If you missed the first half of the list, click here for Episodes 6-10 on our Top Ten West Wing Episodes. But it’s time for the best of the best: the Top Five West Wing episodes ever!
5. Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail (2.16)
This episode made the list for one reason and one reason only: Big Block of Cheese Day. I love Big Block of Cheese Day, or, as Toby calls it in Season One’s edition, ‘Throw-open-our-office-doors-to-people-who-want-to-discuss-things-that-we-could-care-less-about Day’ (or ‘Total Crackpot Day’, as Josh refers to it). I could easily have chosen ‘The Crackpots and These Women’ (1.5), but Big Block of Cheese Day 2.0 gets my vote, thanks to the Organisation of Cartographers for Social Equality.
Funniest Moment: (Leo, to Josh) “Little thing called team morale, Josh. You gotta make people feel good about themselves. [enters conference room] Alright, shut the hell up everybody! I’ve fired more people than you before breakfast.”
Memorable Line: (Sam) “It’s just there are certain things you’re sure of… like longitude and latitude.”
(Donna) “Sam, I don’t know if this is the best time to tell you, but according to C.J., I wouldn’t be so sure about longitude and latitude.”
Memorable Scene: C.J. gets freaked out by ‘lunatic map makers’.
4. Bartlet for America (3.10)
As I wrote this list, I realised I’m a sucker for episodes that play with time. It’s not the narrative device itself that gets me, but the insight into the history of the characters that I know and love so much. In ‘Bartlet for America’, Leo faces a congressional hearing which is investigating whether the President lied to the American people. In the process, we flash back to learn how Leo’s drug and alcohol addictions were revealed, and how the ‘Bartlet for America’ presidential campaign started from humble beginnings in the New Hampshire Governor’s office.
Funniest Moment: (Bartlet) “Listen, I don’t care that much about your ass but if you need to perjure yourself to protect me you’re going to damn well do it.”
(Leo) “Sir, this isn’t a secure call, so I’m going to say to the 17 global intelligence agencies that are listening in that he was kidding just then.”
Memorable Line: (Leo) “The President was at the debate site, walking the stage. A podium is a holy place for him. He makes it his own like it’s an extension of his body. You ever see a pitcher work the mound so the dirt does exactly what his feet want it to do? That’s the President. He sees it as a genuine opportunity to change minds. Also his best way of contributing to the team. He likes teams. I love him so much.”
Memorable Scene: Leo and Jed begin the long road to the White House.
3. In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (2.1-2)
This two-part episode wraps up the ultra-dramatic conclusion to Season One, while also taking us back in time to reveal the origins of the West Wing team. As Bartlet faces surgery, an assassination plot is uncovered and Josh fights for his life, we flash back to learn more about the campaign’s humble beginnings in Nashua, and the past lives of this extraordinary cast of characters.
Funniest Moment: (Toby) “Come join the campaign.”
(C.J.) “How much does it pay?”
(Toby) “How much were you making before?”
(C.J.) “Five hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.”
(Toby) “This pays six hundred dollars a week.”
(C.J.) “So, this is less.”
Memorable Line: (Leo) “Because I’m tired of it! Year after year after year after year having to chose between the lesser of ‘who cares?’ Of trying to get myself excited about a candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low, I can hardly look at it.”
Memorable Scene: Josh loses his father on the night of the Illinois primary, and begins his father and son-like relationship with the President-to-be (see Bartlet’s soliloquy in ‘Two Cathedrals’, below).
2. Let Bartlet Be Bartlet (1.19)
Out of 155 episodes, one stands head-and-shoulders above all others. But as I assembled this list, I realised that my second choice quickly became just as clear. In ‘Let Bartlet Be Bartlet’, a leaked memo by Mandy – written while working for one of the President’s opponents – forces the staff to confront the failings of their first 18 months in office and their weaknesses. Specifically, they come to terms with the reality that their malaise may start with the President himself – a once-in-a-generation mind still capable of being paralysed by fear, and by an unwillingness to be himself. I’ve found plenty of real-life applications for this episode, and have also realised an uncanny similarity in theme with number one on this list: both are about a man forced to confront his inner demons and make a choice – a choice between doing what is easy, and doing what is right.
Funniest Moment: ‘As I look out over this magnificent vista…’
Memorable Line: (Bartlet) “I really did wake up energized this morning. I never go to bed that way. Just once, in this job, I’d like to end a day feeling as good as I did when the day started.”
Memorable Scene: Leo confronts the President with the hard truth.
1. Two Cathedrals (2.22)
‘Two Cathedrals’ isn’t just the best episode of The West Wing ever. It’s the best hour of television ever made. Bartlet and the staff face not only the public revelation of his long-concealed illness and a Haitian military crisis, but the sudden loss of his secretary and friend, Mrs. Landingham. The tragic accident propels Bartlet into a series of flashbacks, where we experience the early days of his defining relationship with his father.
‘Two Cathedrals’ is the perfect culmination of two years of extraordinary television. If you’d never watched an episode, you’d probably enjoy this without being blown away. But after seeing the relationships and personalities develop over an extended period of time, this episode provides an emotionally charged, sublimely realised and thoroughly inspired climax. It’s television perfection.
Funniest Moment: (C.J.) “Listen, I was thinking since it’s probably going to be a light day, I’d maybe blow off work, go shopping or something.”
Memorable Line 1: (Leo) “Watch this!”
Memorable Line 2: (Mrs. Landingham) “You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run because you think it’s gonna be too hard or you think you’re gonna lose, well God Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”
Memorable Scene 1: This scene is worth the price of the entire series on Blu-Ray.
Memorable Scene 2: If you can watch the whole episode and then get through these last five minutes without getting emotional, well – I don’t even want to know you.
So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed reading the list and (much more importantly) watching the clips. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Happy West Wing watching!!