10 Finales That Dropped the Ball – Joker Op-Ed

Sometimes a show just can’t keep the quality up to the end. A lot of the times shows go downhill for a while after they start running low on ideas, and sometimes they just won’t give up and die with dignity. However, even if the writing is on the wall and you’re given a year to plan to go out, you can still screw it all up with a bad ending. 

For this entry, I am going to make two caveats:

  1. The episode has to be intended as a finale. That means either it’s clear the production team knew the show was over, or didn’t have reason to believe it was going to keep going. So cliffhangers don’t count unless they were made AFTER the show was cancelled. Additionally, if an episode was meant to be the finale, but the network aired it out of order, only the intended finale counts. 
  2. If the show was rebooted later, the original finale still counts. 

Also, The Sopranos is not going to be on here, because I have a long-running theory that makes me like that finale, and I refuse to debate it right now. If I’m wrong, then… well, it sucks. 

But I’m not wrong and the ending is fine.

RUNNER UP: Of Course He’s Dead (Two and a Half Men) 

The Show: Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) is a jingle writer who lives a hedonistic lifestyle. His brother, Alan (Jon Cryer), and nephew Jake (Angus T. Jones) move in after Alan’s wife leaves him. Eventually, after Charlie dies, his house is bought by billionaire Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher), who lets Alan and Jake stay. Eventually Jake leaves and Charlie’s unknown biological daughter Jenny (Amber Tamblyn) moves in. 

I don’t want to assemble cast photos, so I’m just using this one.

The Finale: Alan receives a letter from a lawyer saying that Charlie has millions in unclaimed royalties, but can’t find Charlie’s death certificate. It turns out that Charlie is actually alive, having been kept prisoner by his crazy stalker Rose (Melanie Lynskey), after she caught him in bed with a goat. Alan, Jake, and Walden start to receive threats and the police tell them that they caught Charlie, but it’s actually Christian Slater. Charlie approaches the house, but a piano he ordered crushes him. The camera then shows creator Chuck Lorre, who says “winning!” then is crushed by a second piano.

It’s Meta, but not in a good way.

This doesn’t make the list because this show had pretty much lost all of its quality when Charlie Sheen left. The writers never figured out what to do with Walden or Jenny, constantly shifting their characters, and it just kind of limped on for four years. Ensemble casts exist on relationships and when you can’t keep characters consistent, then the relationships can’t be consistent. However, dedicating your finale to throwing a tantrum at Charlie Sheen over him being a d*ck doesn’t really age well, particularly since it’s been revealed that Sheen’s behavior was related to him being diagnosed HIV positive. While the viewers would have understood what was happening at the time, I think anyone that watches this in a decade (if anyone does) probably won’t get what the hell happened and it’ll just seem like a waste of time.

10) These are the Voyages… (Star Trek: Enterprise)

The Show: This show takes place before any previous Star Trek series, in the 22nd century, aboard the spaceship Enterprise, the first vessel capable of real, effective interstellar exploration by humanity. The crew includes Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), Science Officer T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), Chief Engineer Trip Tucker (Connor Trinneer), Tactical Officer Reed (Dominic Keating), Communications Officer Sato (Linda Park), Helmsman Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery), and Medical Officer Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley). 

The uniforms somehow are better and worse than other shows.

The Finale: Taking place in the 24th Century, Star Trek: The Next Generation characters William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) are looking for guidance on an issue (the TNG Episode “The Pegasus”) and decide to review the decommissioning of the first Enterprise. They interact at points with the Enterprise crew, who are holograms here. Captain Archer is set to give a speech, but gets sidetracked trying to rescue the kidnapped daughter of an ambassador.  The kidnappers board the ship and Trip Tucker dies saving Captain Archer. Archer makes his speech and Riker figures out what he’s going to do. The last shot is a montage of Star Trek footage and Captains Kirk, Picard, and Archer giving the “where no man has gone before” speech.

Congrats to Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis for making the best and worst lists.

