Long before the global pandemic, people have been discovering The West Wing on Netflix or rediscovering their love for the political drama since it first aired on NBC from 1999-2006.
For me, a rewatch of Aaron Sorkin’s beloved series has brought joy, peace, entertainment and a passion for supporting “the good guys” before the November election. While so much has been written about the show (online, in print and in podcast) there is one key element that stands out to me on my rewatch: the (unresolved) love story between Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman and his Senior Assistant Donna Moss.
With the finest writing television has ever and probably will ever produce, combined with superb directing and chemistry between Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney, the Josh/Donna dynamic was a rare feat in television: a slow burn romance that depended solely on dialogue in a workplace setting.
While often pigeonholed as a Will-They-Or-Won’t-They couple of “best of TV” lists, their storylines are rarely discussed as seriously as the show’s politics – or discussed at all, with The West Wing Weekly podcast co-host Hrishi Hirway finding Sam Seaborn and Ainsley Hayes more interesting (if you can believe it). But as a viewer who relished in the marital-like nuances of Josh and Donna and fully understood how their relationship was a pivotal building block of the show’s success, it’s disappointing to remember the John Wells-era when their story took so sharp a detour that their characters became shells of their former intelligent, lovable, respectable selves.
Any scenes involving Donna Moss, mostly delegated to female writers like Debora Cahn and Lauren Schmidt, ventured out of Sorkin’s “keep it small” rule, sending her to the Gaza in a fiery car crash, dousing her in bitter resentment on a campaign trail and, if there were Josh and Donna scenes together, their verbal repertoire (despite Whiftord and Moloney’s best efforts) had little semblance of what Aaron Sorkin had mastered for 88 episodes. Whatever Josh needed, Donna gave him. Whatever Donna needed, Josh gave her. That’s how it worked. And it worked.
If, at the end of the acclaimed series’ fourth season, Sorkin and the studio had not been in contention over budgetary reasons and he and prolific director Thomas Schlamme had remained with the series – what could have been? Specifically, what would have become of Josh Lyman and Donna Moss? She still would have quit, but it wouldn’t look anything like it did in “Impact Winter.”
Rather, Donna quitting would have been the turning point, the culmination. In an interview before The West Wing reunion panel at the 2016 ATX Festival, Sorkin says he regrets not putting Josh and Donna in a romantic relationship in the years that he ran the show.
Today White House Correspondent Hallie Jackson directed her question to Whitford and Moloney, asking, “You had possibly the slowest burn romance. Was there ever a point where you were like, ‘Oh my gosh. Let’s just do this already.’?” To which Sorkin answered:
“That’s entirely my fault. I wrote the show for the first four years. Donna and Josh did not get together in the first four years and that’s my fault and the reason is why that the inspiration for the relationship between Donna and Josh is the relationship I have with my longtime, long-suffering assistant Lauren Lohman. And our relationship, the difference is, theirs is a flirtatious, romantic relationship – mine, with my assistant, is not.
And because of that, that was in the bloodstream of it, even if these guys didn’t know it, even if it wasn’t on the page, if I were to do it, if I were to have Josh and Donna get together, to me, personally, it felt slightly incestuous. But I know now looking back, and if I had it to do over, what I would have done – first of all, I should tell you that I’m very proud of everything that we did together, but there isn’t a single episode that we did that I wouldn’t love to get back and do again. If I had it to do over, some time after the second season, I would have given Donna a promotion, gotten her off of Josh’s desk, so now it wouldn’t have been such an inappropriate kind of thing and I would have let them have a relationship. And really good writers have proven to me that interesting things can happen after that.”
On May 7, 2003, NBC aired the penultimate episode of The West Wing’s fourth season; “Commencement,” was written by Sorkin (his last two-parter before departing the series) and directed by longtime director Alex Graves, a man who first aided the Josh/Donna love story with the second glance at Donna in “In Excelsis Deo.” While people may remember this episode as the setup to Zoey Bartlet’s kidnapping and the invoking of the 25th Amendment, it also marked Donna frustratingly telling Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker) “ … You have to GET Josh.” You also have to GET Josh and Donna. Because if she was in an accident, he wouldn’t stop for a beer. And if he was in an accident, she wouldn’t stop for red lights. That’s a bigger “I love you” than sliding a hotel key across a table, don’t you think?
Rather than watching the Season Five premiere, I’d suggest re-starting from the series from the beginning. You’ll get her answer.