[Article by Jeremy Grayson]
Confession time: I’m not a huge fan of lists.
I’m not sure why, exactly. I think it has something to do with the onslaught of “Best TV Shows Ever” lists that have plagued both the written and online media in the last couple of years. Or maybe it’s the fact that the more cynical-minded side of me can’t help but see the idea of lists as a whole as an easy way out of writing a genuine article.
So yeah. Not a big fan.
And yet… I can’t help but feel there is something genuinely prominent about “Best of” lists. Sure, they’re often quick and all-too-easy to write, and no one else ever agrees with your list anyway. But that’s kind of the point. Lists are an encouraging technique to inspire debate. They incite some of the purest and rawest arguments on the Internet, giving fans a chance to come together and proclaim their own preferences, giving us a deep understanding of how personal tastes differentiate and what our own preferences say about us as a whole.
What follows is my list of the 25 best episodes in all of The West Wing. The term “best”, I should point out, is flexible in definition, here referring to a combination of my personal favorite episodes and the ones I feel define what the series is truly about. There are plenty of Old Reliable entries – any avid fan will no doubt guess my pick for the top spot – but there are some which will likely come as a bit of a surprise.
So here’s my list.
All I ask is that you disagree with it.
25. “The War At Home” [2×14] – Season Two features many of the show’s most recognizably great episodes, and “The War At Home” is a bit muted by comparison. But it’s a dramatically effective conclusion to the compelling two-parter in which Bartlet must contend with the State of the Union address while dealing with a hostage situation in Columbia. The episode takes a crushing turn near its end which subverts the show’s usual optimistic nature in a most unsettling way, moving things in place for the Season Two’s pitch-perfect home stretch, and even planting some thematic seeds for Season Three.
24. “Duck and Cover” [7×12] – “Tense” is the only word I can use to describe this late-gamer centering around a potential nuclear meltdown. We get a front-row view of what this national event can implicate, both in the White House and on the campaign trail, and it’s anyone’s guess as to which of the two provides the episode with its most exciting moments. “Duck and Cover” is proof that, even as it hurried to wrap up its seven-year saga, the series still had the energy to pull us to the edge of our seats.
23. “He Shall, From Time to Time…” [1×12] – This low-key episode came early in the show’s run, with the first concrete promise that we were watching something genuinely great. Not only does it push the first season’s themes forward as fluidly as you can hope for, but it features the first genuine shock of the series – the President has multiple sclerosis? The only thing more shocking is just how well they were able to weave that development into the storylines of the coming seasons. A moving treat that succeeds on just about every level.
22. “Inauguration: Over There” [4×15] – Much of Season Four felt like Sorkin coasting on the strengths of his previous seasons, most evidently in the disappointing reelection arc. But things finally kicked into high gear with the two part “Inauguration”, which got Bartlet’s second term off to a highly promising start, mixing equal doses of idealism and intensity in the show’s best fashion. And however erratic Will Bailey’s development would be over the latter half of the series, the scene where he proves his mettle to Bartlet – through an indelible Margaret Mead quote – always leaves me smiling.
21. “Celestial Navigation” [1×15] – Calling this a funny episode would be a disservice. “Celestial Navigation” is nothing short of a comedy masterpiece, weaving multiple jokes and running gags into its time frame with the same deftness that other episodes weaved their drama. From Sam’s obsession with freeway directions to CJ’s painful (and painfully funny) “woot canaw”, this episode takes full hilarious advantage of Season One’s delightfully buoyant tone.
20. “Talking Points” [5×19] – The best episode of the worst season succeeds not through contrived plotting or overreaching idealism, but through a very well-told and thought-provoking story in which the Bartlet administration finally begins to get themselves back on track. Further, the blow Josh takes to his pride and brings him closer to earth than he was for much of the fifth season. It’s thanks to this episode that I can cheerfully forget that stupid scene where he yells at the Capitol building.
19. “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22] – And Season One goes out with a bang! (Sorry.) Providing a shining moment for every major character of the first season (well, except what’s-her-name), and executing the story in a whip-smart in media res fashion, Sorkin leaves us thrilled, breathless, and pining for more. I pity those poor fans who watched the show as it aired and had to wait five months for the cliffhanger’s resolution.
