Monday, 9 July 2012

S01E14: Take This Sabbath Day

This is one of my favourite philosophical episodes of the shows entire run. There aren't a huge number of them, but this is one of the strongest of the bunch. The pre-credits sequence almost feels like a feature film opening (helped by the fact that there's no "previously on The West Wing" section).

There's an old saying: "Knowing what's right is easy; doing what's right is hard" (I may be paraphrasing a little there). There is no better example of it than this episode. It's clear that everyone knows what the right thing to do is. The public defender does; they go way beyond the call of duty on this. Sam does; he blows off his entire weekend to try and find a way to make it politically expedient to do the right thing. The rabbi giving the sermon at Toby's synagogue knows. Toby knows, even though he tells Sam the President won't stay the execution. Presumably the Pope knows. Joey Lucas knows. CJ knows, even if she knows for pretty selfish reasons. Leo knows, and tells the President as much. Jed's priest knows it, and makes his point to devastating effect. Amidst all of that the strongest counterpoint is Charlie's "I wouldn't want to see him executed... I'd want to do it myself."

Honestly, I don't have a horse in this particular race. I live in a country which doesn't have the death penalty, and I wouldn't campaign for it to be introduced. If I lived in a country which did have it, I wouldn't campaign for it to be abolished. The weak part of this episode for me (and the thing which denies it an A rating) is that Sorkin falls into his usual trap of being unable to write the opposing argument. The only dissenting voice is someone too emotionally attached to the issue to give a subjective opinion. This is effectively Sorkin giving a 40 minute lecture against the death penalty and telling 71% of America that they're wrong. Fair enough - it's his show, but at least give a stronger argument for it.

Why then, did I use the "Knowing what's right..." quote? Well simple really. In this episode, the only person who matters is Jed. His faith tells him he should stay the execution. His ethics tell him he should stay the execution. Any number of people he respects deeply tell him he should stay the execution. It was the right thing for him to do, but he didn't because of political convenience. That gives us the strongest conclusion to any episode so far, as the most powerful man on the planet is devastated by a priest's parable. Incidentally, of all the nuggets I've borrowed from The West Wing over the years the one I've used the most is that story, or a variant of it at least. It never fails to get a wonderful reaction.

As an aside, this episode also introduced us to Joey Lucas. Is it a spoiler to say that we'll see more of her? Based on her discussion in the bar with Josh I'd say no.

Random observations:

The guy who used to beat up Sam in high school was Jim Carrey's best friend in The Truman Show.

The scene between Josh and Donna when he's hung over is a comedy gem, and it's great acting from Bradley. The scene where Joey (most famously the Oscar winner for Children of a Lesser God) bursts into his office is another.

I find it troubling that someone could convince a rabbi to give a sermon that is effectively a political position given its timing.

The priest Jed talks to is Karl Mulden, who's been in so much stuff it's hard to pick out a highlight, so I'll just mention the first movie that came to mind: The Cincinnati Kid.

Anyone know what the sign was that Josh didn't know but could probably guess? If you do try to keep it family friendly.

Gail's bowl has what looks like a body floating in it. A reference to Simon Cruz dying or Sam falling out of his boat?

Episode grade: B+

So what did you all think?

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