It's a heartbreaking episode because we see the powerhouse of Leo McGarry, for the first time in seven seasons; looking extremely vulnerable. He looks this way until the final moments when his performance in the debate outshines all expectations; and we (and his staff) realize he's been manipulating the media the whole time. This episode is a shining example of the brilliant complexity that Spencer brought to his work.
I asked Eli, "On screen; Leo had a real gravitas; he was an elder to those around him. Could the same be said of John Spencer?"
The final episode that John appears in, is the first episode where Donna and Josh kiss. The Santos team are celebrating gains in the polls; and they are all in high spirits. We see a brief shot of Leo, in the mix -- and it steals your attention. There he is, full of life -- not only do we see Leo McGarry unusually happy, but we see a glimpse of the John Spencer that the West Wing crew knew, the artist and creative spirit that Eli just described. It's touching. It's only a couple of seconds -- but it's a more moving few seconds than most TV shows manage in their entire runs.
The episodes that followed dealt with the death of the character, Leo McGarry, which was made more real and emotional by the fact that we were mourning the death of John Spencer, too. For us, as viewers, it was deeply sad. For the cast and crew of The West Wing, they had lost a close friend. In some strangely poignant and beautiful way, it made for some of the greatest television ever made. But it also meant an end for the show.
With thanks to Eli Attie.