The 10 Definitive Episodes of The West Wing
In its time, The West Wing was a pioneer of the political drama genre, producing an extraordinary number of top quality episodes. The idealised, liberal portrayal of American politics provided a perfect antidote to the disheartening reality. Martin Sheen, as the loveable president, led a talented cast as they tackled political and social issues ranging from privacy to hate crimes to capital punishment over the course of seven seasons.
As it’s almost time to dust off my boxset for an annual rewatch of the superb Christmas episodes, I decided to reflect on the episodes that truly defined the acclaimed White House drama.
10. The Stackhouse Filibuster
In which Donna is a superstar, Jed and Leo wind up on a date, CJ types a lot, Josh wears slippy shoes and it’s #teamgrandpa at the filibuster. The Stackhouse Filibuster typifies everything about this show. It’s hardworking people trying to do what’s right. “If politics brings out the worst in people, maybe people bring out the best,” says CJ, in the uplifting closing scene.
The nice thing about Stackhouse is that it culminates in a single unifying plotline. All of the senior staffers come together to help Mr Stackhouse, before writing sentimental letters home. Most episodes feature at least two major storylines that usually relate thematically, but this narrative is a more stripped back approach. It pays off, taking advantage of the warm dynamic between the whole ensemble.
This one’s a classic and will be referenced on the occasion of any major filibusters. It’s inevitable. Don’t fight it.
Picking a post-Sorkin episode that can compete in a Top 10 isn’t the easiest task. While The Supremes, a later Season 5 episode, is stronger and the finale is inherently definitive (but uneventful), this episode is one of the most important in the show’s run. After stumbling over the showrunner transition, Shutdown sees both the show and President Bartlet get back on track. It’s a thrilling episode that, drawing on the real life shutdown of 1995, depicts the antagonistic relationship between Speaker Haffley and President Bartlet. It’s always a crowd-pleaser when Bartlet takes somebody down (see also: the Jenna Jacobs smackdown of The Midterms). By its end, faith in the president is restored and there’s hope for the new writing team.
8. 17 People
17 People was made in response to execs demanding a relatively inexpensive hour-long, as production for the show was increasingly over-budget. The simplicity of this episode leaves the actors at their most exposed, and everyone rises to the occasion. Josh and Donna’s relationship takes its biggest step forward since In Excelsis Deo as they spar over their anniversary (squeal), Sam and Ainsley have an argument to which the conclusion is a peach and “the walls come tumbling down” in the Oval Office as Toby finds out about the president’s MS. Meanwhile, CJ is off somewhere having a fabulous time (and probably cocktails).
If you’ve ever wanted to see Richard Schiff throwing a ball at a wall, this is your moment. It also features the greatest ever ‘Knock knock’ joke.
7. Twenty Five
If you were not-so-amicably quitting a TV series that you’d created, the pinnacle of your career, how would you want to go out? In style, right? Just before he dropped the mic on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin blew it all up. The First Daughter’s missing, Bartlet’s not President, there’s no VP, a Republican is in the Oval Office, Secret Service agents are dead, Amy has directly questioned Donna’s feelings for Josh, Toby’s a brand new parent and no one knows what to do! The White House is left in chaos at the close of Season 4. Sorkin’s writing sets light to every scene and leaves the show in a way that could never be neatly cleaned up in the following series premiere. Ultimately, the resolution is handled poorly and makes for a disappointing changeover, but don’t let that take away from the power of Sorkin’s final farewell.
Post-Sorkin writers should also note that the final line that he ever wrote for Toby was, “There’s no one in this room who wouldn’t rather die than let you down.” It was possibly his final moment of good characterisation.
