Top 10 Leo McGarry Moments from the West Wing Seasons 1 – 3

Credit: NBC

I have begun the exciting and equally daunting task of binging the entirety of The West Wing and writing an article for every single episode because I love this show that much and I want to sing Aaron Sorkin’s praises for as long as I possibly can. Also, I just want everyone to fall in love with these characters as much as I’ve fallen in love with them.  Maybe that’s an impossible task, but I highly doubt that.

Over the course of my time with the show (yes, there are episodes I haven’t seen yet), I’ve fallen in love with Leo McGarry. Sadly, John Spencer died fifteen years ago this year, but his incredible performance lives on thanks to the wonder of film. There’s no possible way I could effectively count down all of my favorite Leo McGarry moments. There are too many of them. In fact, every time he’s on-screen, it’s my favorite moment because Spencer does so much with his performance, even in the background. While Leo is quite easily the most pragmatic of all the characters in The West Wing, he is also responsible for some of the tenderest moments in the show. He’s a much softer character than we initially give him credit for.

So, in a nutshell, this is me attempting to narrow things down and definitely not doing a good job of it because I can’t put everything in that I want to. if I did, this article would be really long and I’d probably start rambling.

As with all of my lists, these are not in any particular order. All gifsets are from @twwgifs on Twitter. Spoilers ahead as well, so if you’re just starting the show with me, you might want to skip this article until we get to season three in our watch.

1. Pilot – Arboreal Stops

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If I could point effectively point to a moment where I sat on my sofa and exclaimed, “this moment, right here, is when I fell in love with this character” I would probably choose this one. In addition to his opening walk and talk with Mrs. Landingham (the incredible Katheryn Joosten), in which he calls the President a “geek,”  the pilot is rife with excellent Leo McGarry moments. This is one of them and probably the most recognizable one.

Leo’s snark is incredible. I do have to give Sorkin credit where credit is due for writing this scene so sharply, and for giving us a line as iconic as “The President, while riding a bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop,” but I’ll be honest and say that no one else could say that line as well as Spencer does. It’s witty; it’s sassy; it perfectly encapsulates the bravado that Leo puts up in the workplace around his colleagues. Of course, in a roundabout way, it also gives us an early glimpse of his relationship with the President. I mean, he calls Jed a “geek” in the Oval Office. If that didn’t give us any indication, this will.

Leo is comfortable enough to take the piss out of Jed. He’s also close enough to Jed to do so without drawing the ire of the rest of the staff, which, of course, lets the audience know that this is a President that doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has the capacity of seriousness but prefers to make sure his staff is comfortable around him. It’s a great character-building moment for not only Leo but also Jed and we haven’t even met Jed properly yet. I just love that Leo introduces the President like this and was given that honor.

2. Mr. Willis of Ohio – Misdirected Anger

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I have a lot to say about episode four of season one. A lot, which I’m sure I’ll detail in a Better Late Than never article. That being said, I chose not to talk about that episode and am instead going to talk about this moment.

This happens two weeks after Leo’s wife Jenny leaves him and asks for a divorce. (Again, don’t let me start off on a tangent about that situation.) It’s such a well-acted Leo episode and I have all the feels about it, but, honestly, this is an underrated gem that flies under the radar in an otherwise Toby centric episode.

Honestly, this scene just further highlights the wonderful relationship that Jed and Leo have. This is a relationship tinged by years of closeness and all of that comes bubbling up to a head when Leo admits to Jed that he and Jenny are getting a divorce. This moment is painted by so much back story and it shines through in this performance. Do you know what also shines through? The fact that Leo is hurting. It’s not obvious and, honestly, episode four is the first time we see Leo emotional, but this moment feels so much more than that. It’s deeper. He’s feeling guilty and he says as much but in way fewer words and in a roundabout way.

I don’t know. It just feels like another one of those moments that speaks to character development but does so in a subtle and understated way.

3. Take out the Trash Day – meeting with Karen

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The season one storyline with Leo and the revelation that he was in rehab for pills and alcohol hit me square in the chest. It was such a great storyline and a part of me was a little sad that we didn’t get more of it. Spencer gave such a nuanced performance with this storyline and this scene is no different. It was a scene that made me appreciate Leo even more.

He explains alcohol and addiction, unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard before. I’ve not struggled with addiction, but I do have mental health issues, and the way he explained his addiction to someone who doesn’t understand… there are so much warmth and empathy in those words. There is so much of that in his expressions too. He cares about Karen. He understands that she was very brave in leaking his personnel file because even though she doesn’t “get” his addiction, she’s seen it before and it scared her.  It’s a very human moment and a very vulnerable moment and I thought it was beautiful. I felt seen watching this moment and was glad I watched this episode when I did.

