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

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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.

9. Shutdown

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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

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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

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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

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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…

5. Pilot

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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English student with a habit of working West Wing references into any situation. Likes to write extensively about TV and feminism.
Edited by Jordan, Misagh, Justin Wu.

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40 Comments

  1. Sam Gray

    This is a superb list! I agree with most of your choices, although I perhaps would have rated “Two Cathedrals” as my #1. Perhaps some honourable mentions could go to “Game On” which, while rather one-sided, had a great showdown between Bartlet and Richie, and “Bartlet for America” – although, as you said, it’s hard to choose just one of the fantastic Christmas episodes.

    • Jessica Eve Kennedy

      Yeah, Two Cathedrals is incredible but I do like that 20 Hours is more a team effort versus that very Jed-centric one. I love both Game On and Bartlet For America, so both were considered. The Christmas episodes are incredible.

      • I loved that you didn’t put Two Cathedrals in the top spot. It’s obviously an incredible episode, but I’ve always thought that 20 Hours was a much better portrait of the team as co-workers and as people. Besides, who can’t love Josh and Toby screaming and banging things after finding about the time zones or Sam falling out of bed at Josh’s yell through the answering machine.

  2. Taylor Ramsey

    I find myself agreeing with the top two on the list, unlike many of these kinds of things,
    Guess I will need to break out the box set too!

  3. I definitely agree with 20 Hours in America as number one. Toby, Josh & Donna walking back to the White House together is one of my favourite scenes! Also, Toby & Josh’s reaction to the different time zones is probably the funniest thing in the whole series. Brilliant!

    • Jessica Eve Kennedy

      The timezones scene is hysterical, especially with Josh (I think) yelling, “Can we have a civilization?!” That whole storyline was hilarious. I love the bit where Tyler says to Toby, “Have you ever loved so much it hurts?” and Toby just straight-up says, “Get in the car.”

  4. I have the boxed set and watch it at least once a year, sheer unadulterated televisual genius. intelligent, thought provoking and with a great ensemble cast and I like The Newsroom too!

  5. Brad K.
    0

    Hopelessly soft-centred, the West Wing is – nevertheless – television writing and acting at its finest.

    But the best moment? It’s still C.J. telling the Indians in the lobby that they can either be thrown out or come back to her office. When the tribal counsel says ‘Yes’, she asks ‘Yes, what?’ (meaning which do you want to do?). He misunderstands and says ‘Yes, Ma’am.’

    The look on her face.

    • My favourite moment was at the end of the two-part season three opener, when the team are arguing over whether the voters will understand the word ‘torpor’ after a long debate as to whether to pander to voters’ whims or set their expectations with a more inspirational campaign.

      As ever, Martin Sheen appears from nowhere: “If they don’t know what it means, they can look it up in a dictionary. We should be raising the level of debate in this country, not lowering it.” As ever, the West Wing was making a serious point in a concise fun way.

      For me, that’s the legacy that ‘WW’ has left on my life. Too bad most television commissioning teams and magazine/newspaper editors in this country weren’t listening…

    • Great list of episodes! All worthy in a top ten list. The West Wing is the finest, most intellectually stimulating, moving and funny series I have ever watched and I will miss it very much. Its worst moments were far superior to some of the guff that wins emmys and the like, and its best moments (IMHO – Bartlett in the rain to brothers in arms announcing he’ll run again) are utterly sublime.

  6. Justin Wu

    My favorite episode might be an odd choice…the debate between Santos and Vinick in Season 7. Granted, it isn’t all that well-written, but as a child watching the West Wing for the first time, without much understanding of the wits of the dialogue in other episodes, it left a huge impression on me of what a TV drama episode could be like.

  7. Francis
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    West Wing is great but my fav series is The Wire. Astonishingly well-written, honest, true and without any of the tedious politically naive sentimentality that pervades the rest of American telly.

  8. I showed one chapter of WestWing to a group of high-level university students here in China. It was superb in demonstrating how Americans are devoid of gleaning even the remotest clues from context and surroundings and are thus dependent wholly on language for communication – unlike the rest of the world. Language-wise it was totally unrealistic and does not reflect real language – people do not naturally talk and respond in such a glib way.

  9. William
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    I still think the pilot episode is the best ever. The writing is electrifying and the humour wonderful. CJ on the treadmill. Sam in the bar with the journalist. Leo talking about the bike he loaned the president!

    All of this and then Jed Bartlets entrance. The last 5 minutes of the show and he appears like an avenging angel.

  10. Greatest drama series ever. Fave episodes:

    17 People (Toby’s rage and the ‘red lights’ speech) Two Cathedrals (‘you feckless thug’/’hell, Jed, I don’t even wanna know you’) The Women of Qumar (not a great episode, but Amy’s first appearance took my breath away) Manchester Part Two (just for the dialogue in the teaser scene with the snake, which was probably the best the quick-snap ensemble stuff ever got) Drought Conditions (best post-Sorkin episode by miles) The Debate (‘Can we have it back, please’/’Oh my god’. I know Ritchie was a crap character, but still)

    • Jessica Eve Kennedy

      I love the snake scene in Manchester! I think the debate ep you’re talking about is Game On, and it is such a great moment. To be honest, these were the episodes that I felt were most important/defined the show in some way rather than personal favourites. If it was favourites, War Crimes and Stirred would have been in there. See, The Supremes is always my fave post-Sorkin. But Richard Schiff is so good in Drought Conditions so I see can understand that choice too.