This would probably be higher up if I had ever really liked Enterprise, but it remains the worst Star Trek series in my opinion. The only episodes I really liked were the ones set in the Mirror Universe where humans were the bad guys, because those seemed original and compelling, but most of the series just felt like recycled old ideas with skimpier outfits. What a waste of a Bakula. However, this has to go down as one of the worst finales because it’s a finale that doesn’t even really feature the characters of the show. Instead, the episode takes place during a different series and everyone from Enterprise appears only by hologram. Moreover, the events in the hologram take place six years after the rest of the series without a compelling reason for doing so and one of the main characters is killed as an afterthought. This episode was so bad that I don’t think I’ve seen a list of the worst Star Trek properties that didn’t include it, often at number one. It was so bad that it ended 18 consecutive years of Star Trek being on the air. When you can tank an entire franchise for a while, you earn this spot.

9) Remember the Monsters? (Dexter)

The Show: Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is a serial killer who targets other serial killers. He uses skills taught to him by his adopted father (James Remar) to avoid detection and eliminate the monsters who evade the law. He spends most of the series hiding it from his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), only for her to find out what he does in season 7. Also, she’s in love with him despite them being raised as siblings, so… that’s a thing. Look, there’s a reason I tell people to stop watching after season 5. 

And that reason is not just the marketing.

The Finale: Dexter is planning on fleeing the country. Debra gets shot by serial killer Oliver Saxon (Darri Ingolfsson) while a hurricane prevents Dexter’s flight. Dexter leaves his son Harrison with his girlfriend Hannah and heads to the hospital where he is told Debra will recover. Saxon is captured and Debra tells Dexter to live a happy life, but then suffers a clot and goes into a coma. Dexter then kills Saxon in police custody and pulls Debra off life support. He takes her body and drops it into the ocean as he drives into the hurricane. Later, he’s seen working as a lumberjack in Oregon.

Yes, the famously unrecognizable “serial killer with a beard.”

I have to admit I’ve softened towards this over the years, because for a long time I considered it the worst finale ever. It’s dropped down the list for two reasons: 1) Jennifer Carpenter’s performance as Debra is actually so good it almost single-handedly makes this episode okay. 2) Other shows since (mostly Breaking Bad) have convinced me that giving a bad person a happy ending isn’t inherently bad. However, I still think it’s a terrible ending to this show. A big part of why is that it missed the tone of the rest of the series, having a somber and sincere quality that the rest of the show never had. That might have worked for a finale, except that all of the sincerity felt crammed in and manufactured, rather than developing naturally. The characters are told that Debra is going to be okay, but their last conversation is still them saying goodbye in a last-rites kind of way. Then she dies anyway, making the previous recovery nothing but a device to keep the audience off-guard, particularly since the clot happens off-screen apropos of nothing. Oh, and as she’s dying, she tells him she loves him, which means… she might have been okay if he had left her on the machines? So, Dexter killed her, but it’s not really given as much weight as it should. Oh, and then the ending is that he’s abandoned his son and girlfriend (who he could find and join) to go be a lumberjack and somehow survived a hurricane, which was just such a cop-out. Also, can someone from Miami Metro get fired for being just the worst investigators on Earth? For what was briefly one of my favorite shows, the mighty fell hard.

8) Into That Good Night (Roseanne)

The Show: Roseanne (the show) focused on the lives of the Conner family: Roseanne (Roseanne Barr), her husband Dan (John Goodman), Roseanne’s sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), and Dan and Roseanne’s kids Becky (Lecy Goranson/Sarah Chalke), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), D.J. (Michael Fishman), and Baby Jerry (Cole and Morgan Roberts). They’re a working-class family in the 80s and 90s living in Illinois, and possibly one of the most realistic ones ever put on television.

Still more attractive than the average person, but not as much as most shows.

The Finale: In the 9th season of the show, the Conners win the lottery, suddenly becoming very wealthy, but Dan and Roseanne’s marriage has been on the rocks throughout the whole season, culminating in a revelation that he cheated on her. During the finale, after the family welcomes a new grandson from Darlene’s marriage, everyone is set to move on with their lives. Then, in the last 10 minutes of the show, Roseanne reveals to the audience that the entire show had just been a book she was writing. Dan was dead from a heart attack, Jackie was gay, and Darlene and Becky were, in fact, married to each-other’s husbands. No explanation is given for any of this except that Roseanne thought it was more interesting this way.

I’m not spending money to screenshot the last episode in good quality.

