The West Wing’s finest season 1 and 2 episodes

Robert salutes the stunning work of Aaron Sorkin, Martin Sheen and co. by selecting the finest episodes of The West Wing's first and second seasons...

Across 8 years, 7 seasons and 154 episodes, The West Wing proved to be one of the finest American drama series ever to hit the small screen. It delivered moments of incredible drama and filled compelling storylines with a smart and funny script which was often capable of delivering genuine laugh-out-loud moments.

The likes of The Wire and The Sopranos are fantastic, but for me it’s The West Wing I find myself going back to again and again. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone back from the start and worked my way through, and it’s testament to the show’s longevity that even now I still get caught up in the tense moments and catch little quips I had previously missed. There’s also something comforting about spending time in The West Wing‘s alternate universe, a place populated by incredibly clever, witty people in positions of great power.

There are times watching The West Wing when a prior knowledge of the inner workings of American politics  comes in handy. More often than not though you can let the minor details wash over you. Even if you don’t know your PAC from your NSC or a Filibuster from a Pocket Veto, the main focus is always the characters themselves and you’re content to just let them worry about the fine print.

The sheer volume of episodes and the great depth of story means that even The West Wing‘s minor characters become integral to proceedings (the obvious exception being Mandy of course but the less said about her the better). The likes of Ginger and Margaret may only appear on screen for a few seconds per episode, but they’re key to the whole atmosphere of the show. Likewise characters such as Admiral Fitzwallace and John Hoynes may only appear for a few episodes at a time, but even they feel like fully fleshed-out characters. It’s the lead roles such as Josh, Toby and CJ whom we really grow to love however and these three in particular are almost ever-present from start to finish. You really become immersed into their day-to-day lives over the course of 7 eventful seasons.

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Certain of the show’s storylines really stand out above the rest: the Shareef assassination, the President’s battle for re-election, and the kidnap of Zoe Bartlett, as well as ongoing threads which bubble under such as Josh and Donna, CJ and Danny and the President’s battle with MS. Some plot strands are wrapped up within a few episodes; some span the entirety of the show.

A huge portion of the credit for these engrossing storylines, and indeed for the unparalleled writing on the show, must go to its creator Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin conceived The West Wing following his work on the successful movie The American President (in which future President Bartlett Martin Sheen was Chief of Staff). It’s Sorkin’s exceptional writing talent which ensured that the show’s scripts always zipped along so seamlessly.

The show took a noticeable dip in quality when Sorkin and exec-producer Thomas Schlamme left after the fourth season and the writing never quite returned to its Sorkin-era, first four-season peak. There’s still plenty to be enjoyed in the final 3 seasons however and the Santos/Vinnick Presidential race certainly sees somewhat of a return to form.

Narrowing down my favourite episodes to a manageable number (it was originally going to be 10 but that soon proved impossible) was a difficult proposition. There are some episodes which have choice memorable moments, such as the President bumbling into a senior staff meeting high on flu medication or asking CJ to “Jump off a cliff”, but which aren’t necessarily stand-out episodes as a whole. Those I’ve ultimately chosen involve some of the most tense and powerful West Wing moments, as well as some of the funniest.

In Excelsis Deo (1:10)

The first season of The West Wing really hit the ground running and there are plenty of early candidates  thoroughly deserving of a place on this list. I mulled over putting the pilot in for posterity reasons but ultimately the earliest episode I’ve included is In Excelsis Deo, a particularly poignant episode set in the run-up to Christmas. Admittedly it does at times boarder on the side of schmaltz but also contains enough entertaining moments to act as a counter balance. Though, granted, that could describe more or less any West Wing episode.

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The central thread of the episode involves loveable curmudgeon Toby using his power to arrange a military funeral for a homeless war veteran who died wearing a coat he had given away to good will. Toby is accompanied to the funeral by the Vet’s brother and the President’s secretary Mrs Landingham, who lost her two boys during the Vietnam war. When he finds out about Toby pulling strings to arrange the funeral, the President says to him, “If we start pulling strings like this don’t you think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?” To which Toby succinctly replies, “I can only hope so, sir.” Ziegler is, as ever, the great idealist.

Elsewhere amongst the staff, CJ is fighting in favour of hate-crime legislation after the brutal killing of a young homosexual boy while Sam and Josh try to help Leo’s impending drugs scandal by trying to dig up dirt on Republican politicians via Sam’s hooker (sorry, call-girl) friend. When Leo finds out he sternly tells them, “That’s not what we do”, just a reminder to all watching at home that these are the good guys.

