As of this month, The West Wing is 15 years old. We'll pause as you absorb how long you've been without Jed Bartlet and his merry band in your life. Doesn't it feel like just yesterday we all fell in love with Aaron Sorkin's bastion of liberal idealism wrapped up in fast-paced dialogue usually said while walking?
The years since haven't been as kind to Sorkin's TV projects, as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip bombed and The Newsroom continues to be a hate-watch target. (He did, of course, win an Oscar for writing The Social Network, because an Oscar is way cooler than your approval.) But what those shows lack that The West Wing had in spades was a collection of well-written, heart-infused characters. These were the kind of people you wanted to know in your own life. They could make you feel inspired about politics in our nation's worst moments of cynicism. Simply put, it was one of the best TV ensembles ever.
As we rapidly approach major milestones for a lot of significant and spectacular shows, we've been preparing something special for you. We'll show you more next week, but as a little preview, we're honoring the characters of The West Wing with our signature definitive ranking. Which women and men do we still miss 15 years later? Which characters made us ask "who?" when writing this? Join us as we remember and rank 114 characters from the series.
NOTE: Only characters who appeared in two or more episodes were eligible for this list ... with some exceptions. We left ourselves a few one-shot wild cards, because what would this list be without the Lionel Tribbeys or Evelyn Baker Langs of the show?
1. C.J. Cregg
Played By: Allison Janney Number of Episodes: 154
One of the great mysteries of Hollywood — nay, of life — is that Aaron Sorkin is a fairly condescending and certainly problematic writer of women. And yet so goes C.J. She’s not immune to Sorkin’s missteps. Her entire backstory as a Hollywood publicist who doesn’t seem to know much about Hollywood or publicity never made one lick of sense. And in the early seasons, she was the White House staffer most prone to making mistakes on the job. But her capability and combination of strength and simple compassion represented the fantasy of the Bartlet White House better than anyone. And have you seen her pull off “The Jackal”? — JR
Signature Episode: The “Manchester” two-parter that kicks off season three features C.J. at her lowest, after she completely blunders the press-briefing that follows Bartlet’s MS announcement/military action in Haiti. We see her really struggle, but she gathers her backbone and has a great come-to-Jesus moment with Jed.
2. Jed Bartlet
Played By: Martin Sheen Number of Episodes: 154
The initial plan for President Bartlet was to pop in every few episodes for a quick scene here and there – The West Wing was meant to focus on the staff instead. He went on to appear in almost every episode in the series, entirely because of how incredible the character Sorkin and Sheen created together was. Bartlet wasn’t a phantom figurehead; he was inspiring, frustrating, flawed, genius, courageous, and paternal. He’s remembered as one of the greatest fictional presidents, and deservedly so. We dream of a real commander in chief who was half the president Bartlet was. – KO
Signature Episode: “Two Cathedrals,” the second season finale wherein Bartlet mourns his late secretary and friend, curses at God in Latin, and defiantly tells the world he has multiple sclerosis. It’s bravado work from Sheen, and he sells it at every turn.
3. Toby Ziegler
Played By: Richard Schiff Number of Episodes: 144
In the early, best seasons of The West Wing, when the show was about how furiously the protagonists had to struggle to achieve any kind of change, Toby Ziegler represented a crucial component, a misanthropic idealist whose grumbling rage masks an irrepressible desire to do what's right. Toby was simultaneously the most and least optimistic senior advisor to Bartlet, functioning as his better angel but also his worst critic. The character suffered in later seasons, particularly once Sorkin left, and Schiff himself complained about the leak storyline he was handed in season seven, which never jibed with the character he helped conceive. But in those early seasons, I lived to watch Ziegler go nose-to-nose with the President and challenge his pragmatism. – DS
Signature Episode: First season episode "In Excelsis Deo," which won Schiff the Emmy, sees Toby using his political clout to arrange a military burial for a homeless man he didn't even know; an honorable blip in a larger world of injustice he can only vainly struggle to fix.
4. Leo McGarry
Played By: John Spencer Number of Episodes: 154
To pretty much all the central characters of the show, Leo is the heart, and certainly the father figure. Twinkle-eyed, funny, ruthlessly smart and stabilizing in the advise he gives everyone, he's an important stabilizing force in those early episodes before Sorkin quickly starts deconstructing him and his substance abuse problems. Of course, that only makes him more lovable as the other characters rush fiercely to his defense. Leo's purpose becomes a little muddled in later seasons as the characters kinda outgrow him (especially once he's not Chief of Staff) but the impact of Spencer's death near the end of season seven, which was written into the show, could not feel more devastating. – DS
Signature Episode: The third season's "Bartlet for America" flashes back to Leo encouraging Bartlet to run for President and taps into everything inspirational and heartwarming and gritty about the character.
