We all have shows that we miss and recall fondly, but the ones we miss most ferociously tend to be the gone-too-soon, under-appreciated jewels that inspire petitions and campaigns. We miss these shows because they still had more to offer. The West Wing doesn’t fit that category. It had a long, popular run, told the stories it needed to tell, and finished when it should have, yet it’s still the show I miss more than any of those premature demises because there is nothing remotely like it on TV now and probably won’t be again.
At times comedic, at other times harrowingly serious, The West Wing was a literate celebration of political idealism, made exceptional by its embrace of complexity, optimism, and passion. It was smart and quick and expected the audience to keep up, never apologized for taking itself seriously, and showed that feeling strongly and caring deeply are the most admirable of qualities.
With a supremely talented cast, coupled with consistently beautiful, memorable writing, The West Wing truly earned all the accolades it received during its seven-season run. So, let’s delve into the five episodes that best demonstrate its superior qualities, along with the one episode we’ll all pretend never happened.
5. “Dead Irish Writers” – Season 3
It’s Mrs. Bartlet’s birthday, but with her hearing in front of the ethics committee looming, she doesn’t feel much like a party. Oops, too late. A grand soiree has already been planned.
This is among the show’s more frivolous episodes, if an episode of The West Wing can be frivolous, in that the best moments are made so not by being emotionally striking but by being good old-fashioned, banter-filled fun. And nothing says good old-fashioned fun more than my favorite recurring character, the consistently and philosophically drunk British Ambassador Lord John Marbury, who would never miss a party, a chance to refer to Leo as Gerald, or an opportunity to tell Mrs. Bartlet how magnificent her breasts look. He’s just the best.
But what’s really the best, and what makes this episode my go-to re-watching choice, is the sublime scene in which Mrs. Bartlet invites the women of the show to escape the party and go get boozy with her. It’s naughtily charming, referring to various men as various jackasses, and ultimately honest as Donna makes Mrs. Bartlet see that she broke the law and should accept the consequences. The scene is so good that I’ll even forgive the episode’s strange ending with everyone singing “O Canada.” The rest is too exceptional for that to matter.
4. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” – Season 1
The administration hasn’t been having a good run lately. Poll numbers are down, an embarrassing memo from nauseating Mandy leaks, and the president begins an indoor speech with “As I look out over this magnificent vista.”
Trying to govern is an exercise in frustration. Among a number of roadblocks, the team struggles to make any progress on gay inclusion in the military because they encounter a military leadership that refuses to budge on its backward thinking (What? That would never happen), provoking a passionate speech from Sam detailing the realities of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
The Bartlet White House is uninspired and defeated, but in one of the show’s great rousing scenes, and an iconic moment for the then-young series, the president and Leo wrench themselves out of their funk. They resolve to stop running to the inoffensive middle, to let the president do what he came to do, even if it might be unpopular. “This is more important than reelection,” he repeats. “I want to speak now.” Leo scribbles down a simple motto, “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” and the members of the senior staff proudly iterate that they serve at the pleasure of the President. And the music swells . . .
3. “Game On” – Season 4
While The West Wing is consistently idealistic, depicting the people involved in the political process the way we wish they would behave, the show occasionally ventures past idealism into full-out cathartic fantasy. Such is the case during the debate between President Bartlet and his opponent, the folksy, under-qualified Governor Richie of Florida, during which Bartlet uses his superior eloquence, intellect, and understanding of the issues to verbally pounce on the hapless governor and reveal him for the disengaged lightweight he is.
Of course, we know what would actually happen if one candidate corrected the vocabulary of another candidate in a presidential debate, but that’s what makes this episode such a comforting release. It’s dream politics in which people laud the president for being the smartest kid in the class and out-arguing an unbearable oaf.
In West Wing world, hearing leaders speak is something to be excited about, and that sense of kinetic anticipation brews throughout the episode, culminating in a gleeful moment in which the first lady impishly cuts off the president’s tie right before he goes on stage in an effort to inject some energy into the proceedings. I’m thrilled just thinking about it. This might be how other people feel about the Super Bowl.
2. “Noël” – Season 2
Particularly at this time of year, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge The West Wing’s consistently excellent Christmas episodes. All are respectable choices, but I specifically nominate the second season’s offering about Josh and the post-traumatic stress he suffers in the aftermath of the first season’s shooting.
Told to speak with therapists after he punches out a window and cuts his hand, Josh discovers his recent traumatic episodes have been triggered by music: his mind associates the music with sirens from the shooting. The episode is a psychologically affecting exploration of one of the show’s most interesting characters, made excellent by the final scenes, both hopeful and poignant.
In the lobby after his session, Josh meets Leo who, in my favorite Leo moment of the series, affirms his support for Josh by telling the parable of the man falling in the hole. “I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.” But as Donna walks Josh out of the White House past a group of carolers, Josh is rattled by the music, and the episode concludes with an elegantly disquieting moment in which the sound of sirens is overlaid on the “Ding, dong, ding, dong” from “Carol of the Bells,” which is now all I think whenever I hear that song. Thanks, Josh.
Next page! The very best and the very worst of The West Wing
1. “Two Cathedrals” – Season 2
Convinced that it’s the show’s duty to make all our lives miserable, The West Wing took Mrs. Landingham from us at the end of the second season, and the pain of her death is the backdrop for the second season finale, a convergence of cares both recent and long-endured.
The secret of the president’s multiple sclerosis is finally revealed to the public, and he must endure the fallout and decide whether he is going to seek reelection in spite of it, all while attending Mrs. Landingham’s funeral and attempting to manage his grief over her.
In a show famous for its speeches, this episode delivers the greatest of them all as President Bartlet stands alone in the National Cathedral, screaming at and questioning God in the face of this tragedy in a stirring monologue with tremendous visual and historical scope. He is framed in a cathedral and invoking Latin, passionately expressing an argument made and sentiment felt over millennia.
Yet for all the show’s speeches, it is the perhaps surprising lack of words that gives this episode its critical final moment. At a press conference during which he’ll announce his decision about a second term, the president simply slips his hand into his pocket, turns his head, and smiles. It’s an act at that point so meaningful that it supersedes the need for speaking. He’ll seek reelection, and we’ll remember that image better than any of the words.
“Access” – Season 5
What’s that you say? An entire episode centered around the most indisputably wonderful West Wing character, C.J. Cregg? How exciting! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, everything. Literally everything. Nothing exemplifies the show’s swift descent toward rock bottom in the post-Sorkin seasons like this unbearably boring, off-format documentary in which a film crew follows C.J. around to discover the inside world of the White House press office. “Access” is so strange, so tonally skewed, so aggressively unappealing that it surpasses language. Its quality can only truly be expressed by the word QRF@%FS7&CAT, which also happens to be an adequate summary of the plot.
The passive documentary format, including nearly laughable narration, lacks the drama and compelling storytelling of a traditional installment, but the episode’s worst error is its faulty use of the cast. C.J. is turned from the beacon of brassy, witty confidence she had been for four years into a fragile, disconnected, abrasive husk bearing little resemblance to her actual character. Perhaps appropriately, instead of the usual cast, this new C.J. is surrounded by a similarly unfamiliar cavalcade of useless wretches who apparently work with her but had never appeared before. Nothing in this episode is recognizable or true to the show, which makes it easy to classify as a different program altogether, and that’s just what I intend to do.
Now have your say in the comments. Admittedly, there are twenty other episodes that could easily populate the best list, so which of my omissions are the most upsetting?
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