With the 2016 Presidential Election approaching, we at the Place to be Nation decided that now would be a great time to go back and look at a television drama that presented an American political landscape that we all could be proud of. Join us month-by-month as we re-watch The West Wing together. Part companion piece, part reflection. Enjoy the show all over again or discover it for the very first time.
THE ADMINISTRATION AT THE START OF SEASON SEVEN
President Bartlet closes out the final months of his administration while recovering from both a personal MS health scare and a national security breach that appears to have come from his senior staff, most likely chief-of-staff CJ. Josh is campaign manager for the Democractic presidential ticket of Matt Santos and Leo McGarry. Newcomers Annabeth, Bram, and Ronna work on the campaign and eventually Donna joins up. Toby, Kate, Will, and Charlie are still holding down the fort in Washington.
The main crux of the season follows the Presidential election. California Republican Senator Arnold Vinick seems to have things locked up, even bringing former Bartlet campaign honcho Bruno Gianelli onboard to craft a “50 state strategy.” Santos keeps things clsoe but has trouble gaining enough footing to bring the election within reach, despite a strong showing in a live debate episode. Things finally even up when a nuclear accident in California turns out to have happened at a plant Vinick helped to open, leading to a too-close-to-call race on Election Day.
Aside from the nuclear accident that thrusts the White House into crisis mode, the only Washington storylines of any substance concern a potential war between China and Russia in Kazakstan that threatens to ruin the proceedings of Bartlet’s daughter Ellie’s wedding, eventually leading to the US sending peacekeepers to the region, and the investigation into the national security leak. The leaker ends up being Toby, who is fired in disgrace and eventually pleabargains, accepting jailtime to avoid a subpeona that could wreck Leo’s chances of becoming Vice President.
When Election Day arrives, Leo dies of a massive heart attack (a plot twist spurned by the real life death of actor John Spencer midway through the season) but his ticket triumphs, as Santos beats Vinick by the slimmest of margains.
The series concludes on Inauguration Day. The new Santos administration takes over, including the returning Sam Seaborn as Deputy Chief of Staff and Donna becoming Mrs. Santos’ Chief of Staff. Bartlet says goodbye to Washington and his staff parts ways. CJ moves to California and marries Danny, Will (who had briefly dated Kate during the season) runs for a wins a congressional seat in Oregon, and Toby avoids going to jail as he is pardoned as Bartlet’s last official duty in office.
Season Seven as a start-to-finish binge is pretty great. Every episode flows together well, better than the back-and-forth of season six (although there is still a similar format of focus shifting from campaign to DC for some of the season.) The nuclear accident episode, Duck and Cover, is excellent (and the only real “crisis mode” episode of the season) as are the two parts of Election Day. Toby’s last episode in the White House, Here Today, is well done although heartbreaking especially as a fan of Toby’s character (actor Richard Schiff insists that he played the role assuming Toby was covering for someone, although it is never explicitly said during the series.) The Debate, The Wedding, and Institutional Memory are all winners as well. And it goes without saying, I would think, that you need to watch the series finale: Tomorrow.
Nothing specifically stands out as bad. The Debate episode has many detractors but I place it in the best column personally. Same for Here Today, as many fans of Toby, who despise the leak storyline, hate how things ended. The season definitely climaxes with the Election Day episodes as the devastating death of Leo juxtaposes with the uplifting Santos win for an emotional one-two punch that can’t be topped. The following few episodes (Requiem, Transition, The Last Hurrah) just seem to be the show limping to it’s conclusion.
The final season of The West Wing is another good one. Like season six, it’s not as well written and endlessly rewatchable as the Sorkin years, but both seasons six and seven are solid outings and generally offer a satisfying conclusion for the characters we have followed for years. Yes, there is a bit too much time spent on new characters on the campaign trail at the expense of beloved characters that have been around since the beginning (poor poor useless season seven Charlie) and the show kind of limps to the finish line with its final few episodes, but overall it is an enjoyable season of television.
The West Wing has always been idealist and a political fantasy theater and this was never more evident then when watching the Santos and Vinick campaigns with the real life 2016 election as a backdrop. As if election malaise couldn’t set in more strongly.
There will be a postscript from me on the series at a later time. For now let’s leave it at this…I wish I could vote for Matt Santos or Arnie Vinick for President.