4. Let Bartlet Be Bartlet – Argument in the Oval

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So, I’ll be honest and say that I started this show for Bradley Whitford and Josh Lyman. For the first 18 episodes, I focused solely on him. (Thanks, Perfect Harmony.) But let me tell you something. In my first run of the season, while I was sick and at home from school, this episode came out of nowhere and, actually, scared me to death. This was the first time I sat up and paid more attention to Leo. For a little while, he kind of was just always there in the background and giving snarky comments and being, basically, the father of the staffers. He made sure they stayed in line but wasn’t afraid to get his hands a little dirty.

Him coming in and yelling at the President, arguing with him, was the lowest thing on the list of things I expected to happen. It shocked the heck out of me. It’s always the quiet ones you have to worry about and Leo is a quiet one. When he wants you to listen, you listen, whether you want to or not. I felt like this was a phenomenal moment in both plot development and character development. Critics and reviewers speak of turning points in TV shows and that’s exactly what this moment is.

Everything changes in the show at this moment. The pall of melancholy and the frustration of the administration shifts to one of action and hope and excitement. It’s an electrifying moment spearheaded by Spencer’s electric performance.

Bonus:

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Speaking of electric performances, coming off the argument with Jed, Leo approaches his staff and gives them a pep talk for the ages. If I thought that the argument was electric and rife with tension, this one just further solidifies the turn and the way the show goes from fraught yet idealistic to idealistic and, dare I repeat myself, hopeful. Here is Leo, the pragmatist, finally putting his foot down and saying “this is what we’re doing and we’re going to run full steam ahead no matter what.” It’s such an uplifting moment and I don’t think that anyone could’ve delivered that speech with as much gravitas and finesse as Spencer did.

5. Noel – The Irish Story

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In true Shelby fashion, I found and watched this episode before I finished season one and started season two. Which meant that I didn’t quite understand what was going on. But I’m a fast learner and the pre-episode recaps were a lifesaver.

Either way, there is so much going on in “Noel” I could almost write an entire article on it by itself. It’s a stunning exploration of mental health that, surprisingly, is just as poignant then as it is now. Honestly, it probably was more so back then because even less was known then about PTSD and its effects on victims of violence. Is it still misunderstood? Yes, but its inclusion on network primetime and the fact that a man was shown suffering a mental health crisis and was bringing it to light twenty years before campaigns would acknowledge it is such a powerful thing. As such, we should acknowledge “Noel” as being one of the firsts to broach such sensitive topics, and do so with such courage really shows what kind of writer Aaron Sorkin was.

Not only that, Bradley Whitford knocked it out of the park with his portrayal of Josh Lyman. I loved every minute of it. He deserved the Emmy he won for this episode. That being said, Spencer came in, in the show’s final minutes, and delivered one of Leo McGarry’s most famous and most powerful speeches. This is a man who understood exactly what Josh was going through and he knew exactly what Josh needed. He needed a friend and there was something so powerful to that. Up to this point, Leo has been a mentor to Josh and now Leo was stepping up to be something more. It’s such a tender moment to top off a stellar episode.

6. The Drop-In – Charlie Brown convo

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Bonus:

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I’m going to talk about both of these at the same time. To be honest, this episode is full of great and witty one-liners. It’s a wonderfully crafted episode and I love the writing in it. Of course, the cast and Spencer chew through this episode with gleeful delight but it’s just nice to see Leo spar with both the President and Mrs. Landingham. Both Sheen and Kathryn Joosten deliver these zingers with aplomb and talent to spare. Spencer meets and matches them perfectly. I think I would’ve paid a lot of money to see Joosten, Sheen, Channing, and Spencer do a screwball comedy together because they work off of each other so well. Their chemistry is phenomenal. And of course, the characters work together well too. All of their humor matches and it’s nice to see Leo let loose a little bit and loosen up. For me, those moments are just as special as the more dramatic ones (three of which are coming up next), even more so because Leo is rarely given time to explore other avenues of emotionality. He gets the zingers often, but they’re usually in a more serious context. Granted, this is Leo trying to get the President’s approval of a missile defense system, but it’s done in a way that feels different than the other contexts. The Charlie Brown crack at the beginning also is another indication of the kind of relationship that Jed and Leo have. I love all the character-building moments in The West Wing. I think they’re what make me love the show even more.

7. Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail – Big Block of Cheese Day

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Just as in “Crackpots and These Women,” there’s a lot going on in “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.” I don’t think big block of cheese day episodes would be the same if there wasn’t a lot going on, some things serious and some things not. That being said, I don’t know why this moment is in this countdown, other than the fact that it’s just a good characterization moment. I think everyone knows by now that Leo is not as fierce as he pretends to be. It’s just his bravado and it works because people think he’s scary and think that he’ll exercise his power in a way that will benefit him. That’s untrue. Well, it’s mostly untrue. He can exercise his power in a way that will benefit him if he needs to, but most of the time, he’s just doing it to ruffle feathers and get a reaction from his staff. He’s been known to do that from time to time. And, also, I love watching Spencer walk around exerting his power like that. He commands whatever room he walks into and it’s so obvious.

 

8. 17 People – the cold open 

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I’m just going to let this part speak for itself. “17 People” is decidedly a Toby and Jed episode, but Leo is there and is an integral part of the episode as well. For the most part, Leo is the parent of the group. Not so much to Toby, mind, but he and Jed occupy a very authoritative position over everyone else. They have to. They’re the President and the Chief of Staff. Because of that, Leo is often a bit more stern. He’s, for a lack of a better word, pragmatic. He bottles himself up and works for the good of the people but it’s not very often that the audience can see what he’s thinking or see his motivations. We know his motivations are aligned with the protection of his people and his country, but other than that, he keeps himself closed off. (I like that in a character. I couldn’t tell you why, but I do.) He’s a difficult book to read, as the saying goes. Kind of.

This scene, though, is the perfect example of just how brilliant Spencer was. It’s also such a good example of how vicious Leo could be. It’s not a side that we see very often, but when we do, it’s chilling. Absolutely chilling. I love moments like this because it gives us another facet of Leo’s character. This is what he could be if he wanted to be. He could easily switch gears and become a force to be reckoned with. He could be a predator. He could make your life hell if he wanted to. All of that is conveyed in a single look. That is Leo’s power. That’s Spencer’s power.

9. War Crimes – Leo is told he committed war crimes

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Leo’s dealt with a lot of heartbreak and a lot of issues over the years. He was an addict; he went through rehab; he went through a divorce; he is a public servant with his life under a microscope; he served in Vietnam and dealt with that and no doubt has PTSD because of it. To be told that he committed a war crime is just another notch in the never-ending belt of pain.  It’s an exquisite scene, though. The performances, the script, the powerful truth of it, it’s one of Sorkin’s finest and it comes in the middle of an episode that doesn’t feel as memorable as it should be. I probably need to watch it again and when I do I’ll probably change my mind about it, but for now, this is a hidden gem in the early part of season three. Spencer acts the hell out of this scene. But, then again, when did he not act the hell out of anything?

10. Bartlet for America – “That was awfully nice of you.”

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Bonus:

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“Bartlet for America” is one of my favorite episodes of the series. Period. Bar none. It goes “Two Cathedrals,” “Bartlet For America,” “Noel,” “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” parts one and two, then pretty much every other episode of the series in no particular order after that. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve rewatched “Bartlet For America.” I’m still stuck on this episode. I haven’t really moved from it. I’ve explained why in my tribute to Spencer, but mostly, I think it’s a phenomenal episode.

There isn’t a bad scene or a bad bit of dialogue or writing in this entire episode. I’ve watched it so many times I’ve lost count. I also can’t pick a specific Leo scene that is my favorite. I love them all. Though, I suppose, if I was forced to pick a part that I love the most, it would be Leo talking to Jordon about what happened when he relapsed in St. Louis. Why? Because it’s Leo at his most vulnerable. It’s a character-defining moment, and as a writer, I love those bits where a character is raw and exposed. However, I think it’s safe to say that “Bartlet for America” is one of the rare episodes when Leo is vulnerable almost the entire episode. Sure, he dominates the proceedings when he’s on the stand, but there is a pall of melancholy and suspense the entire episode until it comes to a crescendo with Jordon.

Then, after the climax and after all is said and done, Jed comes in with the most thoughtful Christmas present a friend could come in with and it makes Leo cry. He’s so exhausted after the hearings, both emotionally and physically. He’s compromised. And then Jed comes in and thanks him and gives him the napkin and Leo just loses it. He’s careful not to break in front of Jed, but he does break and it hurts my heart. Some of the greatest advice I’ve read about writing said “write from a character’s broken heart” and Leo’s heart’s been broken a few times. He’s such a beautiful and nuanced character. He’s also so well written and acted. I love him so much.

John Spencer did some incredible work as Leo McGarry and I’m of the mind that everyone needs to watch The West Wing to see just how amazing he and the rest of the cast is. It was difficult to narrow this down, and as it is, I’ve missed some good scenes and moments. Sorkin really did create the best drama of all time in this show and it’s elevated by the performances. So, here’s to Spencer and Sorkin and all the rest. I can’t wait to see more as I continue my watch through.

Shelby Arnold
Hop On In
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