The West Wing 20th Anniversary
Top 25 Best Episodes
July 22, 2019
Premiering on September 22, 1999, this Fall will mark the 20th Anniversary of Aaron’s Sorkin’s seminal political drama, The West Wing. Telling the story of fictional President, Josiah Bartlet, and the trials and tribulations of his senior staff, The West Wing helped to usher in the Golden age of serialized drama that we’re still living in today. It is not hyperbole to say, The West Wing changed television in a real way, and for the better. In the end, The West Wing is a love letter to civil servants who sacrifice so much for their idealism and the greater good.
This Top 25 List represents the second in a series of articles I will be writing over the coming months, celebrating the show’s 20th Anniversary. Read my first entry here, the Best Seasons of The West Wing. Due to the size of these articles, I’ll be publishing the Top 25 List in 5 Episode Installments. This is Part 3.
Over the course of 7 Seasons, The West Wing aired 156 episodes, but really, 154 episodes. Two, “Documentary Special” from Season 3 and “Isaac and Ishmael,” a standalone episode produced and aired within 3 weeks of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were non-canonical “special” episodes. Over the course of the first 4 seasons, when Aaron Sorkin directly ran the show and wrote almost all of the episodes, week after week saw groundbreaking television; complex characters telling (mostly) nuanced stories about the successes and failures of government and those who run it. After Sorkin left in Season 5, there was a noticeable shift in tone and decline in quality, but the show recovered, and, in the end, aired a very good final Season 7 (my fourth favorite season of the show).
Below, I rank my Top 25 Episodes culled from the 7 Seasons of the show. I think most people will agree that my Top 5 represent the best, though everyone’s order may differ. Slots 6-25 represent to me, either in part or in whole, the greatest parts of what The West Wing could be when it was at its best.
The Top 25 Episodes of The West Wing:
15. “Posse Comitatus” (Season 3, Episode 22). This episode was the Season 3 finale and as such served a classic The West Wing purpose of tying up season long loose ends as well as laying the foundation for the next season to come. The A plot dealt with President Bartlet having to make the final decision to assassinate the Qumari Defense Minister Prince Abdul Shareef, a political officer of Qumar as well as a member of the Qumari royal family … but also a proven financier of terrorist attacks against American targets. The President, struggling with the morality of taking a specific life to say nothing of his Catholicism over such a situation, hems and haws until the very last moments of the episode.
In the end, the President gives the order for the covert operation and we watch it play out as the Broadway production of “The War of the Roses” sings “England Arise,” a particular song that the President found himself ruminating on earlier in the episode. Its a terrific example of the show juxtaposing images to make a larger point about the complexity of being President in the modern age. The song’s refrain, “Victorious in war shall be made glorious in peace” is prescient for the matter at hand and the irony is not lost on the President. The clip below is this final scene of the episode and even without context, it’s a jarring 2 minutes that leaves an impression. That lasting image of the President’s shadowed silhouette is how Season 3 ended and represented a path and consequences that Bartlet and his administration would deal with throughout Season 4. The imagery, pacing, and dramatic storytelling of this episode, together with how well it resonated throughout the next season, all go towards earning “Posse Comitatus” a place on our Top 25 Episodes of all time list.
The B Plot was the wrap-up of CJ’s stalker arc but which also came with the terribly sad death of Agent Simon Donovan during a botched bodega robbery. In just a few episodes, Mark Harmon crawled into our hearts, and CJ’s too, and for such a short lived character, Simon’s death was a hard one to swallow. This too would have repercussions into early Season 4.
The C Plot involved Josh and Amy having relationship woes when she organizes opposition to a bill that the President wants passed. Bad enough that Josh arranged for the vote to be taken while the President and most of the Senior Staff would be in NYC at the Catholic Charities function (see the War of the Roses performance above), but now Josh had to deal with his girlfriend roadblocking him. Josh does what Josh does best and gets the bill passed but it costs Amy her job and any future of a relationship these two might have.
The behind the scenes D Plot involved the President and staff attending this Broadway play for a fundraiser and the fact that the President’s campaign opponent, Governor Ritchie, would also be attending. The upside of this plot is that Bartlet, after hearing Ritchie’s callous response to Simon’s death, lays one of his most personal smackdowns on anyone in the history of the show.
“In the future, if you’re wondering: “Crime. Boy, I don’t know,” is when I decided to kick your ass.”
14. “Take This Sabbath Day” (Season 1, Episode 14). This episode is a great examination of President Bartlet’s frequent clashes of political expediency posed against his Catholicism and strongly held religious beliefs. The A plot revolves around a drug dealer on death row being denied an appeal. One of the convicted man’s public defenders drags Sam, and thus, the White House, into a weekend long discussion of whether the President should pardon the man or allow him to be executed by the State. The Public Defender (the GREAT Noah Emmerich), who bullied Sam back in school, pulls out all the stops even getting Toby’s Rabbi to give a sermon on how vengeance is not Jewish. In the end, President Bartlet can’t intervene in the decision but not before having a priest (Karl Malden’s last time on film) from New Hampshire brought down to the White House to consult and at least one phone call to the Pope.
A great episode on its face, right? Sure, but what earns “Take This Sabbath Day” a place on our list of the Top 25 The West Wing Episodes of all time is the EPIC introduction of pollster, Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin), to a very hungover and disheveled Joshua Lyman. When Josh cannot make it home following an all night Bachelor Party bender, Donna finds him asleep on the floor of his office, in horribly stained and foul smelling clothes. Changing him into a Gordon’s Fisherman-style weather suit while she has his regular clothes dry cleaned, Donna leaves Josh to be discovered by Joey Lucas and her interpreter Kenny. They bang into Josh’s office completely befuddling Josh as to why Joey is a deaf woman and not a man like he expected, and also, he’d very much like to die given how he feels.
Of all the pairings on this show, no one ever matched better with Josh than Joey Lucas. And this first meeting is one of my very favorite scenes in all of The West Wing.
13. “Life on Mars” (Season 4, Episode 21). Following the Mandy-like disappearance of Deputy Counsel Ainsley Hayes in Season 3 (though she did make an appearance in the Season 7 Episode, “Requiem”), The West Wing went to the well again with a new Republicans deputy counsel hire in the guise of Joe Quincy (Matthew Perry in one of the first roles he did as Friends was winding down). After being introduced in the episode before, “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” Joe had his first day on the job in “Life on Mars.” His first assignment? Discover the source of two separate leaks of classified information to the press. Joe “Sherlocks” his way through his first day, very much aware of the egg shells he is walking on (this White House doesn’t really like Republicans), but ultimately discovers that Vice President John Hoynes leaked both stories to a woman with whom he was having an affair. The woman, in turn, leaked the stories to a gossip columnist as part of a new book deal she was courting. The episode ends in the Vice President’s resignation from office but not before President Bartlet and Leo McGarry try to talk him out of resigning but also, berating him for making such a bone headed move.
There is a B Plot involving Will and the Laurens trying to come up with an ad countering an attack ad made criticizing the administration’s stance on increased fuel efficiency standards. This plot is relatively pointless other than for comic relief.
12. “2162 Votes” (Season 6, Episode 22).
11. “20 Hours In America” (Parts 1&2) (Season 4, Episodes 1&2).