The West Wing: Every Episode Ranked
The West Wing ranking continues! We have made it through the good, the bad, and the Ted McGinley in PART I and PART II. There are a few flaws with some of these episodes, but on the whole, they’re classic–warts and all. And by warts, I mean Commander Crap Reese. So put on your oversized Josh jammies, grab some whiskey and Blow Pops, and snuggle up with Marion Coatsworth of Marblehay. It’s time for the best!
Here are the Top 50:
50. “Evidence of Things Not Seen” (season 4, episode 20)
I love that Toby’s accoutrements for poker include a giant bottle of whiskey and two Blow Pops. With that noted, let’s play some poker! Oh wait, other things keep getting in the way, including a job interview with an actor who just got out of rehab, a telephone farce with a Russian leader, and a shooting in the Briefing Room (!!). The titular evidence and things not seen relate to each of these distractions, including Josh not seeing Joe Quincy’s (yeesh, what a name!) little Republican sticking out, and suppressing any feelings over the shots fired. The spy plane, the egg, Will hitting the fifth row. Get it? Hope? Faith? Skepticism? Fear? This is Sorkin being a little cutesy, and also trying to scare us a bit. See, we all know the season finale is approaching, but know not what shape the menace might take. Last episode we wondered about a plane crash. Now we wonder about another shooting. In the meantime, this fake spider under the sheets doesn’t move us very far but allows us to enjoy our favorite characters for a bit. That ain’t all bad.
Points Lost For: Very special guest star Matthew Perry. Blech. Joe Quincy is written like a pancake.
Awkward Suspension of Reality Moment: Remember back in “20 Hours in LA”, when Donna’s at the fancy-pantsy party and she wants to try and meet Matthew Perry? That makes Joe Quincy’s appearance less believable than his name.
49. “Manchester: Part 2” (season 3, episode 2)
Finally, we’ve settled at the Bartlet Farm! Can I just say that every single White House speech should be written in a barn with a serpentine test audience? Ach, but we’re doing the time warp again and it really dampens any dramatic crescendo that I might’ve enjoyed. What elevates this episode over its previous counterpart is the levity that we get from apple cider and Toby handling all the campaign signs with his magic marker.
LOST Crossover Theory: Has anyone considered that Evan Handler’s character, Doug, might actually be a figment of Sam’s imagination, just as his character on LOST, “Dave”, was Hurley’s imaginary tormentor? He is Sam’s conscience and coping mechanism after his recent paternal meltdown, followed by the revelation that his father-like President was also leading a secret life. He wants an apology from everybody. So he has invented Doug, who shouts at him and pushes him. Just like Dave. Connie might be his therapist who tries to explain what
Dave Doug means and help him through this troubling time. Hmmmmm. I’m on to something here.
48. “Stirred” (season 3, episode 17)
It seems to me that over the past few episodes, Josh and Donna really don’t have much to do. First, they were prank calling the Flenders of Hartsfield’s Landing, and then they were blowing up Lemon-Lyman.com. Now they’re debating the legitimacy of making a teacher appreciation day. Donna really is sweet, though, and I love the solution that they eventually cultivated. Most of us really did have one of those teachers, didn’t we? Mine was Mrs. Barbara McClanaghan. English teacher. Twelfth grade. She told me she saw something in me when really no one had to that point in my life. A friend, a wry mind, and really supportive mentor. She passed away from breast cancer in 2002. Darn you, Donna, for digging all of that up.
Points Awarded For: PB’s commentary on James Bond’s snooty martini order
Points Lost For: The gang seriously floating High Priest Leo’s name for V.P. He brings nothing electorally, he isn’t the folksy yin to the President’s brainy yang, and…I have a premonition that Leo might be really bad at campaigning.
47. “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” (season 2, episode 13)
Do any of you people have accents? How about you, you special bastard, Ted McGinley? Is that gum in your filthy Alpha Beta mouth? I’m interested, because, see, I just do not get a lady-boner for the State of the Union. Never have, doubt I ever will. As a matter of fact, I loathe it. But at least my annoyance can be channeled into Abbey’s anger. She gives such good wrath. And just to tie a big ribbon on this episode, I’ll note that any day, any time, I’d rather be dancing and drinking a Pink Squirrel in the steam pipe trunk distribution venue over watching even two minutes the SOTU.
“Women in Government? That’s Crazy!” Moment: Two of the most high-profile women in the White House are so bubble-brained they both sit on a bench with wet paint, in spite of signs. Therefore, they must go on TV bottomless, or dance in bathrobes. Why isn’t Rob Lowe in a banana hammock, damn it all?
Side Note: It always bugs me that Ted’s show is spelled “Capital Beat”, instead of “Capitol Beat”. The former isn’t exactly wrong, but the latter makes so much better sense.
Pink Squirrel Recipe: (Because you’re dying to know) 1 part almond liqueur, 1 part creme de cacao, and 1-2 parts heavy cream or vanilla ice cream. Mmmmm.
46. “Election Day (Part 2)” (season 7, episode 17)
I have something very important to say: I have had a very intense love-hate relationship with Leo McGarry. I may have, at times called him a “mean puppet master,” a “shriveled dickface” and a “droopy teapot”. But I never wanted this. Written off the show? Sure. But not dead. That was cruel, and surprisingly hard. And I can’t believe this, but I shed a tear for Leo. It was that damn moment in the Oval when CJ has to tell PB that he’s gone. I wonder if ol’ Leo ever figured out that potato salad recipe. He was so close. Now, I promise I ripped my shirt and covered the mirrors, so I’m just gonna move on to the election stuff. I have to say, this is damn riveting television. The “what now” is a horrifying hypothetical. Do people vote sympathetically (or, even darker, just for the drama of it)? Or do they panic and run to safe ground? And OF COURSE IT COMES DOWN TO A SINGLE STATE. Oh, I’m all aflutter. I think I have the vapors. Where’s my wine?
Heartbreaking Line: “Sweetheart I’m sorry, I have some very bad news.”
45. “A Change is Gonna Come” (season 6, episode 7)
Poor P.B.’s vision is failing him so he misses a flag handoff and almost starts some serious international shit. It’s a surprisingly bouncy and fun–mostly thanks to Bernard–way to clue us in to the ways in which PB is starting to falter. I mean, there’s the flag kerfuffle, and then the incomparable James Taylor hits us over the head with a mallet while crooning “A Change is Gonna Come”. And just as our President stumbles blindly through the Chinese negotiations (illness pun!), the new roster of presidential candidates is suiting up. It’s gettin’ good!
Points Awarded For: Margaret’s excitement over the mystery performer, even though I had to look up “Jelly Man Kelly”. It’s a Sesame Street reference.
More Points Awarded For: James Taylor, and his breathtaking performance, which is tragically not available anywhere. It was only done for the show. Damn.
