“The West Wing” is widely considered to be one of the best shows of all time. Aaron Sorkin’s political drama follows the Bartlet Administration through two terms in the White House. For seven seasons we watched Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), his family, and advisors or assistants — that began to feel like our own family — navigated a constantly shifting political landscape. Premiering in 1999, “The West Wing” fell at the beginning of what we now call the Golden Age of Television and arguably led to high-profile shows like “24,” “House of Cards,” “Veep,” and “The Crown.”
“The West Wing” racked up an impressive 26 Primetime Emmy wins and 95 nominations, despite steep competition from chief rival “The Sopranos.” With former politicians like Dee Dee Myers and Elie Attie serving as contributors and writers, the show boasted an impressive level of authenticity. Though some have blamed its overly optimistic portrayal of politics for setting up a generation of Americans with unrealistic expectations for democracy. Many others, the so-called “West Wing Babies” were inspired to take up politics as a profession based on their love for the long-running drama.
Much ink has already been spilled about the best episodes “The West Wing” has to offer, with the Season 2 finale “Two Cathedrals” usually coming out on top. However, with 156 episodes in total, there are many fantastic entries that never seem to make the cut. The following is a list of the top 10 underrated episodes of “The West Wing.”
Galileo (Season 2, Episode 9)
The ninth episode of Season 2 isn’t a key part of any longer story arc but features everything “The West Wing” is known for and provides a poignant example of perseverance. With a looming virtual classroom involving Galileo V, NASA’s mission to Mars, senior staff begin to worry when they lose contact with the signal broadcast from the spacecraft. Meanwhile, the president is set to go to a Kennedy Center concert to hear modern classical music by the Reykjavik Symphony. He’s dreading the performance because it will feature modern classical music and he believes only compositions from the old masters are worth listening to.
C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) both dodge romantic entanglements outside the venue, and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) and Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) playfully argue about the development of a new stamp. Still, the most exciting subplot involves Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) and C.J.’s frustration that a minor comment about the President not liking green beans has turned into “a thing.”
With such taxing work hours, it’s common for episodes to stretch into the night, but watching our characters go about their business in formal wear is always a treat. The president raving about the complexity of the music he just heard (he’s now a fan) is delightful as well and dovetails nicely with the episode’s closing moment. Still unable to connect with Galileo V, they decide to go ahead with the virtual classroom anyways to provide an example for a generation of adults continuing to try even though they sometimes falter.
A Good Day (Season 6, Episode 17)
This exciting episode is all about reclaiming power and giving a voice to the voiceless. Late in Bartlet’s second term, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) finds himself shuffled from meeting to meeting with nothing of consequence to do. He pawns off a meeting with high school students who were promised a face-to-face with a member of senior staff until he realizes they feel the same frustration. Once he takes the time to listen, he realizes that they have much more in common than he once thought. Toby remembers the incredible platform he still has which leads to a joyful scene in which the young man who leads the group gets to plead for children’s suffrage at a live press conference with the president himself. It’s a mirror of the young social activist we’re seeing today, from teens like Greta Thunberg and survivors of the Parkland Shooting as well as an important reminder to keep fighting for what you deserve.
The episode’s major story is an incredibly cathartic renunciation of political games designed to rip power from the voiceless majority. With the House held captive by the petty Speaker Haffley (Steven Culp), the Democrats keep getting shut out of a vote on stem cell research. Haffley will only call the vote if it’s guaranteed to go his way. Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) leads the charge in a ploy to convince Haffley a significant number of Democrats have left town and that he’s safe to call the vote while hiding the congressmen and women in his offices overnight.
While it’s fun to see these prominent members of government having what amounts to a slumber party in the offices of congress, it’s also gratifying to watch Santos try to persuade a young congressman on the issue while allowing him to vote according to his own conscience. The look of satisfaction on Santos’ face as they all file onto the floor of congress to cast their votes is icing on the cake.
Night Five (Season 3, Episode 13)
This episode begins on a clandestine note. Adam Arkin reprises his role as Dr. Stanley Keyworth and we think he’s being brought in to treat Josh’s PTSD, but a repeated question about whether he knew anyone on the plane alludes to a more prominent patient. It seems Bartlet has been unable to sleep for the past four nights in what seems to be residual tension from an argument he had with Toby.
Combined with stress from the upcoming election, Toby’s implication that Bartlet’s father never loved him seems to have triggered past feelings of inadequacy. It’s a moment of humanity from a larger-than-life character and an interesting scene in which a character is allowed to treat the President like a human being rather than a figurehead. This episode also sees Donna contemplating her future as she gets a lucrative job offer at an online news startup. She ultimately turns it down, but her temptation is a harbinger for later seasons that will see her finally break away from Josh.
