It’s been ten years since The West Wing finished airing, and its influence remains palpable. A new generation of fans have emerged, thanks to the entire series streaming on Netflix, and its perennial relevance when it comes to tackling important political issues. The Emmy-winning series managed to turn potentially dry subjects—such as racking up votes in Congress, or appointing someone to the Supreme Court—into something as dramatic as anything you’d see from a high flying crime drama or a medical show.
Much of that can be attributed to the success of Aaron Sorkin’s machine gun-paced dialogue, combined with long term Sorkin co-collaborator, Thomas Schlamme’s use of the ‘walk and talk.’ Sitting and talking makes for dull television, but watching suited people walk and talk at breakneck speed? Now there’s an idea that’s both easily lampooned (most famously, when Sorkin guest starred on 30 Rock), and also compelling to watch.
At times, the show seemed like an old fashioned liberal fantasy with occasionally problematic moments (its lack of diversity being most prominent), but its mixture of political duelling, and personal dramas, demonstrate why it continues to inspire a generation of people to become more politically active. Here are our picks for the 20 best The West Wing episodes.
“The Debate” offered up something fairly original for network TV. It featured an hour-long debate between Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick, broadcast live in two separate tapings for East and West Coast audiences. It played out just like a regular Presidential debate, albeit with the negotiated rules dropped early on in the episode. Nearly 10 years old, many of the topics covered are the kind you’ll have seen in recent debates. For better or worse, ts timeliness never fades.
It’s easy to lose focus in any job, and it turns out that it’s no different for the POTUS. A damaging memo has been leaked suggesting that President Bartlet is weaker than he should be, and controlled by the efforts of his Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer). The turning point comes when Leo writes one simple plan for the future—‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet.’ The senior staff are energized once more, and the audience is carried along just as enthusiastically. Raising the level of public debate on an issue, regardless of what political battles may be lost, is just the kind of thing you want to see from the real life leaders.
Season 5 had a rocky time, thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s departure, but there was still room for some iconic moments. “Shutdown” laid out just what happens if bi-partisan cooperation fails while negotiating the federal budget, leading to the government shutdown. President Bartlet staunchly refuses to back down in his aims, still not fully recovered from the shock of his daughter’s kidnapping. Josh returns from being benched to save the day by, essentially, embarrassing the opposition into resolution. It’s a decisive moment for the administration as Bartlet fully regains control, and it’s also an educational hour, as it demonstrates how things unfold (and fail) within the federal government.
The original course of the 7th season had Arnold Vinick winning the Presidency, but this was changed when John Spencer tragically died midway through shooting the season. Deemed to be too bleak to have a Republican victory, as well as the sudden death of a much loved character, the last few episodes of the season focused on Santos’ victory and the staff dealing with the death of Leo. This episode ably captured the bittersweetness of it all. As a viewer, you end up feeling elated for Josh finally winning his campaign, getting together with Donna after seven long years, but also broken by the death of his mentor and father figure, Leo.
The West Wing was always careful to avoid actual political issues, happy to exist in its own parallel universe. But after the events of September 11, that changed for one episode. Aaron Sorkin opted to write an episode about terrorism with the Senior Staff explaining to a group of teenagers the difference between extremism and religious belief. It didn’t tie into the rest of the show’s storyline, working as an one-off play of sorts. While a little overly preachy at times, it was an important message, and its themes continue to be relevant today. Impressively, it was written and produced in less than three weeks.
Aaron Sorkin left the show at the end of Season 4, and he went out with style. “Twenty Five” ended the season with the White House in disarray. The President’s youngest daughter, Zoey, has been abducted. With the Vice President having resigned an episode earlier, the President chooses to step down temporarily, using the 25th Amendment to pass the power along. That leads to the Republican Speaker of the House taking over his duties. Played by John Goodman, Glen Allen Walken sums up the liberal stereotype of a brash Republican, but it leads to an incredibly tense conclusion to the season, and Sorkin’s reign. “You’re relieved, Mr. President” is a near spine-chilling command to hear, as the broken Bartlet steps back.