Roseanne had taken a massive dive in the last season due to destroying the thing that most people liked about the show, it’s blue-collar realism. The Conners were constantly screwed by normal problems that most sitcoms would just gloss over, like a malfunctioning fridge they can’t afford to replace or a light bill late fee that builds up. They lived the way that a lot of America lived. Once they were rich, that stuff all fell away and they stopped being relatable. That was bad enough, but to literally spend the last 10 minutes of the show revealing that everything in the show was fake, even within the reality of the show, was just icing on the crapcake. Roseanne is revealed to be a writer, a profession that stood completely against her character’s usual employment in various menial jobs. Dan’s dead, meaning that any of their drama in the last season was just Roseanne taking shots at her deceased husband. None of the relationships were real. What’s most astonishing is that all of this was just completely unnecessary. When they rebooted the show, they made the decision to just ignore all of this, which was smarter than anything in the finale.

7) Daybreak (Battlestar Galactica – 2004)

The Show: Humans lived on a set of planets known as the Twelve Colonies. The humans created the Cylons, a race of robots, that then rebelled. There was a peace accord, until the Cylons surprise attack and destroy most of humanity and the planets they populated. Only one military ship survives, the Battlestar Galactica, which sets off with the other ships to head to the thirteenth colony, Earth, while being pursued by Cylons. The survivors include Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos), President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), pilot “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), pilot “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Barber), and scientist Gaius Baltar (James Callis). There are also Cylon infiltrators known as numbers 6 and 8 (Tricia Helfer and Grace Park) 

Symbolism was a thing.

The Finale: Turns out the Cylons got to Earth first, but blew it up. As the group tries to figure out what to do now, the Cylons capture Hera, a human-Cylon hybrid, and are studying how they can reproduce. Admiral Adama orders a rescue. Gaius and Six join the mission, and it’s revealed that the two can see each other’s “inner visions.” It’s complicated to explain, but each one has a hallucination of the other that they talk to, and here it’s revealed that those are not just hallucinations. The rescue ends with an all-out battle that is ended by Gaius promising to give the Cylons back their lost resurrection ability in order to buy peace. He’s told that he sees Angels telling him that both sides are governed by God. However, this ends up failing. The fighting resumes and damage forces Adama to order the ship to jump to anywhere it can. Starbuck uses “All Along the Watchtower” to arrive at our Earth in the distant past. The survivors, and the surviving Cylons, spread out and interbreed with the hominids that populate the planet. Starbuck turns out to be an Angel and disappears. Bob Dylan is implied to be God.

Yes, because interbreeding is just that easy.

Okay, did you read the last four sentences of that summary? Yeah, that’s why this whole thing fell apart. The show, which had been a cold and depressing character study and a cautionary tale against the advances of human technology, ends on a happy note because of a literal deus ex machina. To be clear, this show was almost entirely sci-fi for most of its run, and the concept of having everything in the series designed as part of the ineffable plan by God seems to have been pulled out of nowhere. I once lauded the show Quantum Leap for dealing with cancellation by having an ending that said “God did it,” but that’s because that show’s continuity and logic had never made sense. This show had never even approached that level of metaphysics until the last four episodes hinted at it loosely. A lot of people liked the happy ending, but I will stare into the face of Bob Dylan and walk backwards into Hell proclaiming this to be a complete failure of screenwriting.

6) Project: ALF (ALF)

The Show: Gordon Shumway (Paul Fusco) is an Alien Life Form (ALF) from the destroyed planet Melmac. He follows a radio signal to the home of the Tanners: Willie (Max Wright), Kate (Anne Schedeen), Lynn (Andrea Elson), and Brian (Benji Gregory). The Tanners hide ALF from the Alien Task Force that seeks to hunt him down. 

How did this show work?

The Finale: In the last episode of the original show’s run, ALF is captured by the Alien Task Force. This picks up with ALF in custody under Colonel Milfoil (Martin Sheen) who is going to kill ALF. Two scientists help him escape, but after they are chased by Milfoil, they end up deciding to reveal ALF’s existence to the world. This ends up failing, but Milfoil is fired and ALF is declared an ambassador to Earth. 

They could afford Martin Sheen, but not a better poster.

