The West Wing

Season 4 Episode 21

Life On Mars

Aired Wednesday 9:00 PM Apr 30, 2003 on NBC
out of 10
User Rating
108 votes

By Users

Episode Summary

On his first day at work, Joe Quincy pieces together three news leaks and uncovers a scandal which forces Hoynes to resign.

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  • Season 4's best episode

    In terms of quality for the first four seasons, Season 4 was definitely the worst. The zeal in the storylines seemed to have been waning, and the departure of Rob Lowe did not help matters (though Joshua Malina was certainly a fine addition to the cast). But when you watch a string of Season 4 episodes and compare them to Season 2 episodes, there is a definite drop-off in show tone and quality. And while episodes like "Privateers" gave us glimpses of the brilliance that when into the first three seasons of the show, episodes like "Angel Maintenance" reminded us that the show had seen better days. But you can't count Aaron Sorkin out. He is always capable of a good episode, no matter how tired he may have been as a writer scripting his 80+th episode in four years.

    "Life on Mars" is undoubtedly the best episode of the season. It contains all the seriousness of Sorkin's most dramatic episodes (Think 17 People, for example) and the quirky bits of humor that dot some of his best comedic work (Think The Midterms, for example). But what makes this episode special is its nearly constant look at the press leaks. There was only one subplot to the episode (which is rarity on this show) and even that subplot seemed to complement the main storyline nicely.

    The press leaks are a series of three highly unusual press reports that were unethical or even illegal to divulge and could only come from some of the highest sources in government. Joe Quincy (played by the wonderfully understated Matthew Perry) is assigned to find out who caused the first leak, mainly as "hazing" for his new job. This ultimately provides for a most amusing first act of the show, which essentially involves only C.J. and Joe. There is a great mixture of humor and drama here, but Sorkin's brilliant teaser (which reveals the dramatic events that are about to be explained) brings an ominous tension to the act (and the whole episode). Thus, the comedy, while quirky and uproarious, is also hesitant and bittersweet.

    As Joe's investigation delves deeper and deeper, and as leak after leak is revealed, the tone of the episode becomes darker and darker. Eventually, "Life on Mars" contains one of the most dramatic moments of the series. As Quincy finds out who the leak is, he asks C.J. to call the journalist to confirm the story. The journalist, who (of course) is quirky in his own right, is most appropriately left unseen. It's C.J.'s face we want to focus on. So as (Disco) Stu (the journalist) rambles on, C.J.'s look of increasing horror is all the impact we need. In the events of 24 hours, the Vice President is revealed to be the source of the leaks.

    Tim Matheson had no enviable role on this show. He was given the role of an often weak, simple-minded, but giant politician. Really, he's kind of the most realistic person on this show since he (essentially) represents the average politician in the real world. In The West Wing, he's an outcast because of this. And yet, through the years, Matheson made his role sympathetic, understandable, and even somewhat tragic. Matheson gives no finer performance on this show than in this episode. The scene where the staff (and Quincy) confronts him is undeniably heartbreaking. This is truly amazing work.

    But Matheson tops himself just one scene later when he talks to Leo and the President. Three giants (both as characters and as actors) discuss the events. I'm not going to describe the scene any further because no summary would do the scene justice. But masterful doesn't begin to describe it.

    Aaron Sorkin's departure after Season 4 really was an unimaginable blow to the show. Because of episodes like "Life on Mars". Sorkin can write a masterpiece like no other. He is the writing giant by which I compare all others in TV.moreless
  • Great episode... but I have a question!

    I first want to say that I completely respect the writers of The West Wing. I also love the way they challenge the viewers with controversial topics and storylines. And most of all I appreciate the innovations they have in shooting scenes in “unordinary” sequences. But, I’m a bit confused why they chose to shoot the resignation letter of Hoynes in the opening sequence and then show the events that led up to it. To me this is such a HUGE event that lost a lot of steam by presenting it the way they did. I think if they just removed the first 2 minutes and inserted them into the final 2 minutes of the show many viewers would have been blown away. Because I highly doubt that as the evidence was unveiling anyone would have expect the resignation of the Vice President of The United States of America was about to take place. I really think the writers\producers really failed to deliver one of those “wow” moments that they could have easily done. But, that all being said it was a very good episode.moreless
  • How to get lose of vice president..

    Mmm.. I am not sure about this episode.. why they needed to get rid of Hoynes now.. but.. ok.. as a story it was very good, emotional, unbelievable.. New guy on his first day comes across something like that and that's huge.. and the impact it is having on them, on the people around them.. on the whole party too I think. I never liked Hoynes but what he did sounds really stupid. How he ended up like that? On that case it does sound like little dirty trick writers are doing to spice things up.. but.

    The episode was well built, I loved we saw the outcome first and then why.. really made us wonder..moreless
Matthew Perry

Matthew Perry

Joe Quincy

Guest Star

Lara Phillips

Lara Phillips

Lauren Romano

Guest Star

Kimberlee Peterson

Kimberlee Peterson

Lauren Shelby

Guest Star

Tim Matheson

Tim Matheson

John Hoynes

Recurring Role

Melissa Fitzgerald

Melissa Fitzgerald

Carol Fitzpatrick

Recurring Role

Kris Murphy

Kris Murphy

Katie Witt

Recurring Role

Trivia, Notes, Quotes and Allusions


  • TRIVIA (1)

    • One of the key plot points is Hoynes' relationship with Helen Baldwin, which is proven with a list of phone calls made by Hoynes. Joe has conveniently highlighted all the instances of Hoynes calling her, and he shows this to CJ. The camera shows us one page, then Joe turns the page and the camera shows us the second page. Except the second page is the same as the first, but with more names highlighted on it! Look at the first page more closely. Near the bottom, just before the shot changes, pause it and you can see other calls between Hoynes and Baldwin that aren't highlighted. No way Joe would have missed them. All the other names on the second page are the same as the first, in the same order. Obviously the prop guys made one page of names and printed it out several times, then selectively highlighted different lines on each one hoping we wouldn't notice it's the exact same page!

  • QUOTES (1)

    • Will: I came in to show you the spots and to tell you I think we should run a counter-ad. I don't have an idea for one.
      Toby: Well get one. Have an idea. Don't come in here with half a thing and not be able know...after you walked me to the brink, and say "We've got to do this. It's important, though I have no earthly idea how." Like one of those guys who buys a big new thing, but doesn't really know how to get the most out of it.
      Will: Toby, either get Andy to marry you, or kill yourself.
      Toby: [beat] Yeah.

  • NOTES (0)


    • C.J.:One of them [a bird] is obsessed with Donna.
      Donna: It's true. I'm like Tippi Hedren around here.

      Tippi Hedren starred in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 movie "The Birds"

    • Life On Mars

      The episode title makes reference to the David Bowie song of the same name.