Even More Points Awarded For: Just Bernard.
44. “Liftoff” (season 6, episode 4)
Bad, bad men in the service of a vengeful god. Such men haze poor C.J. intentionally…and not so intentionally in this frenetic and cringe-worthy episode. I love every almost second of this. Will’s Wonder Woman fantasy. The cows waiting for an airlift. C.J.’s “grrr!” tiger growl. The terrible auditions for the new Press Secretary. But then there’s the expected misogyny and first day problems, except on a global hellish scale. Thankfully Toby does have a watchable quality. Especially when he gets his poop in a group and treats C.J. with some respect. Listen, even the ugly bits that make me hide my face are fantastic television that we can all related to from rough first days on the job. This is essential West Wing viewing. Oh, and welcome, newcomers Annabeth Schott and Matthew Santos!
Great Line: “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Gail.”
“Women in Government? That’s Crazy!” Moment: “swat at suicide bombers with her purse”
43. “A Proportional Response” (season 1, episode 3)
If you’ve ever seen The American President, which was the movie prequel to this entire series, you’ve seen this plot before. Some of the lines will even seem familiar. There is strong justification for the duplication, though, since it is a very powerful scenario. And PB’s ultimate reluctant epiphany is the reality that Americans need to reconcile themselves with every time something happens in this world. So, points for poignancy (poignants?). Can I tell you honestly, though, that what fucking makes this episode metal is Dule Hill coming in as Charlie. The man who figured out where to find the president’s glasses even after he was a giant asshole to him.
42. “Ellie” (season 2, episode 15)
Alternate Title: “The Gang Takes on Marijuana”
or “Daddy Issues, Part One”
I do love Mary Kay Place, who appears here as the Surgeon General, Milly Griffith in a nicely understated performance. The controversy, of course, is very outdated because the issue has so nicely evolved in the last couple of decades. But nevertheless, this is a good excuse to bring in Ellie Bartlet (who starred, briefly, as Sidney Ellen Wade’s younger sister, in the companion film, The American President) and to explore that Daddy Dearest may not be as much of a superhero as Zoe conveys. This is a blossoming theme in the tail end of Season 2, that PB is a supremely flawed figure. The character development here is fantastic, but it’s also a bit of a snooze. Still, I love when PB yells just outside the Oval about shoving the Golden Gate Bridge up Japan’s ass, so it’s all worthwhile.
41. “Guns Not Butter” (season 4, episode 12)
The Heifer International episode. Hey, it’s a worthy cause, so let’s say it again: Heifer International. This episode says, “Well, you’re impoverished and while we don’t care, we don’t want you to go away empty-handed, so we offer this goat, Ron, to give you milk…this thing that’ll just gnaw on your stuff.” The gang in the West Wing really tried to keep the foreign aid bill alive, even considering prayer pork, but it just wasn’t going to fly. Part of me wishes that it was because the gang truly cared, and not just because Josh was afraid of disappointing High Priest Leo. There was a lot of great character interplay here, including with poor lovestruck Charlie, but it might be time to lay off of Will a bit. His overinflated antics are standing in the way of bigger things, and I’m ready for him to just blend. Overall very solid episode.
Great Line: DONNA: “Can I tell you something? Josh has asked me to work Saturdays, work Sundays, and at least once a week he has me there after 1:00 AM. He’s asked me to transpose portions of the federal budget into base-8, go to North Dakota, and dress as an East German cocktail waitress. In five years of working for him, he’s never asked me to hide him from something. Can I have my boss’s phone back?”
Gail’s Fishbowl: Cows! Gail is really supportive of Heifer International.
40. “In Excelsis Deo” (season 1, episode 10)
Christmas episode! This one is a real split for me. I adore P.B.’s bookstore outing, and Toby’s side adventure is extremely moving. By the time I hear Mrs. Landingham’s story and hear “Little Drummer Boy” playing, my icy cold soul is melting a whole bunch. I’m not sure that a tribute to veterans is what I expected from the very first WW Christmas episode, but it was thoughtfully done without being too heavy-handed. But then there’s Leo’s thread. Ugh. I loathe Sam and Josh for how they ambush Laurie. And, to the larger point of this arc, I really don’t fully appreciate Josh and Toby’s over-the-top loyalty to High Priest Leo. Yes, he was the guiding light who helped them navigate to the White House over the past two years. And they opine that he would do the same for them. I guess. I mean, they’re practically weeping over actually legitimate questions about Leo’s drug addiction while in office, which really aren’t out of line. And, actually, it might have been a little interesting to see who they might have brought in as a new CoS.
Great Line: “I’m arguing now, call back.”
39. “Mr. Willis of Ohio” (season 1, episode 6)
Let’s just start with the poker game in which P.B. is completely WRONG in his trivia. Not only am I a big braggart who thought of “dwell” immediately, I would also like to point out that the word “dweeb” is the missing fourth word on the list. Take that! Now, as a history and genealogy buff, I adore any episode that explains and debates the merits and pitfalls of the census. But overall, I thought the entire episode’s writing came off as way too cheesy: Mandy (aka “The Perm”) made a lame crack about how lockdowns didn’t happen at her last job. Josh remarked about the budget that his tile also needs re-grouting. Toby’s staff wondered if the Constitution is still in print. Josh asked an empty hallway “what possibly could go wrong?”. Such obvious, lazy jokes are the type of thing I’d expect from an English class screenplay assignment. Plus, even though I thought the bar scene was exciting and cathartic, what a contrivance it was to get all the characters (Zoe and Mallory included) to the same bar at the same time. AND, can we just agree that it’s quite the coincidence that these racist bar boys happen to pick the First Daughter as their rape prey. Because dudes were going to aggressively rape a girl that night. And they happened to pick her. Yeesh. I guess, way to go Secret Service for happening to stop a roving group of serial rapists? And yet in spite of all of this campiness and sloppy writing, I just plain enjoy this episode. I really do.
38. “Posse Comitatus” (season 3, episode 21)
Alternate Title: “Mark Harmon Episode #4”
Well, we’ve come down to it. The season finale. P.B. has to meet the terrorist lobster and give it a name before ordering its murder. And after agonizing over the Shareef lobster, P.B. was ready for more butter sauce, because he sat across from Ritchie, looked him in the eye, and foretold his political slaughter. Stay with me here, because crustacean jokes aside, this is an episode where people die and people fail and people commit crimes, and there’s something about the face-to-face encounter that makes each fall all the more human and disturbing. And by the end of the episode I’m in tears. The problem with this finale, though, is that they are tears of manufactured emotion. This is the first season finale that isn’t a cliff hanger. And academically interesting as the Shareef decision is, it isn’t water-cooler exciting and it isn’t emotional. So the writers brought Simon Donovan into the last four episodes merely as a device to make you feel something in the finale. And they hit you with the absolutely saddest song ever, “Hallelujah”. We never stood a chance. He was never well-developed and we barely knew him. He was like a big freshly sliced onion, ready to make you weep without really understanding why. So I feel a little sad and used. That’s why this isn’t ranked higher.
