In today’s troubled political times, “The West Wing” feels even more quaint and nostalgic than it did when it premiered 20 years ago, which means we need it now more than ever. An idealized vision of a Presidential administration functioning at its very best despite Washington’s many complications, the Aaron Sorkin-created series captivated audiences with its whip-smart dialogue and dense storytelling. In honor of its 20th anniversary, let’s take a look back at 20 of its greatest episodes, ranked worst to best.
“The West Wing” centered on the ins and outs of a White House staff, with Martin Sheen front and center as the noble, dedicated President Jed Bartlet. There’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and Deputy Assistant to the Chief of Staff Charlie Young (Dule Hill), to name but a few. The show also had juicy roles for Janel Moloney as Josh’s Senior Assistant Donna Moss, Stockard Channing as First Lady Abbey Bartlet, Moira Kelly as media consultant Mandy Hampton, Mary-Louise Parker as activist Amy Gardner, Jimmy Smits as Democratic Presidential candidate Matthew Santos and Alan Alda as his Republican rival, Arnold Vinick.
Throughout its seven season run, the show racked up an impressive 95 Emmy nominations and 26 wins, including four consecutive prizes in Best Drama Series (2000-2003). In its first season alone, it broke the record for most victories in a single season with nine (“Game of Thrones” surpassed it in 2015 with 12). Alda, Channing, Janney, Schiff, Spencer and Whitford all won individual acting prizes, while Hill, Lowe, Moloney, Parker and Sheen earned nominations.
So raise the flag and have a bowl of President Bartlet’s homemade chili as we count down the 20 best episodes of this Emmy-winning classic in the photo gallery above. Our list includes the “Pilot,” Christmas episodes “In Excelsis Deo” and “Noel,” “Two Cathedrals,” “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” and more.
20. TOMORROW (S. 7, E. 22)
Though its final three seasons suffered from the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin, “The West Wing” still managed to deliver some standout episodes in his absence, including its stellar series finale. As President-elect Matthew Santos prepares to be sworn in, President Bartlet and his staff reflect on their years in the White House as their tenure comes to an end. At times funny, sentimental and heartbreaking, “Tomorrow” is the kind of wrap-up you’d hope for with this endlessly optimistic drama, a look back at the tears and laughter of the past and those yet to come. There’s even a wonderful callback to the pilot during the last scene, as Santos asks the same question his predecessor asked in the show’s beginning: “What’s next?”
19. AND IT’S SURELY TO THEIR CREDIT (S. 2, E. 5)
One could always look forward to “The West Wing’s” weekly guest stars, and this second season episode features a doozy in John Larroquette. He plays Lionel Tribbey, the bombastic, volatile White House Chief Counsel who terrifies newly-hired Republican strategist Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) on her first day. Elsewhere in the White House, Josh enlists Sam to help him with the high medical bills from his shooting (sadly a still-timely storyline) while President Bartlet gets some good news about his own medical situation. Meanwhile, CJ encounters a decorated army general (Tom Bower) intent on criticizing the President, and she must decide whether or not to expose him when she finds out some of his medals might not be real.
18. THE INDIANS IN THE LOBBY (S. 3, E. 8)
“The West Wing” always excelled in its holiday episodes, including this third season Thanksgiving installment. As President Bartlet torments himself — and everyone else — over the best way to cook a turkey, CJ must deal with some Native American activists camped out in the White House lobby. The tribal representatives are promising to raise hell if they can’t get better health care services for their reservation, and in that way, “The Indians in the Lobby” calls attention to the lasting wounds from this American holiday. Meanwhile, Toby finds that POTUS’s popularity numbers increase thanks to the First Family, Sam is dismayed by income tax and Josh is dispatched to recover a Georgia teen who murdered his parents and fled to Italy.
17. 20 HOURS IN LA (S. 1, E. 16)
As the title would suggest, the White House staff travels to Los Angeles for 20 hours of wheeling and dealing. First there’s a debate over a proposed Constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, followed by a town hall meeting over school vouchers and finally an expensive fundraiser thrown by prominent movie mogul Ted Marcus (special guest star Bob Balaban). But Marcus threatens to cancel the fancy soiree if President Bartlet doesn’t come out in opposition against a Republican-backed bill to ban gays from serving in the armed forces. As if things weren’t bad enough, Bartlet must enlist the Vice President (Tim Matheson) to cast a gridlock-breaking vote in the Senate. Look out for “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno in a cameo appearance.
16. POSSE COMITATUS (S. 3, E. 22)
Season Three wraps up masterfully in “Posse Comitatus,” a devastating hour of television that deals with the difficult decisions the POTUS must make from time to time. As President Bartlet and his team travels to New York City for a Catholic fundraiser at the Broadway show “The War of the Roses,” he must determine whether or not to assassinate the Qumari Defense Minister. At the same time, he finally meets his Republican challenger for reelection, Governor Robert Ritchie (Josh Brolin). Meanwhile, Josh goes head to head with his girlfriend (Mary Louise-Parker) over welfare reform, and most heartbreakingly of all, CJ’s stalker is finally caught, but her Secret Service agent boyfriend (Mark Harmon) dies tragically in the line of duty.