The original finale of ALF can’t be on here because the show was cancelled unexpectedly and thus ended on a cliffhanger. That’s not the fault of any of the writers, particularly since the show was still in the top 40 at the time and had just had a spin-off last two seasons. Even the network later apologized to the crew, saying that they’d screwed up by cancelling it too early. However, since they were given over a year to come up with a way to end the series with this three-part episode (or TV movie), and had 5 years to think about it before that, this was truly disappointing. Except for ALF, none of the Tanners were present in this, and all we hear is that they went to Iceland. As such, a ton of plotlines, including the cliffhanger about ALF leaving the Tanners, were left unresolved. Moreover, this episode made it clear exactly how much of an a**hole ALF actually was, retroactively making the show less cute. It’s like if you ended the Muppet Show by having Kermit be revealed as a Soviet Spy. Honestly, the cliffhanger would have been a more dignified way to go out.

5) Chapter 73 (House of Cards)

The Show: Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a politician who constantly lies, cheats, steals and murders his way to becoming the President and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), becomes Vice President. He’s assisted by Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), his Chief of Staff who routinely does Frank’s dirty work. Frank typically narrates to the audience his true, cruel thoughts. 

Behind every man, there’s a woman who would do it better.

The Finale: In Season 6, Claire becomes President following Frank’s impeachment and subsequent getting killed off for being a rapist. Claire also takes over Frank’s role as narrator. Doug, who stood by Frank loyally, has now flipped to testify to all of Claire’s bad acts, but Claire pardons him to gain his silence. In the finale, Claire promises a new level of honesty to America, then creates a new fictional threat so that she can keep her position. Doug is sent in to kill her by some of her rivals, but after he admits he killed Frank, she ends up stabbing him to death and then suffocating him. She turns to the audience and says “No More Pain,” mirroring Frank killing a dog in the pilot. 

Yes, this seems like a thing the President could do and get away with.

This is mostly on here for how completely unnecessary this finale was. After Kevin Spacey was removed from the show for being a rapist, the show was completely justified in writing him out. Despite that, his character still basically dictated everything over the last season. Claire was constantly saying how she denounced his legacy, but she always kept it alive rather than tossing it to the ashcan of history where it belonged. This finale made it much, much worse, focusing on Frank’s last will, which cut Claire out, then revealing Doug to have killed Frank because Frank was hurting his own legacy, then having Claire stab Doug to death in the Oval Office and use one of Frank’s own lines, cementing her as now being essentially just Frank all over again. It essentially made Claire a secondary character in a season where she was supposed to be the lead. If you’re going to write a character out, write them out, don’t let their ghost loom over the entire series. 

4) The End (LOST)

The Show: A bunch of people survive a plane crash and end on an island. The island turned out to be filled with mysteries, ranging from a smoke monster that turns out to be the embodiment of evil, to a hatch that requires a code to keep being entered into it, to some polar bears. The show had too many cast members to really list here, with 14 star roles in the first season alone, but among the key ones in this episode are: Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), and Locke/The Man In Black (Terry O’Quinn). It frequently has flashbacks, flashforwards, and flash-sideways. The last season has two parallel timelines, including a new one in which the crash never happened. 

So. Many. People.

The Finale: Some of the survivors head to the heart of the island, including Jack who has taken on the role of protector of the island. The Man in Black, who is trying to destroy the island, manages to unstop the source of the island’s power, but is killed by Kate. Jack then dies replacing the island’s light. In the alternate timeline, everyone suddenly remembers the island, meet up in a church, and then they are revealed to be dead. 

And the church is super Unitarian, just to hedge bets.

So, from the beginning of the show, a huge number of fans (myself included) were worried that the series would end with the revelation that everyone was actually dead all along. The creators and the writers all strongly denied that it was anything like that. Instead, it’s revealed that, in fact, the events of the island were real, but that the parallel timeline was actually a form of afterlife which is powered by the island, so… I felt like this was cheating. A ton of people were confused by it, a ton more were angered, and I don’t think anyone ever thought it was a perfect way to wrap up the series. The island is revealed to be the source of the light that exists inside of every living thing, but also what grants those things a second chance, represented here as an alternate world where everyone is a little bit closer to what they wanted to be. It’s not a paradise, it’s a purgatory, and then at the end apparently everyone moves on towards the actual afterlife, maybe. If that explanation sounds kind of boring or weird or confusing, then you know why this made this list. 