Points Awarded For: Welcome, Lily Tomlin!
Great Line: “In the future, if you’re wondering, ‘Crime boy, I don’t know’ was the moment I decided to kick your ass.”
37. “And It’s Surely to Their Credit” (season 2, episode 5)
Alternate Title: “The Gang Takes on Professional Misogyny”
I have an odd affection for John Larroquette. So between his cricket bat, the leaf peeping, PB’s barbecuing, and the Gilbert and Sullivan references, I adore this episode. If you don’t think misogyny in the workplace is real, you’re not paying attention. You’re probably lucky enough to not have been called your boss’s “girl” and had to smile about it. It’s a serious topic that makes some men and women alike sigh and frown, so the fact that they can tackle it in a real, but fun way is pretty gorgeous. Great episode that isn’t too consequential in the long-term, but lovely in the short-term.
Awkward Suspension of Reality Moment: The Secret Service would really allow Tribbey to storm into the Oval with a cricket bat? Okay.
36. “Faith-Based Initiative” (season 6, episode 10)
This episode is a surprise. I was pessimistic about the gang tackling gay marriage again, but they did so via CJ with apt sensitivity. Claudia Jean, in particular, has some very moving and important things to say, and I was blown away by her soliloquy about loneliness, power, confidence, and sexuality. This was well-blended with some lighter comedic moments and some exciting new plots (bye-bye, Josh!) to make a lovely quilt of an episode that reminds me more of season 2 or 3 than the sweaty bog that has been 6.
Great Line: “I hate this issue. It’s like walking around town holding a sick chicken.”
35. “7A WF 83429” (season 5, episode 1)
Where’s Zoe? I think the military and CIA are missing the best detection method: Just turn Charlie loose, because I think that man would tear the earth apart with his fists to find her. Anyway, this season opener is light on action, heavy on the darkness as several groups play a really macabre game of “what if”. The best of this episode isn’t actually centered on Zoe, but rather President Walken (PW). He is a striking contrast to the tortured intellectual who’s been in the Oval for so many years (I mean, PB, not Trump. But you already knew that.) And though I typically have a thing for intellectualism over bravado, I might still vote for PW if given the chance. Of course, that’s also partiality based on his stint ruling Great Britain as King Ralph. He can lead a nation AND play a piano.
Super Mega Awesome Points For: Bess, the Presidential Pug
34. “Five Votes Down” (season 1, episode 4)
Gun control. Yeesh, this show really just jumps into the thick of it right off the bat, doesn’t it? This is the second episode already that pilfers plot lines from The American President: Fighting to save a gun control bill that is toothless and insulting. Fortunately season one writers have the sensibility to mix high drama elegantly with comedy. Yes, we have to watch a very sad Leo lose his wife, (“call me before you go to bed, okay?”), but then we get P.B. hopped up on painkillers in the Oval Office. Oh, and it is positively amazing. Everything works here and is great, but it does feel like a very season one-type episode of any show: It tackles requisite threads–how a White House career impacts marriage, hot button political issues, etc. So it isn’t brilliant, but it is satisfying.
Points Awarded For: C.J.’s backward walk-and-talk in heels and an evening gown.
Great Line: “Was I just saying something?” and “Hot damn, now you’re talking.” and “Before I go let me say this: I’m seriously thinking about getting a dog.”
33. “Hartsfield’s Landing” (season 3, episode 14)
Alternate Title: “The Gang Plays Chess”
The chess analogy is quaintly apt, in addition to bringing us some charming character moments. Sam especially. Sam, the man who someday absolutely will be President Seaborne. I’d watch that show all day long, especially if he plays chess with all of his staffers. And of course, Charlie will have to be there, hopefully still making C.J. his bitch. But wait! What about GAIL?? Where is Gail? Tell me she wasn’t on the desk when it collapsed. Oh, Charlie. I bet he moved Gail to keep her safe. I do worry that C.J. didn’t seem phased by Gail’s near miss. And I’ve thought way too much about this. Oh, and
Hartsfield’s Landing is a sweet idea, but it’s a tad infuriating that Josh and Donna spend their entire evening trying to lean on a wacky New England family in order to preserve a political superstition. Notice, by the way, that we never find out how the titular town voted. Oh, the suspense.
32. “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” (season 1, episode 2)
I honestly cannot faithfully tell you how many times I have mimicked Josh Lyman’s victory celebration from this episode, wild gesticulations and all. “Victory is mine, victory is mine. Great day in the morning people, victory is mine. I drink from the keg of glory, Donna; bring me the finest muffins and bagels in all the land.” I once strolled into the local pub, performed this scene and actually ordered the above quoted muffins and bagels straight-faced from the very puzzled bartender. Never missed a beat. Okay, back to our second-ever episode. This is mainly a big set-up. Morris Tolliver has to die to give President Bartlet his first major military conundrum, and VP Hoynes stirs the pot to set up conflict between him and PB. Although, just the fact that they brought in the talent from Fletch means he was going to be big potatoes anyway, right? Nobody puts Alan Stanwyck in a corner. Anyway, there was some blah-blah stuff about Mandy, which no one has ever cared about. Ever. And then there’s Sam. We’re setting up this dangerous relationship with Laurie. And it’s gross. His idea of trying to be her friend is aggressively ambushing her and threatening her dinner companions. This episode would have lost serious points in this ranking had they not made Laurie call him out on it.
Great Line: “After hoc therefore something else hoc.”
Great Line #2: “Now that’s a thought that’s going to fester.”
Great Line #3: “She answers to me, and she answers to Toby.”
31. “In This White House” (season 2, episode 4)
Alternate Title: “Toby and Josh Take on the African AIDS Problem”
Oh, Ted McGinley! Your horrible Alpha Beta mouth just tried to shit all over dear little Ainsley Hayes. She is a charming addition to the show, even if her plea to her snotty friends was a little ridiculous. The more serious thread of the episode revolved around the African AIDS crisis, and drew very few conclusions, other than Africa is a big mess and the people are in trouble. But they talked about it, so I suppose that’s something. This is a fine episode that balances light and heavy nicely, and only slightly sidles up to the ol’ misogyny line.
Side Note: Is Rob Lowe wearing a horrible wig this episode?
Great Line: “What the hell makes you think I wouldn’t scream where there are people? Leo!!”
Great Line #2: “C.J. Cregg thinks you kill your pets.”