15. SIX MEETINGS BEFORE LUNCH (S. 1, E. 18)
Legislating ain’t easy, and “Six Meetings Before Lunch” perfectly conveys the ups and downs of Washington. As the White House staff celebrates the confirmation of Judge Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) to the Supreme Court, they must deal with new problems that put a damper on the festivities (but not before CJ can lip-sync to “The Jackal” at a rowdy party). When President Bartlet’s daughter, Mallory (Elisabeth Moss) attends a frat party, CJ must try to keep the story out of the press, while Josh spars with a nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights (Carl Lumbly) who believes in reparations for slavery. Meanwhile, Sam and Mallory (Allison Smith) fight over school vouchers, and Mandy tries to find replacement pandas for the zoo.
14. SHIBBOLETH (S. 2, E. 8)
It’s Thanksgiving in the White House, and there’s a lot of brevity that comes along with the holiday that counteracts the seriousness of current events. CJ has been tasked with picking a turkey to pardon, while Charlie is hunting for the perfect carving knife for the evening’s festivities. Meanwhile, a shipping container arrives in San Diego, CA, filled with refugees from the People’s Republic of China — including 13 dead bodies — all of whom are seeking asylum for religious persecution. Toby is also picking a fight with Leo’s sister, Josephine (Deborah Hedwall), a recess appointment with whom he shares massive disagreements over school prayer. But all is well when turkey is served (don’t worry, not the pardoned one).
13. THE SUPREMES (S. 5, E. 17)
Season Five got off to a rocky start following the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin, who personally wrote 85 of the first 88 episodes. Yet it managed to hit one out of the park with this forever-timely installment about the perils of the judiciary. When a Supreme Court justice suddenly dies, the staff finds themselves facing a tough decision over who they can get appointed in an increasingly polarized Congress. Glenn Close steals the show as Judge Evelyn Baker Lang, a fiery liberal who could become the first female Chief Justice if the Republicans will approve her nomination. It all wraps up with a bipartisan compromise that seems almost like a fairy tale in today’s climate, but boy is it nice to dream.
12. THE CRACKPOTS AND THESE WOMEN (S. 1, E. 5)
“The Crackpots and These Women” finds President Bartlet and his staff engaging in one of his favorite times of the year: “Big Block of Cheese Day,” in which Leo encourages everyone to meet with fringe special interest groups who normally get the short shrift from the White House. While Bartlet cooks up a pot of his homemade chili, CJ meets with a group who want to build a highway for wolves and Sam listens to a normal citizen’s ravings about UFOs. We also learn a little bit about Mrs. Landingham’s past, and get to meet the President’s precocious daughter, Zoey (a young Elizabeth Moss). It’s one of those “West Wing” episodes that relishes the program’s lighter, more comedic side, proving that politics can in fact be funny.
11. CELESTIAL NAVIGATION (S. 1, E. 15)
Even when dealing with weighty subjects like the fate of American democracy, “The West Wing” often found moments for lightness and whimsey, particularly in this first season installment. “Celestial Navigation” finds Josh struggling to give a press conference while CJ deals with some painful dental issues. Watching Bradley Whitford fumble reporters questions — including one about a secret plan to fight inflation — remains a hilarious highlight from the show. On a more serious note, Sam and Toby fly to Connecticut to bail out President Bartlet’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Robert Mendoza (special guest star Edward James Olmos), who has been pulled over by the police for “driving while Hispanic.”
10. TAKE THIS SABBATH DAY (S. 1, E. 14)
“The West Wing” never shied away from confronting controversial subject matters, and in “Take This Sabbath Day,” it takes on the always fiery death penalty debate. When a violent drug dealer’s stay of execution is denied, his defense attorney tries to appeal to Sam, who he used to victimize in high school. Putting the past behind him, Sam takes the inmate’s case directly to President Bartlet, who consults various religious leaders about how to proceed, including Toby’s rabbi and even the Pope. Meanwhile, Josh meets up with a deaf congressional campaign manager (special guest star Marlee Matlin) after a night of heavy drinking, and she reads him the riot act for having the DNC cut off funding for her candidate.
9. WHAT KIND OF DAY HAS IT BEEN (S. 1, E. 22)
Die hard Aaron Sorkin fans will instantly recognize the title “What Kind of Day Has It Been,” which was also used for “The Newsroom,” “Sports Night” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” For “The West Wing,” it’s used for the nail-biting Season One wrap-up, which ends with a heart-stopping cliffhanger. When a stealth fighter is shot down over Iraq, President Bartlet orders a military rescue, while Toby worries about his astronaut brother who’s orbiting the Earth. Meanwhile, CJ faces criticisms from the press over her misleading comments about the rescue, while the rest of the team prepares for a town hall. The evening turns out to be a big success… until shots ring out. And to think we had to wait five months to find out what happened next!
