The 10 Best Scenes from “The West Wing”
I started second-guessing all of these as soon as I hit the ‘Publish’ button
This originally appeared on The Passion of Christopher Pierznik
Update: This post was missing some very great scenes, so I wrote a follow-up with ten additional scenes
I know that it is a golden age for television, but at the moment I simply don’t have the time or inclination to dive into a new series. The TV in my living room is usually playing Disney Junior and I’d prefer to either read or write. If I am going to watch something new, it’s usually a movie — in and out in two hours.
It wasn’t always like this. I was a Seinfeld fanatic and taped every episode on VHS. I own the DVD’s for the entire runs of Scrubs (excluding the cringe-worthy ninth season) and Arrested Development (including the underrated fourth season). Once the kid is in bed, my wife and I usually like to put on something comfortable that we’ve seen before as background programming while we do something else or fall asleep and nothing gets more play in the DVD player than The West Wing.
One of the best television series in American history, Aaron Sorkin’s drama won 26 Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series in each of its first four seasons. It dipped in quality and praise in its final three seasons — Rob Lowe left the show midway through season four, but was replaced capably by Joshua Malina; Aaron Sorkin left after season four and was sorely missed — but it remained very good (even if much of season six should have been called The Campaign Trail instead of The West Wing).
While watching it the other night, I went on Twitter and called the scene of Josh and Jed at the airport one of the show’s ten best scenes. So I began making a list of the ten best scenes. Not episodes, but standalone scenes. I came up with twenty-five off the top of my head and twenty more after doing some research and the airport scene isn’t even close to cracking the top ten (though I still love it). Personally, I thought the show’s absolute peak came in season 2, after the departure of the useless Mandy and before it became a show slightly obsessed with itself, so there are several scenes from that season included. There are so many that didn’t make the list, even from the final few seasons — CJ becoming Chief of Staff, the Camp David peace talks, Leo’s heart attack, CJ and Josh each visiting Toby at home, Leo’s (and John McGarry’s real life) death — but at some point I had to make a cut. So here is my personal list for the ten greatest scenes in the history of The West Wing (along with many honorable mention choices).
Honorable Mention: Marriage Incentives
[“We Killed Yamamoto” — Season 3, Episode 20]
There are so many great Josh-Amy scenes from which to choose — “I am the principal’s office,” “You just threatened me, honey,” “Shut up”-“You shut up!,” “How do you like them apples?,” “Don’t talk to me” — but the scene regarding marriage incentives includes so much in so little time and is a perfect encapsulation of the characters, both individually and together. The mixture of regular relationship interplay — a stew is being prepared, she is dressed comfortably (though still looks great), he opens a beer to unwind while mentioning the Mets game — is shattered when he admits to conceding something that she finds heinous. It becomes a competition between two ambitious, competitive, zealously righteous people that put their careers ahead of everything else, including each other, and even fatures the dropping of a cell phone into a stew. All in less than three minutes.
Honorable Mention: “Crime. Boy, I don’t know.”
[“Posse Comitatus” — Season 3, Episode 21]
As originally conceived, Robert Ritchie was an inflated caricature of President George W. Bush, but it turned out that he was also the prototype of Rick Perry. While Sorkin was using his alternate reality to elect intelligence over plain-spoken, he also took the opportunity to juxtapose President Bartlet, an erudite individual with a Nobel Prize and lucid ideas on everything, with Ritchie, a popular governor who is not known for his big brain, and how the two react to the killing of a Secret Service agent.
Honorable Mention: “You’re relieved, Mr. President”
[“Twenty Five” — Season 4, Episode 23]
After everything, The West Wing is still a television drama, so it includes many more dire events than real life — shootings, kidnappings, invasions, attacks, scandals — but it did it so well that we could be led to believe it. Here, in Sorkin’s final episode, we see the normally confident and logical President Bartlet reduced to a scared man driven by emotion, with Speaker of the House Glen Allen Walken assuming the role of acting president and telling Bartlet he’s relieved. It’s a powerful scene, from the staffers’ reactions to the viewers wondering what will happen with the show going forward.
Honorable Mention: Poker Face
[“In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” — Season 2, Episode 1]
Since the show began a year into the Bartlet presidency, we had to wait for flashbacks to find out how all of these people came together to work in the White House. First up was the reunion of Josh and Sam and their discussion about seeing the “real thing” while talking on a Manhattan street. It adds depth to not just their friendship, but also their belief in Bartlet.
