becomes safer and saner.
In the end, one character sacrifices himself for another in the name of a higher purpose, a greater love. There is redemption, and the triumph of love and goodness.
Charles Dickens knew how to start and end a story, and "A Tale of Two Cities" is no exception. "It was the best of times, It was the worst of times." Timeless.
To me, "A Tale of Two Cities" was really two tales of two cities. It was a character study and romance set against the stirrings of revolution. Then it erupted into full-blown mayhem. I actually found myself quoting the movie "Bad Boys" when the Revolution commenced: this shit just got real.
It took me awhile to become absorbed in "A Tale of Two Cities." Once I did, my obsession to finish was as powerfully inevitable as the Revolution itself.