30. “The U.S. Poet Laureate” (season 3, episode 16)
Whew! The show is clearly a big hit at this point in its production, because we’re getting some very special guest appearances. Last episode we had Hector Elizondo wedged into Abby’s birthday party with a rusty, crusty crowbar. And this episode it’s Laura Dern’s turn. Now, I actually adore this actress and I think her role is enchanting and lovely, so I will forgive the stunt casting. Just this once. And her appearance does bring up a very worthwhile subject of landmines in a manor that seems appropriately emotional and definitive of the U.S. attitude toward them. It’s just well done. And for our comic relief we have the brilliance of P.B.’s intentional Ritchie gaff and…wait for it…LemonLyman.com. Let me tell you, I once was a regular on a forum site (probably about the time this show was written) where there was a Parliament-smoking, muumuu-clad Nurse Ratchet who tried to police everyone. Her screen name was Poppet. So, Josh, you have my sympathy. Really decent episode that exemplifies the superiority of season 3.
Great Line: “What else?” “Saudi Arabia bad.”
Great Line #2: “Happiness is my default position.”
Side Note: Don’t actually try going to LemonLyman.com. Trust me. Unless you like horrible spam. It’s a shame it hasn’t been earnestly cultivated.
29. “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” (season 2, episode 16)
Alternate Title: “Daddy Issues, Part Two”
It’s Big Block of Cheese Day again!!! I mean, the premise is ludicrous because Leo’s story is historically inaccurate and Andrew Jackson was a monster, but it makes for fantastic television. Toby and the protestors are beautiful. They remind me of everything that is childish and dysfunctional about the Democratic Party currently, and I applaud that he took them under his wing for a very brief fraction of a moment. And though I sincerely love the Cartographers For Social Equality meeting, it’s maybe a little too on the nose that C.J. is freaked out by her world suddenly being turned upside down and nothing being where she thinks it is, because this is obviously an allusion to the main, stranger, darker theme of the show: Sam’s cheating daddy and a spy’s granddaughter trying to clear the family’s name. I really, really wanted Sam to tell the granddaughter. Maybe that’s my cold, black heart showing itself, but when a man is a spy who is responsible for murder and treason, his offspring do not get the luxury of peace and vindication. That’s not the point of the episode, but it’s the truth.
28. “The Indians in the Lobby” (season 3, episode 7)
This episode is brought to you by Butterball. Butterball, revolutionizing cooking through bacterial awareness and hotlines!
Nearly everything about this Thanksgiving episode is splendid. If you truly pay attention to C.J.’s confusion over the idea of a farm vs. a whatever-Camp-David-is, she really reminds me of me. “There’s more?” Plus, there is a well-deserved message about our government’s ongoing regard for Native Americans. From coriander to nodding at the poverty issue on a holiday of gluttony, this episode does soooo much right! But then…we have a few small issues. First of all, Josh is wrestling with the death penalty and extradition, which has very little to do with anise and turkey pardoning. Plus, we’ve already tackled this topic in a much more thoughtful way.
Great Line: “J’accuse!”
Points Lost For: Sullying the name of Mollie Orshansky, who was a noted and celebrated American-born economist and statistician. “…based on life in Poland during the Cold War”, indeed. Oh, Sam. I’m so ashamed of you.
Points Lost For: Seriously, how much did Butterball pay for this kind of advertising?
27. “Institutional Memory” (season 7, episode 21)
Alternate Title: “Farewell, C.J. and Danny and Toby”
Now ’tis time for the Bartlet administration to take their bows and face the future. I’m happy for everyone, blah, blah, blah. But let’s talk C.J. They have made this woman eighty shades of messed up and infuriating. And just when I’m about to really hate her and throw my shoe at the TV, the dam breaks she goes to see Toby. Amen for that. Toby and his chicken with a lemon up its butt. His analysis of her situation is poetic, and I want to kiss his bald head for sending her to Danny. Oh, that scene where they talk and he asks her the big, important questions, “Does that sounds like fun to you?” and “Do you want to work at the White House?”. I swear I’ve lived this scene before with my husband. Maybe many of you have–that’s what makes it so great is that it’s relatable and sweet and really honest. The last ten minutes of this episode are divine and just some of my favorite moments from the whole damn series.
Great Line: “You’re not gonna walk away from me because you’re scared. I’m not that scary.”
26. “Six Meetings Before Lunch” (season 1, episode 18)
Toby is 1,000% right. We do not. Tempt. Fate. This is his day of jubilee. A jubilee during which we get to see THE JACKAL!!! I can’t love this enough. The universe is too small for my love for C.J. right now. And thank goodness, because the rest of the episode is un-jubilee. Jubileeless. Yes, I’ve always thought that the debate over reparations was interesting from an academic point of view. But mostly this was just checking a box for topics to cover in season one. Same with Mallory and her fake school voucher outrage. They may as well have made that a dream sequence. And everything Zoe? Is just lining up the season finale. But I don’t want to sound ungrateful for my Jackal jubilee, so I won’t punish this episode too severely.
25. “The White House Pro-Am” (season 1, episode 17)
This is the episode where women are really shit upon.
1.) The FL’s Chief of Staff, Lilli, is chastised by Sam twice: First for chasing the news lead, and then potentially leaking the FL’s preference for a fed chair appointment (my stars! an opinion!).
2.) C.J. is ribbed and slightly demeaned by Leo right in front of the President for not understanding complicated economic theory. Yes, he was teasing, and it was implied he didn’t understand it either. But Leo’s always on thin ice with me.
3.) Zoe is confronted by her father over security concerns and altering her social life.
4.) Zoe relayed the security concerns to Charlie, who–although completely reasonably angered by the situation–chose to take it out on Zoe by picking a fight and walking out on her.
5.) Sam talks down to the First Lady. He calls her unprofessional and amateur because she interviewed a nine year-old boy without running it past Sam’s office. I don’t care if he had a procedural point, his demeanor was insulting and rude.
6.) Danny describes the Michigan Women’s Democratic Caucus as the “Many Women of Michigan”. Choke on it, Danny. You’re lucky you gave Charlie such sage advice, or your goldfish-toting ass would be on my shit list for a while. You’re forgiven.
7.) PB staffs it out his jealousy issues with his wife and then yells at her that if “I name Ron Erlich now, which I was going to do anyway, it makes it look like I’m taking instructions from my wife!”. With all due respect, Mr. President, eat a big one. You should be so lucky as to be saddled with such a reputation! Nine months, indeed.
I don’t know what to make of this episode. Even the title is a little funky. Who are the amateurs exactly? The FL and her all-female staff? I mean, ultimately they claim victory over the He-Man-Woman-Haters Club. But still. This is a really weird one to rank. I keep it pretty high on the list for its honesty (it can’t all be The Brady Bunch Variety Hour), and I’m always glued to this episode. Can’t look away. Get ’em, ladies!
Great Lines: PB: “Noooo. C.J., we don’t handle my wife. When we try, you know what happens at the other end of this building?” C.J.: “You get a little punishment.” PB: “I get a little punishment.”
