The West Wing’s finest season 3 to 7 episodes

Following on from his selection of The West Wing's greatest season 1 and 2 episodes, Rob turns to season 3 to 7 and narrows down the best of the rest...

Seasons three to seven of The West Wing saw the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin, the death of a well-loved cast member, and the election of a new President to the White House. Continuing from our choice of the show’s greatest episodes from its first and second seasons, join us as we salute the very best of seasons three to seven.

Dead Irish Writers (3;15) 

The fallout from the MS scandal was still resonating in this episode as Abbey Bartlet faces the unwelcome fact that she may soon lose her medical licence. Her upcoming birthday party at the White House does little to raise her spirits. At this stage, we probably would still just about be able to tell if the first lady showed any emotion, the static-faced Abbey of Season 5 and onwards is where it would get really tricky.

The highlight of the episode though comes in the shape of the British Ambassador Lord John Marbury, one of the finest recurring minor characters in West Wing history. Played by Welsh actor Roger Rees, Lord John is to all intents and purposes a typical American stereotype of the drunken English toff. Luckily though, Rees pulls it off superbly and creates a remarkable charmingly befuddled genius. Classic LJM moments include his insistence on calling Leo ‘Gerald’ and asking the President, “May I inquire…the first thing that attracted you to Abigail? Was it her magnificent breasts?”

In this episode, LJM also has the chance to show off his considerable intellect as he and Toby duck out of the birthday party and head to a nearby bar to discuss Her Majesty’s Government’s objections to a member of Sinn Fein visiting the White House. The verbal sparring between the two learned men is a joy to behold and there’s a particularly memorable line when LJM is commenting on the complexities of Anglo-Irish relations and says to Toby, “Slavery is your original sin. That and your unfortunate history with your aborigines…For the English, it’s Ireland.” He then drops his diplomatic façade for a second and concedes to Toby that while he has to convey his Government’s wishes, he does personally understand that America must step in and mediate in certain circumstances. A hugely enjoyable meeting of minds.

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Meanwhile, back at the party, the ladies of the West Wing are getting boozy as Abbey leads CJ and Amy off to get drunk. They invite Donna along as she has been banned from attending the party temporarily as the town where she hails from in Minnesota is now technically classed as part of Canada.  As the wine flows and CJ gets even more hilarious, the conversation turns to discussion of Abbey’s impending suspension. Donna misjudges the mood ever so slightly and accidentally puts her foot in it by telling the first lady a harsh home truth regarding her actions in medicating her husband. The playful mood suddenly ends and the girls go back to the party with Donna mortified.

As the episode draws to a close, the President and Abbey share a touching moment as she tells him that she will voluntarily surrender her medical licence for the time they are in power, thus avoiding the indignity of it being suspended and showing perhaps that Donna’s light scolding may have done some good after all. As a way of saying thank you, Abbey arranges for the band playing her party to play a rendition of Oh Canada in Donna’s honour.

President Bartlet:  {Oh Canada plays in the background} What the hell is going on? I was gone for forty-five minutes, they were all Americans when I left.

Donna: I know exactly how you feel, Mr. President.

 

Posse Comitatus (3;21) 

The West Wing always raised the bar when it came to end-of-season finales and this closer for the third season was an absolute classic. The episode revolves around the President and his staff attending a gala performance of a play which Republican candidate Governor Ritchie is also expected to attend. Sam and Toby busy themselves inventing elaborate ways to ensure the Governor is late to arrive and Josh and Amy’s relationship is strained by their opposing views on a welfare reform bill.

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The main story thread however focuses on CJ and her Secret Service agent Simon Donovan. CJ was forced to take Secret Service protection after she received a series of death threats and despite being irked at Donovan’s intrusive presence at first; she soon develops a bit of a thing for him. The two eventually both admit their feelings for one another but agree that nothing can happen while he is still protecting her. We are then lulled into a false sense of security however as it is revealed that the nutjob (technical term) threatening CJ has been apprehended and she no longer requires protection. Outside of the theatre, CJ and Simon share a romantic kiss and agree to meet later for drinks.