8. BARTLET FOR AMERICA (S. 3, E. 10)
The late, great John Spencer won the Emmy as Best Drama Supporting Actor thanks in large part to this episode, which delves deep into the relationship between Leo and President Bartlet. While congress is holding hearings about whether POTUS and his team lied about his MS diagnosis, “Bartlet for America” takes viewers back to the “The West Wing” origins, with Leo approaching the then-Governor about a possible presidential run. We also get to see the tortured Chief of Staff’s many ups and downs, from him falling off the wagon during the campaign to his fiery congressional testimony. It’s a stunning tour de force that makes us truly miss Spencer, who died from a heart attack while shooting the show’s final season.
7. PILOT (S. 1, E. 1)
“The West Wing” hit the ground running with its outstanding pilot episode, which drops the audience into the ins and outs of the White House at breakneck speed. As the day begins, the staffers learn via their pagers and phones that POTUS has been in a cycling accident. Toby is trying to prevent Josh’s firing after a contentious TV appearance on a Christian talk show, while Sam has a fling with a prostitute (Lisa Edelstein) that disrupts his planned lecture for visiting fourth graders. It all culminates in the last minute appearance of President Bartlet in one of television’s greatest introductions. Thomas Schlamme won the Emmy for directing this installment, which also won for its cinematography and art direction.
6. IN EXCELSIS DEO (S. 1, E. 10)
The first of “The West Wing’s” many memorable Christmas episodes, “In Excelsis Deo” also helped the show tack on a couple extra prizes to its then record-breaking nine Emmy victories in Season One, the most for any individual show in a single year (their record has since been broken by “Game of Thrones”). Richard Schiff took home the Best Drama Supporting Actor prize for this installment, which finds Toby trying to provide a proper burial for a homeless Korean War veteran who died wearing a coat he donated to Goodwill with his Washington, D.C. business card in the pocket. Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland won for writing the episode, which also finds C.J. trying to push anti-hate crime legislation after a young gay man is violently assaulted.
5. IN THE SHADOW OF TWO GUNMEN (S. 2, E. 1-2)
Season one ended with a heart-stopping cliffhanger, as gunshots rang out at a town hall meeting, hitting Josh and President Bartlet. In the second season premiere, the two are undergoing surgery while flashbacks show how the team was assembled during the presidential campaign. The juxtaposition of watching this tight-knit group come together for the first time contrasted with two of its members fighting for their lives makes for a powerful reminder of life’s unpredictability, and the importance of holding those most important to you close. There’s also a lot of suspense thrown in, as the hunt for the would-be assassin keeps us on the edge of our seats. Director Thomas Schlamme took home an Emmy for his work on both episodes.
4. 17 PEOPLE (S. 2, E. 18)
The concept of “17 People” is deceptively simple: having learned the truth about President Bartlet’s illness, Toby sits down with him to discuss the political implications that could result from going public, including the possibility that the few people who know about it could go to prison. Meanwhile, the rest of the staff — all of whom are still in the dark about the diagnosis — fret over a speech the President is set to deliver at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. It’s basically an intensely mounted filmed stage play, a no frills episode that finds this capable ensemble tearing into Aaron Sorkin’s theatrical dialogue with glee. It proves you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles to enjoy watching “The West Wing,” just good writing and acting.
3. TWO CATHEDRALS (S. 2, E. 22)
It’s shocking to see the steadiness and optimism of President Bartlet quiver, which makes “Two Cathedrals” such a powerful episode. Following the sudden death of his secretary, Mrs. Landingham, and a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, Bartlet finds himself questioning whether or not he’ll seek re-election. While at the funeral of his old friend, he flashes back to memories of the two when they were younger (with Jason Widener and Kristen Nelson playing them at 17 and 22, respectively). Meanwhile, the staff has to deal with a Haitian army takeover of an American embassy and questions from Congressional Democrats about how Bartlet’s diagnosis will effect the midterms. The famous Latin scene — done entirely without subtitles — is a standout.
2. LET BARTLET BE BARTLET (S. 1, E. 19)
“The West Wing” has always acted as a bit of wish fulfillment, a vision of government working at its very best despite its many complications. But up until “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” the fictional administration seemed to be functioning much like a real one: ineffectively. That all changes in this first season installment, which starts with a White House insider writing a memo attacking President Bartlet for his timidness and inefficiency. This trickles down to the staff, who rue their inability to get anything in Washington done. But as the title suggests, things take a positive turn when they decide to just let their leader be who he is: a kind, dedicated politician with his heart in the right place. It’s a turning point that would animate the rest of the series beautifully.
1. NOEL (S. 2, E. 10)
The best of “The West Wing’s” many Christmas episodes, and a showcase for Bradley Whitford, who won the Best Drama Supporting Actor Emmy thanks in large part to this installment. After his near-death experience, Josh is ordered by Leo to seek therapy, and he pours his heart out in some truly gut-wrenching moments. What’s really touching is the way the rest of the staff rallies behind him in his moment of need, reminding us all of how important it is to stand by the people we care about the most. It’s a message the show always managed to convey beautifully, even if the real life Washington rarely does. Meanwhile, Toby hires Yo Yo Ma to perform at the White House and an Air Force pilot separates from his flight team without explanation.