3) Last Forever (How I Met Your Mother)

The Show: In 2030, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor/Bob Saget) is narrating to his kids the story of how he met their mother (Cristin Milioti). It turns out to be a story involving Ted’s best friends from his 20s and 30s: Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel) and his wife Lily (Alyson Hannigan), Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), and Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). 

These people are all in great shape despite living at a bar.

The Finale: After spending a season at the weekend of Barney and Robin’s wedding, we find out that Ted’s wife is the bass player in their wedding band. While she has met everyone from the group, she has not yet met Ted, until they share an umbrella that they both previously owned. It’s then revealed that the mother, Tracy McConnell, passed away in 2024. The kids reveal that the story was clearly about how Ted is still in love with Robin, and encourage him to get back together with her. The show ends with Ted and Robin smiling at each other.

This would have been an amazing last shot.

This one is really a tragedy on two different levels. The show had always prided itself on the fact that they had already filmed the ending when they started the second season, because that meant that the kids, who had since stopped being kids, would still be in the finale at the same age. Unfortunately, they were so dedicated to this that they stuck to it even after their own writing and character development had rendered it a bad idea. Ted and Robin ending up together was a really good idea for a long time, until we spent two seasons building up Barney’s and Robin’s relationship and then an entire season on their wedding itself, only to have the finale tell us they broke up like 15 minutes later for vague reasons. It also doesn’t help that Cristin Milioti was so much more amazing than expected, particularly in the episode dedicated to her history. Everything about her was so perfect for Ted that you wanted to see them happy together. This meant that when the writers stuck with the original ending, it broke up two relationships we were invested in. At the same time, they undid all of Barney’s character growth and instead ended with him learning to love by being a father. To Neil Patrick Harris’s credit, his performance was so good I almost bought it, but it’s still bad writing. The reason why this is so high is because multiple people apparently brought up that this was a bad idea and that they should ditch the original ending, but the show wanted its gimmick more than a solid conclusion. 

2) The Finale (Seinfeld)

The Show: It’s a show about nothing starring four friends: Jerry Seinfeld (himself), George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). In general, the series is just about the kind of weird things that happen to the four of them and consists of them talking about it. All four are generally crappy people, but make up for it by being funny. It was created by Larry David and Seinfeld.

Later, everyone would deny hugging Michael Richards.

The Finale: Jerry and George have pitched a series to NBC that resembles Seinfeld called Jerry. The four decide to go to Paris to celebrate before moving to California to work on the show, but a problem on the flight forces them to land in Massachusetts. While they wait for the plane to be fixed, they see a man get carjacked and record it while mocking him. They’re then arrested by the police for violating the Good Samaritan statute by not helping. The four are then put on trial and a number of witnesses from throughout the series testify to their bad character. They are ultimately convicted and put in jail. 

Because Massachusetts doesn’t have bail, apparently.

This one is so high up because Seinfeld was one of the best shows on television and I remember being absolutely pissed off watching the finale. The build-up had been huge. Other shows, including Dharma and Greg, literally had episodes that were based on the assumption that this finale would be amazing. However, I think it completely failed. First off, the set-up was ridiculous. Having the characters get arrested due to an insane law and go to trial immediately was a weird decision. That’s not how laws, courts, or even civil rights work. The fact that the prosecutors are then allowed to parade a list of people as bad character witnesses is even weirder, because, again, not how that works. Also, if they had a duty to provide aid to the victim (they didn’t), they actually did, because they recorded the face of the carjacker on film. That’s more helpful than trying to fight him. Everything about this framing device was stupid. Second, they really just used it to do a glorified clip-show as the finale. That’s one of the weakest ways to handle any episode of television, typically reserved for when shows run out of money for an episode, as opposed to the finale of a top-rated show. Third, finally calling out how bad the characters were in such a stupid fashion basically mocked the audience for liking them. If you’re flipping the bird on the way out, you’ve messed up. While Larry David has defended it, Jerry Seinfeld has pretty much stated that they dropped the ball on this one. I concur.