Great Line #2: JOSH: “This is why you have a reputation for being a pain in the ass.” TOBY: “I cultivated that reputation.”
Great Line #3: DONNA: “We can get out of hand.”
Points Awarded For: Herb and Marjorie Douglas, run over by the President’s car. May they rest in peace.
“Women in Government? That’s Crazy!” Moment: The whole damn episode.
24. “Enemies” (season 1, episode 8)
President Bartlet is in rare peppy form enjoying the torture of his staff for his own amusement. He lectures them on national park trivia and tanks Sam’s date over a birthday
card message. This levity is adorable and really damn funny. Oh, Rob Lowe, you and your puppy-dog face. And did I mention Danny? He’s being obnoxious, but in a sweet-ha-ha kind of way. I just melt. But, really, the meat of the episode is about this silly banking bill, which turns into a petty political grudge match. I’m always pleased that Toby and Josh stand up for the wilderness, not to mention the principle of the thing, and it was a cute tie-in to solve everything neatly with the Antiquities Act. The problem is, this comes across as a little sitcom-ish. It’s so sugary sweet that it almost hurts. While I know I will miss this achingly in the later seasons that are too bitter and heavy, right now it undermines the show’s substance.
Great Line: “Good a place as any to dump your body.”
Points Lost For: HOYNES: “This just in: The Internet is not a fad.”
23. “Commencement” (season 4, episode 22)
Sometimes you watch a show and wonder why you can’t go back in time and bury a romantic bottle of champagne ahead of college graduation. Or pretty much any major life event. I think it’s too late now. Many, many, many…many months from now I will turn 40, and I think the neighbors will freak out if I start digging in a field for a bottle of hooch, while my husband yells for me to come back in the house. Oh well. On the other hand, it’s probably never a good idea to buy a house without telling your intended (see also: Luke Danes and the Twickham House on Gilmore Girls). I’m okay with passing on that gesture. Same with lifting my gown at public events, a la President Bartlet. Now, you know I’m dancing around the tense third act of the episode. This is one of those plots that makes the blood drain from my face. The techno music, the flickering lights, and then Ron Butterfield and Leo running through the White House. Oh, the drama.
Points Lost For: Floating High Priest Leo for VP. Stop it!
Points Awarded For: Danny.
Points Awarded For: Ron Butterfield
22. “Game On” (season 4, episode 6)
It’s the Ritchie debate! It’s the Ritchie debate! I love the Ritchie debate and everything surrounding it! I love the staff torturing Toby with a speech drill, along with the roundness of his head. He’s ready! I love that Stockard Channing was brought back and someone gave her scissors! I love, love, love her demonic laugh after she cuts the tie and then the smack he gives her on the ass. I love Will Bailey and Albie Duncan and Elsie Snuffin. This may not be the most substantive episode, but it’s just so good.
Points Awarded For: Sam’s “Merry Christmas ya old Building & Loan!”
Side Note: Will’s heart is in the right place with the poster, but “No matter who you vote for…” is the same offending sentiment as “It’s doesn’t matter who you vote for…”. Eh, how about just changing it up altogether? Oh, and the blond girl in the center gives a look like she knows he’s got it a little wrong, but she doesn’t want to say anything.
Another Side Note: I have a feeling CJ’s fall while heading for the stage might not have been intentional.
21. “Inauguration: Over There (Part II)” (season 4, episode 15)
I say this denial is not fit for trial. Where Part 1 of the inauguration built the tension nicely, this is the episode that shines. I will forever remember the song of the wooden soldiers marching for Laurel and Hardy, and think of it against the horrors of the world. I swear, sometimes I’m watching atrocities on CNN, and I hear the song playing in my head. The Kundu intervention is a marvelous and very presidential evolution, and I love this plot line, separate of the inaugural festivities. But speak of inaugural shenanigans, I adore the chivalrous cavalry riding down the street to retrieve Donna, and CJ looks radiant. Leo is dapper, and everything about the evening festivities is magical. This sharp contrast to the Kundu story is jarring and poetic. The nation that has the privilege, humor, safety, and extravagance has a moral obligation. A duty. And that’s the perfect tone for an inaugural address.
Suspension of Reality Moment: Here’s what I don’t get: If Donna knew Josh would figure out Commander Crap Reese gave the quote, why pretend for a while? Why buy him time? And why get dolled up, with hair appointment, if you plan to stay home in a state of shame?
Points Awarded For: Hello, Jill Sobule!
Super Mega Points Awarded For: The entire snowball scene on Donna’s street, including Josh saying with a sexy smirk, “you’re going to have to sit on someone’s lap”. Yass, queen!
Side Note: Abbey has a muff. Hehehe.
20. “Dead Irish Writers” (season 3, episode 15)
It’s Abbey’s birthday! It’s Abbey’s birthday! Just to mark the occasion we have Lord John Marbury ogling her chesticles, drinking Scotch, debating Irish politics, and calling Gerald an “old sock”. And the ladies get boozy, take notes, and salute Canada. I adore the party and the episode…except for special guest star Hector Elizondo. His cigars, husky voices, and reference to Froot Loops are off-key for this episode. Sam’s distraction is petty and dark. Here’s the thing: This episode can tackle some serious issues, from Sinn Fein to medical moralism, women in politics, and can do so with champagne and humor. So I have a little game–I just fast forward whenever you see the hotel guy from Pretty Woman. Shazaam! This becomes a really great episode.
Points Lost For: Not getting the chance to see Margaret in a glittering ballgown. Where was she?
19. “Pilot” (season 1, episode 1)
In the world of pilots, this is the gold standard. What an amazing show from moment one–I mean, if we discard the “what is a POTUS?” jokes and the overly peppy introductory score that seems like it belongs in a 1950s neighborhood sitcom. Those intro flaws withstanding, it really is smartly written, charming, and a little frenetic. President Bartlet hobbles in (with a very foreshadowy cane, might I note) and instantly he’s my favorite U.S. president that ever existed or didn’t. I think I may have actually high-fived my television set the first time I saw it. Plus, of course, nothing beats the original. Awkward Suspension of Reality Moment: After working closely together for over a year, Sam doesn’t know that Leo doesn’t have a little girl?
“Women in Government? That’s Crazy!” Moment: Leo saying “a petulant woman being angry about getting her hair a little messed up on TV”
Great Line: “a sudden arboreal stop”
Great Line #2: “But I don’t want this gesture to be mistaken for an indication that I like you.”
Great Line #3: “I am the Lord your god, thou shall worship no other god before me.” Great Line #4: “Get your fat asses out of my White House.”
