Ten* Episodes To Watch: The West Wing

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I recently finished watching The West Wing on Netflix. When I was in college I worked on nights The West Wing aired, so I would catch reruns on Bravo in the mornings, but since I had to leave for class I never got to finish an episode. Such is life. I remember liking the show (what I saw, anyway) and I got super excited when it showed up on Netflix instant last month. So, after weeks of abandoning my family, staying up way too late and falling asleep at my desk at work, I finished the series.

The West Wing aired on NBC from September, 22 1999 – May, 14 2006. Created by Aaron Sorkin, the show is set in the West Wing of the White House, during the administration of fictional President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). Along with the President, we see the staff who work in the West Wing, near the Oval Office: Leo McGarry (John Spencer) is the White House Chief of Staff; Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is the Deputy Chief of Staff; CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) is the White House Press Secretary; Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is the Communications Director; Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is the Deputy Communications Director; Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) is Josh’s assistant; and Charlie Young (Dule Hill) is Personal Aide to the President. Throughout its seven year run, we were introduced to several new cast members such as Joshua Malina, Mary McCormack, Kristin Chenoweth, Stockard Channing, Alan Alda, and Jimmy Smits. Together they make up one of the greatest ensembles to ever grace the small screen.

Several of the storylines from The West Wing have made their way into real-life scenarios, making TWW seem prescient and ahead of its time. It’s fun watching Toby, Josh and Sam argue about tax cuts and healthcare and social security with fictional Republicans, but watching it happen in real life is way less fun. The final two seasons brought us a presidential election in the form of Alda’s Republican Arnold Vinick who was running against Smits’s Democratic Matt Santos. Set in 2006, we see an older, experienced, moderate Republican (John McCain) running against a young, minority, relatively un-known Democrat (Barack Obama), which uncannily resembled our 2008 presidential election.

All told, there are seven seasons and 156 episodes to watch. Seasons 1-4 are wonderful, specifically season two, and while the latter part of season five and season six struggled a bit, season seven is almost as perfect as the earlier seasons. I understand not everyone has time to watch 156 episodes, so I’ve picked my favorite episodes, and ones that I think you should watch. There’s a pretty good “previously on” to start every episode, which does an apt job of telling the audience what’s going on. So, feel free to jump into any of these episodes any time.

[* Ten episodes proved to be too difficult, alas.]

1. Enemies
In this episode, someone leaked that the President and Vice President were fighting after getting into an argument during a cabinet meeting. CJ has to quash those rumors, while also try to find out who leaked the information. After talking to the VP, CJ believes he didn’t leak it, while the President remains unconvinced. Meanwhile, a new banking reform bill that, if passed, would allow for strip mining on federal land in Montana. Josh, by way of Donna, comes up with a plan using the Antiquities Act that will turn the federal land into a National Park. Oh, also, the President is a huge nerd for National Parks. Finally, Sam starts dating Leo’s daughter Mallory, and Leo is less than thrilled. This was one of the first episodes where we saw how ugly politics can be. The President and Josh are happy with the outcome, but are less than thrilled at the ugliness it took to get there.

2. What Kind of Day Has It Been
This episode was the season one finale, and it ended with a great cliffhanger. This episode centers around the President attending a town hall meeting in Rosslyn, Virginia. Charlie has been dating the President’s youngest daughter, Zoe, and has been receiving threats from White Supremacist groups due to the nature of their relationship. (Charlie is a young black man, the President’s daughter a young white woman.) As the town hall meeting wraps up, we see a secret service member sense some danger. The story is then told in retrospect, going back to the beginning of the day. The President prepares for questions during the town hall meeting with his staff, all the while the military is performing a rescue mission of an American pilot in Iraq, and Toby’s brother is a member of a space shuttle crew who can’t land and are stuck orbiting Earth. The day’s events lead us back to the beginning of the episode. As the President makes his way to the crowd to say goodbye, shots ring out as utter chaos unfolds. The screen fades to black with the words, “Who’s been hit!” echoing as the episode ends.

