10. Pilot (Season 1, Episode 1)
From the start, The West Wing was a different kind of television program. Nowhere is this clearer than in the pilot episode, which mixes comedy (mostly involving the president’s unfortunate bike crash), politics, drama, and witty back-and-forth dialogue and also debuts the show’s walk-and-talk style that would become a mainstay of wordy dramas for the following 10 years.
KEY MOMENT: During a debate about the Ten Commandments with the religious right, President Bartlet correctly states the text of the first commandment in one of the most effective character introductions in television history.
BEST LINE: “Mrs. Landingham, what’s next?” —President Bartlet
9. “Take This Sabbath Day” (Season 1, Episode 14)
The West Wing afforded Aaron Sorkin the opportunity to delve into some controversial political topics, and though he was sometimes accused of politicizing his entertainment to express his own views, “Take This Sabbath Day” tackles the death penalty head-on, making a religious argument against the death penalty while using Charlie to make a personal argument for it. This also introduces Joey Lucas, who must deal with a hungover Josh Lyman in some of the show’s comedic highlights.
KEY MOMENT: Josh Lyman explains to Joey Lucas why they cannot support her candidate for Congress, pointing out that he (and the president) think she would be a fine candidate, a thought the show sadly never came back to.
BEST LINE: “You know what, I actually know that sign.” —Josh, to Joey Lucas
8. “Shutdown” (Season 5, Episode 8)
After Sorkin left at the end of Season 4, the show saw a major tonal shift and quickly lost viewers as the quality of the writing fell. That said, Season 5 managed to pull out one of the best episodes of the show’s run with “Shutdown,” which follows up on Bartlet’s threat to shut down the federal government at the end of the previous episode after a budget impasse. It manages to maintain the optimism of the opening season while keeping the post-Sorkin focus on backroom battles.
KEY MOMENT: On the advice of Josh Lyman, President Bartlet walks to Capitol Hill in a surprise move, scoring a major PR victory (as well as setting off a cultural reference every time Congress threatens a shutdown).
BEST LINE: “The enemy’s advancing, and you had better give me more than a squirt gun before the sun comes up.” —C.J. Cregg
7. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” (Season 1, Episode 19)
The last few episodes of the first season of The West Wing comprises one of the best stretches in the show’s history, as Sorkin masterfully takes many of the pieces he has been building throughout the season (namely the staff’s frustration about being unable to achieve anything) and in one of the best scenes in the show’s history, has Leo break down the president by finally getting him to admit some things are more important than reelection. The show ends with a triumphant swell and gives us one of the best moments in West Wing history; it’s easy to forget this episode also addressed gays in the military and delivered one of the show’s funniest opening scenes ever.
BEST MOMENT: Leo lays out the new game plan to the staff, who all respond that they serve at the pleasure of the president.
BEST QUOTE: “Listen up — our ground game isn’t working. We’re gonna put the ball in the air. If we’re gonna walk into walls, I want us running into ‘em full speed.” —Leo
6. “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” (Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2)
Season 1 ended with a cliff-hanger, or so we thought. We immediately learn the answer to what we thought was the biggest question of the Season 1 finale: who was shot in the attack in Roslyn. But then, the show delves into its first-ever flashback episode, which marks some of the strongest episodes of The West Wing. (If you don’t believe me, scroll down a little more). As Josh and President Bartlet both undergo surgery, we flash back to the early days of the campaign and learn how the cast of characters we watched in the first season (minus Mandy) came together in the first place.
KEY MOMENT: In an episode chock-full of wonderful moments, it’s hard to overlook Josh asking President Bartlet, “What’s next?” from his hospital bed.
BEST LINE: “Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be given to you. Put it another way, fake it ‘til you make it.” —Leo
5. “Posse Comitatus” (Season 3, Episode 21)
In the Season 3 finale, Sorkin masterfully maneuvered between three story lines as C.J.’s stalker is finally caught, while President Bartlet debates the fate of suspected terrorist (and Quamri Defense Minister) Abdul ibn Shareef and meets with his opponent in the upcoming election, Robert Ritchie. In an episode that featured no less than six special guest stars, several balls are masterfully juggled in the air.
