Ian's Movie Reviews
Short Reviews of Movies, Board Games, and Other Stuff

The Best and Worst Episodes of The West Wing

My fourth installment into looking at the highest and lowest episodes of my favourite TV series if finally ready to go after rewatching all 7 seasons of The West Wing.  My previous posts include The Simpsons, The X-Files and Game of Thrones.  The West Wing is the one show I tend to call my favourite most often.  I watched the entire original run and have rewatched the episodes many times, especially the first four seasons.

What I’ve done this time is ranked all 154 episodes from strongest to weakest.  I will be showcasing the top ten and bottom ten, as those are usually the sections people would actually care about.  If you are interested in the full list, let me know.

By the way, if you have never seen The West Wing, I highly recommend you do so.

Top Ten Episodes

10. Mr. Willis of Ohio

Season 1

The West Wing pilot was good at establishing its characters, but not necessarily the tone.  The 3rd episode, Proportional Response, that season did a lot towards helping find it, but this sixth episode  is where I feel the show really found its footing.  Here we get a great story where a congresswoman’s widower is taking over for her, and Toby experiences a temporary politicians without any motives other than making the right choice.  We also get a story where Zoe joins the gang at the bar and trouble ensues.  There is both humour and weight in equal measure, something the show would soon perfect.

9. 18th and Potomac

Season 2

This was the penultimate episode of the second season (probably the show’s best year) which saw the staff dealing with Bartlett’s MS issues after just learning about it.  There was also a side story about Mrs. Landingham getting a new car, which had lots of amusing interactions between her and Charlie as well as her and Jed.  And then at the end that story-line suddenly becomes much more important, pushing the drama of the end of this season even deeper.  Great writing, great performances.

8. Holy Night

Season 4

The West Wing always seemed to put a little more punch into their Christmas episodes, and Season  4’s Holy Night was no exception.  The episode oddly starts with a Jewish mob hit in New York in the 50s.  We end up learning that we are watching the history of Toby’s family, and most of the episode deals with the tumultuous relationship with his father.  There’s some great stuff with Jed and Leo trying to purge their guilt, as well as a heartfelt yet quick scene between Toby and Josh.

7. Institutional Memory

Season 7

The show took a quality dip in season 5 after Sorkin left, but in the second half of season six and into season seven, the momentum really picked up again.  During this time, we saw CJ take on the role of Chief of Staff and grow into it.  By the end of the series she had really earned her spot as one of the most powerful women in the world.

The series finale of West Wing was nice in a nostalgic, conflict-free way, but I much prefer this penultimate episode where CJ faces the end of their term and contemplates what her future is going to look like.  She has great interactions with Danny, Santos, and Toby (in his last scene of the series). I really enjoy this episode, which is probably the strongest of the last three years.

6. Twenty Five

Season 4

I know a lot of people may not like this episode, as it stretches the veil of reality a bit too far, but I really appreciate all the inherent drama involved.  Back in the 6th episode of season 1 (see #10 on the list), Jed created a scenario to scare Zoe into taking her secret service detail seriously.  This is where the scenario happens, and a national crisis ensues.  There are some really tense moments, some really heartfelt moments (especially with Toby’s babies), and a very dramatic moment at the end when Jed steps down and John Goodman takes over.  This was also Sorkin’s last episode, so read into that what you may.

5. 20 Hours in America

Season 4

This was the only double length episode The West Wing ever did, and it acted as the fourth season premiere.  And into these two hours we get a showcase of the best parts of The West Wing, while also going outside its comfort zone a little.  During a campaign tour in the midwest, Toby, Josh and Donna get left behind and go through a series of escapades to make it back to Washington, learning a lot about their country along the way (eventually).  There is a lot of humour to be had in this experience, and we certainly get it.  But there’s also a nice touch where Toby and Josh seems to rediscover why they chose pubic service in the first place.

4. 17 People

Season 2

A big part of the second and third season revolved around the President’s MS, which was hidden from the public but starts to leak out.  Even though it was brought up earlier, this is where the story-line really kicks off as Toby starts to put the pieces together and confronts Leo and the President about it.  What we get is an extended Oval Office showdown between these two minds and ideologies.  West Wing tends to be at its best when Toby and Jed are going at each other, and this is one of the best examples of that.

3. Take This Sabbath day

Season 1

Capital punishment is the topic du jour of this powerful mid-first season episode.  Here we see Jed struggling with the decision of whether or not to stay a notable execution.  We also get Josh meeting Joey Lucas for the first time while hungover.  The episode has comedy, pathos, and a great cameo by Carl Malden.

2. Noel

Season 2

The best West Wing episodes are able to inject humour into serious discussions, and Noel does that brilliantly here as Josh gets tricked into a therapy session with Adam Arkin.  They explore Josh’s PTSD after the assassination attempt, and its interesting how its all brought together with a Yo-Yo Ma concert at the end.  Great episode.

1. Two Cathedrals

Season 2

It is hard to find an hour of television so well crafted. This is a powerful episode where Bartlett is faced with the decision of running again in the aftermath of a scandal and the recent death of a dear friend. Everything is brought to a dramatic climax which appears to be a cliffhanger at first glance, but the genius of the story tells us that it is not. Television at its finest.