The episode’s most heartbreaking plotline involves a reporter believed to have been taken hostage in the Congo. C.J. has recently had disagreements with him over headlines and his wife worries this will cloud her determination to get him back. C.J.’s insistence that they are all family in the press room even when they disagree is a bittersweet reminder of a time before the communication hostilities we now see every day. C.J. and Leo McGarry (John Spencer) do everything they can to secure his release only to find out he’s been killed in an ambush. The final scene in which they comfort his widow is a haunting reminder of the real-life dangers that lie outside the West Wing walls.
No Exit (Season 5, Episode 20)
In “The West Wing” equivalent of a bottle episode, Bartlet and senior staff find themselves locked down in a crashed White House awaiting investigation of an airborne contaminant that may or may not be a drill. While it’s fun to see Deborah Fiderer (Lily Tomlin), Charlie, and the president attempt to distract themselves with board games while wearing matching tracksuits, the bulk of the episode lies in odd pairings that force our characters to confront personal issues they’ve been avoiding.
Leo and Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing) are both stuck together in the residence and forced to make small talk to cover the anger that still lies between them. Before leaving, she tosses out an ominous warning about his health that foreshadows his devastating heart attack in Season 6. Donna is stuck in C.J.’s office where they both confront each other with their reluctance to move forward with their personal lives. Josh finds himself locked in an office with Kate Harper (Mary McCormack) and the case of water she casually grabbed while being herded into lockdown. New to the staff and cast, this gives Kate an opportunity to share impressive but vague tidbits about her past with the CIA.
The standout pairing is Toby and Will Bailey (Joshua Malina), both sequestered in the office Will gave up to work with the vice president. Trying to go to his own office, Toby is tackled by a security guard, a funny moment that also reminds us of the seriousness of the circumstance. Toby speaks for the audience when he rages at Josh for leaving the West Wing to work for “Bingo Bob,” sentiments Malina has revealed mirror those he received from angry fans of the show.
Evidence Of Things Not Seen (Season 4, Episode 20)
Another lockdown episode, “Evidence of Things Not Seen” is framed by C.J.’s attempt to stand an egg in its head at the very moment of the equinox. Her insistence on hidden truth is a theme that runs through the episode. President Bartlet tries to convince his Russian counterpart that a spy plane is not a spy plane, Debbie bluffs her way through a high-stakes poker game, and Will runs to the press room to prove that he can hit the fifth row of seats with a playing card. This is the backdrop for an outside attack from a rogue shooter who it turns out was actually attempting “suicide by cop.”
This episode introduces us to Joe Quincy (Matthew Perry), the Republican lawyer who applies for a job as associate counsel. Josh hires him despite his party affiliation in a bittersweet reminder of a time before our polarized political landscape. Charlie tries to get Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) back and we learn that she will be going to Paris with him after graduation, setting up her climactic kidnapping in just a few episodes.
The episode’s single best moment occurs when Special Agent Ron Butterfield (Michael O’Neill) notes that people are being held in place. Jed notes that a few agents aren’t going to be able to stop Charlie — currently stuck elsewhere in the building — from standing by his side. Right on cue, he bursts through the door seconds later, demonstrating depths of love and devotion in their father-son relationship.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Institutional Memory (Season 7, Episode 21)
Most of the attention in the final season goes to two stellar episodes, the devastating “Requiem,” and “Tomorrow,” the pitch-perfect series finale. But nestled in between is “Institutional Memory,” an episode mostly concerned with C.J.’s struggle to decide what she will do with her life after leaving the White House. Finally ready (maybe) to start a relationship with reporter Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield), C.J. sifts through a multitude of offers including a high-ranking position in the Santos administration and a lucrative offer from a billionaire to help to fight AIDS in Africa. This choice essentially boils down to one question: is she ready to leave the West Wing behind?
Danny has been patiently waiting in the wings, understanding the importance of her work, but the odds that he will wait for another four or eight years are slim to none. What’s more, he’s frustrated that she would make such a massive decision without even talking to him about it. C.J. comes to his apartment to make up and the two share a meaningful glance while she waits for Secret Service agents to clear his apartment which effectively conveys everything they’ve been trying to say to each other for seven seasons. It’s implied that C.J. will be leaving the White House, and a flash-forward in the Season 7 premiere reveals that she and Danny have begun to build a life together, hinting at a happy ending for our favorite press secretary.
The U.S. Poet Laureate (Season 3, Episode 16)
The 16th episode of Season 3 perfectly captures Aaron Sorkin’s ability to blend mundane office humor with the life-and-death stakes that accompany Oval Office decisions. Having discovered a website called LemonLyman.com, a fansite dedicated to his political persona, Josh decides to engage with his fans though Donna insists it’s a bad idea. No one ever wins when they pick a fight with the internet. His comment spirals and makes its way all the way to the pages of the Washington Post.