Simon leaves a smiling CJ at the theatre and on the way back to his office he enters a convenience store where unbeknownst to him at first, a robbery is taking place. He manages to disarm one of the thieves but is then tragically shot and killed by a second. It’s a proper gut-punch of an event and one which seems to come out of nowhere. In a genius choice of musical accompaniment, Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah kicks in just as we cut to the haunting moment where CJ is told the news and then breaks down in a flood of tears. Seeing an inconsolable CJ slowly walk through the busy city streets in such distress is made all the more powerful by the fact that she is normally such an unflappable person. Thanks to Alison Janney’s superb performance, it’s easily one of the saddest and most affecting moments of The West Wing.

Back at the theatre, there is then a crucial meeting between President Bartlet and Governor Ritchie as the two share a cordial conversation clearly underpinned by a mutual dislike for one another. Ritchie says the President is, “what my friends would call a superior son-bitch” and Bartlet chastises Ritchie for dumbing down his campaign. The Governor really irks the President though when he is told of Simon Donovan’s death and merely replies, “Crime. Boy, I don’t know”. At which point we can visibly see the President get riled up and he delivers the immortal line quoted at the end of this entry. This tete-a-tete perfectly encapsulates why we all love Jed Bartlet so much as he once again shows why he is head and shoulders above every other politician in terms of wit, eloquence and moral fortitude.

Meanwhile the President also has some big decisions to make regarding the assassination of Abdul Shareef, the defence minister from Qumar who the President knows tried to instigate a terror attacked against the United States. When he grudgingly gives the ‘go’ order at the episode’s end, the great inner struggle he experiences, torn between his deeply religious views and his obligation to protect his country, is expertly conveyed by Martin Sheen at his very best. It’s a seriously eventful and incredibly memorable episode and a great end to the series.

President Bartlet: In the future, if you’re wondering, “Crime. Boy, I don’t know,” is when I decided to kick your ass.

 

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20 Hours in America (4;1 & 2) 

Technically this is a double episode, but I’m going to go ahead and cheat and include it as one. It finishes on a touching and ever so slightly schmaltzy moment as the President gives a heartfelt speech in the wake of a terrible pipe bombing at a high school, but the majority of the episode is among the show’s funniest.

The bulk of the comedy comes via Toby and Josh after they are left behind by the Presidential motorcade after a campaign rally in rural Indiana. Thankfully they have Donna to try and get them home, as the President points out, “300 IQ points between them – they can’t find their way home. I swear to God, if Donna wasn’t there, they’d have to buy a house.” Cue a planes, trains and automobiles series of events as the two expert politicos spend 20 hours in America (good name for an episode that) away from the hustle and bustle and home comforts of Washington.

One particular high point comes when they realise they missed a local flight connection by an hour after a group of bitchy school girls point out that they crossed time zones without knowing. As Donna tries to figure out an alternative plan, Toby and Josh vent their frustration at the nature of time zones themselves by ranting and raving and whacking a tree branch against a fence.

The journey does allow the West Wing to look at social and class issues in America and how people like Toby and Josh are quick to write off rural communities and overlook the hardships they face. The duo are ultimately affected for the better by their experience though and this is exemplified by their meeting with one Matt Kelly, a regular guy who is drinking in a bar and mentions how he only wishes it was a little easier to afford to send his daughter to college. After this and an earlier scolding from Donna, Josh and Toby realise they need to stop being so focused on beating Ritchie and instead remember that they are there to try and help people. They sit down with Matt and begin to discuss ways they might be able to help.

Back at the White House, the President is interviewing for candidates to replace Mrs Landingham and CJ is trying to find a ‘big brother’ for a young kid called Anthony who was left without one after the death of Simon Donovan at the end of the last season. She asks Charlie and at first he says no feeling he wouldn’t have the free time. Later on in the episode though Anthony verbally lashes out at CJ, a passing Charlie takes great exception and after emphatically jumping in, he berates Anthony’s lack of respect and agrees to start meeting with him. Charlie showing once again that he is an all-round brilliant human being.

As the second episode draws to a close, the President is giving a speech tackling the awful news about the High School bombing.  As is so often the case, Bartlet gives a typically stirring and ever-so-slightly cringe worthy speech about  “Heaven being too crowded with Angels”, as a Tori Amos cover of I Don’t Like Mondays plays in the background. It’s this deliberately heart-string tugging scene that in anybody else hands could just be downright nauseating, but under Sorkin’s guidance it’s far more bearable.

