The West Wing was a classic political drama that had so many amazing episodes. Here are some that have aged especially well leaving viewers with an aspirational view of government and its workings.
The West Wing may have aired its last episode over 15 years ago but it’s still a classic to many fans. The smart dialogue courtesy of writer Aaron Sorkin is seen by many to be unparalleled. It’s a hopeful view of politics and government. Smart and dedicated public servants trying their best are portrayed by a wonderful ensemble cast of well-known actors. The show ran for 7 seasons and with that, had a lot of episodes and some have aged better than others. Here are some that have aged well and remain relevant today.
Noel – S2 E10
The West Wing’s Christmas episodes are both beloved and infamous as they are often among the show’s best and are also the most emotional episodes. The pinnacle was “Noel,” focusing on Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and his struggle with PTSD in the aftermath of being shot earlier in the season 1 finale. Josh’s post-trauma issues are explored through his meeting with psychotherapist Stanley Keyworth (Adam Arkin). With two outstanding performances at its center and its character focus, it’s an astonishing episode of television. One of the highlights of the episode is a moving monologue by Leo McGarry (John Spencer) at the end. It’s a compassionate look at therapy and those who need the treatment of therapy with close friends unconditionally supporting Josh. For its sometimes-jarring treatment of PTSD and its attempt to break down the stigma of therapy, this episode is more relevant than ever.
Two Cathedrals – S2 E22
The second season finale is often seen as one of the best episodes of the show. The President (Martin Sheen) is hit with a personal tragedy. This coincides with him revealing he’s lied to the American people. It leaves him struggling with the weight of the office, ethically and morally. How should he lead? Should he run for office again having lied? These are resonant questions for any leader. And what this episode does well is explore these through the past and present. But in the end, instead of quitting he pulls himself back up and gets back into the political arena.
17 People – S2 E19
A classic episode of the series that boils the show down to its essentials, its characters. As a character relationship study, it’s aged spectacularly. The core is relationship issues that still echo today. Trust between old friends. Trust between respected colleagues and their boss. And then there’s the pairing of two fan-favorite couples, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor) and Josh Lyman and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) trying to write the White House Correspondents Dinner Speech for the President. It’s witty and the two pairs go off on their own to flirt and tease each other while their colleague deals with an unimaginable betrayal. Josh and Donna have a key moment in their relationship that sets the foundation for their story for the next 5 seasons.
In Excelsis Deo – S1 E10
The first season’s Christmas episode is an emotional watch to this day. The episode follows Director of Communications Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) as he tries to get a proper burial for a military veteran who froze to death in a park. It’s a raw look at PTSD and the challenges that veterans deal with including homelessness. The issue of care for veterans after the completion of their service and the way they’re treated is still pressing and relevant today. This episode shows the journey of trying to do right by just one. As Toby says to the President after he asks if more will come out of the woodwork after pulling together the funeral, “I can only hope so, sir.”
The Supremes S5 E17
While later seasons may not be as beloved, there are still gems that reach the level of earlier seasons. “The Supremes” is a peak example of this. A Supreme Court seat opens up with the surprise death of a justice. While at first, the administration is looking at middle-of-the-road jurists who will be easily confirmed, the staff becomes enamored with liberal Democrat judge Evelyn Lang (Glenn Close) who they fear will be unconfirmable. Josh is inspired by Donna’s parents on an outlandish scheme to get her on the court that includes nominating both Lang and a conservative Republican judge, Christopher Mulready (William Fichtner). Lang and Mulready end up being old friends to the astonishment of Josh, Toby, and the President himself. Mulready even remarks that debating law with Lang is the most fun he has had in months. They both get confirmed. In that relationship and Mulready’s scenes, it showcases a hope for bipartisanship. For a Supreme Court reflecting best and brightest differing viewpoints coming together for a spirited and enlightened debate. For debating the cases instead of party lines.
Game On – S4 E6
Set during the end of their campaign for the second term, “Game On” focuses on President Bartlet preparing for and debating Governor Richie (James Brolin). The administration is concerned with their opponent’s ability to deliver an easy soundbite, a ten-word answer. Their opponent even delivers a few in the actual debate scenes which captures the thrill of a debate and spin rooms. President Bartlet pushes back against those easy lines and argues for having a plan vs. a line, even offering to drop out if Richie can give him the next 10 more words, the how. He talks about how being president is more complex. That clear-cut days aren’t easy or often. The episode makes fun of the simplistic approach the media takes. It’s an episode arguing for a more in-depth vs. a superficial look at those running for political office.
Pilot – S1 E1
All shows start with their pilot and The West Wing roared out of the gate. With its unique one-take camerawork styling and immersion of opening, it provides a feel for the amount of activity and pace of work. It’s a timeless story of the day to day of government. It’s a government trying to manage conflicts honorably with care for the people at the center. A team of dedicated individuals working hard and working together as a team.
And It’s Surely to Their Credit S2 E5
Ainsley Hayes’s first day and its never-ending complications. Even as a Republican working in a Democratic administration, her character exemplifies the hope of bipartisanship – a sense of duty and aspiration that rises above partisanship bias. For wanting to serve the country and to help its citizens. And while Sam Seaborn and the White House Counsel Tribbey (John Laroquette) may not be thrilled, they rise above their initial reluctance. And when she’s mocked and insulted by their employees, Sam immediately sticks up for her firing the two offenders. He even organizes the staff to celebrate Ainsley’s arrival in her office in the basement.
Marbury S1 E11
An early episode with one of the best side characters, Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees). His introductory episode shows what can happen when regional conflicts escalate to global issues, eerily relevant to today. But Marbury preserves and knows that the key is to understand and be a statesman. To talk it out and to try to negotiate and buy time for peace.
A Good Day S6 E17
An episode of Democrats working together with a Republican to pass a bill. The speaker of the house doesn’t want a vote held and shuts down the floor when the Democrats have the votes. Josh Lyman, his presidential primary pick Matt Santos (Jimmy Smitts), and Cliff Calley (Mark Feuerstein), a Republican now in Josh’s old job conspire on how to pull one over on the speaker. The Democrats pretend to leave but really hide in the VP’s office overnight. And just when the speaker thinks he’s won, they all emerge and pass the bill.
The West Wing is now streaming on HBO Max. Do you agree with our episode picks? Or are there others that hold up better? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter @AfterBuzzTV.