During a series of morning show interviews, the president has a hot mic moment where he implies that his opponent in the general election is rather stupid. The story becomes a headache for C.J. but works out well for Bartlet as the nation begins a conversation about the intelligence required for the job of president. In the episode’s final moments, we learn that Bartlet planned the whole thing in order to highlight the intellectual difficulties of the office and the inadequacies of his opponent.
The episode also features the always-fantastic Laura Dern in a guest role as Tabitha Fortis, the titular poet. In town for a White House party in her honor, she threatens to boycott the event due to the Bartlet administration’s stance on landmines. Toby brokers a compromise in which Tabitha pleads her case to the President, allowing Sorkin to highlight a devastating reality in the aftermath of war.
King Corn (Season 6, Episode 13)
This segmented episode takes place entirely on the campaign trail and shows the parallel days of staffers Will, Josh, and Donna. It may not have the highs of the convention or the various scandals of opposition research and press gaffes, but it does give us a nearly perfect encapsulation of the three candidates as well as a glimpse into the inner workings of their campaigns. The drama centers on each candidate’s decision to take the “ethanol pledge” before the Iowa Caucus, traditionally a make-or-break move for any candidate.
Bob Russell (Gary Cole) takes Will’s advice and the pledge with barely a moment’s consideration, revealing his lack of conviction. Santos reluctantly takes the pledge, heeding Josh’s warning that failing to do so will effectively end his campaign. Republican Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) rejects his campaign staff’s advice and refuses to take the pledge, publicly explaining why it’s harmful to small farmers. This move earns him the respect of Matt Santos as well as the audience.
The episode’s highlight is a concluding montage set to Ryan Adams’s “Desire” in which Josh, Will, and Donna return to their hotel rooms, beaten down by a long day of campaigning. Staying in rooms across the hall from each other, Josh and Donna have several awkward encounters where we feel their longing to be working together again. Josh hovers outside Donna’s door, ultimately deciding not to knock and saving their long-awaited first kiss for Season 7.
Shutdown (Season 5, Episode 8)
This action-packed episode sees the happy conclusion of many different plotlines finally converging. We begin with a flashback from last week’s cliffhanger in which Bartlet refuses to submit to Speaker Haffley’s negotiating games with the national budget and forces a government shutdown. This leads to confusion as most of the assistants are sent home, but it’s a win for Donna when she catches a glitch that would keep millions of people from receiving their social security checks.
As the president holds firm in his refusal to budge against Haffley’s tactics, everyone but Josh — who’s been sidelined after a disastrous political mistake earlier in the season — urges him to cave. Abbey also returns from an extended stay in New Hampshire and seems to have forgiven her husband for putting Zoey in danger. Her casual suggestion that he put Josh back in the game signals a return to normalcy and leads to the highlight of the episode.
While en route to the Capitol, Josh suggests they get out and walk to the congressional offices to negotiate. Bartlet’s walk to the capitol is exciting, but this cinematic moment is topped when Josh outplays Haffley and the speaker opens his office doors to see the president, flanked by Secret Service agents with the press pool close behind, leaving the office with public opinion back on their side. They won’t strike a deal until later, but it’s clear at this moment that Josh has delivered Bartlet an important win.
Angel Maintenance (Season 4, Episode 19)
Though lockdown episodes are always exciting, “The West Wing” has another unique method for delivering bottle episodes: setting them entirely onboard Air Force One. In a Season 2 episode, “The Portland Trip,” Bartlet marvels at the romance of late-night flights and we see this sentiment play out in “Angel Maintenance.” On the way back from Manila, nearly every member of senior staff is on the plane, including Will Bailey who is afraid to fly.
A small problem with the landing gear ends up extending the trip for hours as they try different methods of repair, including a midair inspection with an F-16 fighter jet. C.J.’s attempts to distract the onboard press core by directing them to look at fields of flowers on the opposite side of the plane fall apart in minutes as they all clamor to watch the midair maneuver. She’s immediately forced to shut down the phone lines revealing the calamitous cost of reactionary journalism.
Another plotline involves the fallout of friendly fire in the fictional country of Kundhu. The Black Congressional Caucus has walked away from an agreement on peacekeeping measures with one senator proposing a reinstatement of the draft. His confrontation with Josh is a poignant moment that shows the human toll of policy involving the military. Those tasked with making the decisions that send troops into battle are often so far removed from the action that it’s easy to forget they are gambling with human lives.
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Author: Jenn Adams
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November 13, 2022