18. “Drought Conditions” [6×16] – Richard Schiff has expressed displeasure with the way his character was treated in the later seasons. But, displeasure or not, he certainly gave it his all. Toby’s slow, tragic decline over the course of this episode – both in flashbacks and in the present – is one of the most heartbreaking things the show ever subjected us to. The focus of the Wells seasons sometimes shifted too heavily on the characters’ emotional burdens, but here, it struck just the right note of poignancy.
17. “Twenty Five” [4×23] – Sorkin’s final episode suffers from a plot which borders on ludicrous and the show’s most vexing cliffhanger ever. But beyond that, it’s an absolute nail-biter of an episode, as Zoey’s kidnapping sparks an everything-hits-the-fan intensity which affects all the characters in shocking and unsettling ways. The fact that Sorkin never resolved this storyline himself is confounding, but talk about your goodnight kisses.
16. “Election Day (Part II)” [7×17] – The final season of the show was forced to deal with John Spencer’s tragic death – not an easy task when it comes to a man who brought so much to the series from the very beginning. But they found a way, writing Leo’s death into the series in a way that was solemn, respectful, and heartbreaking. And framing his death against the intensity of the national election lends incredible gravitas to the event. “Election Day” represented the conclusion of one of the show’s lengthiest and most politically complex arcs, and it closed the door with an emotional slam.
15. “20 Hours in America (Part II)” [4×02] – Following the dark and often moody third season, Season Four attempted to lighten the load with an amusing story about Toby, Josh, Donna getting lost in the spacious Midwest. Then it took a more serious turn in its second half that offset the comedy without cheapening the drama. There’s plenty to love in this premiere, which features plenty of memorable exchanges between its three leads and an energy which sustains itself throughout the two-hour stretch. A shame the rest of the season failed to live up to this promise.
14. “Tomorrow” [7×22] – The West Wing did not go out with the biggest bang on television, but its finale was still pretty darn terrific. As Bartlet and his staff prepare to leave the White House for the final time, every major character gets a moment of closure, reminding us why we fell in love with them seven seasons earlier. It’s simple, yet marvelously effective, as characters make their choices and say their goodbyes. And if your eyes didn’t at least well up during the final scene with Bartlet on Air Force One, I will fight you.
13. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19] – This was it. The moment everything kicked into high gear, and the Bartlet administration proved it could do more than walk halls and make speeches. It was inevitable from the start of the series, yet that didn’t make it any less satisfying to watch as Leo showed Bartlet the error of their ways, and the staff resolved to start running into walls at full speed. It’s almost as though everything leading up to this episode was a lengthy introduction, and now we were about to experience the real West Wing.
12. “Night Five” [3×13] – The midseason stretch of Season Three remains perhaps the most underappreciated period of Sorkin’s tenure on the show. And “Night Five” remains just one of its gems. Bartlet’s sections with Dr. Keyworth are insightful and unsettling, and the continuity from following up on the fallout of Season Two is just fantastic. Even the unnecessary subplot about radical Islam, for all its immediate post-9/11 sensibilities, subtly sets up the relationship between Toby and Andy for Season Four.
11. “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10] – This fan favorite episode remains a classic, its holiday sentiments potent through any religious (and even nonreligious) subtexts. Placing the generally emotion-averse Toby at the center of the action effectively heightens the drama, and the surrounding elements all converge under the banner theme of Christmas. The characters are not different than they were last episode, yet an undeniable change has washed through all of them – and the effects of this change are among the most quietly glorious the show has ever depicted.
10. “2162 Votes” [6×22] – It’s rare to find a season finale that manages to be both thematically cohesive and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, but we got just that in “2162 Votes”, a brilliant episode which tied up Season Six’s primary election arc in about as satisfying a manner as you could hope for. It’s a testament to how richly layered the arc was that the show could plumb such depths in this finale, right up to and including the final shot, which puts the entire episode into a whole new and equally intriguing perspective. “Let’s go win this,” indeed.
