As is mightily apparent, I’ve pretty much stopped posting on this blog. Rather than let it go to waste, I’m going to use it to house writeups of my longtime whim to watch all the episodes of “The West Wing” and write about them. Sounds fun, I hope?
Note: I’m not sure yet whether I want to watch all the episodes in order or hop around through seven seasons and try to make sense of them that way. I’m starting out from the beginning for now, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get restless and stray at some point.
Episode Title: “Take This Sabbath Day”
Season 1, Episode 14
"A" Story: Team Bartlet gets the bad news that the Supreme Court denied a death row appeal, setting the stage for a rare federal execution, unless the President decides to intervene. Nobody in the White House wants this issue in their laps, for a variety of reasons, but Sam is approached by an old schoolmate who’s representing the prisoner, and that leads to Toby getting approached by his local rabbi, and suddenly they’re getting backed into a corner. The President, meanwhile, gets a visit from his old parish priest. None of this, ultimately, moves the President to stick his political neck out.
"B" Story: After a night out boozing at a bachelor party, an ill-equipped Josh is descended upon by Joey Lucas, a deaf campaign manager who’s haranguing the White House for failing to support her Democrat congressional candidate in California. Joey harangues Josh; Josh is bewildered, then indignant (“listen, lunatic lady!”), then finally a reluctant chaperone to her meeting with the President. By the end of the day, he obviously has a crush.
Runners: Without a “C” plot, most of the runners are offshoots of the death penalty story.
- C.J. says she’s unmoved in either direction about the death penalty debate, but she has a wonderfully performed scene with Mandy where she also details her part in the whole endeavor, when she announces to the nation that Cruz is dead, and that she wishes she didn’t know the man’s mother’s name.
- Toby and Sam are most easily swayed to the side of pardon, but Leo holds the hard line that it would be politically disastrous for the President.
- The President asks Charlie his thoughts, as the son of a murdered mother, and Charlie gives the standard “I’d want to kill him myself” response.
First Appearances: Enter Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas, at this point a Democratic operative and small-time campaign manager, but soon to be pollster extraordinaire. She’s joined by Bill O’Brien as Joey’s stalwart interpreter, Kenny. At this early stage, Joey and Josh’s flirtations were both an indulgence for Aaron Sorkin’s celebrated fondness for screwball romantic comedy. Especially in this episode, that screwball comedy runs as a fine counterpoint to all the capital-punishment heaviness.
Guest Stars of Note: Lots! Noah Emmerich plays Sam’s old school friend (or bully, sounds more like) who needs the ear of someone close to the President. Karl Malden shows up as Jed’s old priest, who gives the President some honest talk about how, if he was asking for guidance from God, he may have already gotten it and ignored it. Most interestingly, you get David Proval as Toby’s rabbi, which means you get Richie Aprile from The Sopranos saying things like “vengeance is not Jewish.”
The Road to Mandyville: She’s pretty okay in the scene where C.J.’s working through her ambivalence.
- Lots of hay made about how “Joey” is a boy’s name. Classic Aaron Sorkin, who seems like the kind of guy who had a crush on a girl named “Chuck” in grade school.
- Charlie’s “I’d want to pull the trigger myself” is a focus-group-tested sentiment as reflected by Bartlet’s debate prep in season four.
- Donna mentions getting stuck at Dupont Circle, like it’s 1995 and Andrew Shepherd is still president.
- Toby’s rabbi gives chapter and verse from Leviticus illustrating how the Old Testament’s dictums (in this case: an eye for an eye), similarly to when Bartlet dresses down that Dr. Laura analogue in season two.
- C.J. returns from the Scandanavia with the President and is positively fed-up with Jed’s know-it-all-ness. This is probably the mouthiest anybody’s ever gotten about it (“drop-kick you into the fjords”), but certainly all the staffers have wriggled uner the thumb of a Jed Bartlet lecture.
- There is a VERY well-choreographed walk-and-talk in this episode, where we follow C.J. and Carol until they cross paths with Jed, Josh, and Joey, at which point we continue on with the latter. I guess that’s more Schlamme-ana, though.
Odds and Ends:
- Sam gets called away from a fishing trip, which doesn’t seem incredibly Sam.
- I’m not sure I find it as mind-blowing as Leo, but the whole thing where the government won’t execute anyone on the Sabbath is pretty ironic.
The capital-punishment story is a solid one, if a bit overly reverent for classically defined organized religion (in a way that makes sense for the characters, granted). But it’s incredibly important as a significant drop in the bucket towards this slowly-building Do-Nothing Bartlet storyline. I think if this season were happening today, we’d be much more sharply attuned to what Sorkin is building towards here, but I admit when watching this the first time around, these small defeats accumulating one by one felt very subtly placed. Still, Sam’s frustrated “sometimes it feels like we’re absolutely nowhere” to Leo gets repeated in previouslies a lot for a reason.
Next Up: "Celestial Navigation," which is just one of the best.