Welcome back to Kheiro’s West Wing recaps, where the title of this recap is only funny if you know of the mid-70’s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
Why can’t every episode of The West Wing be like this? Marlee Matlin! Toby at temple! A president that admits that he’s sinned! Marlee Matlin, Marlee Matlin, Marlee Matlin! Did I mention Marlee Matlin? Because she’s in this episode. So is some good ol’ fashioned Sorkin Issues Diatribes.
“Take the Sabbath Day” (S1E14) tackles the death penalty with a focus this show hasn’t seen since Leogate. There are no dangling plot threads from previous episodes, no long-simmering issues with Laurie the Sex Worker or Danny the Unprofessional Journalist. There’s not even a “Previously on The West Wing” segment to get you all caught up. We open on a condemned man’s last appeal being turned down by the Supreme Court. Because the case was tried by federal attorneys, only the President can commute his death sentence. What’s the man’s name? What did he do? What does he look like? Immaterial. The first two questions are alluded to (his name’s Simon Cruz, he killed drug dealers and I think was also a drug dealer); the last question is never addressed. In an episode all about the life of Simon Cruz, we never see Simon Cruz. Because it was never about this particular man and his crimes, or even his life. It’s about the furrowed brows of our heroes.
Just when I thought I couldn’t be more sick of Sam Seaborn’s shit, he plans a sailing vacation. Everybody has big plans for the weekend, in fact. Josh is going to an allegedly stripper-free bachelor party. According to Josh Lyman, men aren’t into strippers anymore because viewing naked women with other men is “uncomfortable.” Bartlet and CJ are in Sweden, and Toby is going to temple, which he does every Saturday morning apparently. I wouldn’t have pegged Toby as observant, but I’m here for it. But, as always happens on TV shows when people make a big deal about their plans in the first act, those plans are derailed. Sam doesn’t even make it out of the building.
Sam’s high school bully (yes, really) is one of Cruz’s public defenders. He calls Sam and bullies him some more to make sure the president has a good long think about the death penalty. During this badgering, Sam lets it slip that Toby’s temple is on Delaware street. This will come up later. But to this PD I say: dude, Bartlet is hella Catholic. He was always going to have a long think about this. But tenacity is good in a public defender, or in a campaign manager. Cue, that’s right-
MARLEE FREAKIN’ MATLIN! Or perhaps I should say Joey Freakin’ Lucas. Joey Freakin’ Lucas is at the White House to meet with Josh about her candidate, a fellow by the name of O’Dwyer who is running for representative in California’s 46th district. California’s 46th is Orange County, which means I’m now picturing Kirsten Cohen putting an O’Dwyer sign in her yard. The Coopers would probably vote for the right-wing lunatic incumbent. But I digress. Joey is here to figure out why the DNC isn’t funding her campaign, which has the best chance in a long, long while to unseat the G.O.P. in the O.C.
Joey: I’m running a campaign against a Conservative Republican who’s held his seat for over thirty years. He opposed gay rights, abortion, gun control, and raising the minimum wage. And supports government sponsored prayer in the schools and amending the Bill of Rights to prohibit burning an American flag. Now for the first time in three decades, we have a chance to beat him. Why are you telling the DNC to cut down my funding?
Josh: Because you have a chance to beat him.
Joey: Excuse me?
Josh: We’ve been watching your campaign. You’re doing way too well.
Joey: Are you deranged?
Josh: He’s a preposterous figure. We want to keep him right where he is.
Joey: You mean you want to keep him on as a poster boy for the Radical Right?
Joey: Joey, every time he comes out with one of his declarations about brown people crossing the border, the DNC slaps it into a direct mail campaign, and he’s good for two or three million dollars.
I suppose this might have been a chill strategy in the year 2000, but in 2018 we need to run every race to the g-d hilt. The tax bill passed the House by 24 votes and the Senate by 3. This Democratic strategy of fundraising solely for the sake of fundraising is malarkey. Putting every resource into the big campaigns and letting smaller ones die on the vine is exactly what lost them every state legislature in Christendom.
Speaking of Christendom, Joey Lucas is a Quaker, a notoriously anti-death penalty bunch. She and the prez have a nice little chat about it. As does Toby with his rabbi. Sam’s high school bully also had a chat with Toby’s rabbi and convinced said rabbi to make the refrain of his Saturday sermon “vengeance is not Jewish.”
Toby: You want me to go into the Oval Office and say, “Vengeance is not Jewish”?
Rabbi: Why not?
Toby: Well, for one thing, neither is the president.
Toby does speak to the president. He doesn’t say vengeance isn’t Jewish, but he does say it should be impossible for the state to kill people. Joey says approximately the same thing. And Sam would have, if Leo had let him see Bartlet. But Leo runs interference between the president and his better angels (staff). Bartlet lets Cruz be executed, and that’s another life on Leo’s hands. Finally, Bartlet’s priest from New Hampshire comes through to give him a literal Come-to-Jesus Moment.
You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, “Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. “Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here? He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President. Not to mention his son, Jesus Christ. What do you want from him?
That speech gets me every time, dear readers. Beneath all my sarcasm and my cusses, I am a mushy ball of sentiment at heart. The idea that God works through humans and that’s the only way we get to touch the divine in this lifetime — that gets me right in the cry zone. Almost as bad as any scene in a movie or TV show where someone’s birthday party is poorly attended. Oh, I weep buckets when no one shows up to a birthday party.
The job of the president, in some ways, is to be both a big softie who cries at every poorly-attended birthday, and also the polar opposite. Our Heroes talk a lot of yay about how hard it should be for the state to kill, but the state kills all the time. Bartlet just got done with a military campaign in Syria. As we talked about before, his inaction on sex ed will lead to some deaths. That FBI hostage negotiator died because of him. Every choice a president makes will kill some people and save others. At least in Josiah Bartlet we have a man that knows what’s at stake. He at least feels guilt when he sins. But technically, his priest cannot take his confession if he’s planning on doing it again.
What’s Next: After this morality play, we get a total sitcom episode with “Celestial Navigation.”
The West Wing Revisited: Marlee Matlin, Marlee Matlin was originally published in Kheiro Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.