9. “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part II)” [2×02] – Honestly, both parts of the Season Two premiere likely deserve a spot on this list. But I ended up giving the edge to Part II because it’s the episode where the stakes, the emotion, and the character drama all come to a head. That the season which followed was able to live up to the incredibly high expectations set by this premiere is astonishing. Between the eye-opening flashbacks and the equally eye-opening present-day scenes, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” remains one of the greatest season premieres I’ve ever seen.
8. “Here Today” [7×05] – An episode crippled by controversy and a huge deal of fan hatred surrounding its implications, “Here Today” may take at least a couple of viewings before the subtle eloquence of its story truly sinks in. But the culmination of Toby’s arc is both tragic and tragically rendered, with some of the most haunting atmosphere ever to grace the series. The performances of Schiff, Sheen, and Janney make this episode an eye-opener, and Alex Graves’ direction elevates it to aesthetic masterpiece.
7. “Posse Comitatus” [3×21] – The third season finale didn’t measure up to the second (what could?) but it delivered a slam-bang finish to the show’s darkest season nonetheless. The final ten minutes alone are enough to grant the episode a Top Ten spot, between the heartbreaking death of Simon Donovan and the chilling death of the Qumari ambassador. Even the onscreen debut of the one-note Robert Ritchie is fortunately brief, and doesn’t detract from an otherwise emotionally devastating episode.
6. “Noel” [2×10] – Most would likely not peg The West Wing as an intensely psychological show, but that’s exactly how we can label this episode. Arresting from its teaser sequence, “Noël” remains taut and unpredictable throughout its forty-four minutes. The back-and-forth between Josh and Keyworth grows increasingly tense as the drama heightens, and even before the story reaches its excellently directed climax, we’re well aware that we’re not watching “just another Christmas episode”.
5. “King Corn” [6×13] – John Wells tried several high-concept episodes during his tenure with the show, but most of them failed to ignite. “King Corn” remains the delightful exception. Its day-in-the-life storytelling initially appears to be a repetitive gimmick, but it’s in fact an ingenious means to uncover the many layers surrounding election prep and the effects it has on the many characters who’ve dared to dust their boots on the campaign trail. It’s an honest, moving, and surprisingly non-idealized look at starter politics, and Wells’ finest West Wing work.
4. “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14] – Another psychological episode, this one does “Noël” one better by focusing on the show’s protagonist, revealing Bartlet for all his complexities, and capping off Season Three’s incredible midseason arc. The chessboard is among the series’ most brilliant metaphorical devices, giving us insight into Bartlet’s mind without turning to emotional exploitation. Simply marvelous from start to finish.
3. “17 People” [2×18] – A bottle episode like none other, “17 People” kicks off Season Two’s spectacular homestretch with a theatrical drama centering on three men and a closely guarded secret. The scenes between Bartlet and Leo, Bartlet and Toby, Leo and Toby, and Toby and the other staffers are golden, proving the old adage that “less is more”, and setting things in place for the show’s most consistent and incredible arc.
2. “Bartlet for America” [3×09] – Oh, how the tears do flow. The best of the Christmas episodes, “Bartlet for America” is the most purely shining look at the friendship between Bartlet and Leo as the show ever gave us. Sorkin’s unsettling setpieces harmonize with Schlamme’s shadowy atmosphere to give us some of the most haunting flashbacks in the show’s history. At no point does the episode lose its emotional core, and the moving final scene never fails to water my eyes.
And the Number One greatest West Wing episode of all time is…
1. “Access” [5×18] – Just kidding.
1. “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] – This is as good as it gets. The best written, best directed, and best acted episode in the show’s history wraps up the second season in a thematically satisfying and incredibly riveting hour. The scene where Bartlet verbally attacks the Lord in church is alone a harrowing prospect, but the episode isn’t content to stop there, throwing golden scene atop golden scene in its destruction and rebuilding of its brow-beating protagonist. It’s about as pure a form of drama as you can get without overplaying into melodrama, and Sorkin, Schlamme, and Sheen make the most of every moment. Start to finish, it’s a marvel of storytelling – television doesn’t get any better than this.