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3. In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Parts 1 & 2)
Picking up immediately where we left off in season one, this two part episode deals with the aftermath of the shooting. We find out the President has been hit, but not badly, while Josh was shot in the stomach and his life hangs in the balance. Josh has a collapsed lung and is in surgery for hours. As each staff member waits for him to get out of surgery, we see their different reactions to the news. No one takes it harder than the President, who has grown to love Josh as a son. He’s pulling wires off him and trying to get to Josh, who is already in surgery. Donna also takes the news hard as Toby tells her what’s happened. Her shocked, stunned reaction was almost worth Josh getting shot. Almost. Much like the finale, this episode is told in a series of flashbacks, and in this case it’s how everyone came to work for Bartlet during his campaign for President. The West Wing did many flashback episodes, and they were all consistently well done. Such a lovely episode, and fine performances from the whole cast, but specifically those of Sheen and Whitford. We return back to the past, to the night of the Illinois primary. While celebrating Bartlet’s win, Donna tells Josh that his dad passed away. While waiting in the airport for his flight to leave, Bartlet comes to Josh and tells him that his dad was proud of him. He then offers to go with Josh to the funeral. As he watches Josh board the plane, Jed, who had been doubting himself, tells Leo that he’s ready. And the rest is history. Back to the present, both men make it out alive, of course, but what a fantastic way to start season two.

4. Noel
This is one of my favorite episodes of the entire series, and probably a series high point for Bradley Whitford. Months after the shooting at Rosslyn, Josh’s coworkers become concerned, so he has to spend the entire day with trauma specialist Stanley Keyworth. Noticing a bandage on his hand, he tries to get Josh to tell his story. Again, we flashback days earlier. After being assigned to review the personal history of an Air Force pilot who had broken away from his fighter jet’s training formation, Josh learns the two share a birthday. Soon the pilot is shot down over Bosnia where he then dies. Days later, still affected by the pilot, Josh yells at the President in the Oval Office, at which point Leo calls in the specialist. At the White House Christmas party, during Yo Yo Ma’s performance, Josh freaks out and is overcome with panic. He then goes home and punches his hand through a window. Josh is diagnosed with PTSD, and is worried about his job. Leo tells him an awesomely weird story about a guy in a hole and then says “as long as I got a job, you got a job.” And then some carolers sing us out of the episode.

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5. The Stackhouse Filibuster (but really, just watch the rest of season two because it’s awesome)
It’s Friday night and everyone is expecting a legislative victory with the passing of the Family Wellness Bill in the Senate, as the staff prepares to leave for the weekend. Senator Stackhouse (D-MN) starts an unexpected filibuster, who wants an amendment on the bill to cover autism. As Stackhouse heads into his several hour long filibuster, the staff is confused. In between e-mailing their parents about what was happening, they also try and find out why Stackhouse is trying to filibuster the bill. Finally, Donna finds out that the Senator’s grandson has autism, and the team organizes other Senators “grandfathers all” to ask Stackhouse lengthy questions, which would allow him to rest without technically ending the filibuster. Because of the delay, the deadline passes, which allows the Senator’s requested appropriations to be added to the bill. This was a great civics lesson. Also, did you guys know that three-fifths of the senate, or 60 votes, are needed to shut down a filibuster? Take that, poly-sci course I was required to take in college! I didn’t even learn that on The West Wing.