5. Amy Gardner
Played By: Mary-Louise Parker Number of Episodes: 23
Started out as a lobbyist for feminist groups; eventually served as a sometimes advisor to the Bartlet administration and later as the First Lady’s chief of staff. I tend to be very accommodating to other points of view, and I am hardly ever a “shipper” for the shows that I watch, but if you preferred Josh and Donna to Josh and Amy, you are wrong. (Unless your rationale is that Josh and Donna are both kinda sucky and deserve each other, in which case: I’ll allow it.) The simple truth of the matter is that Amy Gardner is not only a superior character to Donna, but she is much better suited to Josh. Their chemistry was off the charts, their political maneuverings gave fire to season three, and she gave as good as she got and pushed Josh to do the same. I pine for the apocryphal eighth season of The West Wing for many reasons, but none more than because Amy signed on to the Santos administration. – JR
Signature Episode: Season four’s “Privateers,” a.k.a. Amy’s first day on the job as Abbey Bartley’s chief of staff, during which, among other political maneuverings, she had to put up with this foolishness:
6. Abbey Bartlet
Played By: Stockard Channing Number of Episodes: 69
You can feel Abbey Bartlet’s passion about everything from the proud tremor in her voice to her knock-down, drag-out fights with her husband. She’s a fiery First Lady not content to sit on the sidelines, but her desire to help her husband with his illness almost seals both of their fates. She cares deeply about her family – to a fault in multiple cases – and never let people push her around. For a woman in a Sorkin show to be so fierce and unique is a rarity, and a massive credit to Channing’s portrayal. – KO
Signature Episode: The correct answer is “Dead Irish Writers,” from season 3. Abbey’s birthday party coincides with the potential loss of her medical license, and she gets a ton to do. But though the episode on the whole isn’t hers, her scene with Jed in “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union” is her most electric work from throughout the series.
7. Margaret Hooper
Played By: NiCole Robinson Number of Episodes: 105
Margaret is the definition of a supporting player: always around, never too directly affecting the plot but always facilitating it. She has great moments (forging the president’s signature stands out), is supposedly a compendium of human knowledge pre-Wikipedia, and remains incredibly loyal to both of her bosses – Leo til his death, and C.J. until they leave the White House. Even when her stories took strange turns (remember when she got pregnant and then it was never mentioned again?), she remained a delight. – KO
Signature Episode: “Liftoff,” the season six episode where C.J. starts as chief of staff. Margaret proves to be an invaluable resource to her new boss, and C.J. thanks her in kind. (Plus, she’s tall, and C.J. likes that.)
8. Nancy McNally
Played By: Anna Deavere Smith Number of Episodes: 20
If you don’t love every single second of Nancy McNally on The West Wing, just what exactly is your problem? She’s tough, she’s smart, she has a way of advancing her agenda as Bartlet’s National Security Advisor, while remaining unwavering in her support of the administration. Anna Deavere Smith imbues her with so much inner strength and outer gravitas, it’s easy to think she was a far bigger part of the series than she was. She should have been. – JR
Signature Episode: I was tempted to go with “The Women of Qumar,” when she talks C.J. down off a ledge, but that episode’s a little pitched for my taste. I don’t much care for season two’s “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail” either, but that one features Nancy giving Sam the high hand like you would not believe as she walks him through what he knows versus what he thinks he knows about a classified spy case.
9. Charlie Young
Played By: Dulé Hill Number of Episodes: 136
Charlie starts out a bit of a cypher—added in the third episode partly to address concerns that the main cast was entirely white, Charlie is the President's personal aide and a lot of his early material is just friendly bantering with Bartlet as he follows him around. But Hill was so good in the role—so dryly funny, sharp when he needed to be, who had great chemistry with everyone he worked alongside (particularly Sheen). And he did such an effective job reminding of us Charlie's backstory (his mother was a cop shot in the line of duty) just by flashing a haunted look or reacting with understated but powerful emotion as he becomes a crucial part of the Bartlet family. He's backgrounded in later seasons and the show suffers for it. – DS
Signature Episode: Second season episode "Shibboleth," where Bartlet gives him the family carving knives. Oh man. I'm just gonna need a second here.
