Isaac and Ishmael: In this special episode (which is in no particular place within the West Wing timeline), the White House staff have to deal with a terrorist threat on Washington D.C. Visiting high school students give all of the president’s advisors an opportunity to air their opinions on the nature of terrorism, how Americans respond, and how extremism exists in all parts of the world. This episode is particularly poignant when contrasted against the constant (and visceral) news coverage that was without much deep analysis of terrorism.
Manchester Part I: A continuation of the Season Two cliffhanger, in which viewers were left without knowing whether President Jed Bartlett would run for a second term after revealing that he covered up his multiple sclerosis from voters in his first election. The staff, in particular Toby and Sam, have a problem with the consultants that Leo McGarry brings in, including Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver), a major political consultant that seems to be the silver bullet for the ailing White House.
Manchester Part II: The crisis that loomed in Haiti during the end of Season Two continues in this episode, as the president considers a response that won’t make it look like he is distracting attention from his recent revelation to the public. The president, on the verge of announcing his candidacy in New Hampshire, talks to a riled staff about stepping into a new era during his presidency while apologizing for concealing his illness from his closest friends and aides.
Ways and Means: The business of the government continues as the estate tax becomes target number one for the White House and for Congress. But the specter of legal action and campaign strategy overshadow all of President Bartlett’s agenda, as subpoenas are distributed to White House staff, including C.J. Cregg.
On the Day Before: Another episode dealing with the bustle and constant motion of White House activity even in the midst of an honorary event, this time a dinner for Nobel Prize winners. The president is about to use his veto power for the first time as Congress looks to override that veto. Josh has to deal with a conservative Democratic governor who plans a primary run against Bartlett and tries to broker a deal to have him stand down.
War Crimes: Almost the entire episode (or at least the most substantial parts) develop the fundamental differences between President Bartlett and Vice President Hoynes, as a gunman kills a church goer in Texas. The issue of gun control is raised and Hoynes’ pragmatism and moderation butt up against Bartlett’s idealism and liberal tendencies. The other story thread is Leo McGarry’s attempt to steer the Joint Chiefs of Staff toward support for a War Crimes Tribunal.
Gone Quiet: The president and military advisors have to determine whether a missing spy sub is sunk or just gone quiet off the coast of North Korea. In this episode, a curmudgeon from the State Department riles Bartlett because of his insistence on berating Bartlett for letting the ship go missing. Within this context, other political mishaps (including Toby’s struggle with the National Endowment for the Arts budget) are woven within the larger national security issue.
The Indians in the Lobby: Bartlett shows his more humorous side during this episode, including a hilarious scene with Toby in which Bartlett calls the Butterball hotline to find out how best to prepare Thanksgiving dinner (and he tries to pass himself off as an average American). C.J. has to deal with two Native Americans who are insistent on keeping an appointment to settle an old grievance for their tribe.
The Women of Qumar: C.J.’s concern for human rights (particularly women’s rights) in Qumar runs up against the administration’s backroom deals with Qumar to keep intelligence flowing from the Middle East. Toby’s relationship with veterans’ groups becomes an asset while he negotiates an appearance by the president at a Smithsonian event dealing with World War II and the Pacific theater but a liability when C.J. use a poor analogy to get her point about women’s right across.
Bartlett for America: When Aaron Sorkin and the show in general work best they work in fusing compelling images of the present with great background stories presented through flashbacks. In this episode, Leo is in front of a Senate Committee which is determining the depth of the president’s cover up and it reveals how Leo came to run Jed Bartlett’s campaign. As well, the running theme of Leo’s own demons (this time his alcoholism) are presented as the smoking gun for political opponents.
H. Con- 172: While Josh’s relationship with Amy Gardener develops over politics, his opinion on whether or not the president should accept censure from the Congress without a fight conflicts with Leo’s own interest in the issue. While many of the staff members know there is nothing that can be done to stop the censure, Leo does not want his friend to go through the historical stigma of being reprimanded by his allies and opponents.
100,000 Airplanes: Under the guise of a Vanity Fair reporter (and former fiancee of Sam Seaborn), the development of the State of the Union is shown in this episode. While the speech was important as the first major speech since his announcement to run again for the presidency, the episode’s more important development comes when the president seeks the political will to cure cancer with federal funds. Though it does not work out, this idealistic endeavor is one of the more hopeful aspects of the show.