1) The Iron Throne (Game of Thrones)

The Show: I cannot really summarize this. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are thrown into a massive war after the death of the king Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). This ends up massively affecting the Stark family, including Sansa (Sophie Turner), Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), and Arya (Maisie Williams). At the same time, an army of zombie warriors start to descend from the North to destroy the world. Also, the daughter of the previous king, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), hatched three dragons and uses them plus two separate armies to try to come back and retake the throne. Her nephew and lover is Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who is also the adopted brother of the Starks. A lot of people die and there’s a lot of nudity. Also, there’s Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who is amazing, and Cersei and Jaime Lannister (Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who suck.

There’s only one dragon left at this point, sadly.

The Finale: Daenerys has taken over King’s Landing and claimed the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms. Unfortunately, even after the people surrendered, Daenerys kept attacking, destroying a ton of the property and killing hundreds or thousands of people for no reason. When confronted, she insists that she has “liberated” the town and that she now plans to “liberate” the rest of the world. After finally realizing that Daenerys will never stop until she has conquered the world in the name of forcing her version of utopia, and will kill anyone that doesn’t submit immediately. Jon kills her and is imprisoned by her troops. Ultimately, he is banished and Bran becomes king. 

“I wanted you to penetrate me, but not with a knife.”

I realize that this probably will not seem as bad years down the line and that the freshness of the wound is why this feels like the worst finale, but I will say that following: It’s impressive to get every character to the end of their arc and still feel terrible. Seriously, every character finishes in the position that they clearly were always going to have, ranging from Bran being the king to Daenerys being dead to Jon being banished, but at the end all of the ways they get there appear to be completely contrived or insane. Rather than having Daenerys’s madness be a result of her destiny as a Targaryen and a breaker of chains, it came off as being because Jon didn’t want to sleep with her after finding out they’re related. Rather than Bran being made king because of his abilities, he’s instead made king because “he has the best story,” despite Jon literally having resurrected from the dead and Arya having slain an undead king. Everyone gets to close their story in the right place, but it feels so forced that it undermines the rest of the series and its great plotting and character progression. Mostly, though, this whole thing felt completely unnecessary. HBO had the hottest show on the planet and had already stated they would basically give the showrunners carte blanche if they needed more episodes to come to a satisfying conclusion. Instead, the show rushed from the death of the Night King to the finale in only 3 episodes. This isn’t just dropping the ball, this is firing the ball straight down out of a cannon so hard that it currently resides in the molten core of the planet. 

If you disagree with any of these, let me know. If you have other episodes you think should have made it, put them in the comments or on my Facebook or Twitter. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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3) Two Cathedrals (The West Wing)

Well, the impact of this one has certainly changed a bit since it aired. And, honestly, I think it might be even more relevant. The show hasn’t changed, of course, but the reality in which I watch it has been shifting for the last few years. The portrayal of the White House during what is essentially the Clinton Era Pre-Scandal is so starkly different to the subsequent portrayals that have colored most of my lifetime that it seems impossible to me that it’s the most accurate one, but, with limited exception, this seems to be how the White House has worked since WWII. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, because politics is run by people and people are ridiculous. Sometimes it’s overwhelmingly serious, because holding political office is dealing with situations and situations are serious. The balance shifts depending on the world, not the administration. The administration merely follows the world. The West Wing managed to portray all of that coherently.

WestWingCast2.jpg

The show takes place in the West Wing of the White House during the Presidency of Democrat Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin “You know damned well who I am” Sheen), and covers the day-to-day work and life of Bartlett and his staff: Leo McGarry (John Spencer), the White House Chief of Staff; C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), the White House Press Secretary; Josh Lyman (Bradley “Stop thinking of me from Billy Madison” Whitford), the Deputy Chief of Staff; Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), the White House Communications Director; Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), White House Deputy Communications Director; Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), Josh’s assistant; and Charlie Young (Dulé “Doughnut Holschtein” Hill).

