A Familiar Momentum And Happy Endings Close Out The West Wing's Final Season
Marathon Diarist Sarah Hope reaches the end of the Bartlet administration and looks back on 110 hours inside The West Wing.
I've binge-watched several great series in recent years: The Sopranos, The Wire, Twin Peaks, Friday Night Lights, Deadwood, and Breaking Bad, among others. Usually, I've worked my way through these series over several months, even up to a year or more. I take my time. I digest. But even though I binged The West Wing a whole lot faster than I've ever binged anything else, and even though it sometimes felt like I was plowing through moments that deserved more attention and thought than I was able to give, and even though I think I know more about the policy positions of Jed Bartlet, Matt Santos, and Arnie Vinick than I do about the real presidential candidates -- despite all those things, overall, this was a distinctly enjoyable experience that I would enthusiastically recommend to anyone who has 110 hours to kill. And hey, after today, when you no longer feel obliged to spend so much time watching cable news, you'll have a ton of time on your hands, right? The West Wing is (as I've been told for years) a fantastic show through to the end. (Well, except for Season 5.)
It goes without saying that a planned ending is always better than a surprise cancellation. The West Wing almost didn't get a seventh season. Can you imagine if the series had been cut off at Santos's nomination, with no resolution of the shuttle leak investigation or the Josh and Donna romance? We never would have gotten to the adorable that is Will and Kate, or saved the world from nuclear war between Russia and China. What a letdown that would have been!
In the Today interview I mentioned last week, Richard Schiff said that from the start, he always thought the show would last through two terms. It's a logical run for a show about a singular American presidency. In the end, Santos's inauguration was the perfect sendoff.
The final season continues the pattern of hopping back and forth between the campaign trail and the Bartlet administration's last days in the White House, straddling the present and the future. In the twelve weeks that I have spent plugged into this world, it has never felt more relevant. Season 7 captures what we in the U.S. have been dealing with over the last few months, especially in recent weeks: the end of a great American presidency, and the uncertain prospect of a new leader.
The West Wing's campaigns, with all their fresh faces and hopeful anticipation, finally brought back the energy and momentum that defined the early seasons. In what might have been TWW's most effective blurring of the line between reality and fantasy, "The Debate" aired live, with Vinick and Santos engaging on the issues and real-life news anchor Forrest Sawyer moderating. The candidates discuss immigration, taxation, government spending, charter schools and vouchers, Head Start, technical training versus college, healthcare, Canadian drugs, foreign debt relief, economic development, outsourcing, gun control, alternative energy, drilling in Alaska, and the very history and meaning of "liberalism." On the campaign trail, issues of race, police brutality, abortion, and intelligent design are raised. Sound familiar? It has continued to amazed me that the issues discussed on a political drama that went off the air ten years ago remain so eerily relevant. I don't know what that says about progress in the United States; let's hope someday we can put some of these discussions behind us for good.
Back on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Bartlet administration deals with a decidedly less exciting crisis in Kazakhstan that, to be honest, I didn't pay close attention to. I know there was an election, an assassination, and oil in Central Asia that Russia and China might start a nuclear war over. Like an average American, I was far more interested in what was happening on the fictional campaign trail than what was happening in fictional Northeast Asia.
Perhaps the only interesting happenings among Bartlet staff were the personal dramas between the characters I've come to love so much, and the brief return of some faces I've missed.
Leo: When Martin Sheen appeared before the "Previously on The West Wing" in "Running Mates" to announce that John Spencer had died, I teared up. I knew this was coming (it's impossible to avoid spoilers for a ten-year-old show), but nonetheless, it was hard to know that Leo would soon be gone. The writers' choice to pay tribute to the actor and his character by airing his last work, along with the pensive five minutes of prayer that opened Episode 18, was beautiful.
Toby: I'm not going to sugarcoat this, and it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone: I am firmly on #TeamToby. I would have signed the petition declaring him a hero. I would have marched in the streets in support of his pardon. I am also #TeamAndy, and wish she had convinced him to blame his brother to stave off a federal indictment. Regardless, Bartlet pardons Toby because of course he does. I only wish we could have seen Toby's reaction to the news.