As you can tell, it’s a very moralistic episode, lots of soaring music and stern, knowing glances in each other’s direction. There’s some comic relief of sorts though when the President pays a visit to an antique book store and yet again shows off his considerable nerd credentials (see also the topics of Latin and National Parks to name but a few).

President Bartlet:  Ooh… The Fables of Phaedrus… 1886… first edition, red leather label, gilt leathering, engraved frontis. Phaedrus, you know, who was a slave, but later granted his freedom by Augustus, wrote his animal fables in iambic verse. 

Leo:  Well, nothing says Christmas like animal fables in iambic verse.

President Bartlet: That’s what I say.

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Take this Sabbath Day (1:14)

It’s really no surprise that the conservative media in the States ‘hilariously’ dubbed the show ‘The Left-Wing’. Particularly in its first four seasons, ie: the Sorkin era, the show sticks steadfastly to its liberal sensibilities. A prime example comes in this episode, where the President is agonizing over whether or not to commute the sentence of a prisoner who faces the death penalty after killing two drug kingpins. He turns to various people for advice and counsel and appears to be desperately seeking justification for commuting the sentence.

Advisors of various faiths put forward their argument and it’s seemingly unanimous that he should intervene. Ultimately though, the President decides he cannot interfere based purely on his own personal religious beliefs as it would set a dangerous precedent for future Presidents. A closing scene where his childhood priest pays a visit and offers Bartlet some sage advice, moments too late, is a neat touch and the episode tellingly ends with the priest hearing the President’s confession. 

As always though, it’s not all deep philosophical pondering in The West Wing as we also get Josh bickering away with a fiery deaf campaign manager called Joey Lucas. Josh has been on a stag party the night before and is feeling a little worse for wear. Trusty aide Donna has taken his suit away to be dry-cleaned and so he snoozes away in his office dressed only in Sam’s garish fishing gear (don’t ask). Joey, accompanied by her trusty interpreter Kenny, bursts into Josh’s office and begins berating him from the off. The sight of the usually cocksure Josh, hungover and dressed like he’s on Deadliest Catch desperately trying to comprehend what the hell is happening to him is easily the episode highlight.

Sam: The U.S. is one of five countries on earth that puts to death people who’re under the age of 18 when they committed a crime.

Charlie: Nigeria.

Sam: Pakistan.

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Charlie: Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Sam: Yeah. So, that’s a list we definitely want to be on.

Celestial Navigation (1:15)

After two fairly weighty episodes on the list so far, I’m pleased to announce this one is a far more light-hearted affair. The President’s nominee for the next Supreme Court Justice, Roberto Mendoza, has been wrongly arrested on suspicion of drink driving and Toby and Sam set off to get him out of jail before it becomes a story. The duo drive through the night but soon run into trouble thanks to Sam’s ill-fated faith in his own navigation skills. At one point he even begins to navigate using the stars (hence the episode title) at which point Toby’s snarkiness goes into overdrive. Toby is never funnier than when he’s snarking and his regular big brother/little brother spats with Sam are the highlight of many an episode.

When the pair finally ‘zone-in’ on the correct police station in rural Connecticut, Sam has some frank words for the two on-duty cops and Toby saves some choice inspirational words for an embarrassed Mendoza, “…nothing about this that doesn’t stink. And nothing about it that wouldn’t be better if you were a Supreme Court Justice.” It wouldn’t be The West Wing without some well placed moralizing after all.

Josh meanwhile is regaling a room full of University Students with the story of how he committed a rather embarrassing series of gaffes when he stood in for CJ for a press conference. CJ had to have emergency “woot canal” treatment and thanks to a mouthful of cotton wool was rendered unable to talk, at which point a typically brash Josh leaps at the chance to replace her. Naturally, his bravado is wildly misguided and in no time at all he has accidently called the press corps stupid, inadvertently confirmed that the President still smokes and even managed to suggest the President has a (non-existent) secret plan to flight inflation. The bewildered look on his face as he leaves the press room is broken only by an enraged CJ screaming “JOSHUUWWA” from across the office. Here we have two of the best things about The West Wing in one simple scene, Josh’s ill-advised cockiness, and CJ’s fearsome sass.

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Josh: First, I’m happy to tell you that the incident involving Secretary O’Leary and Congressman Wooden has been dispensed with… though not really, and I’ll get to that at the end. Sam asked C.J. to move the briefing to two o’clock so that we could fold in the teachers. C.J. had emergency root canal surgery at noon and so was unable to brief.

President  Bartlet: Who did?

Josh: I did.

President Bartlet: Oh, God.