While all of the characters in the show are amazing, and each could merit an entire entry’s worth of discussion, the focus of this episode is going to be on President Bartlet, because anything less would be spitting on a profound performance. The President actually wasn’t even supposed to be a character on the show. Aaron Sorkin originally planned to show him only in passing and only in a few episodes, but Sheen’s performance was so powerful that he quickly became the lead. Bartlet is a Democrat, a devout Catholic, a polymath so learned that it pretty much only can exist in fiction, a patriot of the highest order, a gifted speaker, and a caring man who balances his love of the country with accepting how much he has to deceive and bargain with both the people and other politicians in order to be allowed to do what he knows is the right thing.

WestWingBartletConstitution
A man who can quote the Gospel and the Constitution and knows they shouldn’t interact

In the first season, it is revealed that the President has a relapsing-remitting form of Multiple Sclerosis that he has concealed since before he ran for office. In this episode, he discloses it to the world, while the Democratic Party basically tells him that they would not endorse him to run another term because of it. The condition doesn’t impact him more than once every few years, and usually not too severely, but it is a neurological degenerative disorder, and it could potentially make him unfit in the future.

SUMMARY

WestWingLandingham.jpg
Her usual expression

Right before this episode starts, the President’s executive secretary, Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten and Kirsten Nelson in flashback), one of the most lovable characters ever on television, is killed by a drunk driver. She had just bought a new car, and the president had asked her to come show it to him. Flashbacks of his adolescence with her as the secretary at the school his father ran occur throughout the episode. A large part of the episode is set at her funeral. Afterwards, the President asks to be alone in the National Cathedral. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the National Cathedral, but it is a breathtaking building, regardless of your faith or lack thereof. And this episode is the last time that anyone has been allowed to film in it, which makes it only the more fitting that Martin Sheen delivers one of the best monologues on film to the figure of Christ.

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Bartlet is vocally a Christian, and he is not a hypocrite about it, which is basically inconceivable for any modern politician. He has the Bible memorized, and has read more commentary on it than most people would even guess existed. He quotes verses throughout the series, but still understands that it is the responsibility of his faith to shape him, not his policies, which are shaped by being an American first. That’s why it’s all the more stunning when he starts it by telling God “You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?”

WestWingBartletArmsBartlet then proceeds to unload on God for the unfairness of life, in a way that should be all too real for anyone who has ever had faith. He talks about how he sinned by lying about his disease, but that it’s not fair that such a thing would outweigh everything else he’s done. He’s been faithful, he’s done good works, moreso than almost any President at the time. And yet, the sweetest person in his life, one of the most sincerely good people he’s ever known, was killed the day she bought her first new car by a drunk driver. As Bartlet puts it. “Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new acres of land for conservation, put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war, I’ve raised three children… That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse?”

WestWingBartletHalo.jpgHe ends with the lines “Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto? A deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem. [roughly translated, because I haven’t taken Latin in a decade: Should I believe these things are from a pious God? A just God? A knowing God? Damn your punishments! I was your servant on Earth, I was your messenger; I did my duty. Damn your punishments. Damn You.] He then smokes a cigarette, the thing that his father had admonished him against during his youth, puts it out on the floor of the cathedral (which is why they banned filming there), and says “You get Hoynes,” the less morally-sound Vice-President who is presumed to be the next presidential candidate for the Democratic Party.

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This is why no one can film here anymore

The staff are then told that the President will not seek re-election. The only ones who appear to believe that he might change his mind are Toby and Leo, the two people who convinced him to run in the first place.

WestWingYoungLandinghamThe President then flashes back to his childhood where his father hits him for writing an article opposing book-banning, and derides his intelligence by saying that Jed is only at the school because his father is headmaster. In the present, he sees a vision of Mrs. Landingham who tells him to consider all of the people who have it worse than him, but, unlike most people when saying this, she means that he needs to think about how many people need his help. He recites the problems that he wants to fix, problems that have remained relevant, sadly, since this episode aired. She then says to him the same thing she told him when he was a boy:

“You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run ’cause you think it’s gonna be too hard or you think you’re gonna lose… well, God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”

WestWingLightningThe President then walks outside and stands in the presence of the strongest storm to hit DC in May in history, before going in front of the White House Press Corps. Bartlet chooses to avoid the softball question that the team had prepared for him, instead choosing another reporter who asks him directly if he’ll be seeking a second term. Bartlet puts his hands in his pockets, looks away, and smiles, something that Mrs. Landingham said is his way of saying “I’ve made up my mind to do it.”

