“Twenty Five,” the season 4 finale of The West Wing, was the last episode ever written by creator Aaron Sorkin, who left the series in 2003. Up until that May 14 air date, Sorkin had written every episode of the series save one. In the tense hour, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) invokes the 25th Amendment after his youngest daughter, Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), is kidnapped, and he transfers power to Republican Speaker of the House Glenallen Walken (John Goodman).
Fourteen years later, Sorkin walks us through how he crafted the dramatic conclusion of his tenure on the show, which would run for another three seasons. Read on below:
“The idea came to me four years earlier during the first season. There’s an episode [‘Mr. Willis of Ohio’] in which Zoey is out with some friends on a Friday night just being a college kid, and she tries to give her Secret Service detail the slip. When she gets home, Bartlet scolds her and explains that the nightmare scenario isn’t him being assassinated, it’s her being kidnapped. Toward the end of the fourth season, I decided that I wanted to dramatize what I’d only thought of as a hypothetical in the first season. At this point, [executive producer] Tommy [Schlamme] and I were strongly considering leaving the show, so I wanted to make the end of the fourth season special and leave a story in place for whoever was going to take over.
“I was interested in the Shakespearean aspect: a king in exile. Once the president has been relieved of his duties under the 25th Amendment, I wanted an opposing leader to take his place. That’s why I needed to get rid of the vice president, as unhappy as I was to lose the actor, Tim Matheson. I wanted part of the friction to be that Bartlet grows unhappy with some of the decisions being made. And I wanted suspicion — will the staff be loyal to the president or the acting president?
For more revelations from the past four decades of entertainment, visit ew.com/untoldstories.
“I was not writing with John in mind, but we were incredibly lucky to get him. You need a strong actor, someone who takes the stage as soon as he walks in. I remember shooting his first line, ‘Just breathe regular, everyone.’ There he was, John Goodman, an actor I’ve admired my whole life ever since I saw him play Huckleberry Finn’s father in Big River on Broadway.
I would’ve written that episode whether it was my final episode or not. This was a good story, and good stories are valuable. Leaving The West Wing was really tough for me. I loved the show, I loved my job, and I love everyone I worked with…but this felt like a good episode to leave on. It was dramatic, emotional, and it harkened back to something that had been planted in the first season.”
—As told to Chancellor Agard