I have been hooked on The West Wing since I started watching it one week sophomore year of high school when I was sick with the flu. Since then, its characters have become friends, its witty walk-and-talk dialogues have been a source of constant joy, and it’s deep wade into political and personal topics have made me cry. Before I watched The West Wing, I knew I wanted to study international politics. This series, however, has never failed to provide me inspiration and hope for a better future. While every other episode deserves its place on a list of “best” episodes, here are just a few favorites through the years.
- Two Cathedrals (Season 2, Episode 22)
There are very few episodes from season 2 on this list, mostly because it is so preoccupied with Bartlet’s medical history and his staff’s feelings of betrayal. But despite the stress of the preceding episodes, “Two Cathedrals” is a broadcast masterpiece and easily one of the best episodes of the series.
This episode shows something rarely seen in the series—Bartlet at his lowest. While seasons later we will see him struggle to control his illness, this is deeper. On top of the public disclosure of his MS and certain political downfall, Mrs. Landingham’s car crash comes out of nowhere. The most powerful scene of the series ensues, with Bartlet’s confrontation with God in a deserted National Cathedral. The most moved I have ever been watching the series is watching Bartlet walk towards the altar, questioning God’s cruelty toward Josh and Mrs. Landingham and cursing out God in Latin.
It is the memory of the deceased Mrs. Landingham that convinces the President, prepared to give up on a second term, to run again—first with a flashback to Jed’s childhood, and finally, for one last time, the sight of Mrs. Landingham entering the Oval office to say, “If you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run because you think it’s gonna be too hard or you think you’re gonna lose, well, God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”
The episode has few words after this, just the President ’s motorcade travelling to the State Department to announce his MS and answer if he will still be seeking a second term. With the Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms” playing in the background and the thunderstorm whipping an American flag outside the window, Bartlet gives the best answer to this question by putting his hands in his pockets, looking away, and smiling.
Best Quote: “‘You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,’ says Graham Greene. I don’t know whose ass he was kissin’ there, ’cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman, a warning shot? That was my son.” – Jed Barltet
2. Noel (Season 2, Episode 10)
TW: This episode contains reference of suicide
Sometimes The West Wing’s best episodes are the hardest ones to watch, and that is the case for “Noel”. Months after Josh was near-fatally shot during the white supremacists’ attack in Rosslyn, his PTSD and suicidal thoughts are becoming clear to his best friends, the staffers of the West Wing. After Josh yells at the President in an episode of mental instability, Leo calls in a traumatologist, introducing our friend Stanley to the cast.
Josh is his typical self, cracking jokes, being difficult, and refusing to give a straight answer. Yet his laid back demeanor is contrasted with his increasing fear about an airforce pilot who crashed his plane to commit suicide, after recovering from a previous traumatic injury and being deemed fit to fly again. The final thing that connects Josh and the pilot: they share the same birthday. Staffers notice other things too—Josh’s slip by calling the brass band playing in the lobby to celebrate the holidays “sirens,” his random shouting for quiet, and most concerningly, a large cut on his hand Josh fails to explain away.
At the congressional Christmas party, with a special appearance from Yo Yo Ma performing Bach‘s Suite No. 1 in G major, the music continues to trigger Josh’s PTSD. Back home, he panics, slamming his wrist through a window. After Josh’s session with Stanley, he finds Leo waiting for him, who compassionately tells him, “As long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?”
Best Quote: “This guy’s walking down a street, when he falls in a hole…Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here!’ and the friend says, Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’ – Leo McGarry
3. Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1)
Rarely are pilot episodes as good as this one. While at first The West Wing was supposed to focus on the lives of staffers with only a few scenes from the President, this episode makes you both fall in love with Josh, Sam, C.J., Toby, and Leo, and in only the last five minutes, establishes President Bartlet as a character to stay.
C.J., the press secretary, has a particularly busy day after photos are released of the President crashing his bike into a tree, or better put, “The President, while riding a bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop.” Josh, too, is in hot water after arguing with a member of the Religious Right, Mary Marsh, on television and stating, “Lady, the God you pray to is too busy being indicted for tax fraud.”
As rumors spread that Josh is about to be fired, the staffers sit down with members of religious organizations to make amends, resulting in an argument over the Ten Commandments after Marsh makes anti-semetic suggestive comments. Here, the President bursts with the best possible first lines of a character, “I am the Lord your God, thou shalt worship no other god before me. Boy, those were the days, huh?” Before kicking the members of the Religious Right out of his house, the President asks why they refuse to condemn radicals in their own ranks, including one who sent a graphically violent doll to his granddaughter after she shared pro-choice thoughts.
Best Quote: “Margaret. Please call the editor of the New York Times crossword and tell him that ‘Khaddafi’ is spelled with an h, and two d’s, and isn’t a seven letter word for anything.” – Leo McGarry
4. Celestial Navigation (Season 1, Episode 15)
“Celestial Navigation” is one of the most joyful episodes of the series, filled to the brim with mishaps by the senior staff. Between Sam attempting to navigate Toby to Connecticut via the North Star, C.J.’s emergency “woot canal,” and Josh’s disastrous briefing where he suggests the President has a “secret plan to fight inflation,” this episode showcases the fantastic character development of Sorkin and the actors. As Sam and Josh go to bail the President ’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Josh attempts to explain what a day in the life as a West Wing staffer is like to a crowd of students as a guest speaker at a college campus (maybe Georgetown?).