Honorable Mention: “I won’t stay unless you go”
[“Transition” — Season 7, Episode 19]
Josh recruits Sam to be the Deputy Chief of Staff for Matthew Santos, but his schedule has him at the breaking point. After watching Josh berate the young staff, Sam steps in to put Josh back in his place and make him take a vacation, providing beautiful bookends to their relationship (4:00 mark).
Honorable Mention: “Why are we changing maps?”
[“Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s to Jail” — Season 2, Episode 16]
The second version of the “Big Block of Cheese Day” found CJ and Josh learning about the differences of the map of the world between the Peters Projection and the standard Mercator, which (apparently) distorts the world to make America and Europe bigger and, thus more important, than other locations. It’s interesting by itself, but it also illustrates how we rarely question what are taught from early on and how learning that there may be a better way can be threatening.
Honorable Mention: “My president is your president”
[“And It’s Surely to Their Credit” — Season 2, Episode 5]
CJ Cregg may be the best character on the show, but because of that she is often the anchor of entire episodes while other characters — namely Josh and Toby — get more showy individual scenes. It’s a tricky character to pull off, one that Sorkin has admitted wasn’t so complete on paper, so it’s not wonder why Allison Janney won all those Emmys. But sometimes she gets her chance and this is one of the best examples, when she goes head to head with a three-star general, but not before dismissing one of his men curtly yet respectfully.
Honorable Mention: Bartlet and the Butterball Hotline
[“The Indians in the Lobby” — Season 3, Episode 7]
There are plenty of funny moments in The West Wing, but many of them are based on physical comedy, which makes the ones that aren’t that much more enjoyable. As Thanksgiving approaches, President Bartlet has promised to make dinner, but is concerned about undercooking the food. During a conversation with Charlie, he learns about the Butterball Hotline and decides to call the number himself as a “citizen” from Fargo, resulting in a very funny exchange.
Bonus Thanksgiving scene: Charlie looking for the perfect carving knife and receiving a very special one as a gift from Bartlet.
Honorable Mention: Josh and Toby Brawl
[“Drought Conditions” — Season 6, Episode 16]
The cast was one of the very best things about The West Wing, illustrated by the interplay between different combinations of the core members — Josh and Sam; Toby and CJ; Toby and Sam; etc. Josh and Toby together was always highly enjoyable, because those scenes were both funny and serious, but also because they wanted the same things but couldn’t agree on the right way to get there (like in “20 Hours in America”). Here, the showrunners fold in the fans’ worry that Josh leaving the White House may signal his leaving the show (like Sam) into a fight with Toby. This was an unforgettable moment, made more powerful that we can feel the anticipation building and, when it finally does happen, it doesn’t last long or that the fight doesn’t get unrealistic.
Honorable Mention: “What time is it in Japan?”
[“Ellie ” — Season 2, Episode 15]
Like many ensemble shows, there are fewer scenes with all of the main players than you would expect so when it’s just the four members of senior staff without someone like Leo or Donna, it’s worth noting and this is one of the better ones as four intelligent people try to figure out flights and time zones through classic Sorkinese.
Honorable Mention: “We changed time zones?!”
[“20 Hours in America ” — Season 4, Episode 1]
Speaking of time zones, Sorkin was great at finding a small, trivial factoid and using it as the fulcrum for an entire episode. Josh, Toby, and Donna miss the motorcade and are en route to meet it before Air Force One takes off when they’re told that they actually missed the plane because some Indiana counties don’t recognize Daylight Savings Time.
Honorable Mention: “Give me numbers”
[“Two Cathedrals ” — Season 2, Episode 22]
The death of Mrs. Landingham was a jarring moment, one that would haunt the show for the rest of its run in one form or another, and occurred during possibly the show’s greatest episode. The church scene is amazing (see below), but this is almost as good, with President Bartlet talking to the ghost of a woman that had been his mother figure since adolescence.
Honorable Mention: Santos’s “What’s next?”
[“Tomorrow” — Season 7, Episode 22]
For seven seasons, President Jed Bartlet’s most often used phrase was “What’s next?” The last shot we see of new President Matt Santos is looking at Josh — his Leo — ans asking the same thing. A new president replaces the old one, a new regime takes over, life goes on (1:16 mark).
[“Tomorrow” — Season 7, Episode 22]
A nostalgic choice, but after two seasons that had started to move away from Bartlet’s administration, it was nice to see the final scene acknowledge the entire run of the series, particularly the “Bartlet for America” napkin that had been the basis for his campaign and had originally been gifted from Jed to Leo.