KEY MOMENT: Bartlet and Ritchie sit down and talk about the upcoming election.
BEST LINE: “In the future, if you’re wondering: ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know,’ is when I decided to kick your ass.” —President Bartlet
4. “Celestial Navigation” (Season 1, Episode 15)
“Celestial Navigation” is one of earliest examples of The West Wing playing with timelines and unreliable narrators, as Josh explains the story of his disastrous press conference (“a secret plan to fight inflation”); meanwhile, Sam and Toby drive around Connecticut in search of Supreme Court nominee Roberto Mendoza to bail him out of a wrongful imprisonment.
KEY MOMENT: Josh’s disastrous press conference and Toby’s confrontation with Mendoza in his jail cell.
BEST LINE: “I’m tired, I’m cranky, and my wife’s in Argentina. Let’s get this over with.” —President Bartlet
3. “Game On” (Season 4, Episode 6)
Season 7 has an episode titled “The Debate, “but if someone is talking about “the debate episode” of The West Wing, they are probably talking about “Game On.” The Season 4 episode features the much-teased showdown between James Brolin’s Rob Ritchie and President Bartlet. Of course the debate is one-sided, but it provides some of the best and most fantastic television the program ever delivered. Meanwhile, Rob Lowe passes the torch to Josh Malina, and C.J. deals with a cranky undersecretary of state.
KEY MOMENT: Right before the president is set to go on stage, the First Lady cuts his tie in half, forcing him to borrow Josh’s tie and giving him a boost of energy.
BEST QUOTE: “You think states should do the governing wall-to-wall. That’s a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got $12.6 billion in federal money last year, from Nebraskans, and Virginians, and New Yorkers, and Alaskans, with their Eskimo poetry — 12.6 out of a state budget of $50 billion. I’m supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: Can we have it back, please?” —President Bartlet
2. “In Excelsis Deo” (Season 1, Episode 10)
The West Wing has a knack for knocking it out of the park during Christmas episodes. “Noël” and “Bartlet for America” were both considered for this list, but “In Excelsis Deo” remains a Christmas classic and an episode of the program that’s worth revisiting every year. As the White House staff navigates a lighter story line (Mandy is worried about costumes clashing, President Bartlet takes the staff shopping for rare books), Toby is dealing the the aftermath of a homeless veteran being found dead in a coat he had donated to the Goodwill. It manages to be one of the funniest and most heart-wrenching episodes the show has ever produced, at the same time. The two story lines meet at only a couple key points, but this episode not only fleshed out Toby’s character, but offered some insight to Mrs. Landingham as well.
KEY MOMENT: Toby, Mrs. Landingham, and the mentally challenged brother of the homeless man attend the military funeral service that Toby helped arrange.
BEST LINE: “Who the hell is this guy, and why do I care if he has a merry Christmas?” —Leo
1. “Two Cathedrals” (Season 2, Episode 22)
“Two Cathedrals” isn’t just the best episode of The West Wing, it is one of the finest hours of television ever produced. In the aftermath of the death of a key character and the public revelation that he has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, President Bartlet wrestles with his decision to seek a second term. Meanwhile, we flash back to Bartlet’s youth, where he develops his resolve and meets Mrs. Landingham for the first time. This episode also features an entire scene in Latin, which isn’t subtitled, putting enormous faith in the audience, and delivers Sheen’s finest moment in the program, as he questions God in the National Cathedral.
KEY MOMENT: The aforementioned scene, where Bartlet smokes in church and curses at God in Latin.
BEST LINE: “You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run ‘cause 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.” —Mrs. Landingham
THE NEXT TEN BEST EPISODES:
“Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics” (Season 1, Episode 21)
“In This White House” (Season 2, Episode 4)
“Shibboleth” (Season 2, Episode 8)
“Noël” (Season 2, Episode 10)
“Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” (Season 2, Episode 16)
“The Stackhouse Filibuster” (Season 2, Episode 17)
“Bartlet for America” (Season 3, Episode 9)
“Twenty Five” (Season 4, Episode 23)
“2162 Votes” (Season 6, Episode 22)
“Tomorrow” (Season 7, Episode 22)