Despite the hilarious interludes of the staffers’ unfortunate shenanigans, the episode also focuses on some major themes, specifically wrongful and racially-motivated arrest. Roberto Mendoza, the Supreme Court nominee, is pulled over for drunk driving on his (roundabout) way to D.C. after being summoned by the President. Mendoza, however, has a liver condition that makes drinking fatal. He was arrested in front of his young son and wife, not for driving drunk, but driving and being Latinx. Sam and Toby take Mendoza back to his family, bringing the officers who arrested Mendoza to apologize to his young son.
Best Quote: “C.J., so help me, if you use the words “Pwesident” or “bwiefed” again…” -Toby Ziegler
5. The Crackpots and These Women (Season 1, Episode 5)
“The Crackpots and These Women” introduces one of Leo’s favorite White House events, “Big Block of Cheese Day,” where staffers meet with organizations that struggle to get the attention of the White House (usually for good reasons). Or as Toby calls the occasion, “Throw Open Our Office Doors To People Who Want To Discuss Things That We Could Care Less About Day.” C.J. meets with an organization that wants $900 million for a wolves-only highway, while Zoey, the First Daughter, visits the White House a few days before she starts classes at Georgetown. With Zoey in and the President feeling sociable, Bartlet invites all the staffers to the residence for chili.
In the meantime, Josh is given an NSC security card that tells him where to go in the event of a nuclear attack. Josh is one of the few staffers who, because of his job responsibilities, would be evacuated with the President. Josh realizes, however, that all his friends—Sam, Toby, and C.J, as well as his assistant Donna— would likely be left for dead. Josh listens to “Ave Maria,” thinking about his older sister who died in a house fire when they were kids, while Josh got out alive. He returns his card to Leo and the President , explaining that in the event of a nuclear attack, he would want to be with his friends, and “ these women” who work at the White House. While The West Wing can sometimes be a slightly sexist show, Leo takes a moment to point out the amazing work of the female staffers.
Best Quote: “I hope that by the time we’re done with our four years here, we’ll have seen to it that every young person who chooses can go to college and beyond, regardless of their economic status…. What will be the next thing that challenges us, Toby? That makes us work harder and go farther?’’’ – Jed Bartlet
6. Mr. Willis of Ohio (Season 1, Episode 6)
While some episodes of The West Wing are reflective of how frustrating, selfish, and corrupt politics can be, this episode never fails to make me smile. Its beginning is jovial as the President and his staffers play poker together, interrupted by the President ’s continuous trivia questions and his employees’ snide remarks.
The best part of the episode, however, is when Toby sits down with 3 swing votes on the upcoming census bill. Bartlet’s administration wants to use sampling to get a more accurate idea of the population size that does not discriminate against Black neighborhoods and houseless communities, but the Republicans argue it is unconstitutional. One of the swing voters, Mr. Willis, is not an elected member of the House of Representatives, but is temporarily filling in the seat for his recently deceased wife. A high school Social Studies teacher from Ohio, Willis feels ignorant of the intricacies of politics, but knows the Constitution—as well as its original racist clauses that counted Black Americans as ⅗’s of a person. Mr. Willis agrees to change his vote, not for an underlying intention, but simply because Toby convinced him.
As the President and his staff resume their poker game that night, Toby pauses to watch Mr. Willis cast his first and last vote in the House of Representatives. Oh, and also Charlie protects Zoey at a Georgetown bar. Cute.
Best Quote: “The President’s daughter, Chief of Staff’s daughter, a Georgetown bar and Sam. What could possibly go wrong?” – Josh Lyman
7. Game On (Season 3, Episode 6)
The lead-up to the President ’s second term in office is not always smooth-sailing, but “Game On” is the episode to watch if you need to see Bartlet’s administration take a win. Although a serious day, with a debate between Bartlet and the Republican nominee and a race still too close to call, the attitude of the entire episode is joyful. It begins with a practical joke on Toby, with C.J., Sam, Toby, and the President placing bets that if Bartlet gives Toby a bad practice answer on capital punishment, Toby will freak out. Of course, the President is right and rakes in money as Toby concludes the President is ready for the debate that night, which he thinks will be a true sight to see.
The President heads to the debate, where the First Lady cuts off his tie a minute before he needs to be on stage, prompting an excited rush by the staff to replace his tie and keeping the good luck superstition from the first Presidential debate. Bartlet arrives on stage not as “Uncle Fluffy,” but offers powerful answers that wipe his opponent out of the competition.
Best Quote: “And you—You big bear, come to me. I’m going to kiss you right on the mouth.”
8. Five Votes Down (Season 1 Episode 4)
From a cinematic perspective, “Five Votes Down” is a genius episode. Aaron Sorkin, the writer of masterpieces like A Few Good Men and The American President, is famous for his use of “walk-and-talks” in The West Wing, where multiple characters have quickfire conversations as they walk through hallways. The longest walk-and-talk is featured in this episode, which required 500 extras, over 20 takes, and clocks out around 3 minutes and 24 seconds. The scene is one of continuous movement, as Josh and C.J. discuss the loss of votes for the bill the President just assured an audience he would pass, Sam and Mandy discuss her music choices, and Toby and the President bicker over Bartlet’s delivery of a speech.
The scene is bursting with energy and passion—exactly what you would expect from the staff of The West Wing. The rest of the episode involves Josh’s aggressive political savvy, Leo’s home life falling apart, and best of all, financial disclosures from the staffers. This includes an expensive “smoking jacket” gifted to Josh by an ex-girlfriend and the allegation that Toby might have broken federal law by manipulating markets. To solve Toby’s predicament, the President (accidentally high on painkillers) agrees to a significant pay cut for Toby and vows to get a dog. Just a usual day in the Oval office.
Best Quote: “There’s literally no one in the world I don’t hate right now” – Toby Ziegler