  11. Bertha Barrett
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    without a doubt the best series ever – it captured the good and bad in american politics as well as american society. Sure, series 5 was weak but the writing, the themes and the relevance to today’s world is always there….

  12. Roberson
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    The west wing is fantastic: I lent the first season to some friends and now feel like their dealer as they keep asking me desperately to lend them more. Very good on the compromises necessary in politics. Intelligent, demanding television. What did we do before HBO?

  13. too many episodes to mention … but one of the best is when CJ goes home to see her ailing father … masterpiece … and the opening of Season II …

    • Interesting. I would say that episode with CJ going home was one of the worst.

  14. antonia
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    The moment when Bartlett makes his first entrance in the pilot is one of the most electrifying in modern television. And it’s got nothing to do with sex, violence, drugs, gangsters or serial kilers, which makes it exceptional. My favourite episode (how can you choose the best?) has to be the one where Josh has a nervous breakdown. Bach cello concertos will never be the same.

  15. The West Wing has always been about striving for something better, about working for something in the face of terrible opposition. Each of these episodes being about the team overcoming things and growing proves how important that is.

  16. I started watching it at the beginning of Jan 07, and was begging a loan of the series DVD’s off mates from there on in. Finished it two months later, including one day where the first 17 eps of Season 7 got watched in one long loop. It took me months to readjust to normal life after that, and my wife still refers to the cast as ‘your special friends from the television’….

    Did the same with Buffy this year and great though that was, it wasn’t *quite* as all-consuming.

    • PHarper
      0

      A friend of mine refuses to start watching it because she knows she will get addicted. I, on the other hand, frequently – and willingly – sacrificed my social life for the West Wing, even though I’ve seen every episode at least once before. It’s got it all – snappy dialogue, thoughtfully (and sometimes surprisingly) dealt with issues, real life tragedy with the death of John Spencer, and, crucially, a will-they-won’t-they relationship between Josh and Donna. It gets a bit silly just after Sorkin leaves but it’s soon back on track, Best telly ever? You bet.

  17. I’m really glad you put The Stackhouse Filibuster on there, because it isn’t often added, but it may be the one episode of the West Wing I would watch over and over. I’m also a huge fan of Institutional Memory, if only because I love CJ, and the last scene is amazing.

  18. Love these episodes, but Isaac and Ishmael should always be in the top 10, if not the top 3

  19. Shelley
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    I love all of these, but I think my favorites are In Excelsis Deo and The Supremes, although 20 hours in America is always great. I’m a horrible addict though and watch at least 10 episodes a month. Maybe a lot more since I watched 3 last night. : )

  20. The whole of season 2 was immense, but ‘Two Cathedrals’ was a stunning finale. I particularly enjoyed the Bartlet yelling at God bit.

  21. Thanks for writing this! I’ve just started another re-watch and it’s nice to be reminded of what I have to come. The only addition I would have is The Supremes. Great storyline, great writing and great guest stars. That role was written for Glenn Close!

  22. Brilliant list – I just finished with The West Wing earlier this week and this list made me want to go back to my favorite episodes. I would place Two Cathedrals as number 1 though, but otherwise I pretty much agree with you on this 🙂

  23. Erick Kieckhefer
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    11. Two Cathedrals
    10. 20 Hours in America
    9. Twenty Five
    8. In The Shadow of Two Gunmen
    7. In Excelsis Deo
    6. Celestial Navigation
    5. The Stackhouse Filibuster
    4. The Two Bartlets
    3. Night Five
    2. Hartsfield’s Landing
    1. Noel

  24. Good list but nobody has mentioned my favourite episode, Somebody’s going to emergency, somebody’s going to jail.

    I love the performance of Rob Lowe in that episode and it’s the only time we get to see Sam as a person away from Jed or Josh. I’ve seen even episode 3 or more times and that remains my favourite. Also like two cathedrals the music is perfect.

  25. I adore this show. Most of the episodes you named are some of my favorites, but one episode that I do love that is not on your list is The Supremes, episode 17 of season 5. This show has many quality episodes though, which is why I never get tired of watching it.

  26. Excelent list. Of course everyone has one or 2 other choices, but your list is amazing.

  27. Filibuster is awesomee!!!

  28. I’m absolutely bereft that I didn’t watch the series when it was on. I am now on my third reach of the entire series. The first time began around Christmas of 2014 and lasted into the new year. The second started right after Christmas in 2015 and the third? Basically back to back….I finished and then my husband voiced an interest and so I am reaching again with him. I had an easy convert; he is bewitched. I am still astounded at the relevance of the show RIGHT NOW. My number one has to be Two Cathedrals, and any episode showcasing Stockard Channing is a winner in my book.

  29. Bruce K
    0

    Sorry. Any list that omits “Posse Comitatus” and doesn’t have “Two Cathedrals” as #1 is suspect. You do get points for having the wonderful “Celestial Navigation” in here, but the Pilot isn’t a “great” episode and including it at the expense of “Posse Comitatus” should have you banished to Mandyland.

  30. Yosh
    0

    10. Posse comitatus (because you won!)
    9) Supremes (nominate someone who doesn’t alienate people)
    8. Faith Based Initutive (Alan Alda) only reason
    7. The midterms ( there is Alaskan crab in this white house, plus the dressing down of the radio host.)
    6. Shibboleth ( thanksgiving )
    5. Evidence of things unseen ( Charles Loyalty)
    4. 20 hours in america ( when did you write that last part? In the car. You freak!)
    3. Hartsfields landing (I still know whereml the pieces are on David Wheatons board)
    2. Night Five (Murder Inc)
    1. Two Cathedrals( give me #’s)

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