In This White House (2:4)

This episode starts out with Sam appearing on political talk show ‘Capitol Beat’ alongside blonde Republican Ainsley Hayes. Sam has wiped the floor with every Republican the show has brought in to face him thus far but meets his match in Ainsley who takes him to task over education funding. As the show goes to commercial, an embarrassed Sam mutters to himself “dear God don’t let them be watching” at which point we cut back to The West Wing and Josh galloping into Toby’s office, “Toby come quick, Sam’s getting his ass kicked by a girl”. As smart and powerful as they may be, it’s always good to see a high level of immaturity amongst the senior staffers.

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Later, the President decides to hire Ainsley despite her political allegiances and Leo is tasked with smoothing it over with the staff. Naturally, they are less than pleased with having a Republican in their midst. Ainsley was originally intended to be a more regular recurring character, but actress Emily Procter went and landed herself a starring role on CSI Miami and that was the end of that. During her short stint she was capable of some amusing lines, particularly during her frequent bickerings with Sam, but also of some cringeworthy sentimental moments. There’s a moment towards the end of this episode where she sternly tells her Republican pals why she wants to work for the Bartlet administration that I swear rivals that Presidential speech in Independence Day for levels of cheese. I do not say that lightly.

The episode’s drama stems from the President of Equatorial Kundu who is at the White House for a summit on the AIDS epidemic in Africa with various pharmaceutical companies. Despite understandably being extremely sympathetic towards the plight of the African countries and Toby and Josh shown being fairly firm with the big pharma reps, the episode does give a fairly balanced take on both sides of the argument in question. It also raises pressing question such as, why the drugs company charge what they do in such impoverished nations? Why can’t they just give away free drugs? Why shouldn’t the African countries buy black market stock at a fraction of the price?

The episode does a good job of summarising the problems facing those who seek to help the AIDS-ravaged African nations and you really feel for the proud Kundunese President forced to beg for his country’s life. In a gut-wrenching twist towards the episode’s end, just as it finally looks like an unlikely deal has been reached, President Bartlet learns there has been a coup in Kundu. Members of the President Nimbala’s family have already been killed. Bartlet pleads with Nimbala to stay in the US, offering him asylum and guaranteeing his safety. A proud man though, Nimbala returns home to face his usurpers. Tragically, we learn at the end of the episode that the rebels shot him in the airport parking lot as soon as he stepped off the plane.

Josh: No. You’re listening to me, but you’re not understanding me.

Toby: No, I’m disagreeing with you. That doesn’t mean I’m not listening to you or understanding what you’re saying – I’m doing all three at the same time.

Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail (2;16)

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This is one of the infamous ‘Leo’s Big Block Of Cheese Day’ episodes where the Chief of Staff forces his senior staff to meet with fringe groups who wouldn’t normally have the chance to meet with somebody at the White House.

Toby is sent to meet with an unruly mob of anti-World Trade Protestors, whom he greets with thinly veiled disdain – “It’s activist vacation, is what it is. Spring break for anarchist wannabes. The black t-shirts, the gas masks? Fashion accessories.” Meanwhile, in a section that I’m sure stuck in many viewers’ minds, including my own, CJ meets with ‘The Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality’. These are a group who want to correct the current commonly used Mercator projection World Map with gives exaggerated importance to North America and Europe, and replace it with the more accurate Peters Projection. I can safely say I shared CJ’s flabbergasted expression when this accurate map is revealed, how had I got through years of school and never known about this? A prime example of The West Wing being both entertaining and educational!

The more serious thread of this episode goes to Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn. It’s been said by several semi-reliable sources that when Sorkin first pitched the show to Lowe, then the biggest name next to Martin Sheen, Sam was meant to be the central character. It’s strongly rumoured that his relegation to ensemble team player didn’t sit that well with Lowe and that’s why he left after Season 4. Whether this is entirely true or not we can’t be sure, but in this episode, Lowe does get to show off his acting chops. Sam is reeling from the news that his father had been keeping a secret mistress for many years. He is then asked by Donna to look into getting a pardon for the grandfather of a friend of hers who was charged with being a Cold War Spy. As Sam probes deeper into the matter, he appears to be believing the girl’s claim that her grandfather was wrongly accused, until a meeting with National Security Advisor Nancy McNally (a fine recurring character) lays out in no uncertain terms that he was indeed a guilty man. The revelation of a family member’s dishonesty clearly hits home with an upset Sam.

Sam: I’m just going to change my shirt.

Leo: You look bad. You’re tired. You slept in the office. It’s Friday. Go home.

Sam: Why?”

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Leo: Because I think you’re putting too much faith in the magical powers of a new shirt.”

