The TDF Top 10: The West Wing
Our latest TDF Top 10 looks towards the The White House this week, as we consider the best episodes of Aaron Sorkin's political drama The West Wing
It was the television show that had the biggest impact on me growing up. Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing was one of the great television shows of the 21st century, winning 26 Emmy awards across its run, including four consecutive awards for Outstanding Drama Series. The show has gained new fans in the last few years, with the (hopefully soon to be ended) Trump Presidency driving people to a White House that tweets a bit less, and the excellent West Wing Weekly podcast that came out a few years ago, just a couple of reasons viewers have been drawn in.
Created by Aaron Sorkin and featuring an ensemble cast, the show focused on the daily lives of the senior staff and chief advisors to Democratic President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen). Showing an idealised version of Washington and American politics supported by Sorkin's brilliant writing, the show tackled real life issues regularly, as well as predicting issues that America is still facing today.
Though the show suffered when Sorkin left at the end of season four, the show was still some of the best drama on TV at the time. Here is The TDF 10: The West Wing...
10. The Supremes (5.17)
Considering the controversy over President Trump's recent rushing through of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, it seems fitting to start the list with this season five episode which sees President Bartlet deal with the sudden death of a conservative member of SCOTUS. Upon meeting with "too liberal to be confirmed" Judge Evelyn Baker Lang (portrayed wonderfully by Glenn Close), a new plan is hatched.
It's hard to imagine a White House acting towards the kind of bipartisanship that the staff do in this episode, with Judge Baker being nominated as the new Chief Justice of SOCTUS, alongside the conservative pick Christopher Mulready (William Fitchner). The White House in The West Wing is a liberal one, but in The Supremes, both sides of the political spectrum come together.
9. Shibboleth (2.08)
The main story line revolves around a boat of persecuted Chinese evangelical Christians arriving in California, seeking asylum. As the President and his staff try to do the right thing while also not damaging political relations with China, President Bartlet invites one of the asylum seekers to the Oval Office to test his faith.
While the main plot wraps itself nicely up by the end, it's everything else going on in this Thanksgiving episode that makes it special. CJ (Allison Janney is fantastic whenever she is on screen) has to decide which turkey is going to be pardoned and which one is heading back to the farm, while Charlie is by the President to find him a new carving knife. Which, is all due to him giving Charlie his family's knife as a Christmas present.
8. Bartlet For America (3.10)
By the time The West Wing was coming to episode 10 in its third season, the show had a reputation for delivering outstanding Christmas episodes. In Excelcis Deo saw the show win three Emmy's (including one for actor Richard Schiff), while Noël in season two further down this list saw Bradley Whitford grab an Emmy. Bartlet For America was one of the episodes which won the late great John Spencer an Emmy and it's not hard to see why.
Testifying to Congress into the political investigation around the President's disclosure of his MS at the end of the second season, Leo is ready to put himself on the line to protect his President, as the Republican congress smell blood. We get another flashback, with Leo telling a then Governor Bartlet to run as well as Abby and Jed discussing whether to disclose the MS, a decision that puts Leo in his current predicament.
7. Celestial Navigation (1.15)
There are some great episodes before Celestial Navigation, but it's hard to think of a funnier episode of The West Wing than this season one episode. As Josh spends the night guest lecturing to some college students, recounting the events of the last week at The White House, Toby and Sam set off on a road trip, in search of their SCOTUS nominee Roberta Mendoza, who has been arrested for allegedly drink-driving.
It wouldn't be The West Wing without examining some deeper issues though and they're here too. Judge Mendoza's reason for arrest according to Sam is "driving while being Hispanic," and the amazing CC H Pounder guest stars as a member of congress who has to apologise for calling a racist Republican out on his racism. It's the hilarious moments that stick out though, with CJ's hilarious "woot canahw" surgery and Josh's "secret plan to fight inflation" setting in motion a week that Josh will want to forget.
6. 20 Hours in America (4.01/02)
The first of two opening episodes to on this list, 20 Hours in America plays out across the first two episodes of season four as Josh, Donna and Toby miss the presidential motorcade and find themselves stranded in Indiana. Seeing Josh and Toby in particular outside of the confines of their world and meeting real people, a chance conversation with a man in a bar gives them a new education policy to pursue.