END SUMMARY

One of the things that most amazed me was that the show doesn’t say what the Two Cathedrals are, and, within the episode, it could be interpreted several ways. They could be the Cathedral shown at Jed’s School in the flashbacks, where he first put out a cigarette and met Mrs. Landingham, and the National Cathedral where he puts out another one and says goodbye to her. But, I think the two Cathedrals are the National Cathedral and the Oval Office, and I’ll tell you why (because it’s my list and you can deal with it).

westwingbartletmontage2.jpgAt the National Cathedral, Josiah Bartlet renounces his faith. He renounces his faith in God, obviously, but along than that, he renounces his faith in himself and America. He doesn’t believe he can hold the office anymore, and he doesn’t believe that America wants him anymore. He thinks he isn’t enough, as a Catholic, as a son, as a President, as an American, and he is resentful that he could have worked this hard and done this much and still feel like he is a failure and that he’s being punished for it. He ends it by telling God to go to Hell, in so many words, and condemns America to a lesser president. He’s done with America, he’s done with God, he’s done believing in things.

And yet, a few hours later, at the Oval Office, he finds it all again from a vision of Mrs. Landingham. She clearly is just a manifestation of his own subconscious, because she says to him all the things that he already knows: His father was a prick, God doesn’t send drunk drivers to kill people, and that there is more work to be done. Bartlet’s greatest strength as a president is that he cares about all of the people behind the numbers. He recites the statistics of children born into poverty, the collapsing schools, the uninsured citizenry, the drug crisis, the high rate of incarceration, but it’s clear that he doesn’t care that these things are holding America back, he’s upset because it means people are suffering that he wants to help be better. Regardless of party or philosophy or anything else, this is what should first define a presidential candidate. The fact that it doesn’t is the greatest flaw in a Democracy.

WestWingBartletWetThat’s what this episode reminds us: That our leaders need to be the people who are doing it for everyone else, not for themselves or their friends. Unfortunately, the episode also reminds us exactly why it’s so difficult for us to get those people: Because caring breaks people, and having to care about everyone breaks all but the toughest. Therefore, the people who make it further in politics are either the strongest, or the ones who don’t actually care. The problem is, the strongest won’t make it without stumbling. They will fail. They will lose faith. They will become angry that the world is not fair or just or merciful. They may give up. But they will come back. They will climb back out of that hole and they will conquer. Sadly, people will assume these moments of stumbling are a sign of weakness, which gives the advantage to the uncaring, something the show has pointed out on multiple occasions. The judgment of the masses feeds sociopathy, not courage.

Bartlet gets back up, and he baptizes himself in the rain as a sign of his renewed faith, not only in God, but in America. It’s a powerful scene that perfectly complements his anger within the church. It’s made even more lasting by having Bartlet and the rest of the staff come together to go to the press conference to the song “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits, signifying that Bartlet knows one other key to being a great President: To inspire great people to follow you.

All of the President’s staff, from the chief to the secretaries to the cooks, feel as if they are on the battlefield with him. They’re all part of the same team, and they trust that everyone on the team, even if they don’t agree how, is working for the benefit of the American public. One of my favorite lines on the show is that when one of the staff outlines the goals for the day, Bartlet corrects them and says:

“The first priority is always: How can we be making life better for American citizens?”

It’s corny, but it’s also exactly the kind of message that you need to focus on. We’re not lowering taxes, we’re not lowering unemployment, we’re not improving education. We may do all of those things, but they’re incidental to the goal of making life better for Americans.

It’s also worth noting that this episode does not portray Bartlet as being a self-made man. Far from it, it suggests that, while he had all the talent in the world, his ethics and success are the product of two women: His mother, who gave him his faith, and Mrs. Landingham, who taught him to use his powerful mind and will for the benefit of others. It’s an interesting window into the character.

This episode is the highest dramatic performance on the list. The only two remaining are comedies, and that’s a little bit because this one required watching the show up to this point to truly appreciate, whereas someone who knows nothing of the show could watch the last two. However, there is no doubt in my mind that this could easily be listed as the greatest episode of television by critics. Please, when you find an hour, watch it.

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If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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