The top 10 episodes of The West Wing

The West Wing

By Simon Miraudo
May 21, 2014

Fifteen years ago, The West Wing debuted to an unsuspecting audience, and, along with fellow Class-of-99’er The Sopranos, totally upended the televisual landscape, kicking off the argument that TV might actually be better than the movies. A smart, stirring and super-funny series concerning fictional President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his idealistic, ‘sausage-making’ staff, it went on to win 26 Emmys, four record-equalling Outstanding Drama Series gongs among them.

What made it special? Well, head writer Aaron Sorkin, flatly, has never had better mouthpieces for his snappy dialogue than Sheen, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, and Stockard Channing, not to mention the rest who made up his gargantuanly-talented ensemble (also occasionally including Mary Louise Parker, Ron Silver, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and John Amos, to criminally name only a few).

Each episode offered the rare sight of intelligent characters from each side of the political spectrum examining big ideas and important issues from every possible angle with respect, thoughtfulness, humour, passion, and genuine insight. In Australia today, it’s a reliable panacea for those stuck in a post-spill, post-election, post-budget stupor. The West Wing also provided us with one of the best ever (fake) politicians in Sheen’s President Bartlet. Watching him wrestle with the ills of the world, the difficulties of democracy, and the finer points of turkey basting for seven seasons was truly one of television’s finest pleasures.

Though few are likely unfamiliar with the show, many may have avoided it, expecting it to be leftist propaganda at best, and jingoistic claptrap at worst. Sorkin can be guilty of revelling in both. And yet, for all of its flights of (Middle Eastern conflict-curing) fancy, The West Wing was indeed based in reality, always frank about the wheel-spinning frustration that comes with bureaucracy. In those struggles, however, is when it was most inspiring. The West Wing jerked tears and swelled hearts not when it pontificated, but when its characters grimly acknowledged the road blocks and forged ahead regardless.

To celebrate The West Wing‘s arrival on Quickflix streaming, I’ve selected my 10 favourite episodes (with 10 almost-as-good runners up). Mild spoilers ahead.

Honourable mentions:

20. Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail (Season 2, Episode 16)
19. Election Day (Season 7, Episode 16/17)
18. What Kind of Day Has It Been (Season 1, Episode 22)
17. Posse Comitatus (Season 3, Episode 22)
16. Noël (Season 2, Episode 10)
15. Night Five (Season 3, Episode 14)
14. Five Votes Down (Season 1, Episode 4)
13. 17 People (Season 2, Episode 18)
12. In The Shadow of Two Gunmen (Season 2, Episode 1/2)
11. The Stackhouse Filibuster (Season 2, Episode 17)

10. Two Cathedrals (Season 2, Episode 22)

A bit of a bummer to begin with. The mood among staffers may be especially dour – certainly not their usual screwball-self – however Two Cathedrals earns its place here on account of two spine-tingling sequences for the hall-of-fame: President Bartlet cursing God from within the Washington National Cathedral over the untimely death of a close friend and confidant, and his ultimate, rain-soaked decision to seek re-election despite the recent, public revelation of his long-hidden multiple sclerosis.

9. The Debate (Season 7, Episode 7)

Showrunner John Wells had a hell of a time recalibrating the show following the Season 4 exit of former partners Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme. He found his footing with the Presidential race between centrist Republican Arnold Vinick (Alda) and the Obama-inspired Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). In this audacious live episode, they go head to head in a debate where the rules are – quite literally – thrown away. No political contest has ever had as appealing combatants as Vinick and Santos, and seeing Alda and Smits attempt this high-wire act made for electrifying television. (For those who feel the show lost some intangible magic with Sorkin, you need only look to his own attempted ‘debate do-over’ in The Newsroom to see his soap-boxing flounder spectacularly.)

8. Shutdown (Season 5, Episode 8)

Five may be considered by many the season worth skipping, though doing so would mean passing by the compelling Shutdown, when Jed stands tough against the Republicans’ proposed budget and memorably marches to Capitol Hill (and then back to the White House) in a brilliant PR stroke. Ten years – save one month – after the date this episode first aired, the American government similarly closed its doors following a tense standoff between President Obama and the Republican Speaker of the House. In that event’s shadow, Shutdown makes for especially fascinating viewing.