Season four of the show moved the staff into election mode fully, but that doesn't mean that everything else is put on hold, as crises at home and abroad, culminating in two pipe bombs going off at a college swim meet. Rob Lowe puts in the kind of performance that the show missed after his departure, as he fills in for Josh at The White House for the day, before penning a moving speech for the President following the bombings.
5. 17 People (2.18)
Anyone who has read any of my previous TDF Top 10s, will know that I love a bottle episode, and this list wouldn't be complete without the best one from The West Wing, 17 People. One of the reasons that Aaron Sorkin left the show, was due to constantly going over budget, so a bottle episode was always going to be needed in season two. Josh and Donna's blossoming relationship was beautifully handled again, with Donna's "If you were in an accident I wouldn't stop for red lights," line a fan-favourite to this day.
Season two had been building towards the President's MS becoming public, but first the staff have to find out, and Toby starts following the breadcrumbs, and what follows is an episode that would suit a theatre as well as it does the television screen. Aaron Sorkin's writing was always The West Wing's strongest asset, and this is shown no better than this showdown between the President and Toby.
4. In The Shadow of Two Gunmen (2.01/02)
As the credits rolled on season one, everyone was in shock at what had just happened, as white supremacists took aim at the President, his staff and general public as Bartlet exited an event. The initial shock of the President being injured is overtaken by concern for Josh, who finds himself in life-threatening condition after being shot, a trauma which will come back to the character in the next episode on this list. (The moment that Donna realises that Josh has been shot still tears me up a little to this day).
With the staff waiting for Josh to come out of surgery, flashbacks show how Josh, CJ and Sam ended up working for the Bartlet for America campaign, in between the harsh reality of the last few days they've experienced. It's the first of back-to-back episodes in this list where Bradley Whitford is centre stage, as we saw in a flashback the moment Josh's father dies, and the soon-to-be President consoling him in the airport.
3. Noël (2.10)
The second Christmas episode, Noël focuses all most entirely on the trauma that Bradley Whitford's Josh is experiencing, following his near death experience at the start of the season. Bagging Whitford an Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Drama series, this episode sees Josh therapy at The White House, after displaying signs that he is suffering from PTSD.
As the episode goes on, Josh appears more and more out-of-sync with the rest of the staff, who are cheery and attempting to get into some kind of Christmas cheer, as Josh appears agitated and cagey, before finally snapping at the President in the Oval Office. At its worst, The West Wing could be preachy and talk down to its audience, but at its best, like here, it educates and teaches us an important lesson: we all have to stick together.
2. Let Bartlet Be Bartlet (1.19)
Idealised and taking the moral high ground, would be two criticisms of the Bartlet White House that you could draw from season one if you were being harsh. In Let Bartlet Be Bartlet, the weaknesses of the administration are put centre stage, as an embarrassing memo from Mandy is leaked, shining a light on the unwillingness of the team to get involved properly in divisive issues. Josh and Sam both have meetings which go nowhere, with the opposing sides knowing that the President isn't fully behind either of the issues, while Toby points out that they've had one victory in the year (putting Mendoza on the Supreme Court).
It all comes to a head when Leo confronts the President and puts the blame at his doorstep, pointing out that the staff would get serious as soon as the President "let them off the leash." The core message of the episode, to let leaders be true to themselves, has been taken on by various politicians since, and while the staff aren't successful with their new aggressive approach, the episode finishes with a sense of hope that things will be different from this point on.
1. Two Cathedrals (2.22)
It could only really be one episode that topped this list, as President Bartlet's MS becomes public knowledge as he deals with the death of one of his oldest friends in this season two finale.
The events of the previous episode, 18th and Potomac, which ends with the President discovering his secretary, Mrs Landingham, has been killed in a car crash, weigh heavily on this season finale. As the staff are still coming to terms with Bartlet's MS, Democratic congressman are pushing Leo and the rest of the staff about the President's intention to run for a second term.
Kirsten Nelson absolutely nails a younger Dolores Landingham in the flashback scenes, as the build up to Mrs Landingham's funeral plays out around questions over whether Bartlet will seek a second term. As he denounces his faith in the cathedral after the funeral, smoking and then stubbing a cigarette out, mixed in with some Latin cursing at God, it's hard to think of how Bartlet is going to get out of this hole he finds himself in. Before Kathryn Joosten makes one final appearance as Mrs Landingham, reminding him why he's there in the first place.
What do you think? Let us know what your favourite The West Wing episodes are in the comments below...