Demonstrating that the series isn’t always a liberal fantasy, “Posse Comitatus” shows President Bartlet ordering the assassination of the defense minister of the fictional country of Qumar. It’s as controversial as it sounds, leading to some significant repercussions later on. Here, we see the assassination, interspersed with a musical performance of “War of the Roses.” It’s some exceptional cutting work by the crew, reinforcing the view that even the most idealistic of leaders sometimes make unpleasant decisions. To further add to the suffering, CJ’s potential love interest is gunned down while attempting to thwart a robbery. Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” in the background makes it all the more devastating.
What do you do when you’ve ended a season with dubious assassinations and other horrors? Take a break from it all and leave some of the main characters stranded in rural Indiana. The Season 4 opener left Toby, Josh, and Donna stranded by the motorcade, and forced to make their own way home. For the most part, it’s a highly amusing ‘fish out of water’ tale, even if it does end up increasingly outlandish. There’s still time though, for one of President Bartlet’s most memorable speeches as a pipe bomb explodes, killing a group of college students.
There was an abundance of change in Season 6. Donna left the White House to go on the campaign trail with Vice President ‘Bingo’ Bob Russell (played by Gary Cole). Shortly after that, Josh encourages his own candidate in the form of fringe congressman, Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). “King Corn” splits the action between the two Democratic campaigns, along with the Republican frontrunner, Arnold Vinick (played perfectly by Alan Alda). We see a day in the life of the campaign from each perspective, highlighting just how exhausting it all is, as well as throwing in some time for a bittersweet moment between Josh and Donna. It’s a drastic change of pace compared to what we’re used to, but its insight is fascinating.
Combining a humorous side plot with a weightier and more poignant main story was The West Wing’s bread and butter for much of its run. “Take This Sabbath Day” offers one part death penalty discussion, one part absurd hangover story. President Bartlet is conflicted when it comes to deciding whether to set aside the death penalty for a man convicted of drug-related murders, leading to a debate from various different religious sides. Alongside such moral discussion, this episode introduces Joey Lucas, a campaign manager who happens to be deaf, and shows off Bradley Whitford’s admirable comic timing when it comes to playing a severely hungover Josh.
By the closing episode of Season 6, there’s no Presidential nominee at the Democratic National Convention. “2162 Votes” shows how dirty some campaigns get in a bid to win. Even the typically, fairly clean, Josh, shows his dark side, so keen to win that he’s willing to leak news of a rival candidate’s wife’s mental health issues to undermine them. Matt Santos is told to step back in favor of the Vice President, but refuses to, giving a stirring speech (the kind that we’d all love to hear one of our actual leader give). In an election year, this episode is all the more worthwhile, highlighting just how vicious things can get.
Few people participate in heated debates with the President, but that changes in this ‘bottle’ episode. Toby discovers that President Bartlet has been hiding the fact that he has Multiple Sclerosis. It leads to an episode-long argument in the Oval Office as the pair debate over the decision Bartlet made, with seemingly no consideration for the repercussions it has for his staff. To lighten the mood, the others are left to punch up a speech for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Besides being a funny aside, it also offers up one of the more overtly romantic scenes between Josh and Donna (played by Janel Moloney)—further igniting the very slow burn of their almost, but-not-quite romance. There are no sweeping ‘walk and talks,’ but “17 People” doesn’t need it when the storytelling is this good.
Another memorable highlight of Season 5 laid out the process of putting someone on the Supreme Court. And yes, its parallels to Obama’s recent nomination are immediately clear. The West Wing’s Senior Staff has a choice between two extremes, eventually arranging a deal that has them both nominated as a form of compromise. Glenn Close puts in a prototypically great performance as the very liberal federal judge set to be the first female Chief Justice.