The Two Bartletts: Toby’s continuing feud with the president and how he presents himself hits a high note in this episode in the closing scene. In the Oval Office, Toby takes issue to the vacillating side of Bartlett that was seen in a campaign appearance in Iowa and delves into Bartlett’s past by bringing up his relationship with his father. On a lighter note, Donna Moss searches for a way to get out of jury duty but gets no sympathy from Sam and Josh who are busy with affairs of state.
Night Five: The same psychologist (Adam Arkin) that helped Josh with his post traumatic stress during the assassination attempt is brought in to deal with Bartlett’s inexplicable restlessness. The episode is punctuated with scenes of the two discussing what could possibly be keeping him awake while Leo confronts Toby about his discussions with the president after the Iowa speech. Meanwhile, Sam faces some trouble with an angry temporary staffer when he makes a remark to Ainsley Hayes which is seen as sexist.
Hartsfield’s Landing: While the staff waits for word on the primary vote in Hartsfield’s Landing, Bartlett plays chess with Toby and Sam. He imparts wisdom to Sam while confronting Toby about his personal and professional dealings and the campaign ahead. The chess games become a metaphor for the measured tone of both the administration and the show, in which patience is far more virtuous than bold initiative. Bartlett is also trying to figure out how to deal with a Chinese threat to attack Taiwan, which puts the United States in an awkward position.
Dead Irish Writers: The first lady, Abbey Bartlett, is the main focus of this episode when the White House hosts a gala affair for her birthday. While legal action and professional reprimands are being measured against Mrs. Bartlett, she tries to enjoy the company of her friends and colleagues whom are in similar positions. This is a good episode to highlight the previously spotty personality of Abbey, who is played with exceptional grace by Stockard Channing.
The U.S. Poet Laureate: The poet laureate (Laura Dern) plans to make a protest of administration stances on land mines throughout the world, while Toby is commissioned to deal with her and keep her from embarrassing the president. As well, C.J. has to deal with a comment made by Bartlett about his opponent’s intellect (Governor Rob Ritchie, played by James Brolin) on national television. In the end, the staff figures out that Bartlett’s gaffe was meant to be an act of “old school” politics.
Stirred: A nuclear disaster in Idaho overshadows a discussion by the staff to replace Vice President Hoynes, who may not help the president politically or electorally. The issue of Hoynes’ alcoholism and the possibility of another candidate helping the president following his own admission ends up being all for not, as the president comes to Hoynes’ defense. In the end, the president and vice president come to an understanding if not an appreciation for each other’s position.
Enemies Foreign and Domestic: C.J. starts to receive death threats following some comments about the Qumar weapons deal and her stance on women’s rights in general and is assigned a Secret Service Agent (played by Mark Harmon). Meanwhile, Charlie spends the day figuring out the origins of a letter sent to the president only to figure out that it was sent to the White House of Franklin Roosevelt.
The Black Vera Wang: Sam is tricked by a colleague who works for Governor Ritchie and it ends up in a public relations disaster for the president’s re-election campaign. Toby fights with network executives over the amount of political convention coverage they will offer and threatens to have the government sue using anti-trust legislation. C.J. grows attached to her Secret Service agent, a story line that develops over the last two episodes of the season.
We Killed Yamamoto: Bartlett and Leo conflict over whether to assassinate Qumar Defense Minister Abdul Sharif, whose role as a Middle Eastern insider is compromised in his role in the murder of Israeli politician Ben Yosef. The assassination of Sharif becomes the new shadow cast over the administration in Season Four, replacing the multiple sclerosis issue after the presidential election.
Posse Comitatus: When the White House staff attend The War of the Roses in New York, several developments cloud their enjoyment of the show. Bartlett wrestles with his order to assassinate Sharif and at the end of the episode has a brief but heated meeting with Governor Ritchie, in which the president turns up the heat on the election by exposing the governor’s lack of intelligence. C.J.’s Secret Service agent finds the person sending her death threats but their future together is destroyed by the agent’s death in a botched hold up at a convenience store near the theater.
Special Features: The two main features, The Chief of Stuff and A Property Master’s Story, reveals the extent to which the White House documents history by keeping all manner of gifts and evidence of trips and legislation big and small. The better features are the commentaries on several episodes by Aaron Sorkin, giving unique insight into the writing and development of the show.