Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: In anticipation of Mad Men’s final episodes, special guest appearances from the show’s stars from before they went to work at Sterling Cooper & Partners.
The penultimate episode of The West Wing’s fourth season does what many penultimate episodes do: It moves the pieces around the board, setting up the finale. But “Commencement” is different. It’s Aaron Sorkin’s penultimate episode, too, and he wasn’t content to merely move things around. Instead, he makes one piece disappear—but not before giving the corresponding actor a chance to bloom.
“Commencement” looks typical, at first: First Daughter Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) graduates from college, and the other storylines fall into place around the ceremony. Following the ceremony, she sits with ex-boyfriend Charlie (Dulé Hill) in the National Arboretum, drinking champagne. It’s a sad and beautiful scene, the root of which is this: She wants to stay, but is leaving for France with boyfriend Jean Paul (the comically villainous, ludicrously accented Trent Ford) in the morning. Moss and Hill both do lovely, nuanced work, with nostalgia, anger, regret, and longing all simmering just beneath the surface. Hurt, Charlie tells her to go, and she does.
Then, the episode makes an abrupt transition: A 10-minute fever dream soundtracked by Massive Attack’s “Angel.” The episode occasionally cuts back to the rest of the cast, each inching toward personal catastrophes, large and small—but Zoey sits at the center, slowly growing more and more incapacitated in a cavernous club. Moss’ face gradually registers confusion, then fear, then anger. She’s been drugged by her boyfriend, and she knows it. She leaves for the bathroom, and doesn’t come back. A Secret Service agent lies dead in an alley, and all hell breaks loose.
Until “Commencement,” Zoey Bartlet had served mostly as The West Wing’s spunky Chelsea Clinton stand-in. But in Sorkin’s final stretch, he finally gives Elisabeth Moss something meaty: He lets Zoey grow from a young girl into a complex, thoughtful woman, heartbroken and frightened by the future. Then he yanks her away. “Commencement” and the episode that follows, “Twenty Five,” are among the show’s finest hours, and the former gave viewers just a glimpse of what Elisabeth Moss had up her sleeve. The sometimes ridiculous plot that follows centers on her kidnapping, rescue, and the resulting fallout, but it’s the luminous moments before—the hushed moments in the garden, the terror of the club, and the gifted performer behind them all—that make her absence sting.
Availability: “Commencement” is available as part of The West Wing: Complete Series Collection DVD set. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix, and is available for purchase or rent on the major digital services.