17 People (2;18)

Ahhhh Toby, the wise old grouch of The West Wing. In this episode we see him banging his stress ball against his office wall (not a euphemism) as he mulls something over in his head. Since the end of Season 1, we have been aware that the President has Multiple Sclerosis, and while he’s told his buddy Leo, the rest of the team are very much in the dark.  That all looks set to change as Toby becomes the 17th person to find out about Bartlet’s condition.

Richard Schiff is at his very best in this episode, particularly when he portrays Toby’s rhythmic thought process using only facial expressions and the varying pace of his ball bouncing. When he finally confronts the President and Leo, it’s a wonderful piece of drama as the three men simply sit around and vent their frustrations. Toby is rightly indignant that the President hid his illness not only from the American people, but also from him and the senior staff. He hammers home the possible political ramifications and emphasises the difficulties the administration now has lying ahead. The President refuses to apologise to Toby who repeatedly loses his cool, the first, but not the last, time he does so with the President. It’s a very theatrical side of The West Wing but it really showcases Schiff and Sheen’s considerable acting talent.  

There is some light relief as Donna and Josh debate the actual date of their anniversary (the day they started working together), Sam and Ainsley Hayes debate women’s rights and the senior staffers try and ‘bring the funny’ in the President’s address to the White House Correspondents Dinner. The focus is squarely on events in the Oval Office though as Toby delivers some uncomfortable home truths.

Toby: I have no kind of investigative mind. Zero. ….It took me six days and 23 minutes to figure it out.

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Two Cathedrals (2;22)

Now we turn to the legendary Two Cathedrals. Quite possibly the greatest West Wing episode of them all and thus deserving of even more comment than the rest. How can you not love an episode where a frustrated President berates God in Latin? Martin Sheen reminds us all why he’s such a revered actor in this episode as he delivers a truly barnstorming performance.

In the previous episode, the President’s faithful secretary Mrs Landingham was tragically killed in a car crash.  Throughout Two Cathedrals there are flashbacks to how the two first met when he was at Prep School and she worked for his father, the Headmaster. Back then, she pushed a young Jed to question his father on equal pay for women and we see how her faith in his abilities spurred him on to greater things. We also see Mrs Landingham explain that she knew when the President was going to take on a challenge as he would put his hands in his pockets, look away and smile….I wonder if that will become relevant later on?

Leo meanwhile is facing calls from senior Democrats to confirm whether the President will run for a second term. In the wake of the MS story breaking and the President’s job approval rating tumbling, many of them don’t seem sure it’s a good idea and feel it may be an unwinnable battle. Leo calmly assures them that there will be a press conference that night where the President will decide what he will do next, and they should be watching.

The President and his staff attend Mrs Landingham’s funeral and after everybody else has filed out, Bartlet asks to be left alone in the cathedral. Here, with Sheen acting his socks off, the President begins to argue with God. Throughout the series we are aware of his deeply held religious beliefs, which only adds to the great drama of the moment. He calls the lord a Son-of-a-bitch for taking his beloved Secretary and then berates him for the terrible tragedies he has caused during his term in office. The President then delivers the immortal lines:

“Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased You, You feckless thug? Three point eight million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new acres of land for conservation, put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war, I’ve raised three children… that’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto? A deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus nuntius fui officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem! (Am I to believe those were the acts of a loving God? A just God? A wise God? To hell with Your punishments! I was Your servant on Earth – I spread Your word and did Your work. To hell with your punishments! To hell with You!)”

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At this point he  walks away from the cathedral’s alter, lights a cigarette, takes a drag and throws it to the ground, crushes it angrily under foot before barking “You get Hoynes”. Is this the end of the Bartlet Presidency?

Later, back in the Oval Office, a storm rages outside the White House with rain lashing at the windows and the wind opening and slamming doors. Bartlet is sat in quiet contemplation when he has a vision of Mrs Landingham. Echoing the earlier flashback she gives Jed the push he needs to make a decision, closing by saying, “You know if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run because you think its going to be to hard or you think you’re gonna lose; well God, Jed, I don’t even wanna know you.”

With those words ringing in his ears, and with Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms playing in the background for added dramatic emphasis, Bartlet and his team head out as one to the press conference. Everybody is still none the wiser as to what the President will say. Once there, a rain-soaked Bartlet takes to the podium and rather than choose the handpicked reporter who he knows won’t ask him about re-election, he instead chooses a reporter that definitely will. He gets the question. Then, slowly, he puts his hands in his pockets, looks away…and smiles.

Come back tomorrow for Robert’s pick of The West Wing’s greatest episodes from seasons 3 – 7.

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