It was an orderly transition Sunday night as President Jed Bartlet left office and “The West Wing” came to a graceful end.
After seven TV seasons (and two terms in his fictional White House), the heroic, quirky, often embattled chief executive played by Martin Sheen was succeeded by Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). As the Bartlet administration came to its inevitable conclusion, so did the NBC drama.
“You did a lot of good, Jed, a lot of good,” the First Lady (Stockard Channing) told her husband as Inauguration Day dawned.
Bartlet’s mood at that moment must have matched many viewers’: relief, satisfaction, gratitude and sadness that it was about to be over.
And later on, Abbie Bartlet said proudly, “Jed, you made it. You’re still here” — after the assassination attempt, his battle with multiple sclerosis, and the punishing duties of his job.
Sentiment hung heavy through the hour, both for the characters and the audience. In particular, former chief of staff Leo McGarry, who had died suddenly on the campaign trail as Santos’ vice-presidential running mate, was repeatedly recalled (as was, implicitly, the late John Spencer, who played him until his death of a heart attack last December).
“I’m gonna take one final stroll around the joint, to make sure nobody’s making off with the cutlery,” Bartlet told his secretary (Lily Tomlin) after tending to one final presidential task: signing some pardons in the oval office.
Caution: Spoiler alert. Would he pardon Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), a trusted senior adviser who had leaked classified information out of conscience, then confessed; been fired, tried and indicted; and now was facing prison?
Though still torn between feelings of betrayal and affection — well, of course, Bartlet pardoned Toby.
For the episode, a full-scale inauguration platform was erected, where the ceremony would soon begin as, back at the White House, Bartlet staffers watched coverage of it on their TVs and finished packing up.
Then, at 42 minutes into the hour, Santos took the oath of office. An era was over. So, remarkably, was the brief inauguration scene.
“Nice speech,” the former president told President Santos (viewers will never know).
“No JFK,” Santos replied.
“No,” smiled Bartlet. “But you’ve got time. Make me proud, Mr. President.”
“I’ll do my best, Mr. President,” Santos said.
And Bartlet was gone.
In the unseen Santos administration ahead, “West Wing” favorites Donna Moss and Josh Lyman (Janel Moloney and Bradley Whitford) will be part of the team — and presumably will remain an item, a recent development after having been partners for years in TV’s sexiest unconsummated, unacknowledged romance.
“The West Wing,” which premiered in fall 1999, was the vision of Aaron Sorkin, whose genius was reflected in the pilot episode, repeated Sunday night just before the finale aired. Sorkin not only created the series, but wrote all the episodes for several seasons before leaving it.
Although a popular hit as well as a critical smash, the series in recent seasons dropped precipitously from its former Top-10 status and was canceled by the network.
Even so, this season’s episodes have been strong, charting not only White House goings-on but also the campaign between Santos and his Republican challenger, Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).
Viewers can be cheered that Sorkin will be back on TV: NBC has announced that his new series, “Studio 60 on Sunset Strip” will be on its fall lineup, with stars including “West Wing” alumni Whitford and Timothy Busfield.
And Sunday the final scene of “The West Wing” left the audience on a forward-looking note, too, even if expressed in a wistful tone.
“What are you thinking about?” Abbie Bartlet asked her husband as they flew back home to New Hampshire after the marvelous adventure they had shared with “West Wing” fans.
“Tomorrow,” he replied.