10. Joey Lucas
Played By: Marlee Matlin Number of Episodes: 17
“You idiot! I’m Joey Lucas!” When Joey Lucas storms into Josh’s office in season one’s “Take This Sabbath Day,” Josh can’t figure out what the hell is going on. He’s seeing a man talking, a woman wildly signing, and he’s just hung over enough to not get any of it. Joey cuts right through his bullshit, just as her polls do. That’s a good encapsulation of who Joey is: hardcore, trustworthy, and exactly what the show needed to shake its own optimism up a bit with hard, cold numbers. All while being effortlessly charming, of course. – KO
Signature Episode: “Bartlet’s Third State of the Union,” the season two episode that sees Joey most in her element. She runs a room of pollsters with aplomb, providing a refreshing counterbalance to Josh’s manic energy.
11. Sam Seaborn
Played By: Rob Lowe Number of Episodes: 84
It’s easy to knock Sam for being the cheeriest of Bartlet’s original team. He’s relentlessly optimistic in the face of the cynicism of Washington. He has moments of brilliance as a speechwriter, even if he isn’t as good as his mentor Toby. But most of all, he just makes you want to love him. It’s a shame Lowe chose to leave in the show’s fourth season – the series lost a bit of heart without him around. – KO
Signature Episode: “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail,” in which Sam’s natural optimism clashes with a tough situation involving Donna’s friend – all the while facing the truth of his father’s infidelity.
12. Percy Fitzwallace
Played By: John Amos Number of Episodes: 21
Fitz could have been a tough-as-nails officer who didn’t respect the president for his lack of military experience and held staid, traditional values about what belongs in the military. We certainly saw those types elsewhere in The West Wing. But the admiral was far better than all those tropes, coming across as both dogged and compassionate. It made his death in season five’s “Gaza” all the harder to deal with. He was, unquestionably, one of the good ones. – KO
Signature Episode: “We Killed Yamamoto,” from season three. Specifically, the scene in which he speaks the episode’s title, which was easily Amos’ best work of the series.
13. Mrs. Landingham
Played By: Kathryn Joosten Number of Episodes: 30
For the bulk of her time on The West Wing, Mrs. Landingham was good for a walk-by scene, prodding the President to eat better, bickering playfully with Leo (“Ah, sarcasm. The grumpy man’s wit”), mentoring Charlie. It was at the end of season two, when Mrs. Landingham was tragically killed in a car accident, serving as inspiration for Bartlet’s operatic holler at God in “Two Cathedrals,” that the character truly attained her elevated status. – JR
Signature Episode: “In Excelsis Deo,” wherein she accompanies Toby to a military funeral for a homeless veteran, and she explains the fate of her sons to Charlie.
14. Ainsley Hayes
Played By: Emily Procter Number of Episodes: 12
When Ainsley Hayes was introduced, it really seemed like we were getting in on the ground floor of a major new character. An underestimated Republican working in a hostile (at first … and still kinda after) Bartlet White House. Ainsley’s first episodes were the kind of episodes you give to a character who’s about to make a big impact. Then she ended up only appearing sporadically across the next couple seasons and ultimately fled to CSI: Miami (though not before blaming it on the bossa nova). Aaron Sorkin really shouldn’t have been smoking crack. – JR
Signature Episode: “And It’s Surely to Their Credit,” wherein Ainsley has her first day on the job at the White House, is subject to some gross harrassment, and corrects Lionel Tribbey on the subject of Gilbert and Sullivan.
15. Zoey Bartlet
Played By: Elisabeth Moss Number of Episodes: 25
Lookit! It's little Elisabeth Moss as the President's kid daughter! This was the introduction for so many of us to a wonderful actress and Zoey was really the only Bartlet daughter that felt fully realized. In the early seasons she's a vital little spark of energy who shows up from time to time—her romance with Charlie was adorable, her embarrassed eye-rolling at her dad helped humanize Bartlet, and at the same time we were constantly reminded what a precarious, tough thing it would be to be a college-aged daughter of the president. Sorkin made her the centerpiece of the explosive fourth-season finale where he basically engineered the most insane cliffhanger possible. It required Zoey to be a bit of a pain with her fancy French boyfriend, but Moss always made her relatable, even when the plot required otherwise. – DS
Signature Episode: Season one's "Mr. Willis of Ohio," where she is part of a mild altercation at a bar and her father has to remind her, in horrifying terms, of what a national crisis it would be if she was ever kidnapped.
16. Arnold Vinick
Played By: Alan Alda Number of Episodes: 28
For as much as The West Wing was pegged as a liberal fantasy during its first five seasons, the real fairy tale arrived in season six with Senator Arnold Vinick: Socially Liberal Republican. It’s a credit to Alda (and the improved season seven writing) that the character became so compelling, and even cruelly plausible. – JR
Signature Episode: “In God We Trust,” wherein Vinick deals with the touchy (especially within his own party) subject of his lack of religious devotion.