18. “Take This Sabbath Day” (season 1, episode 14)
Alternate Title: “The Gang Takes on the Death Penalty”
Classic WW episode where we get to meet Joey Lucas. Her introduction to a very hungover Josh really is the best part of a very preachy episode. Sure, as a very left-wing show it would’ve been odd if they hadn’t grabbed this live wire, and for the life of me, I can’t think of how it could’ve been done in a better way. Truly, this was a haunting and thoughtful take on a very deep subject, and truly a nice pivot for a show that sometimes veers in the slapstick direction sometimes. But still, as is appropriate, this is a joyless outing full of theology, philosophy, and a whole lot of other concepts that are single-serving and more than a little depressing. I adored the priest’s speech and thought it was very thoughtful and well-written, so major points for quality.
17. “Shibboleth” (season 2, episode 8)
Thanksgiving episode! And as we learn, the holiday is celebrated with corn husk hanging and Pilgrims solving crimes! And it’s all done in C.J.’s office alongside Troy and Eric . As is typical, our writers blend the whimsical with the very serious in what feels very moving but still enjoyable. But lo, they sentimentalize what the Pilgrims did in the 17th century compared with the Chinese refugees. Let’s be clear: The Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock fame were crazy-ass extremists who were too damn scary and uptight for 17th century England (let that sink in), and they only came to America because after they had peacefully settled in the Netherlands for nearly a generation, they were afraid their kids were becoming too “Dutch”, and so it was nationalism and borderline racism that caused them to jump on a boat and run away. Yes, they would’ve rather died than let their kids be Dutch. So, I feel like their predicament and Chinese oppression aren’t quite on the same level. Whatever. They’re all dead (the Pilgrims, I mean, and those damn dirty Dutch offenders) and what I really show up for is the turkey camera tests. Oh, and PB’s gift to Charlie was simply endearing.
Points Awarded For: Troy. I, too, don’t like to be touched. And, thank you, C.J., that does not warrant a death sentence. I hope.
Points Lost For: More High Priest Leo Kool-Aid drinking: His sister must be a high level official! We must promote her!
16. “Process Stories” (season 4, episode 8)
One of the novel, fantastic parts of this episode is watching how an incumbent White House staff might celebrate reelection the night of. C.J., for example has the grooviest gathering I can imagine. And then there’s everyone else…gettin’ all horny and flirty and foreplay-ish. I don’t know how comfortable I am watching PB and the FL hit on each other, drink martinis, and eat caviar. Or Leo and his lawyer slow dance on the terrace with a rose and poetry about moonlight. Or Josh follow Amy around like a horny puppy. Or Ed and Larry sculpting a bowl on a pottery wheel together. Actually, I take it back. Those are all really sweet scenes that are pretty fantastic. Even Bruno deserves his dessert. You know whose flirting I’m not wild about? Commander Crap Reese. Yeah, I should have a better nickname for him. But I don’t like his character enough to put in even a little effort. Poor Donna. Crap Reese aside, this is a fun episode about love and support…okay, no. It’s mostly just about sex.
Huge Points Awarded For: Amy’s gambling.
15. “Twenty-Five” (season 4, episode 23)
Oh man. The photo album and the glass hit the floor, and he turns to look at Abby. Wowsa. I’m not saying parents are the only ones who can feel at that moment, but for a parent, it feels like there’s a special string being tugged inside of you during that opening scene. Procedurally, it is pretty exciting and brilliant that Hoynes was cast off two episodes ago. What an intellectual exercise, and what a noble and patriotic gesture to hand over power to the opposition party. I love this more than the suspense and drama. This show has been overly romantic and optimistic about the state of American politics, but I like having something to look up to. Of course, it isn’t all about government. It’s also about love, and being a parent. Toby’s scene with the babies is worth every second it takes away from the main drama.
Points Awarded For: John Goodman and Bess!!!!!! I know I’ve been down on very special guest stars, but this is magical.
Great Line: “Didn’t realize babies come with hats. You guys crack me up. You don’t have jobs. You can’t walk, or speak the language. You don’t have a dollar in your pockets, but you got yourselves a hat. So everything’s fine.”
Side Note #1: You know that news footage shown in the hospital of little Zoe and her dad? That is actually Emilio Estevez playing Jed. Emilio, of course, is our PB’s real-life son and lookalike.
Side Note #2: Next time I adopt a pug, I’m absolutely naming him Huckleberry Ziegler.
14. “The Crackpots and These Women” (season 1, episode 5)
Holy smokes, what a fantastic episode. First of all, it’s Big Block of Cheese Day! YEAAAA! This is one of the greatest West Wing traditions ever. And even though Andrew Jackson was a narcissistic superhuman psychopath, this makes for really great television. And I love Leo for it, which is great because he and I have a very on-again, off-again love affair. I’m only disappointed in Sam, who was quite rude to the UFO crackpot. Not all of us can afford expensive suits, Sam. The Pluie meeting went much better, even aside from C.J.’s awesome Buckingham Palace jokes. Poor Pluie. The cheese blocks had me on their side, sort of. Okay, the highway is horrible. But if it saves Bonnie the Bear, I guess you should count me in. The Toby and PB thread is also touching and a little more than skin-deep (“OH, FOR GOD’S SAKE, TOBY!”), so I’m all in on how their relationship is developing. And then there’s Josh. Sigh. His memories of Joanie and Ave Maria. Can I tell you? I lost my little sister, and I won’t say I don’t have a little survivor’s guilt. And, if you’re a fan of irony, I’ve got this for you: She was an enormous WW fan, particularly Josh’s heartbreaking journey of trauma. So now, I hear Ave Maria and my heart breaks for her, and I feel a little like Josh all over. Talk about meta. So, yeah. This episode has a special place in my heart on many levels.
Points Lost For: Josh giving me nightmares about smallpox.
More Points Lost For: P.B. and Leo’s titular “these women” speech, which seems a little misogynistic, even though their hearts are probably in the right place.
13. “The Midterms” (season 2, episode 3)
Alternate Title: “Toby Takes on Hate Groups”
This episode is all about the “Men of the West Wing” handling their PTSD in creative and strange ways. For Toby’s part, he wants to take on hate groups with extreme prejudice (horrible pun intended). Our glorious fictional President manages his mania by obsessing over Elliot Roush, an opponent from his past. Charlie befriends and then overshares to a computer tech guy and his son, turning to both for comfort and wisdom in a parental fashion. So what does it say that it is left to poor C.J., who is deeply rattled on her own, to bust her ass to hold these men together as each flips his lid? And still find time to get giant Josh jammies? Sure, she’s off the hook to take care of Charlie. Zoe’s all over that. (Rawrrr) But the bigger, more interesting point, is that in an enormous crisis, it is the ladies who step forward and lead while the men obsess over sadly fruitless topics. Not that I don’t adore PB’s ability to hold a frothing grudge, and the way he takes it out on snotty talk radio lady, but the men are surprisingly (figuratively) impotent this episode. Oh, and then Sam did something. It doesn’t matter.