6. Two Cathedrals
Every once in a while you watch something and realize that you’re not just watching a show, but you’re watching true art. This is Martin Sheen’s episode and he knocked it out of the park. In the previous episode, we learn that Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), Jed Bartlet’s long time secretary, was killed by a drunk driver at 18th and Potomac. This is another flashback episode (hmmm, I’m beginning to notice a running theme…) where Jed recalls his first meeting with Mrs. Landingham while as a student. Oh, also, BIG thing I forgot to mention: the President has MS and never told anyone. He’s finally told his staff and now the rest of the world is about to find out. While he’s wrestling with Mrs. Landingham’s death, he’s also wrestling with running for a second term, even though he told his wife he wouldn’t. (Oh, yeah, I also forgot to tell you guys that the great Stockard Channing plays Dr. Abby Bartlet. I know! Rizzo herself! Super awesome.) Anyway, Bartlet is upset because he never got to tell Mrs. Landingham he had MS before he died, and, also, he’s bummed because she died. As the funeral winds to a close, the staff and everyone exit the National Cathedral, leaving Jed alone. Jed is angry at everything — including taking Mrs. Landingham away, a tropical storm making its way to land, and his MS — and takes it all out on God. Jed gets so angry that he cusses God out in Latin and then, while in the National Cathedral, lights a cigarette, drops it on the ground and puts it out with the heel of his shoe telling God he’s not running again. Later, however, he sees a vision of Mrs. Landingham and she basically helps change his mind. At episode’s end Jed non-verbally announces he is running for a second term. And it was fantastic. It’s hard not to pick this episode as the best of the entire series. A stunning, brilliant, perfect, breathtakingly dramatic way to end season two. The first video is Jed in the church, and the second video is the closing montage. Watch both, please.
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7. Bartlet for America
This is probably my favorite episode of the entire series, but I really go back and forth between this one and “Two Cathedrals.” Leo is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. Since Jed didn’t disclose his MS to the public, his staff has had to testify that they did not knowingly deceive the American public. In this episode, it’s Leo’s turn. Again, we go back a few years, during Bartlet’s campaign. On the night of the pre-election debate, Leo relapses while trying to get some money from Republican donors. While drunk and high, he reveals to one of the contributors that Bartlet was sick (Leo didn’t know Jed had MS, and at the time Jed was experiencing a MS outbreak). Now a congressman, he is the one questioning Leo, getting him to reveal what happened that night and publicly embarrass him. Catching on, and knowing it’s not relevant, other committee members call for a recess until after the Christmas break. Back at the White House, Jed gives Leo a gift: it’s a napkin with “Bartlet For America” written on it, which Leo had written down years earlier to get Jed to run for president. It was their dream, and together they made it a reality. The napkin plays a major part in the rest of the series, and it also is used in the series finale. The late John Spencer was a brilliant actor. John Spencer, for all the awards!

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8. Debate Camp
The staff helps Jed prep for the presidential debate against Florida’s Governor Richie. A question leads to a flashback to Bartlet’s first week in office and how everyone settles in. We learn that Toby’s marriage to Representative Andy Wyatt was falling apart due to him not ready to be a father, among other things. Also, CJ learns she is being prayed for by the Christian Coalition because they think she’s going to hell, Sam is opposed to the nomination for Attorney General because he supports racial profiling, and after learning he can borrow anything from the Smithsonian, Jed wants Apollo 11 but Mrs. Landingham says he can’t have it. Back in the present, we find out that Andy is pregnant with twins and Toby’s the father! Yay! I love Toby so much, you guys! Jed may lose his home state of New Hampshire, and the Israeli Air Force fight back against terrorists from Qumar. I mostly love this episode because Toby almost smiles when he tells everyone Andy’s pregnant.

9. The Long Goodbye
This isn’t the greatest episode of the series, but it’s one that resonated with me the most. It was a nice change of pace for the show, especially since it really only focuses on CJ and her life away from the Press Office of the West Wing. After getting invited to speak at her high school reunion, CJ returns home to Dayton, Ohio only to find her brilliant father with Alzheimer’s and his new wife has left him. CJ tries to take care of her father and wrestles with the idea of quitting her high powered job and move back to Dayton, or putting her father in a home. This episode was a great showcase for Janney and the emotion on her face told us all we needed to know. It’s probably one the greatest non-West Wing-centric episodes of the entire series. Much like Leslie Knope, CJ Cregg (or, actually, it could be Allison Janney because she’s a BAMF) is my spirit animal. She’s the greatest female character on the show (sorry, Donna, but you can get a little whiny…okay a lot whiny) and is all around full of awesomeness. Let’s get Janney to reprise her role and team up with Leslie Knope and watch these two kick-ass women get things done. I love you so much, CJ, and I hate seeing you suffer. Will you please accept my virtual hug?