The Bottom Ten Episodes

Let me be clear; The West Wing may very well be my favourite TV show.  Nonetheless, I accept that it is not perfect and has its weaker moments (most of which are in season 5).  Let’s face it, almost no TV show can be perfect; there are simply too many hours worth that eventually there will be some missteps.  But you know what?  Accepting this about your favourite shows is cathartic in a way; its letting go of the idea that a great show has to be great every single episode.  So that’s why I do the bottom ten in these blog posts.  Its not to feed my cynicism (though it does a little), but more to declare that its okay if even the best shows aren’t always the best.

10. The Stormy President

Season 5

I suppose this one is here because, well, its just sort of boring. And the idea of meeting and exploring these former fictional presidents should have been much more interesting than it turned out to be.

9. Disaster Relief

Season 5

Its widely known among West Wing and TV fans that the show dipped in quality in season 5.  The reason for this is that the show’s magnate, Aaron Sorkin, left, leaving a creative void in his wake.  The new showrunners took a while to fill it properly.  In the meantime, they tried more high concept ideas, like the president visiting a disaster site and refusing to leave.  Sometimes they worked, others they didn’t, and the absence of the show’s once-clever writing was felt.

8. The Dover Test

Season 6

The Dover Test is an early season 6 episode where they are dealing with the ramifications of sending troops to Israel, and CJ is still getting her feet wet as Chief of Staff.  Its not an overly interesting episode, especially with a whole side story-line of Leo recovering from surgery where…. he takes walks and refuses to eat food.  Yawn.

7. The Women of Qumar

Season 3

I am surprised to see a couple early season episodes on this list, but there are a few, and this season 3 episode in particular sort of bugs me.  I get the message that its trying to portray in CJ getting angry over an arms deal with a country notoriously oppressive of women, but it feels disingenuous and rather irritating in the way she goes about dealing with it.

6. An Khe

Season 5

Another Season 5 attempt to expand the scope outside the White House, this time by going into flashbacks of Leo’s time in Vietnam.  What we get is an episode full of scenes that don’t feel like they are from The West Wing.  Occasionally WW is able to stretch outside and try something new, like CJ’s high school reunion (granted a lot of people don’t like that one either), but this is one experiment that simply doesn’t work.

5. In This White House

Season 2

Ainsley Hayes was one of those characters who was introduced, but who never became part of the core and faded away.  But I liked the character and thought she added an interesting dynamic.   However, I really didn’t like her first episode.  It felt like a rare dip into poor writing by Sorkin.  Its treated as an outsider’s look into the White House staff, but in reality its just Ainsley wandering around the west wing and being nosy.  Margaret is supposed to escort her out, but apparently it  takes a couple of hours and constant detours.  The whole thing is sloppy.

4. The Debate

Season 7

Also known as the “live episode”, the concept was an interesting one.  These two candidates, whose campaign to replace Bartlett took up the exciting final seventh season, were to meet in a debate that would be broadcast live twice; once on the east coast, once on the west.  However, in execution we end up with a pretty dull hour where the motivations are pretty transparent.  The biggest problem is that none of the topics or viewpoints discussed are new; they are all recycled from earlier in the season.  Its like they made a summary paragraph for everything that has come before in this campaign, and as such its a pretty dull watch.

3. Ninety Miles Away

Season 6

Ninety Miles Away sees a last ditch effort for Leo and Bartlett to repair relations with Cuba.  What results is an episode that has more flashbacks involving both Leo and Kate.  These turn out to have revelations about the characters that is more suited in an episode of Lost than WW.  Its pretty dumb and very tonally off of what West Wing usually is.

2. Birnam Wood

Season 6

One thing West Wing rarely was, was ugly.  But that’s exactly what this second half of the season 6 premiere was.  Most of the episode deals with a summit at Camp David between white house staffers, Israeli and Palestinian leaders.  They break off into groups and discuss the issues, but do so in a very basic, surface-level way.  The writing in these sessions feel far below the writing level of the show in general.

Then there’s the ending.  Throughout the episode we see a rift forming between Leo and Bartlett and at the end the rift splits.  This results in Leo having a heart attack in the woods, and seemingly no one cares.  This whole ending is ugly; the way Jed talks to Leo, and the way Leo is simply left for dead.  Later, of course, he is found and recovers, which leads to CJ taking over, but at this point its simply ugly.  I’ve always hated this episode and when it aired I thought the show’s quality was over for good.  Thank goodness the election came to save it.

1. Access

Season 5

Reading my above paragraph, it maybe feels like Birnam Wood should have this last spot, but in reality its Access; the ultimate example of West Wing going outside the box and failing.  This season 5 episode sees CJ as the subject of a documentary crew.  Its filmed in “live tv” frame rate and we only see what the cameras see.  Interesting idea, right?  Nope. Instead this conceit acts as a barrier keeping us at arms length to what makes The West Wing worth watching.  We don’t get the witty dialogue between characters, we get filtered dialogue.  We don’t get intense behind the scenes drama, we get static interviews.  This episode is watered down West Wing, and its ridiculously boring.  Its the least West Wing-like that the show has ever been.

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