Points Awarded For: Leo’s awkward condom talk with Charlie and Zoe.
More Points Awarded For: Josh’s awesome giant C.J. pajamas.
Super Mega Points Awarded For: Sam taking the crab puff of the radio lady’s plate.
12. “What Kind of Day Has It Been?” (season 1, episode 22)
Season finale! Season finale! Oh lordy. Ohhhhh lordy. My heart is wrenched from the opening moments where we know Gina saw something. But first…we must know the backstory of what led to it , which means I have to review this ahead of the season 2 opener, during which I won’t be able to see past my weepy woman tears. Pull it together, lady. Okay. No seriously, this episode both gains and loses points for making me cringe and wish they would just get back to the rope line. Gaaaa! The suspense is awful. Okay, really though, the plot line about Toby’s bro feels really random and artificial. Meh. Thank the gods for Josh’s chair, on leave at Curtis’s “chair shop”. Oh that pratfall. Thanks to that my blood pressure is lowering slightly and I’ve almost forgotten the rope line. No wait, it’s back. And it’s HORRIFYING. President Barlet wheels backward, Gina shoves Charlie out of the way, the Secret Service is pinning Leo to the ground, C.J.’s getting shoved all around, Toby is writhing on the ground, and Josh….J-….Josh is gripping the gate. I can’t even. I’ve seen this episode about 40 different times, and my heart still races.
Great Line: “…and the water gets into the glass, how?”
Points Awarded For: Fitz’s carpet question. That is going to bug me.
More Points Awarded For: Danny’s Dallas Morning News haughtiness.
Even More Points Awarded For: The head slap C.J. gave Danny.
11. “Celestial Navigation” (season 1, episode 15)
Alternate Title: “A Secwet Pwan to Fight Infwation”
Ooh, Josh has a lecture gig (which is hosted by a guy who always reminds me of Taylor Doose!), which he obnoxiously keeps interrupting to take phone calls. I get that the White House is extraordinarily important, but damn that was rude, Josh! And stop manspreading your legs! But let us not be negative. This episode is otherwise absolutely delightful and very well balanced. C.J. had a woot canal, and this leads to the greatest press conference ever (even beating out anything Spicey has ever done!). The secret plan to fight inflation, “if the shoe fits”, “bwiefing“, and “Foggy Bottom”. This is all absolutely charming and fun. But to keep the episode from just being silly verbal jokes and Josh Lyman strutting like a peacock, there is an actual tender story surrounding Supreme Court nominee Mendoza. This is a thoughtful approach to the issue of modern racism, in small-town America and on the much grander political stage. Deft, elegant, and touching. This episode is just magnificent.
Great Line: “They were just mad at me for imposing discipline and calling them stupid.”
10. “The Supremes” (season 5, episode 17)
I want to send flowers to Chief Justice Ashland, not for his death, but for his contribution to this magical, fantastical episode. And don’t mistake it, this is pure fantasy. But let’s go with it, because it feels warm and fuzzy to my embittered soul that smells like Trump’s ballsack right now. Ahh, Glen Close as Evelyn Lange. Yes, Josh, I love her mind, too. And between Close’s brilliant performance and Josh and C.J. getting drunk and acting like hilarious bozos (“The courtroom was adjournnned, no verdict was returnnnned!”), this episode was fun fiction all around. I haven’t laughed so hard at a West Wing episode in ages as I did at hearing P.B. roar from the Oval Office “Mulready?! NO!”, or at Josh suggesting that Pierce has a wooden hollow leg and drinks a lot. This is by far the highlight of season 5, and it’s about time.
Great Line: “It’ll be hell to pay at Agincourt; I’ve offended the dauphin.”
Great Line #2: “Donna’s mom…I thought of it in the shower.”
9. “Abu el Banat”(season 5, episode 9)
Christmas episode! I’m sure you guessed it by the title, right? Margaret’s hexed muffins, C.J.’s collapsing tree, and assisted suicide: It must be the holidays. No, really, I’m scratching my head at the writers who chose this particular episode to tackle assisted suicide and P.B. facing his end-of-life struggles. To the episode’s credit, it addresses the role of family in good times and bad with a big holiday bow wrapped around the whole theme. When kids won’t take baths, when someone needs to stand in for Christmas tree lightings, when sisters need to laugh, and when wives need to sit by their husbands as they crumble in illness. It is because of these hard choices and our own mortality that warm family holiday memories are so important. Overall there was a sincere and warm sweetness to most of the episode, and is one of my favorite Bartlet affairs. Ah, and then there’s Doug Weston. Bless you, Doug. Bless you for realistically being the family twat that makes everyone awkward at the dinner table.
Great Line: “Draw him a picture. A ballot with a circle and a line through it.”
8. “We Killed Yamamoto” (season 3, episode 20)
Alternate Title: “Mark Harmon Episode #3”
Yikes, Josh. Were it not for your trouser snake, the welfare bill would be not be on anyone’s radar, and the Scooby Gang could focus on how to lay a trap for Shareef. Which I guess is the point. P.B. needed a punching bag, and Josh lined himself up and might as well been wearing a Shareef mask. Listen, this episode does something really, really well–it gets into the grim and hairy about the morals of war, assassination, and engagement. Fitz’s speech is dark, moving, beautiful, and horrifying. Just excellent television.
Points Awarded For: Amy’s accident with the scissors, Van Morrison, and her stew which I’m sure would’ve been tasty…before the cell phone was added
Points Lost For: Charlie saying “secatary”.
Great Line: “You know it was a screwup, but I gotta say I love the way he did it. Full-speed, bam. Like there’s a Sam Seaborn-shaped hole in the wall.”
Great Line #2: “The laws of nature don’t even apply here!”
7. “Privateers” (season 4, episode 18)
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the funniest damn episode of The West Wing ever, compliments of Claudia Jean Cregg and Donna Moss. First of all, I really enjoyed Operation: Resting Eagle, even though it was foiled once the coffee cart rolled in and Abigail decided to ruin her husband’s day by fighting a foreign aid bill rider. This is a fantastic FLOTUS-themed episode with a worthwhile message. But CJ outshines Abigail and Amy all over the place with her pocket olives and Mrs. Helena Hodworth Hooter-Tooter. And I swear to you, I am always certain I can hold back from laughing at “Mrs. Marblehay”, and then CJ starts laughing and apologizing that it was over “this thing that happened with the deficit”, followed by an apology to Amy, “It’s real. It’s real.” And then, while I still have a little bit of the giggles, Donna stalks a couple. “Cool, bar trip!” Okay, maybe there isn’t a mountain of character development or moments of stunning gravity, but damn this is fantastic.