9. Josh’s Press Briefing
[“Celestial Navigation” — Season 1, Episode 15]
One of the funnier episodes, with CJ’s dental work and Sam trying to navigate by the North Star that was actually a plane, Josh’s press briefing showed how sarcasm could be misconstrued, how quickly the press can pounce, and how difficult CJ’s job is, all of it made even better by Josh’s smug rundown of his education and dismissal of the press corp in a conversation with Danny just before taking the podium.
8. Curing Cancer
[“100,000 Airplanes” — Season 3, Episode 11]
One of the better Sam episodes, as his former fiancée is tasked with writing a profile on him for Vanity Fair on the occasion of the State of the Union and follows him around. At the end, he reads her his section on curing cancer and Sam’s love of great oratory shines through.
7. Josh and Leo — “Now we’re both in the hole!”
[“Noel” — Season 2, Episode 10]
“Noel” was like a no-look pass from Sorkin. Leading up to the episode, it had been others like Charlie and Toby that had snapped in the aftermath of the shooting, but this shows Josh unraveling the entire time as told in flashbacks while he is meeting with a trauma therapist. Afterwards, Leo waits through Josh’s smartass comments and the wise one tells him a story that ends with “Long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand?” It’s hard not to feel the emotion.
6. Simon Donovan shot
[“Posse Comitatus” — Season 3, Episode 21]
Talk about a shock. After a few episodes of Secret Service agent Simon Donovan showing how capable he was while also proving he was human by making mistakes (“You’re slow-witted,” as his ‘little brother’ tells him), he once again proved his worth by thwarting a bodega robbery. Until he stepped to the counter and left himself open. This storyline interweaves with the assassination of Abdul Shareef beautifully, both being examples of the episode’s title.
5. Bartlet and Dr. Jenna Jacobs
[“The Midterms” — Season 2, Episode 3]
A very thinly-veiled commentary directed at Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Bartlet engages the talk show host on her opinion that homosexuality is an abomination and, when she responds that the Bible says it, he asks her about the other ridiculous things the Bible condemns. What makes this scene work so well is that Bartlet is not an atheist only using the Bible to call out the hypocrisy of religion, but rather a man that is guided by his faith and even takes confession in the Oval Office at one point.
4. Toby’s Bouncing Ball
[“17 People” — Season 2, Episode 18
Brilliant. Very little dialogue. Just the great score and the rhythmic sound of Toby bouncing his ball as he works to put the pieces together in his head. The entire episode is strong, with Toby screaming at Bartlet in the Oval Office, but this point, when he knows something is wrong and the look on Leo’s face showing his realization that he can no longer keep it secret, is the best.
3. Toby Finds Josh Shot
[“In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” — Season 2, Episode 1]
Following the cliffhanger of a shooting at the end of Season 1, the episode begins with the delayed realization that Bartlet was shot before the limo speeds off in the direction of the hospital. It then returns to the scene of the shooting and as the camera pans around, it appears that everyone is fine. When Toby finally locates Josh, his reaction is a first-rate piece of acting, as his face falls and he stumbles over his shouts for help as Josh slumps. It’s still amazing to me that this was how Season 2 started.
[“Pilot” — Season 1, Episode 1]
I’m sure there is another opening to a series that is as good or better than this one, but I can’t think of it at the moment. We are introduced to the senior staff not collectively, but individually, each one receiving a message that simply said “POTUS in a bicycle accident” before the term “POTUS” was so ubiquitous. After this one scene, we were hooked.
1. Bartlet and God
[“Two Cathedrals” — Season 2, Episode 22]
A gorgeous scene that was filmed in the National Cathedral, a church so long that it could fit the Washington Monument if it were laid on its side. Following a series of flashbacks that showed the length and depth of Jed and Mrs. Landingham’s relationship, Bartlet’s silent rage at the start of the scene turns into a powerful diatribe in which he curses God in both English and Latin, calls him a “feckless thug,” questions his faith, and vows not to run for re-election (a decision he would reverse, of course). It took until the start of Season 4 for Bartlet to find a new executive secretary and even then, he found a successor, but he could never find a replacement.
Many people have been clamoring for a West Wing reunion. Marc Bernardin recently tweeted out his excellent story pitch and in an Reddit AMA, Rob Lowe said he would return if Sorkin wrote it. There have already been a few unofficial reunions. The Entertainment Weekly photo shoot was missing a few people, as was the Funny or Die sketch to get more Americans walking that was much closer to dying than funny.
Interestingly, the best one, and one that included all main surviving cast members from the final three seasons and felt almost real, was actually a political ad for Mary McCormack’s sister who was running for Michigan State Supreme Court:
Come on, NBC. If Bridget Mary McCormack can get the band back together, why can’t you?
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.