As far as political dramas go, practically every show falls short of the soaring heights that The West Wing reached for the seven seasons it was airing. Despite ending in 2006, Aaron Sorkin’s show is still one of the highest-rated TV series ever and even has a fan podcast dedicated to it.
Many dedicated fans will tell you that the show went downhill after Sorkin left at the end of season four. The numbers on IMDb bear that out— only one episode from the post-Sorkin era of The West Wing breaks into the top 10 episodes of the show.
10 Bartlet for America (9.1/10)
The first episode on the list is one that highlights some of the problems with the US federal government. President Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis has been revealed to the public, and he is facing a Congressional inquiry into whether or not he lied to the public during his campaign. However, the inquiry becomes more and more partisan and destructive — one Republican representative, in particular, is gunning for Leo McGarry, and trying to make public the fact that Leo once fell off the wagon during the campaign. It’s the kind of dirty move that makes the American public hate politics.
There are heart-warming moments though. We get a flashback to when Leo introduced then-Governor Bartlet to the campaign slogan “Bartlet For America.” He wrote that on a cocktail napkin, and we find out that Bartlet kept it all this time. He frames it and gives it back to Leo as a vote of confidence in him.
9 Posse Comitatus (9.1/10)
In the season three finale, President Bartlet, Sam, C.J., Toby, and Leo travel to New York City to see an interminable Broadway play called “The War of the Roses.” While there, Bartlet comes face to face with his opponent Rob Ritchie, and has to decide if he wants to have the Qumari Defense Minister assassinated.
The end of this episode is heartbreaking, and it's one that many fans were angry with the creators about for a long time. C.J. and her Secret Service protege, agent Simon Donovan, had a difficult start to their working relationship, but by “Posse Comitatus,” the relationship has taken the romantic turn all fans were cheering for. But the end of the episode sees C.J. alone again when Donovan is tragically killed in a drug store robbery.
8 In Excelsis Deo (9.1/10)
Twenty years ago, The West Wing hit the ground running; hardly a single episode from the first season drops below an 8/10 rating. This particular episode was especially moving because it was the first time viewers really got to see what a big heart Toby has hidden behind his gruff exterior.
A homeless veteran dies on the National Mall wearing an old coat of Toby’s. He gets the call and sees that the man remains uncollected for hours, neglected even by the officers who found him. Devastated by this treatment, Toby goes out of his way to find the veteran’s remaining family and pays for a funeral with full honors out of his own pocket. President Bartlet tries to rebuke him, saying, “If we pull strings like this, you don’t think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?” Toby’s reply is amazing: “I can only hope.” The emotion of the storyline is overwhelming. It is one of the best moments in West Wing history.
7 The Supremes (9.2/10)
A deadlock has forced over judicial nominees when a Supreme Court Justice dies. The Present wants a liberal nominee so that he can leave a lasting legacy when he leaves office, but it seems unlikely with a strongly Republican Congress. Nevertheless, Josh begins back-channel negotiations, proposing a radical scheme that just might get everyone what they want.
“The Supremes” is the only episode from after Aaron Sorkin leaves the show to make this list. It proves that the new writer and directors could still do a lot with the legacy they were left, but fans never really got over the departure of Sorkin and Schlamme (not to mention Rob Lowe).
6 What Kind of Day Has It Been (9.2/10)
As always, it’s a hectic day at the White House: A stealth fighter is shot down over Iraq, and Bartlet has to order an even more stealthy military rescue. Meanwhile, Toby is worried about his estranged brother, who is trapped on a space shuttle.
The season one season finale ended on such a cliffhanger that it was guaranteed to not only bring more attention to the show but to make the season two premiere scheduled watching for fans. When President Bartlet leaves the town hall meeting, shots ring out. They set in motion two other episodes that make this top ten list.
5 Twenty Five (9.3/10)
The season 4 finale was also Aaron Sorkin’s final episode with The West Wing. Many fans still point to it as the last point when the show went downhill. And though ratings did fall after season 4, they still stayed quite high compared to other political dramas.
“Twenty Five” ushers viewers into one of the most dramatic storylines in The West Wing’s run. While still wrapping up the aftermath of an assassination, the President is now hit with any parent’s worst nightmare: His youngest daughter Zoey has been kidnapped. She had been out with her (terrible) French boyfriend when she goes missing from the club. The President must decide whether or not he can be a parent and run the country at the same time.
4 In The Shadow of Two Gunmen: Part II (9.3/10)
The first part of this two-part series premier ranks a little higher on the list with a rating of 9.5 out of 10. But the second part of the episode is just as emotionally devastating.
President Bartlet and Josh Lyman were shot when exiting a town hall meeting. By this point, the viewers know that Bartlet is going to be okay, but Josh’s recovery is still up for debate. In a continuation of the flashbacks/present moment pattern Sorkin established in the first part of the episode, this time we find out how C.J. Cregg joined Bartlet’s team. It’s a hilarious sequence including one of Allison Janney’s most under-rated skills: her talent for physical comedy. The episode is far from light-hearted, but all’s well that ends well. This one ends well.
3 Noël (9.4/10)
A few episodes after the harrowing events of “In The Shadow of Two Gunmen” parts one and two, it’s Christmas at the White House again. But in all the good cheer, Josh Lyman is unfortunately spiraling. The events of the last few weeks haunt him, especially when he hears brass instruments play. Leo, in his gruffest form of kindness, forces Josh to see a psychiatrist.
Meanwhile, Yo-Yo Ma performs in the White House, an Air Force pilot disobeys direct orders, and CJ has to look into a report of a woman who freaked out during a tour of the White House. Like every episode on this list, it is amazingly well-done television.
2 In The Shadow of Two Gunmen: Part I (9.5/10)
The opening of season two was a dramatic and emotional beginning of the season. It is another example of Aaron Sorkin’s ability to balance two timelines in one episode. It alternates between the immediate aftermath of the shooting at President Bartlet’s town hall meeting and the moments when everyone in Bartlet’s cabinet met each other. It’s funny and shows what an iconoclast Bartlet was while campaigning. Somehow, watching Donna Moss meet Josh in the past and react to the news of Josh being shot in the present was both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
No wonder this episode ranks so highly. 9.5/10 is an extremely high rating on IMDb, especially for a show that has over 1000 votes cast. It took a lot to top it, as we’ll see with our final episode on the list.
1 Two Cathedrals (9.8/10)
Normally in these top ten lists, the top few episodes are a neck-in-neck race. But “Two Cathedrals” is a breakout favorite from the show. It is arguably a perfect episode of television, one that sets the standard for all one-hour dramas.
The episode bounces back and forth between the past and the present as President Bartlet reels from the unexpected death of his longtime assistant and friend, Mrs. Landingham. He remembers their meeting and first few interactions, and viewers see all the ways Mrs. Landingham shaped the man Jed became. So, when Bartlet rants at God after Mrs. Landingham’s funeral, it is so moving and so devastating. “Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?” Everyone who has ever lost a loved one, who has questioned their faith, has felt this. When Bartlet smokes in the chapel it mirrors the moment just before he met Mrs. Landingham; we know he has turned his back on his faith.