Great Line (The One That Starts the Giggles): WILL: “It’s not a hazing. They don’t do that. Except, yes, you put olives in my jacket again.”,
CJ: “I did. I did put olives in his jacket.”
6. “20 Hours in America, Part 1” (season 4, episode 1)
Josh and Toby get so enamored with Amy Adams and soybeans that the Midwest swallows them whole. And they were never heard from again. This is the zany, comical first act of the two-part story, and it plays really well, giving a thoughtful nod to political and real-life problems in the farming Midwest. And best of all is Mama Donna, who takes care of her two pouty boys when they get lost or they get hungry.
Points Awarded For: The time zone change! Josh stamps his feet, Toby hits a guardrail with a stick. “Can we have a civilization?” This is one of the best scenes in the entire series.
5. “20 Hours in America, Part 2” (season 4, episode 2)
Picking up right where the previous episode left off, Josh and Toby (he works at the White House) finally get the Mama-Donna smackdown they’ve been asking for during the Midwest trek. Throughout both episodes, I have been captivated by the back and forth between Josh and Toby (he works at the White House) about political rhetoric and nuance, until Donna smacks us with the reminder that they haven’t been listening to Amy Adams or the “dry rub” couple. And no one should be listening to Tyler or his mean girls, but still, the boys are talking when they should be listening. And then comes the rain and the swim meet explosion and Matt sitting at the bar wringing his hands over tuition. That’s when they get it. This is superbly blended poignancy and entertainment.
4. “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part 2)” (season 2, episode 2)
Only bad men put out their cigarettes in perfectly good eggs. Especially when they go to light a new one within three seconds in the parking lot. That’s how the Feds found him. Cigarette-in-egg alert. Well, back at the White House and the hospital, our favorite administration is soldiering on as well as possible, and we’re still being served the relief of flashbacks. The emanation of C.J. and Donna, and watching President Bartlet get “ready”. This is the type of character development that make this show deep and lovable. Every second is worthwhile, and maybe even more than we deserve for the second episode of a season. I just can’t watch this enough.
Side Note: I’m putting money down that the voice on the airport intercom is Martin Sheen’s
3. “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part 1)” (season 2, episode 1)
We’re in the President’s limo and during my first viewing ever, I wondered if it was intentional that PB’s speech was a little slurred. And then I, as all audience members are supposed to, saw the blood from his mouth and knew something was horribly wrong. And still the sound of “Blue! Blue! Blue!” and the sight of the limo screeching around just rolls my stomach. Every time. C.J. begging to know if the President’s dead. The chaos. The emergency room, figuring it must only be a drill. But the worst part? The absolute worst part? Toby’s face when he sees Josh. Nine times out of ten, that’s when my waterworks start. Wow. Talk about television just ripping your heart out. After the initial shock has worn off, still the aftermath is riveting, and I even appreciate the details of the hospital’s admitting station and the way the V.P. is swept away in a panic. We also get a chilling glimpse of the waiting and frustration by the team. If you’ve ever been through a major trauma, you know that horrible waiting time that drags forever. Oh, but the writers spare us by keeping us entertained with flashbacks, and they are brilliant. Truly brilliant. They would vault any episode into my top five, even without the gunmen drama. Josh and Sam’s backstory with Leo and Jed is inspiring and captivating. I honestly am blown away by how well both levels of this episode work. This is just damn good television.
2. “Noel” (season 2, episode 10)
The first time I ever saw the series, my late beloved sister asked me if I had seen this episode yet. No, I hadn’t. “Oh”, she warmly exclaimed, “It’s the best episode of the series, and it will break your heart. Watch it over and over and over.” It was a good episode. Then she died. It happened a couple years after she first gave me this advice. She died suddenly and I couldn’t save her. And all of a sudden, the brassy tones of “God Rest Ye Gentlemen” and the bagpipes (which I love), felt like daggers. Like the sound of her bodybag being unwrapped and filled. And I felt like Josh Lyman every single day, slamming my glass down or punching a window. And in a very meta way, this episode became traumatic in its own right. “We get better”, assures 1990s TV sensation Adam Arkin. And that, sometimes, is the miracle of Christmas, that it is filled with friends and music and some kind of vague hope. Christmas is hard. It’s beautiful and it’s hard. I’ve never seen more moving television embrace the warmth and difficulty of the holiday. Plus, it rightly addresses my fear of triangles.
1. “Two Cathedrals” (season 2, episode 22)
This is breath-taking television. Everything that led up to this episode breaks against the rocks, and we realize, as do the President and Leo, that the emotionally hobbled Jed has to go on a drastic journey to get to his decision. He had to walk through fire just for the opportunity to stand in front of reporters and ask for more. Bring it on. That strength, we see, is something he has to draw from his past, as we watch him and Mrs. Landingham in the 1950s verbally sparring over non-denominational services and women’s pay. The casual viewer may have thought those were just sentimental flashbacks, but they were part of the President’s rain-soaked vision quest. By the time the doors fly open and the rain sprays in, and the frustrated PB calls for our favorite mousey secretary, I’m ready to sob. Even the music–“Brothers in Arms” from Dire Straits–is perfectly set for the angst, heartbreak, and triumph. This episode is everything that it means to be a leader, to be a lifelong friend, and to be in mourning. The crescendo from the cigarette in the cathedral to the press conference is hands-down some of the most powerful television I’ve ever felt. You don’t just watch this episode. You walk through the fire and rain with President Bartlet. And Mrs. Landingham.
And there we have it. I kid you not, this took me years to complete. Years! And at many points–especially when it came to rearranging the rank order–I looked like season-seven Josh standing at a white board with markers deciding where to make an ad buy.
The effort and frustration and pure joy that came from this ranking only made this beloved show even more special. And after so many viewings I have a sincere message for West Wing viewers:
We live in a very complicated and turbulent political age in which we’ve all been asked to reconsider what the Presidency means, what the people want of it, and how elections should be run. Maybe some day it will all return to what we recall as “normal”, or maybe the Peters Projection is something that we all have to reconcile with eventually. America is a messy and questionable political experiment, and has been ever since its founding. The Founding Fathers weren’t gods, they were politicians and businessmen living in an age before penicillin and indoor plumbing. They had vested interests, skeletons in their closets, and an utter lack of hygiene. The compromise they forged wasn’t handed down from a mountaintop, but rather was cobbled out of necessity, greed, and practicality. So maybe their vision for the future has a limited lifespan. America was a patchwork of “let’s see if it works”. And presently, at 231 years old, the function of the Constitution, the Congress, the Judiciary, and the Executive is fracturing under miscalculations made by candlelight in between swigs of mercury.
The point is, I don’t know where America is headed, but The West Wing offers us a very hopeful vision of what it should be, even if it never really could be. High ideals and hope are something we can always use a little more of, and for this, I recommend a hearty dose of The West Wing every so often.