Credit: The West Wing: NBC Universal Photo

I know; I know. It was exhausting to keep up with, so, like me, you probably stopped watching The West Wing somewhere between when Rob Lowe left and when Martin Sheen (at center) starting using a wheelchair. It’s understandable. Despite its always solid cast, the story lines wavered, and the sheer number of character backstories could be overwhelming.

But then I rediscovered the show in reruns on Bravo, and basically caught up, renewing my love for the sentimental series that made the federal government seem noble, funny, and entertaining.

So when the series rebooted at the beginning of the sixth season in preparation for the election of President Bartlet’s successor, I started watching again. It wasn’t the same, of course, but it was still compelling TV, like a fictional version of the genius documentary The War Room. Two compelling, deserving candidates (played by Jimmy Smits, at right, and Alan Alda, at left) raised the dramatic stakes on this season’s big question: Who would win?

The season began back in September with a short vignette set three years into the future at the dedication of the Bartlet Presidential Library, making the entire final season a flashback of sorts. The vignette revealed a few tidbits about the characters’ post-White House lives, but it wasn’t until last night that the final pieces fell into place. And that’s really what you want to know, isn’t it?

(See the final analysis after the jump…)

addCredit(“The West Wing: NBC Universal Photo”)

Here’s where they all ended up:

President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) A still-sprightly Commander inChief — despite an ever-present cane due to his advancing multiplesclerosis — made the final rounds with his support staff, including asharp series of exchanges with taskmaster Lily Tomlin, whose restrainedwit as Bartlet’s assistant made us forget how cheap it was that theykilled off Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten).

Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) Or, rather, President Santos and histhoroughly modern First Lady (Teri Polo, a.k.a. Ben Stiller’s Meet theParents/Fockers girlfriend!) embodied the long road to his surprise winwith both Kennedy-esque vitality and too-hip-for-the-room, screwballbreeziness. “Make us proud, Mr. President,” Sheen says to Smits, asthey make their way to the Inaugural stage. The passing-the-torch,father-son vibe was palpably enhanced by a characteristic swooningscore, and, as such, was — I will admit — a little tear-jerking.

Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) So, yeah, he lost. Credit Alda formaking us actually feel sorry for him, as he portrayed a Republicanwith convinction and a conscience. Especially since, according to theNew York Times, the series was going to end with a Vinick win, untilproducers thought losing both a vice president (the late John Spencer,see below) and the election would be too much loss for the Democrats. But inan only-on-TV, bipartisan compromise, Vinick will be appointed Santos’Secretary of State! Everybody wins!

Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) A disgraced Toby left the White Housewhen it was revealed that he leaked classified information aboutsomething-or-other, and was sentenced to four years in the pokey onlast week’s episode, unrepentant and unwilling to request apresidential pardon. He got one anyway, with a final, touching strokeof Bartlet’s pen. We learned in that flash-forward that Toby nowteaches at Columbia, but we don’t find out whether or not he everreconciled with his fiery Congresswoman ex-wife (Kathleen York).

Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) Theykissed! They rolled in the hay! They had “the talk”! They went onvacation together! So it wasn’t much of a surprise that this finalepisode began with the too-cute couple waking up, making coffee, etc.Aw. Plus, they’ll still be working together, he as Santos’ Chief ofStaff and she as the First Lady’s Chief of Staff. Aw. Just imagine theChristmas cards!

Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) Don’t you hate that Rob Lowe left this show? Inthis humble blogfather’s opinion, he’s never been better, so it was arelief to see him return, and take the job as Santos’ Deputy Chief ofStaff. We also learn that he’s engaged to an attorney, and though wenever meet her, in my mind, he totally ended up marrying call girl/lawstudent Laurie (Lisa Edelstein), who he “accidentally slept with” inthe pilot episode. Other familiar faces who signed on to The West Wing:Class of 2006 include the three graces Janeane Garofalo, Mary-LouiseParker, and Emily Procter, who together represent some of thebest-written female characters on series television.

C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) That is, besides C.J. Cregg, whose surprisepromotion to Chief of Staff after Leo’s first heart attack got rid ofsome of the character’s daffiness and replaced it with veins runningwith ice water. The flash-forward told us that C.J. returned to California, where she had a baby with Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield), theflirtatious White House reporter with whom C.J. came to romantic termsin last week’s episode.

Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) Though Charlie has gotten short shrift in thestory line department lately since he stopped being the prez’s “bodyman” and got inexplicably promoted to be C.J.’s special assistant, welearn, in a nice final scene with Sheen, that he will be attendingGeorgetown Law School — where he will surely make his Surrogate PapaBartlet proud.

Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) In a nostalgic echo of his beginnings onthe show, Will bounces a rubber ball against the wall of his now-emptyoffice, just like his former mentor Toby used to do. It’s revealed thathe’ll run for Congress in Oregon (a race he apparently wins, accordingto the flash-forward). Though he and Kate (Mary McCormack) had a brieffling this season, it seems they went their separate ways.

Leo McGarry (John Spencer) Producers fittingly let the memory ofMcGarry loom large in this final episode. C.J. hands her successor,Josh, a Post-It that says W.W.L.D.? (What Would Leo Do?), and hisdaughter Mallory (the spunky Allison Smith) shows up to give C.J. agift that Leo wanted President Bartlet to have on his final day inoffice. True fans knew the second she handed it off what it was: theframed cocktail napkin on which Leo wrote “Bartlet for America” the dayhe suggested to the former New Hampshire governor that he run for theBig House. Bartlet opens the package on his flight back to the GraniteState with First Lady Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing). “What are youthinking about?” his wife asks him. “Tomorrow,” he says wistfully, asthe music swells and Air Force One floats over silver seas (to shining sea).