10. The Supremes
This is the best episode of season five, in my humble opinion. It gave the audience an insight into how the government appoints Supreme Court Justices. After the conservative judge, Owen Brady, dies, the Bartlet administration are tasked with appointing a new judge. After vetting potential nominees, Josh and Toby meet with each one to find out if they are ready or not. While they already have someone in mind — they are only speaking with other nominees as a way to frighten the left so as to get their real choice in easier — Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close) continually impresses them with her knowledge of political readiness and awareness of issues. After finding out she had an abortion — after Roe v Wade, when abortions were legal — her name is taken off the list. Later, the President puts her name back on the list and she becomes the front runner for the position. After an anecdote by Donna about her parents’ cats, Josh gets the idea to ask the ailing Chief Justice to resign, so they can put Lang in as Chief Justice and the Republicans can put their choice in as Associate Justice. Toby sees the two arguing and note their arguing works. The President then announces them as nominees to the Supreme Court. This is another one of those episodes where we see the inner workings of the West Wing staff trying to get something done. Not everything works in their favor, but for this one time, everything works out for both parties.

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11. Election Day (Parts 1 &2)
These two episodes provide two startlingly different results: two characters grow closer while one suffers an unimaginable tragedy. The seventh and final season marked a change; midway through filming, star John Spencer passed away after suffering a heart attack. In the series, he was the Democratic nominee for Vice President, so his role on the show was still pretty prominent. I’m fairly certain that if Spencer had survived his heart attack, he would have lived on in the series. As such, the show had to find a way to deal with Spencer’s real life death. In the series, however, the character suffers a fatal heart attack on election night. Before Leo’s passing, though, the episode opens in the wee house of the night before the polls open for election day. A big part of the show’s run was the Josh and Donna will they/won’t they romance. A few episodes prior the two shared their first kiss, and in Election Day Part 1 the two finally, finally! consummate their relationship. And it’s so awkward, but it works. Sure, the writers probably waited too long to put the two together, but the two at least got together before the last episode of the series. In part two, we find out Leo has died, which actually brings Josh and Donna closer together. As Josh stands in Leo’s room surrounded by the mess the paramedics left hours earlier, Josh, and maybe a little bit of Brad Whitford, breaks down and sobs into Donna’s chest as she comforts him, while she struggles to remain stoic in this horrible time of tragedy. It was a nice bit of emotion from Janel Moloney and especially Whitford; it felt so raw and open that it almost seemed intrusive. Later, when CJ shares the news with Jed, Martin Sheen’s face says it all: he’s not mourning the character, but the actor. Janney and Sheen share a moment for their fallen friend, while struggling to remain in character. In the end, Santos wins the election and the hunt for a new VP is on. It’s not one of the best episodes, and not even one of the best of season seven, but I felt like it deserved its place on this list, if only for the reactions from the cast.

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So, there you go. These are, in my opinion, some of the best episodes to watch, but really, if you have time, just watch the whole series because it really holds up after all this time. I might do another list about honorable mention episodes, but for now I will leave you with the ones I have chosen.

What are some of your favorite episodes? Did I miss any that you think should be on the list? Sound off in the comments below!

[All images from Google]

 

About Jordan Hickman

When I was in high school, I was watching The X Files in the closet of our basement when I was supposed to be sleeping. My dad caught me and he laughed at me. It was then I knew TV would quickly become an obsession of mine. TV is in a golden era right now, and I'm so thrilled to be along for the ride. I started this website because writing is also a passion of mine and I wanted to combine the two. I'm also a wife and mom, which means I'm not always timely in getting reviews in.

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