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Josh: You have an inadvertent habit of putting down my Judaism by implying that you have a sharper anti-Semitism meter than I do.

Toby: You know, the ancient Hebrews had a word for Jews from Westport: they pronounced it ‘Presbyterian.’

Josh: And by saying things like that.

Toby: I’m just saying, I’m from Brighton Beach.

Josh: Well, Mohammed al Mohammed el Mohammed bin Bizir doesn’t make the distinction when he suits up in the morning.

Toby: Well, as long as you have a good grasp of the complexity of that situation.

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Donna: What the hell are the two of you talking about?

Toby: I assure you neither one of us knows.

 

Twenty Five (4;23) 

Yet another end-of-season barnstormer and the last episode to have Aaron Sorkin’s involvement. The key focus is on the perils of parenthood and the fact that as well as being the leader of the free world, President Bartlet is also a husband and a father. The episode is nail bitingly tense and filled with incredible drama and some of the finest Sorkin dialogue who really goes out on a high.

After Zoe Bartlet’s kidnapping in the previous episode at the suspected hands of Qumari terrorists, the President’s advisors differ greatly on how best to respond. Do they respond with military force or treat the incident as they would with any other high profile kidnapping? As the political plan of action is debated over, Jed and Abbey are understandably shell-shocked and distraught as any right-minded parents would be.

Meanwhile, loveable curmudgeon Toby is at the hospital after the birth of his twins. As he talks to his two newborns and conveys how much he will always love them, we get a glimpse of Toby’s human side as he suddenly appears vulnerable and, briefly, even happy. As Toby bonds with his kids, it provides a telling counterpoint to the devastation experienced by the Bartlets.

Amidst the immense tension of the White House, the President confides in Leo that he can longer act impartially over matters of national security and he may need to invoke the 25th Amendment which would temporarily transfer power over to the next in line of succession. Normally this would be the Vice President, but after John Hoynes resignation in an earlier episode over a sex scandal, that position is still vacant. Instead the line of succession skips on to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Glen Walken, a staunchly conservative Republican.  This is an incredible moment in West Wing history as our beloved President Bartlet decides to stand down from his position and hand power over to his political rivals. As Will Bailey so aptly puts it though, “I think it’s a fairly stunning act of patriotism and a fairly ordinary act of fatherhood.”

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The final sequence where the Speaker of the House makes his way to the Oval office is Sorkin at his best. The Speaker’s face is hidden from view to heighten the tension, until he finally makes his grand entrance and BAM, it’s only John bloody Goodman. As CJ and the staff begin to discuss the next step and how to ensure that the country knows somebody is in charge, President Walken delivers the killer line quoted below. It’s a phenomenal way to end a series and a fittingly dramatic end to the Sorkin era.

President Walken: Now I thought you all had some good ideas. But someone should make it clear to the people in this room that someone is in charge.

President Bartlet: Glenn, they’ve been up all night… 

President Walken: You’re relieved, Mr. President.

 

Shutdown (5;8) 

Season 5 suffered from a distinct lack of Sorkin, but there were still a couple of standout episodes along the way. The season highlight was this excellent episode which revolved around the President’s ongoing battle with a Republican Congress and its powerful Speaker, Haffley. Haffley is seeking to exert his influence and force the Bartlet administration to trim the federal budget even further. When Bartlet plays hardball and refuses to compromise, the Federal Government is effectively shut down and all non-essential staff are sent home.

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When the impasse seems unbreakable, there’s a great moment where Abbey returns from self-appointed exile to provide much needed words of wisdom to a beleaguered Jed. The important role that Abbey plays throughout the seven seasons in reining Jed in and keeping him focused is brought right into play here. It’s Abbey who recognises that a situation like this is calling out for Josh’s influence and tells the President to bring him in from the cold. Josh had seen his responsibilities scaled back after a political miscalculation on his part saw a Democratic Senator switch parties to the Republicans. He’s always previously been the President’s go-to guy when political games were afoot and after Abbey’s gentle prodding, Jed sure enough consults with his Deputy Chief of Staff.

