Content Note: Includes discussion of terror incidents, homicide, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, and spoilers for The West Wing seasons two, three and four.

No-one can deny that The West Wing is about as political as a TV show can get, but I believe its emotional power derives from far more than its lessons on US governance. Much of my response to episodes of The West Wing derived from the music choices made by Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, and by its music department.

The second season of The West Wing ends with a confluence of significant events. The president of the US attends the funeral of his friend and private secretary; he momentarily denounces his faith; he discloses his MS diagnosis to the public. Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in Arms’ plays through the final sequence of the season’s concluding episode, Two Cathedrals. To me, the song gives the sequence an epic feel and ties together locations seen throughout, calling to my mind the events of the President’s day. The song is often played at military funerals, adding a further layer of relevance to its use in the scene.

The Long Goodbye, episode thirteen of season four, covers an issue which isn’t often seen on television: Alzheimer’s disease. In the episode, White House Press Secretary CJ returns to her childhood home to speak at a high school reunion. What dominates her visit, however, is not the reunion but her father’s progressing Alzheimer’s (and his opposition to seeking support for it).

“The song gives the sequence an epic feel and ties together locations seen throughout”

Opinions on this episode have varied, and it’s certainly different to other, White House-focused episodes. To me, it’s incredibly powerful. A quietly devastating moment was when CJ’s father played the first movement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations over shots of an alternate location in which CJ is sleeping with one of her high school classmates. I found the music reassuring and gentle, but tinged with sadness. Bach’s music has for a long time been important to me as a person and as a musician, perhaps making this sequence especially affecting.

At the start of the fourth season, a pipe bomb goes off in the swimming arena of a state university. The threat of domestic terrorism in the US is, as in the UK, not insignificant, although occurrences are relatively uncommon. For me, the President’s speech in 20 Hours in America (season four, episodes one and two) hit a place untouched by childhood radio bulletins I heard after terrorist incidents both in the UK and abroad: “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They're our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we're reminded that that capacity may well be limitless.” (Aaron Sorkin, 2002)

Tori Amos’s ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ plays under the speech; I found the song moving a long time after watching the episode. I’m sure music was one of the most powerful elements in conveying to me the terror, loss and strength experienced by characters in the scene. Tori Amos arranged her track from a Boomtown Rats song based on the first US school shooting.

“There is a feeling of tenderness and emptiness to the song, a sadness alongside only moments of light”

Another instance in which a song had an impact on me during The West Wing was in the aftermath of the murder of CJ’s secret service agent during a robbery in Posse Comitatus, the season three finale. Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ starts to play as Simon, CJ’s agent, is shot and falls to the ground in a grocery store near Times Square, New York. There is a feeling of tenderness and emptiness to the song, a sadness alongside only moments of light.

The music is non-diegetic (emanating from an invisible source that lies off-screen) and feels desolate. When a pedestrian on Times Square knocks into CJ, it seems as if the world does not care about or see the significance of Simon’s loss.


Mountain View

Finding Comfort in Film Music

The music choices made by the show’s crew are in addition to its original music, written by Snuffy Walden and orchestrated by staff in its music department, which I found effective and enjoyed significantly.

As someone who didn’t watch a huge amount of TV growing up, it highlighted to me something about the power of The West Wing that it was my bedtime entertainment throughout the first national lockdown and over this summer. I would absolutely recommend it: for its music, its politics lessons, for its light and its hope. For I do find it hopeful, despite the serious events it depicts. The characters go to work every day determined to do their best to make the world a better place, however hard that challenge may be.