6. Celestial Navigation
While plenty of earlier season one episodes earned their fair share of laughs, Celestial Navigation epitomises the playful side of the White House drama. It’s a comedy of errors, all being retold by Josh in a talk he’s giving. From CJ’s root canal, to Toby’s deadpan snark, Josh’s calamitous attempt at playing press secretary and Sam’s navigation, this Season 1 treat is riotous good fun. The farce is counterbalanced by a sobering subplot about the wrongful and racist arrest of Judge Mendoza that adds gravitas to an otherwise light episode. It’s just a crying shame that we never got to hear about that secret plan to fight inflation…
If Allison Janney is performing physical comedy, the show’s onto a winner. In the pilot episode, each of the senior staffers is introduced with their idiosyncrasies on full display. CJ’s falling off of a treadmill, Josh is sleeping on his desk, Toby’s being, well, Toby, and Sam’s sleeping with a hooker. The kicker, though, is the revelation that the, as yet unseen, president rode his bicycle into a tree. The pilot is heavily weighted with comedy and relies on the building interest in the mysterious POTUS. His introduction doesn’t disappoint.
This episode also raised the question of, what the hell was Bartlet talking about Annie’s tomato for? Crucial to the show. Crucial. It was the mystery that really carried the series.
4. In Excelsis Deo
Deciding on the best Christmas episode is a contentious issue. While the Josh-centric Noel is difficult to fault, the first season’s In Excelsis Deo is a beautiful ensemble story. It had significant moments for a number of characters: Mrs Landingham reveals that both her sons died in Vietnam, Josh and Donna’s relationship moves into a middle ground between platonic and romantic, and the strength of Toby’s compassion leads him to honour a homeless war veteran. In fact, this is the episode that secured Richard Schiff an Emmy win for Best Supporting Actor (with Bradley Whitford and John Spencer winning the two subsequent years – again for Christmas episodes). It’s not hard to see why. If you’re not crying by the end of Little Drummer Boy, you’ve a harder heart than mine.
3. In The Shadow of Two Gunmen
This episode is one of the few that are practically perfect in every way. The In The Shadow of Two Gunmen two-parter reveals how the gang came to be, with the first hour being the White House Staffers Assemble and the latter part showing the electoral race. The narrative unfolds masterfully, with flashbacks revealing the back-stories while never detracting from the aftermath of the shooting in the present day. Despite being a thrilling dramatic episode, it is peppered with some of the most delightful comedic moments. Case in point: in response to being asked if he has any medical conditions, Jed replies, “Well… I’ve been shot.”
As a premiere, it sets up the MS storyline as the focal point of the second season and crucially resolves the previous season’s dramatic finale. With both Josh and Jed having been shot, the stakes for the episode couldn’t possibly be higher. The slow reveal of both make for a tense opening that barely lets up for the whole two hours.
2. Two Cathedrals
It’s probably illegal to overlook this episode on any countdown of West Wing episodes, and I wouldn’t want to mess with the law! Martin Sheen’s performance is exquisite, exemplified in a powerful soliloquy: “What was Josh Lyman – a warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours but praise His glory and praise His name?” The cathedral scene is a spectacle and serves only as a reminder of why Sheen makes such a commanding president.
The second series’ primary storyline was the president’s MS and this episode was the boom that all those ticks had been leading up to. The big question in Two Cathedrals is whether or not the president plans to run again. Flashbacks very effectively inform the story further and leave you devastated over Mrs Landingham’s death. It makes for a tense, tearful hour, which builds up to the single greatest musical moment of the show: Brothers in Arms. Every minute of Two Cathedrals is unmissable.
1. 20 Hours in America
The fourth season premiere balances uproarious chaos and stirring speeches, heavily leaning toward the former. It perfectly showcases the series’ many virtues and celebrates the talents of its ensemble cast. Josh, Donna and Toby get lost in Indiana, to which the president responds, “I swear, if Donna wasn’t there, they’d have to buy a house”. We meet Mrs Landingham’s delightful replacement, Debbie Fiderer. Charlie is being badass and inviting people for breakfast at Cosmo’s (at the same time, somehow). Oh, and Nancy McNally gets to call the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs “Admiral Sissymary”. Sassy McNally!
While most of 20 Hours in America is wit and whimsy, the episode takes a turn as news of a bombing breaks. The president gives an unforgettable speech – “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels” – while Tori Amos’ I Don’t Like Mondays carries a very moving montage. The writing is gold, with top class performances by all, but it is the cinematography of this episode that secures the top spot.
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