I watched my first episode of The West Wing in 2003. By that time, the show was more than halfway through its run of 155 episodes. I’d heard of the show, and I’d started to realise that it had a fanatical following. As a fan of Aaron Sorkin and with a long-running interest in American politics, The West Wing was already my favourite show in theory before I’d ever seen a single episode in reality. But for some reason, I took a long time to actually get around to tuning in.
Once I finally experienced it for myself, I realised it was more wonderful than I’d ever imagined. Since then, I must have watched the entire series at least half a dozen times. Basically, I’m content to watch Season 7, Episode 22 and go straight back to Season 1, Episode 1 (while my long-suffering wife longs to add some new shows to our DVD rotation).
In one sense, coming up with my ten favourite episodes is almost impossible. I sometimes feel like my favourite episode is whichever one I just watched. But still, certain episodes do stand out, and I thought it would be fun to finally come up with my Top Ten West Wing Episodes. So, here goes!
I’d love to hear the thoughts of other fans: what episodes would make your top ten? What have I left out? What are your all-time favourite scenes or favourite moments? Let me know (or leave a YouTube link) in the comments section. And feel free to disagree with my selections – but just don’t bother to question my choice for number one – it’s not open for negotiation.
Honourable Mention: The Debate (Season 7, Episode 7)
You’ll notice that my Top Ten are all from seasons 1-4 (not coincidentally, the Sorkin years). But I couldn’t totally omit the last three seasons, especially given the performances of Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits. In some ways ‘The Debate’ is nothing all that special. The dialogue is decent but not overly inspiring, and the format doesn’t necessarily play all that brilliantly over 40+ minutes. But knowing it was originally performed live makes re-watching ‘The Debate’ very satisfying. More importantly, it showcases the incredible talents of Alda and Smits, which really carried (and in some ways revitalised) the show through its closing seasons.
Funniest Moment: Not a lot of comic relief in this one. Maybe when the audience member shouts out, ‘You’re the liar!’
Memorable Line: (Santos) “When you try to hurl that label at my feel, ‘liberal’, as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won’t work, Senator, because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honour.”
Memorable Scene: Um, the one with the debate…?
10. Take This Sabbath Day (1.14)
One of the best things about The West Wing was its willingness to tackle big issues – and not just political issues, but ethical and spiritual ones, too. You don’t have to agree with this episode’s theology or its conclusions about capital punishment to be moved, provoked and challenged as the staff considers the fate of a convicted killer. Whenever I watch the opening sequence, part of me wants Sam to walk out of the office, go on vacation and let the phone ring. But then, if he did that, he wouldn’t be Sam Seaborn.
Funniest Moment: Josh greets Joey Lucas in bright yellow waterproof overalls.
Memorable Line: (Sam) “Leo, there are times when we are absolutely nowhere.”
Memorable Scene: The President and his former parish priest (Karl Malden) together in the Oval Office.
9. A Proportional Response (1.3)
The first truly great episode, mixing some hilarious moments and Charlie’s introduction alongside a serious issue, brought into focus by the President’s enduring question: What is the virtue of a proportional response? It’s fascinating to hear the avowedly-pacifist Martin Sheen talk about his personal struggle with Bartlet’s approach to his first ever military strike, but (as we became so accustomed to) Sheen’s portrayal perfectly captured the humanity of the brilliant yet ordinary man called upon to making a momentous, life-changing decision.
Funniest Moment: Josh and C.J.’s exchange as Josh tries to cover up Sam’s involvement with a call girl is one of the best exchanges in the entire series (scandalously, I couldn’t find this on YouTube):
Josh: Y’know what, C.J., I really think I’m the best judge of what I mean, you paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista! [pause] Whoa, that was way too far.
C.J.: No, no. Well, I’ve got a staff meeting to go to and so do you, you elitist, Harvard, fascist, missed-the-Dean’s-list-two-semesters-in-a-row, Yankee jackass!