7. In Excelsis Deo (Season 1, Episode 10)

An episode that earned writers Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland individual Emmys – and incited an online feud between the two over who really deserved credit – it sees Richard Schiff‘s hangdog communications director Toby Ziegler arrange a military funeral for a homeless Korean War veteran. Schiff would have many other showcase episodes – some even on this list – but few saw him as tender or as compassionate.

6. The U.S. Poet Laureate (Season 3, Episode 17)

There’s a lot to pick from here. Jed slyly dissing his dimmer Presidential competitor by describing him as having “a .22 caliber mind in a .357 magnum world.” Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Whitford) falling down the rabbit hole of his own fansite while assistant Donna (Janel Moloney), ever the voice of reason, warns him to no avail. And then: Laura Dern! Just honest-to-goodness West Wing doing what it does.

5. Celestial Navigation (Season 1, Episode 15)

Same goes for Celestial Navigation: simply good watching. One of the funniest hours the show’s ever produced, it concerns “the news cycle that wouldn’t end”, caused by press secretary C.J. Cregg’s (Janney) unfortunate trip to the dentist and Josh’s disastrous attempt at addressing the press pack in her absence.

4. Game On (Season 4, Episode 6)

The delights to be found in this episode are plentiful, chief among them, Abigail Bartlet (Channing) gleefully cutting Jed’s lucky tie mere seconds before he’s set to go on the air and debate Republican Presidential hopeful Robert Ritchie (James Brolin). We also get to see Jed plunge a stake into the heart of his dumbed-down alter ego “Uncle Fluffy” and demolish his opponent while Hal Holbrook‘s eccentric Albie Duncan spins for him behind the scenes. Plus, the introduction of Josh Malina‘s speech-genius Will Bailey, running a successful campaign for a dead man, and the beginning of Sam Seaborn’s – and Lowe’s – eventual exit to the fabled realm of Orange County.

3. Commencement /  Twenty Five (Season 4, Episode 22/23)

Sorkin and co-executive producer/tone-setting director Thomas Schlamme jumped ship at the conclusion of the fourth season, blowing up the show in the process and leaving the remaining, frayed threads in the hands of last-showrunner-standing John Wells. The result: a two-part episode that would rival any season of Scandal for sheer number of bombshells dropped. The chickens finally come home to roost for Jed and his Chief of Staff Leo (Spencer) over their morally/legally questionable killing of a foreign leader (secretly actioned in the season three finale), while Josh seeks a replacement for the disgraced Vice President, Toby welcomes his two kids to the world, and the President’s personal aide Charlie (Dulé Hill) plots to win Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss, pre-Mad Men!) back. Just when you thought there’d be no major plot lines left to explore, a disastrous event (executed with fantastic, nausea-inducing flourish) causes a grief-stricken Jed to step down as President. Over to you, Wells!

2. Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1)

Few pilots are as good as The West Wing‘s (Twin Peaks and Friday Night Lights definitely; The Sopranos and Lost maybe; The Good Wife and Buffy, not even) which deftly introduces its massive cast and their individual, personal peculiarities. The payoff comes at the end, when POTUS makes his first on-screen appearance, recovering from an embarrassing bicycling accident by demolishing a religious lobby and telling them to get their “fat asses” out of his White House. Sheen was originally only signed to appear in four episodes of the first season, intended to be a background character compared to the rest of his underlings as the series wore on. His magnificent debut here guaranteed he would appear in 150 episodes more.

1. Let Bartlet Be Bartlet (Season 1, Episode 19)

The dispirited troops spin their wheels in a series of fruitless meetings over the course of one soul-crushing day, until Leo – often blamed for driving Bartlet back to the middle of the road – confronts the President about his lack of ambition. Their climactic showdown – and the build up to the ‘Let Bartlet Be Bartlet’ rallying cry – is the best scene this show’s ever done. Other episodes may have been better from top to bottom – and also better displays of the program’s incisive wit – but nothing is bests the final ten minutes of Let Bartlet Be Bartlet. If you’ve made it this far into the show and still aren’t hooked, then you just aren’t living, friend.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

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