After the President gets tired of waiting, he decides to be pro-active and rather than sit and wait for the Congressmen to visit him, he decides to take a trip up to Capitol Hill. They motorcade stops half way however after Josh suggests they get out and walk in an act of ingenious political grandstanding. This is a vintage West Wing moment and the kid of grandiose political gesture you kind of wish would happen in real life. Imagine Obama striding up to the hill to take care of business when Congress strikes down whatever ‘Socialist’ law he is trying to pass next. It would be glorious. After the President arrives, Haffley decides to make him wait in an ill-advised attempt to reassert his power. After being left waiting for some time, Josh advises the President to simply up and leave. Sure enough, the President and his staff, followed by the rambunctious White House press corps, do just that and in doing so hand the political advantage back to the White House.

The ongoing battle between the Congress and White House was a regular occurrence throughout the first half of Season 5 and it was this episode which provided it a dramatic conclusion. Good old President Bartlet stood by his guns and stared the Republicans down, all with a little help from Josh of course.

Bartlet: Well, I’m not going to negotiate with anyone who holds a gun to my head. We had a deal. I don’t care if my approval ratings drop into single digits. I am the President of the United States, and I will leave the government shut down until we come to an equitable agreement.

 

The Birnam Wood (6;2) 

By and large, my favourite West Wing episodes tend to have a fairly even blend of comedy and drama. In the case of The Birnam Wood though, it’s just down to a phenomenally brilliant performance by the late John Spencer as Leo, set against the backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David.

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Leo and the President have been like brothers throughout The West Wing’s run thus far. It was Leo who convinced Bartlet to run in the first place and the two of them share a bond much closer than any other staff members on the show. In his position as Chief of Staff, Leo is the President’s closest confidant and most trusted advisor. You know times are getting serious in fact when Leo calls him ‘Jed’ at any point rather than Mr President. I think this may in fact only happen once, but it’s a great indicator of their relationship. They were friends prior to Jed becoming President and we assume they will remain that way for years to come. It’s this brotherly relationship which gives this episode’s events such an impact.

The Israeli-Palestine conflict dominated proceedings at the tail end of season 5 and the first few episodes of season 6. The show on the whole tried to give a balanced and even handed account of both sides of the conflict, but Leo himself was clearly more inclined to favour the Israeli viewpoint and felt that talks with the Palestinians were unwise. The President and Leo were arguing and yelling at each other like we had never seen before and the President even froze Leo out slightly when it came to planning the planned peace talks at Camp David. A move which would have been unthinkable in other seasons.

All of this comes to a head at the peace talks as Leo and Jed have yet another argument over the necessary response to the attack on a US delegation in Gaza a few episodes earlier (an attack which saw the demise of the great Percy Fitzwallace whom President Bartlet personally asked to go on the visit). After the two realise they can never agree on this divisive matter, Leo regretfully offers his resignation and the President reluctantly accepts. TV’s greatest political union appears to be heading for an unthinkable end.

There is then an incredible scene where Leo wonders out into the nearby woods looking white as a sheet. As he struggles for air and begins to grope desperately for the nearby tree, he suffers an almighty heart attack, a moment which is captured agonisingly well by John Spencer. In an unfortunate case of life imitating art, this would prove eerily prescient as a year or so later Spencer himself passed away from a heart attack. This sequence in the woods had me sat literally on the edge of my seat. It was powerful and moving drama at its best and was made all the more difficult to watch thanks to the bond we have built up with Leo over the years.

Leo: I can’t support this decision….

Bartlet: We can’t keep having this argument.

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Leo: No sir, we can’t. If my counsel is no longer of use to you, perhaps–

Bartlet: So, if I disagree with your advice, you have to threaten me?

Leo: This is your own League of Nations, and it will ruin you like it ruined Wilson.

Bartlet: Okay…….. I’ll need your successor in place before you leave.

 

2162 Votes (6;22) 

Season six saw The West Wing recover its form somewhat, though it would never quite get back to the peak of its first four seasons. Season six focuses primarily on the campaigns for both the Republican and Democrat nominee for President. In this dramatic season finale, the action is set predominantly at the Democratic National Convention where the race to be the party’s nominee for President is still too close to call.