Josh: Feel better getting that off your chest there, C.J.?
C.J.: I’m a whole new woman.
Memorable Line: (Bartlet) “Let the word ring forth from this time and this place, gentlemen: you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response. We come BACK with total disaster!”
Memorable Scene: An enraged Bartlet confronts the Situation Room and demands a disproportional response.
8. Game On (4.6)
The rivalry between Republican presidential candidate Robert Ritchie and Bartlet builds beautifully from the end of season 3, despite the complete lack of suspense about the election’s outcome. In some ways it reaches its high point during their confrontation in Season 3’s finale (‘Posse Comitatus’), especially with the President’s quip: “By the way, in the future, if you’re wondering, ‘Crime, boy, I don’t know’ was when I decided to kick your ass.” But from the staff’s opening practical joke on Toby (‘crisis of confidence!’) to C.J.’s realisation that ‘Uncle Fluffy’ hasn’t shown up for the debate, this episode really is ‘a sight to see’ and provides a fitting culmination to the Bartlet Administration’s re-election campaign.
Funniest Moment: Game on, boyfriend!
Memorable Line: (Bartlet) “Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer?”
Memorable Scene: Bartlet comes out all guns blazing to open the debate: “‘Unfunded mandate’ is two words, not one big one.”
7. Commencement (4.22)
The Season 4 finale, ‘Twenty Five’ (4.23), could just as easily have earned a spot on this list. As sad as it is that Sorkin left, he went out on a high and left the show with an amazing parting gift in the form of Season 4’s cliffhanger (a scenario prophesied in Season 1, Episode 6). But I’ve always preferred ‘Commencement’, for a couple of reasons. One, it’s not Aaron Sorkin’s last episode at the helm. I find it hard to watch ‘Twenty Five’ without thinking about that. (Not that Seasons 5-7 weren’t amazing; they were. But let’s face it, the show never reached the same heights after its creator departed.) Two, the last five minutes of ‘Commencement’ are as tense as any in the show’s history, building up to Leo’s memorable run from the west wing to the residence. (There’s not a whole lot of running in The West Wing, which drives home the impact of this moment – thanks to some wonderful acting from John Spencer.) While The West Wing was never beholden to the need to end every season with a traditional ‘what will happen next?’ moment, I’m still a sucker for a good cliffhanger, and this one is a doozy.
Funniest Moment: (Bartlet) “Before I forget – if something comes up, and you’re faced with the choice of killing the boyfriend or not killing the boyfriend: kill the boyfriend.”
Memorable Line: (Andy) You’re sad, and you’re angry, and you’re not warm. You take forever to trust someone.
(Toby) Well, my father used to kill people for a living, so, generationally, the Zieglers are making lots of progress.
Memorable Scene: The aforementioned conclusion, with a trippy soundtrack from Massive Attack, builds the tension to a fever pitch. The words, ‘Go to black’ and the look on Ron and Leo’s faces gets me every time.
6. Celestial Navigation (1.15)
As Josh delivers a lecture at Georgetown on ‘a week in the life’ of a west wing staffer, Sam and Toby travel to Connecticut to rescue Roberto Mendoza – the President’s nominee for the Supreme Court – from jail, after he was arrested for ‘driving while being Hispanic’. This is one of the first episodes to move between present and past as a story-telling device, and it works brilliantly. It’s one of the funniest episodes in the entire series, peppered with hilarious moments – suffice to say that ‘a secret plan to fight inflation’ and ‘I ha woot canow’ have become catch phrases in our house.
Funniest Moment: C.J. greets Josh after having emergency woot canow.
Memorable Line: (Mendoza) ‘They pulled me over because I look like my name is Roberto Mendoza and I’m coming to rob your house.’
Memorable Scene: Josh’s powers of debate fail to rise to ‘meet the Socratic wonder that is the White House press corps.’
We’re halfway there, and the best is yet to come! Click here for the Top Five West Wing Episodes.