When Rob Lowe left "The West Wing" in a fit of pique over lack of money/screen time/respect/whatever, all I could think was what a foolish egomaniac he was. Lowe may have been the big star coming into the series, but by the time he left, he was clearly behind Sheen and Spenser and Schiff and Janney and Whitford in terms of most important/beloved regular. And when he signed on to one embarrassing flop after another, I felt secure in my belief that he had grossly overestimated his value, both to "West Wing" and in general.
It helped that his exit coincided with the period when Sorkin was going completely off the rails, followed quickly by the awful transition to the Wells era. So for the last three and a half years, I never doubted my theory.
Then Lowe/Sam came back last night, and I realized how much I had missed him. No, he may not have been as essential as Jed or Leo or CJ, but the show really did lose something when that stammering Boy Scout left to... um... why the hell did he leave, anyway? When they did the election storyline, it was said repeatedly that if Sam lost the race, he'd get his job back. He lost, yet he never came back, and there wasn't even any discussion of that in the reunion with Josh. (I'll give them a pass on that, just for the call-back to the best scene in "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen.")
With Sorkin long gone and without a three-year transition to get used to hearing other people's words coming out of his mouth, Sam didn't seem quite like Sam last night -- as the show's token idealist, I think he'd leap at the offer -- but Lowe and Brad Whitford settled back nicely into their old rhythms. And deputy chief of staff is a much more plausible idea than vice-president. (And, speaking of which, I'll believe they're going to make Vinick the VP -- suggestive promo or no suggestive promo -- when he actually gets confirmed in an episode.) Still would have liked some kind of explanation for why he stayed away after the election fiasco, but good to have him back for a few weeks at the end.
Other than Sam, kind of a blah episode -- though, of course, I'm not a Josh/Donna 'shipper, and this was mainly throwing them one last bone. The surprise reveal about Bartlet and Santos playing good cop/bad cop felt forced -- even if Santos had kept it from Josh (because somehow, after all this time, they still don't trust each other), no way Jed doesn't tell C.J. -- and I've never cared much, if at all, about Mrs. Santos. (On the plus side, the writers did find a plausible way for Josh and Donna to both have White House jobs and still date.)
So, only three more episodes ever. Weird. I hope they can at least hit the last one out of the park.