After over 2 years of on-and-off viewing, I completed my binge of NBC’s The West Wing just hours ago. It was a ride. Seasons 1-4 some of the finest television I’ve ever seen, the remaining three equally gripping- be it for different reasons. I’d be lying if I said I was sad to be finished; it really did feel like time. In this article, I’m going to briefly discuss some of my favourite and least favourite episodes from the classic show.
In Excelsis Deo (Season 1): Toby is at his best when’s he’s given time in an episode to win the audience over to his side. In this early example of Richard Schiff’s extraordinary acting, WW’s grumpiest character goes on a mission to give a dead homeless man the farewell he deserves. Fate and kindness collide.
Take This Sabbath Day (Season 1): The best exploration of religion on the show, as President Bartlet battles his Catholic demons for the first (but certainly not the last) time. The conclusive conversation between Martin Sheen’s POTUS and his priest is one of the best scripted scenes in the show’s history. The episode also functions as one of the best arguments against the death penalty ever produced in Hollywood.
In This White House (Season 2): The show’s most underrated character, Republican legal prodigy Ainsley Hayes, is introduced in this hilarious Sam-centric episode. Emily Procter’s character sadly didn’t last as long on the show as she deserved to, and this features some of her best work.
Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail (Season 2): Big Block of Cheese Day played an important role in the show’s early seasons, but it was used to the greatest advantage in Emergency…Jail, the best episode Rob Lowe was ever given.
Two Cathedrals (Season 2): Cinematically the finest episode ever of the show, Two Cathedrals is a magnificent 42-minute display of ambition, passion, fury and brilliance (from both President Bartlet and the makers of The West Wing). The death of [spoiler] causes Bartlet to flashback to his teenage years, and the episode concludes with consecutive scenes of perfection: Bartlet’s speech to God in the National Cathedral, and the bombastic pre-press conference montage accompanied by Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms”. Stunning.
Bartlet for America (Season 3): Both the best episode John Spencer’s Leo ever took centre stage in, and one of the best to avail heavily of flashbacks, this episode lays the groundwork for much of the later seasons’ nostalgia, and firmly establishes the Bartlet/McGarry friendship.
Dead Irish Writers (Season 3): The later Roger Rees’ Lord John Marbury and Toby debate the IRA and Sinn Féin, and the writing is magnificent. Meanwhile, Stockard Channing’s Abbie Bartlet gets some proper character development and bonds with Donna.
Posse Comitatus (Season 3): The most success the show ever had at achieving a “proper dramatic TV finale”, this ties together multiple plots and builds to a thrilling and heartbreaking climax.
20 Hours in America: Part 1 and Part 2 (Season 4): Josh, Donna and Toby are left behind in the New Hampshire farmland. Assisted by Amy Adams and John Gallagher Jr they travel home to D.C., but not before we get to witness the most purely delightful and charming 80 minutes the show ever aired. Why can’t Josh, Donna and Toby always be lost in the New Hampshire farmland?
Election Night (Season 4): This could easily have been boring, long and uninteresting (see Season 7’s Election Day) but Aaron Sorkin made it not so! Donna gets a brilliant subplot and Bradley Whitford’s comic timing is displayed in the funniest cold opening in the show’s history.
Holy Night (Season 4): A flashback to Toby’s father’s gangster days to start the episode? So begins the finest of the Christmas episodes.
The Long Goodbye (Season 4): The first episode of the show where the activity in The White House doesn’t really matter. C.J. returns home to visit her Alzheimers-stricken father, and Allison Janney proves herself one of the finest actors of her generation.
The Supremes (Season 5): Abortion, feminism, ageism and the judicial system come under the microscope in the first really well-written post-Sorkin episode.
The Hubbert Peak (Season 6): Josh crashes a monster truck, Charlie graduates and Kristin Chenoweth teaches Toby to be charming. A lot of fun.
King Corn (Season 6): One of the most structurally unique episodes of the show, this sees Matt Santos, Bob Russell and Arnold Vinick travelling around New Hampshire in search of votes. We see the same day played out three times from different perspectives. It’s highly entertaining and insightful.
A Good Day (Season 6): Richard Schiff directs, as we finally see Matt Santos as the brave and honourable statesman Josh knows him to be. The candidate-to-be organises a sneaky congressional sleepover while a child lectures Toby on the voting age. This is the closest the later seasons ever get to the tone of Season 1.
In God We Trust (Season 6): An all-Vinick episode, as Alan Alda’s Republican candidate explores of faith, or lack thereof, with some help from President Bartlet. Never has a fictional Republican been so three-dimensional.
2162 Votes (Season 6): While at times horrible written, this episode is notable for- if nothing else- it’s unique visual style. 2162 Votes is shot like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films, with lens flare and bright white light in every frame. The plot, involving both the Democratic National Convention and Santos’ eventual election as candidate, and a leak in the White House, isn’t half as interesting as what appears on screen.
Internal Displacement (Season 7): Danny Concannon returns, and the great Timothy Busfield finally gets some proper acting to do. This episode, scripted by Bradley Whitford, is one of the final season’s few stand-outs.
Institutional Memory (Season 7): The penultimate episode would have served as a better finale than the actual finale, “Tomorrow”. C.J. ponders her future and visits Toby at home in what turned out to be Richard Schiff’s final scene (he was excluded from the finale for reasons that remain unclear).
Commencement (Season 4): A fairly ordinary episode concludes with a horrifically upsetting 10-minute sequence in which Zoe Bartlet is kidnapped. It takes the show to an unnecessarily dark place, and would’ve been more suited to 24 than The West Wing.
Access (Season 5): A fake documentary episode about “the day in the life of C.J. Cregg”. Incoherent and ugly, this should be destroyed.
Gaza (Season 5): Donna is involved in a terrorist attack, and Admiral Fitzwallace is unjustly killed. Laughably pointless sub-Michael Bay nonsense.
N.S.F. Thurmont (Season 6): The season 6 premiere is not only painfully boring, but is directed in an uncharacteristically harsh manner. If you didn’t find Leo McGarry annoying before…
The Birnam Wood (Season 6): Leo and Bartlet argue about Palestine and Israel, then Leo has a heart attack. John Spencer’s poor acting is on display like never before.
The Debate (Season 7): If this hour-long live debate between Jimmy Smits’ Santos and Alan Alda’s Vinick has been scripted by Aaron Sorkin, maybe it would’ve been gripping, but the writing of The Debate is so mediocre, it simply can’t maintain its stiff self-inflicted parameters.
Tomorrow (Season 7): It’s definitely not a bad episode, and it doesn’t come close to the other 6 episodes I chose in terms of awfulness, but the finale is extremely disappointing. No plot, no humour, no Toby. Josh and Donna get approximately 4 lines each, Sam Seaborn gets 2 and the exchanges between Bartlet and Santos are horrific. Allison Janney escapes with a few solid scenes, but this is otherwise dull.