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With Vinick confirmed as the Republican candidate, much to the worry of Leo and the President who recognise his considerable talent, the Democrats must choose wisely. Throughout the season we have been steadily introduced to Congressman Matt Santos whose easy charm and youthful vigour were allegedly, so says the internet, based upon one up-and-coming young Illinois Senator by the name of Barack Obama. Josh pinned his colours to the Santos mast early on and leaves the Bartlet White House to get Santos elected. Going into this episode, Josh faces a constant barrage of party elders, including his old pal Leo, encouraging him to step aside and back one of the other candidates, either the uninspiring ‘Bingo’ Bob Russell or the safe choice of Governor Eric Baker. The Santos campaign had always been a longshot and we are constantly told how he doesn’t really stand a chance. Yet over time, and with the help of a crack team of advisors, he slowly leapfrogs opponents and wins the nomination…much like a certain Jed Bartlet did before him.

In the background to the hoopla of the convention, Presidnet Bartlet still has the job of running a country and most crucially, he must decide whether or not to deploy a mysterious military space shuttle to rescue a team of trapped astronauts. A mysterious military space shuttle that the military is not willing to admit exists no less. The President is furious that word of this shuttle leaked out, and he and the FBI demand an investigation into how it happened.

The scenes shot at the Democratic convention are extremely frenetic and really add to the sense of pandemonium which engulfs the episode. In reality, you know it’s a foregone conclusion and that Santos will win, but at times it’s difficult to see where that victory is coming from. Santos’ passionate speech is straight out of the Bartlet school of rabble rousing and clearly frames him as Jed’s natural successor. As the drama of the primary finally draws to a close, there’s one last twist as the victorious Santos campaign announces its choice for Vice-president…….Leo McGarry.

Abbey: [about the Democratic convention] “What are they doing?”

President Bartlet: “Eating their young…. It’s a free-for-all. I think Aaron Burr’s got 20 votes.”

 

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Election Day (7;16 & 17) 

There were a number of good episodes in Season 7 as The West Wing closed on a bit of a high. The episode Duck and Cover, which concerned a potential disaster at a nuclear plant nearly made the cut, as did the last ever episode in all it’s bittersweet glory. Ultimately though I went for the big Election Day episodes that saw Matt Santos narrowly claim victory over Arnie Vinick thanks to a marginal victory in Nevada.

The Vinick/Santos election was done extremely well throughout the season by the show’s various directors and producers as it didn’t seek to demonise one side over the other. Rather it showed two exceptional candidates of great intelligence and moral fibre, either of whom would do a decent job if they were victorious. The episode The Debate, which saw the Santos and Vinick engage in a full and frank debate for the entire runtime, exemplified this fact perfectly and great credit must go to both Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda for their performances. It‘s impossible to watch these episodes, and not wish that real politicians were more like these two.

In the two Election Day episodes, the ups and downs and incredible drama of the US Presidential Election is ramped up even further as the result goes right down to the wire. However the politicking and twists and turns are punctuated by the sad death of Leo McGarry, a plot twist forced out of necessity after the untimely death of actor John Spencer. An earlier episode carried a moving tribute by Martin Sheen to their good friend John which went some way to conveying how loved he was by the rest of the crew.  After the actor’s death, you knew that something terrible was coming for his character, but nothing really braced you for the moment in happened and the look on Josh’s face as he realises his friend and mentor has passed away is heartbreaking. From hereon, the Santos campaign is doing it for Leo and when they eventually sneak over the finish line with the narrow victory in Nevada, it’s to wild celebrations all round. In a final touching moment, Josh is shown counting up Santos’ Electoral College votes on a whiteboard before looking over at a picture of Leo and simply saying, “thanks, Boss.”

Also in this double episode, The West Wing’s greatest love story finally comes to the fore as Josh and Donna, after years of will-they, won’t-they, finally get it together. They kissed a few episodes earlier, but it’s here, amidst the high-emotions of the election day, that they finally sleep together. It’s hard not to let out a little cheer after these two spend 7 seasons dating other people that clearly weren’t right for them, and now finally, they recognise their true feelings. It was a long wait, but it was worth it.

President Bartlet: It’s odd, really, watching yourself being replaced on national television. Planned obsolescence. Presidents and mid-sized family sedans.

CJ: Yes, sir. Would you have run again if you could sir?

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President Bartlet: I think Mrs Bartlet would have had something to say about that, don’t you?

CJ: Well the electorate can be very persuasive when they want something badly enough.

President Bartlet: In the service of two mistresses these last eight years has been my fate. Thank God for the 22nd Amendment, I’m spared that particular conversation with Abbey.

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