17. Josh Lyman
Played By: Bradley Whitford Number of Episodes: 154
Josh ended up surprisingly low because one of our writers (*cough* Kevin) doesn't think much of him, but he is inarguably the show's most consistently dominant character. As Bartlet recedes in power during the final seasons, the main focus snaps almost entirely to Josh as he runs the Santos campaign. Arrogant, blustery and often tragically funny in the early seasons (where more often than not he is undone by hubris), Josh sharpens into a more serious, still manic flag-holder for sharp-elbowed Democratic ideals; his pragmatic evolution is basically the same one the show undergoes after Sorkin leaves. His will-they-won't-they with Donna became an irritatingly dominant storyline, but in those early seasons, it was hard not to drink up their mansplainy sessions together. – DS
Signature Episode: Season two's "Noel," which, through a painful therapy session, charts Josh's intensely suppressed PTSD following his brush with death in season one's assassination attempt. It's Whitford's finest work on the show and a beautifully-done look at his arrogance and bluster brushing up against his darkest insecurities.
18. Lord John Marbury
Played By: Roger Rees Number of Episodes: 5
Five episodes is probably the right number for Lord John, British diplomat and advisor about matters of state. He’s a lot to take, but in the limited doses that we got of him, he was an invigorating and amusing presence. Yes, he was pretty sexual-harrassy. But so good-natured about it! One the real, though, Lord John calling Leo McGarry “Gerald” was the best running gag the show ever had. – JR
Signature Episode: You’d think it would be the episode that bears his name, “Lord John Marbury,” his debut. But it’s “Dead Irish Writers,” wherein he crashes Abbey Bartlet’s birthday party and debates British/Irish relations with Toby.
19. Lionel Tribbey
Played By: John Laroquette Number of Episodes: 1
Lionel Tribbey was the first, and maybe the best, of many White House Counsels who would come down the pike, brandishing a cricket bat and unfurling furious monologue after furious monologue as he's forced to add a Republican (Ainsley Hayes) to his staff. John Laroquette is hilarious; it's kinda too bad he wasn't around for the MS storyline later on in the season. – DS
Signature Episode: "And It's Surely to Their Credit" is the only time he appeared, but isn't he great?
20. John Hoynes
Played By: Tim Matheson Number of Episodes: 20
My gosh, was John Hoynes a bastard sometimes. But he was a bastard who made for some great storylines. The degree to which Vice President Hoynes was or was not antagonistic to the Bartlet White House was unpredictable and ever-changing; his arguments with Leo, C.J., Josh, and especially the President were electric. He was the best kind of complicating factor in the West Wing universe. His resignation (in disgrace over a sex scandal) was a necessary plot development to get us to the Walken presidency at the end of season four, but it was always too bad a good character like Hoynes had to go.
Signature Episode: “Five Votes Down,” which gives us Good Hoynes (he suggests Leo attend his secret AA meeting) and Devious Hoynes (he snakes the credit for a gun-control bill).
21. Ron Butterfield
Played By: Michael O’Neill Number of Episodes: 16
Agent Ron Butterfield of the Secret Service was never the most expressive character. By his very nature as the head of the Presidential Detail, he had to play things fairly close to vest. But it was when he let that veneer drop that we really fell for him. – KO
Signature Episode: “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen Part II” is one of said examples, and it’s probably the greatest. The whole two-parter is great for Butterfield, especially while taking care of the president after he gets shot. But the second half features a scene with Toby where the communications director tries to take the fall for the president’s shooting. Butterfield manages to be both strong and comforting. “It was the act of madmen,” he says. Then, almost humorously, he repeats the party line: “Anyway, the Secret Service doesn't comment on procedure.”
22. Will Bailey
Played By: Joshua Malina Number of Episodes: 80
Hired to replace Sam Seaborn, Malina was hobbled from the start by the high bar he had to clear, and he didn't get a ton of time to mix with the other White House staffers before he jumped ship to the Bob Russell office, and later campaign. There, he becoming a semi-antagonist for the fifth and sixth seasons, as he tried to position a man we knew was going to lose towards the Presidency. Bailey got cute again in the last season as one of the few staffers left to rattle around in the White House while the campaign rages, but he never really recovered from the whole side-switching debacle. – DS
Signature Episode: "Election Night," his second, in season four. He was so damn charming, dancing in the rain and running a Congressional campaign for a dead man!
23. Carol Fitzpatrick