Sam: It was lovely to see Sam return for a few short scenes as Josh's work husband, forcing him to take a vacation. There was very little substance in his role; for instance, we didn't learn how it's going in Orange County (did the Congressional thing not work out? How is he making so much money?) or see him develop any sort of relationship with his new coworkers. Oh, well. It's also nice to see Ainsley for a moment. I had missed her, too.
Josh & Donna and CJ & Danny and Will & Kate: Romance! Sweet, sweet romance. The Josh and Donna storyline takes off beautifully, with the inevitable first kiss followed by Donna directing Josh down the runway for a safe departure into what everyone always knew was a perfect fit. No drama or serious dithering -- just simple happiness and, in the end, a partnership of equals inside and outside of the West Wing.
Danny Concannon finally grew on me this season. He has some of the silliest, sweetest lines, and I couldn't help being charmed. "If I'm gonna jump off the cliff and you're gonna get pushed off the cliff, why don't we hold hands on the way down?" Aww. I've always wanted CJ to define herself outside of her job, and here, with Danny's help, she's finally doing that. In a way, she is as righteous as Toby, and a born fixer. I adore the idea of her taking a billionaire's billions to go fix infrastructure problems in developing countries. Get it, girl!
The relationship between Will and Kate surprised me. When they first exchange "what if" looks, I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy the pairing. I have never been Will's biggest fan. But he, too, grew on me this season, and their mutual support in the final episodes is incredibly endearing -- especially Kate's face when she realizes that Will should run for Congress in Oregon. We know from the start of the season that Will ends up a Congressman, but not if he and Kate ended up together. I hope they made it work.
I loved seeing all of these loose ends tied up and seeing everyone end up happy. Sorkin's blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo at the inauguration is a nice touch, too. That's the ultimate fantasy we all yearn for, right? Happy endings.
As I closed out this brilliant series just three days before Election Day, I found myself thinking back across all the speeches and one-liners, all the righteous cries for democracy and equality and bipartisanship, for a scene or line that could best sum up the show, and speak to the choices we face on Tuesday.
In Season 2, at the end of "The Midterms," the gang goes to visit Josh at his apartment. He has been cooped up inside recovering from being shot, and they all drink a beer on his stoop and discuss the midterm elections that have just happened. It turns out that, after four months and $400 million, nothing has changed. "Tell me democracy doesn't have a sense of humor," says Josh. Then he asks, "What do you say about a government that goes out of its way to protect even citizens that try to destroy it?"
"God Bless America," they all reply.
We might feel jaded after Election Day. We might be happy. No matter the outcome, a lot of people are going to be pretty angry on Wednesday morning. But when it comes down to it, all we can do at this point is vote. If you really can't decide, and IF you live in one of these few state, you can always write in someone else...
Either way, get out and vote! As President Matt Santos says, "The best way to preserve our democracy is to take part in it."
Sarah's West Wing Marathon Diary
- It's Time To Escape The Presidential Race And Visit The West Wing
- In Season 2, Control And Conservatism Enter The West Wing
- Who Run The West Wing? Girls, Girls
- Isaac & Ishmael & Indians Kick Off The West Wing Season 3
- Aaron Sorkin Flexes His Theatrical Chops And Goes Meta (And Mental) In Season 3 Of The West Wing
- On Presidential Debates, Both Real And, In Season 4 Of The West Wing, Imaginary
- In Season 4 Of The West Wing, It's All Business As Usual...Until It's Not
- Without Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing Is A Mediocre Mess In Season 5
- 'What's Next?' Becomes 'What Else?' As The West Wing's Worst Season Slogs On
- Fresh Faces And New Hopes Put The West Wing Back On Track In Season 6
- How Would Everyone On The West Wing Vote In The 2016 Presidential Election?
- A Familiar Momentum And Happy Endings Close Out The West Wing's Final Season