In the twenty-second and final episode of the seventh season of The West Wing, Matthew Santos and his team begin their trip to the White House. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to finish The West Wing.
Series finales are a funny thing. I’ve seen a lot of them now for Mark Watches, and I try to do my best to appreciate what it is that the show has done and what they’re trying to do. They’re a difficult thing to write about, let alone experience, because of it’s such a daunting task. Is it a good end to the season? To the show as a whole? Am I left on a cliffhanger or is every story wrapped up? Am I left wanting more or am I happy that the show has ended where it has?
I suppose I have conflicting answers for this in the sense that “Tomorrow” deliberately wraps up the stories for numerous characters while intentionally leaving us with the beginning of an era. But I think the focus on this transition and the dramatic and subtle aspects of it is what makes this work. This isn’t an action-packed closer for The West Wing, and I don’t think it would have worked if the tone hadn’t been what it was. It’s sad. It’s exciting. But the important thing that I needed “Tomorrow” to do was to close the chapter on the Bartlet administration and do so with respect.
And lord, just from the beginning of this episode, it’s clear that this is the end. Like I said, having the Inauguration be the setting of the end of The West Wing works. As Bartlet and (some) of the staff say goodbye, Matthew, Helen, Ronna, Bram, and others begin the surreal new part of their lives. This has to be a surreal experience in real life, and that’s something “Tomorrow” conveys well. There’s a final press conference; there’s housekeeping. (IS THAT ACTUALLY TRUE? Is there a staff that moves everything out of the White House in the span of two hours???) There are letters to the incoming staff. There are the pardons THE PARDONS OH MY GOD. And while I certainly teared up a lot watching this, I was struck by how mechanical the transition felt. Not in tone, that is, but in the way that the people who worked in this White House, from Debbie to Charlie to Kate to Margaret, all were unemployed and ushered out of the place so quickly and so methodically. It’s a weird thing to watch, but I imagine that’s what this must truly be like.
Amidst this, we find out that Bartlet asked to add Toby Ziegler to the list of possible presidential pardons. I haven’t hid my feelings on this subplot this season, and I still think it was a strange way to use Toby’s character. There’s been some good, but mostly, I’ve missed him being a part of the West Wing team. I find it kind of weird that despite that his pardon plays such a huge part of this episode, we don’t see him at all in “Tomorrow.” I think it’s emblematic of one of the problems with season seven and Toby’s characterization, but alas, that’s what I’ve got to deal with. This episode instead deals with Bartlet’s own decision. Does he pardon Toby? Is it too soon? We know that Bartlet is a prideful person, but the “Three years later” segment that opened this season didn’t seem to suggest that Toby had been in jail or that he and Bartlet weren’t on good terms. I figured that Bartlet would eventually give in to it, but that didn’t make it easier for me to WATCH IT HAPPEN. Oh god, HE PARDONED TOBY.
I think that the fact that Bartlet was so sluggish about leaving the Oval Office made the scene that much more emotional. He was intentionally taking his sweet time, and I don’t blame him. How much of Bartlet’s identity is wrapped up in being the President? How is that going to change now that he’s returning to (in Abbey’s words) mortal life? I think he keeps those questions at bay for most of this episode because this isn’t an exploration of that world. So Bartlet wanders the halls of the White House, saying goodbye to all of the people who have served him in one way or another. If there was any scene that hit me the hardest, it was that one. It’s so beautifully in character for Bartlet, you know?
There’s a lot of promise in “Tomorrow,” too, and it just left me wanting another eight seasons with the Santos’. Both Matthew and Helen spend a great deal of this episode teetering between wide-eyed horror and silliness, and I thought it helped convey how nervous they were. Their lives have already changed drastically over the course of the last two seasons, but this was going to be the biggest change yet. With them, they bring a new staff, including three familiar faces. If Bartlet’s team gets a proper goodbye, then Santos’s team is saying hello IN THE LAST EPISODE WHICH IS SO TRAGIC TO ME. My god, I want to see Ronna as Santos’s assistant. I want to see Donna working out of her GIGANTIC and GORGEOUS office. I want to see what kind of Chief of Staff Josh will be. I WANT TO WATCH SANTOS MAKING LAWS AND GETTING INTO BITTER ARGUMENTS WITH HIS SECRETARY OF STATE BESTIE AND FIGHTING RACISM AND I WANT TO WATCH HELEN BECOME THE BEST FIRST LADY EVER AND THIS IS OPPRESSION.
But that’s the point of “Tomorrow.” For some people, tomorrow holds a new freedom. Charlie will pursue a degree at Georgetown Law, and C.J. will head to California, leaving the White House behind. Kate’s gonna write a book, and Will’s gonna run for (and win!) a seat in Congress. Actually, that’s not quite right. Charlie, Kate, and Will are off to an early morning movie. And that banality of that detail is so incredible because… seriously, what do these people do? I’m actually thankful for the “Three years later” bit because I know what becomes of these characters already, so that allows “Tomorrow” to focus on the present. And in the present, Matthew Santos has become the next President of the United States. That passing of the torch is brilliantly done as well, and I’m not quite sure if this was filmed in Los Angeles like most of the show. This looked like it was shot on location, y’all! Regardless, the inauguration felt HUGE, and watching Santos get sworn in was a big deal to me. I know I’ve spoken about how meaningful it’s been to watch a brown man ascend to the most powerful role in the nation, but seeing him recite his oath of office? IT HIT TOO CLOSE TO HOME. It reminded me of how unreal and exciting it was to watch Obama’s first inauguration back in 2008.
It was a thrill to watch, and it was also bittersweet. I’ve never seen a show like The West Wing, and I know I never will. And as much as I would have loved to have spent more time with the Santos’, I think that ending this show here gives us a sense for the endless cycle of politics in America. We move from one President to another, and life continues on. So it’s fitting to me that one of the last images of “Tomorrow” is of Abbey and Bartlet looking upon the gift that Mallory gave them: the Bartlet for America napkin. (IT RUINED ME TWICE, OH MY GOD.) It’s a fascinating and emotional chance to remind all of us of how far Jed Bartlet came, and how that growth was intrinsically tied to one of the only people missing from this finale. Leo McGarry’s influence as a character is all over “Tomorrow,” from the napkin to the “WWLD?” Post-It that C.J. passes along to Josh. It’s a gorgeous way to pay respects to his character, but it also works as a reflection on The West Wing as a whole. This show could be ruthless, hilarious, deeply heartbreaking, and even a little bit misguided. It hasn’t been a perfect ride, and we can certainly talk about it during the Q&A Party this upcoming Wednesday. But I was absolutely pleased with the end of The West Wing. I’m sad that it’s over! I was so intimidated by this show when I started it, and I know that it’s been a huge challenge to write about it over the course of these seven season. But I’m so pleased I was able to do it, and I’m even more happy that I got to do it with y’all. Thank you.
YO, JOSH AND DONNA WERE IN BED TOGETHER, THAT’S THE BEST THING, I’M SO HAPPY THAT THIS SHIP BECAME CANON. IT WAS TOTALLY WORTH IT.
As denoted on the Master Schedule, we’ll have our Q&A Party covering the entire The West Wing canon in place of Wednesday’s normal review. (So you can save all your questions and links and such until then!) Then, on Friday, I begin my multi-year journey to watch ALL OF STAR TREK. LITERALLY ALL OF IT. I’m terrified.
Again, thank you, West Wing fandom. THANK YOU.
The video for “Tomorrow” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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