Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving "Classic" Recap: The West Wing "Shibboleth"

“Well over three and half centuries ago, strengthened by faith and bound by a common desire for liberty, a small band of pilgrims sought out a place in the New World where they could worship according to their own beliefs…and solve crimes.”

This year for my Thanksgiving special recap, I decided to take a trip back to the year 2000 and recap one of my mom’s all time favorite episodes of television. That would be “The West Wing’s” season 2 Thanksgiving episode, “Shibboleth.” I love this episode too (although not as much as my mom). There’s wacky turkey-related hijinks and President Bartlett going on entertaining rants about the problems with our education system. All the characters are at their best here. There’s a reason why season 2 of “The West Wing” is considered Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece. Really, there are only two things I find a little lacking about this episode. The first thing is that the crises the White House staff faces here seem kind of overblown for all the fuss made over them. The second is, while I generally love Aaron Sorkin’s style of dialogue, he seems to be incapable of giving a different voice to a character, even when the story and the character itself clearly warrants it.

The main plot of this episode revolves around a container ship of Chinese nationals that has made port in California. The Chinese nationals who are still have suffered a horrific existence hiding in shipping containers among those who didn’t make it. They seek asylum in the United States, claiming they are devout Christians who have been trying to flee religious persecution in China. It’s easy to see how this issue fits in with the Thanksgiving story of Pilgrims traveling to the New World to escape religious persecution. The White House staff anticipates this is going to be a PR nightmare (as most things are for them), because China is going to want their nationals back, but the Christian community in the United States is going to demand the President allow them to stay.

Josh and Sam take meetings with people on all sides of the issue, who of course present the argument in overly-simplified terms. One thing I do have to commend Sorkin on here, however, is that out of the delegation representing the Christian right, there is a variety of opinions. The Reverend leading the delegation is, of course, in favor of letting the Chinese stay, but he isn’t rude about it. His colleague Mary, however, who I think Josh verbally sparred with in the pilot episode, is blunt, extreme, and caricature-ish. On the same note, the INS (what we would call ICE today) agents Josh and Charlie speak to are just as annoying in their single-mindedness. They are skeptical of anyone trying to enter the country, and they warn Josh and Sam that many Chinese refugees of this sort are coached to claim religious persecution. It’s really a very tragic situation upon which more light should be shed. Those who wish to escape China pay an exorbitant amount of money for passage in the shipping container. They are expected to work of their fare when they arrive in the United States, resulting in a sort of indentured servitude.

President Bartlett takes a very wise (as he does) approach to solving the problem. He wants to meet with one of the refugees and, essentially, test his commitment to religion. As he puts it, he wants the refugee to say “shibboleth” an identifying password that was used in the early Church. There is one refugee who speaks good English, a former chemistry professor, and he is brought to the White House to speak with the President. President Bartlett starts by taking a Catechism approach, grilling the man on religious facts. The refugee soon stops him, though, saying you can’t test faith that way. He makes a beautiful declaration of faith, and ends by using the word “shibboleth.” The President is convinced of the refugees’ religiosity, so he must decide how to help them. He decides that the National Guard soldiers guarding the detention facility should “fail to stop” a prison break. It’s a pretty ridiculous story, but it’s just enough to allow for the refugees to stay in the United States and for China to save face.

Also on the more dramatic (and dealing with religion) side, the White House staff is finalizing their list of recess appointments. Nothing is too controversial except for Toby’s suggestion to fill a high Department of Education post- Leo’s sister. Toby wants to put the school prayer issue on the front burner, and he thinks this appointment will do the trick. Leo’s sister is known for her very strict enforcement of separation of Church and State as superintendent of public schools in Atlanta. Leo is not enthusiastic about the idea, because he’s worried that the appointment will be seen as patronage, but he reluctantly goes with it. After the list is made available, Leo and Toby have a bunch of very angry Republican Congressional staffers to deal with. Toby makes a big self-important speech about how the Administration is going to win this one because they played the political game better when one of the staffers stops Toby in his tracks. It turns out Toby wasn’t “better” after all. The staffer has a photo of Leo’s sister at an Atlanta high school football game. Several students are on their knees praying, and Leo’s sister is looking on as police are placing handcuffs on them.

Leo is furious at how everything has unraveled, especially when he figures out that his sister tipped off the photographer because she wanted to make headlines. He calls his sister to the White House and asks her to decline the nomination. She is pretty furious herself, failing to see why she should turn down the nomination, when she’s perfectly within her rights to keep prayer out of her schools. Leo says that yes, they should enforce the laws, but they shouldn’t ever “strut” about it. Ashamed, she signs the letter declining the nomination. It doesn’t seem like she’s going to be talking to Leo again anytime soon, though. She realizes she’s in the wrong, but she’s still not happy about being called out about it and missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime.

On the lighter side, there’s plenty of wacky Thanksgiving-related hijinks going on around the White House in this episode. A high school kid (who speaks way too prettily for an undereducated farm deliveryboy) arrives early in the episode to drop off the Thanksgiving turkeys. One is to receive the famous Presidential pardon, and the other is to go back to the farm to be sold for Thanksgiving dinner. Josh, being a smartass, tells the deliveryboy that the turkeys should be placed in C.J.’s office. C.J. is, of course, surprised to see two turkeys sitting in her office the next day. She spends the next part of the episode testing them to determine which is more photogenic, and she eventually chooses the turkey who doesn’t mind being touched. I thought it was a little unrealistic, to say the least, that the two uncaged turkeys didn’t completely destroy C.J.’s office, but I guess I’m willing to suspend disbelief a little.

After C.J. makes her choice, she is very upset to learn about the fate of the unchosen turkey. She tries to buy the turkey, but the deliveryboy says it’s already sold to someone else. Then she tries to get President Bartlett to pardon the other turkey. President Bartlett thinks the whole thing is stupid until C.J. tells him that the deliveryboy actually believes the President can pardon a turkey. Ranting about the state of our school system, the President goes out into the hallway and says he pardons the turkey. When the deliveryboy accepts the pardon, President Bartlett goes on to teach him exactly why he’s wrong. This is the moment in the episode that is my mom’s favorite, I think.

The loveable pretentiousness of President Bartlett also provides for the rest of the comedy and heart in the episode. First there’s Josh, Sam, and Toby desperately trying to make sure that they will not get invited to spend Thanksgiving with the First Family. They have plans to hang out and watch football, and they don’t want to be sucked into learning the name of Thanksgiving foods in Latin instead. Surprisingly, their plans are still intact by the end of the episode. I was sure they’d get suckered into dinner with the Bartletts by the end. Then there’s Charlie. For the entire episode, he has Charlie on a mission to find a new carving knife, and he finds something wrong with every knife. Apparently the President is quite the connoisseur. Eventually, Charlie gets fed up and asks why the knife is so important. The President talks about how a carving knife is passed down in families through the generations, so it has to be just right. And he needs a new one because he’s giving Charlie his old carving knife. One that was made for his family by Paul Revere. On that heartwarming note, I’m going to end this post and wish all of my (very few) readers a happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy stuffing yourselves full of turkey and the nap that comes afterwards!

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