Airing right after “Take This Sabbath Day,” “Celestial Navigation” continues to straddle drama with comedy. It’s the kind of episode you could watch without any prior knowledge of the show, and still enjoy what unfolds. While Sam and Toby head to Connecticut to bail out their Supreme Court nominee, Judge Mendoza, who’s been racially profiled and arrested on a false drunk driving charge, CJ suffers from some painful dental issues. Watching Allison Janney lament her ‘woot canaw’ is a joy to see. That delight is further enhanced as we watch Josh struggling to deal with giving a press conference, with some hilarious consequences.
Much of The West Wing’s strength stemmed from its ability to deal with the important issues of the day, while making them personable too. The show’s first season reached its stride in time for Christmas, giving us one of the finest Christmas episodes on TV. In “Excelsis Deo” tackled the problem of homeless war veterans. When Toby Ziegler, the relatively cold Communications Director, finds out about the death of a homeless war vet, he works diligently to give the man a military funeral. It showed us that Toby has more heart than previously shown, while highlighting an important issue in our society. The punches continue to hit hard as press secretary, CJ Cregg (played by Allison Janney), deals with the deadly assault of a homosexual teenager, and whether or not hate crime legislation should be pushed through. The episode won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, with Richard Schiff winning Outstanding Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Toby.
“Bartlet for America” followed a similar trend to the previous Christmas special, focusing on a single character. Leo testifies before a Congressional committee regarding President’s Bartlet’s MS, leading to much of his past being uncovered. We learn more about his alcoholism and how it affected the early days of the campaign, as well as his friendship with the President. Where John Spencer’s performance really shines through is when he describes the process of pouring a glass of scotch and dropping an ice cube in. It’s darkly poetic, and rightly earned him an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
“Noel” is a rare West Wing episode that almost exclusively focuses on one character,
in an attempt to demonstrate how mental scars can be even worse than physical scars. Josh struggles with his return to work after the shooting, and a therapist is called in to investigate. What unfolds is a powerfull deconstruction of the horrors of PTSD. This is a Christmas special with few laughs, but it’s powerfully done and important in breaking down misconceptions about mental health conditions. Bradley Whitford puts in a performance of a lifetime, and went on to win the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor that year.
The first 10 minutes of the Pilot episode are almost exhausting, relentlessly throwing quick dialogue at you. It was necessary, especially with a fairly large cast of relatively unknown actors (at the time) needing to be introduced. The focus initially seemed to be on Rob Lowe’s character, Sam Seaborn, but we soon learn that this is an ensemble piece. Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman’s cocky, yet insecure nature proved to be just as important in the “Pilot,” as Sam’s naïveté when it comes to encountering women at a bar. But it’s the closing minutes that truly lure you in. Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet makes a thunderous entrance stating the First Commandment in a bid to unsettle overly aggressive members of the Christian Right. It’s conducted with power and confidence, ensuring it’s engrained in your memory for a long time to come.
Season 2 started with a bang, literally. The first season ended on the cliffhanger of a shooting at an event, and no sign of who had been shot. We learn quickly that the President was shot but not seriously, while Josh is in a critical condition. This could have been 90 brutal minutes of watching people suffer in a hospital but instead, we’re taken back to the very beginning to see how the Senior Staff all got together. It’s an entertaining mixture of poignancy, tension, and humor—and a strong reminder that this group is essentially a family.
Killing off a beloved recurring character is rarely a popular move with audiences, but that’s what Aaron Sorkin did in 18th and Potomac, killing off President Bartlet’s kindly secretary, Mrs Landingham. “Two Cathedrals” combines President Bartlet’s grief over her loss, with his impending decision on whether or not to run for a second term. With plenty of flashbacks to a young Bartlet and Mrs Landingham, there’s some much-needed insight into just how he came to be the man he is today. Using Dire Straits’s “Brothers in Arms” in conjunction with Bartlet’s arrival at the press conference determining his future is an inspired move, but it’s Martin Sheen’s performance when ranting at God in Latin that really makes this an essential episode to watch.