There are a handful of The West Wing episodes that have stuck with me through the years. “Two Cathedrals,” “In Excelsis Deo,” and “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” are the biggest ones, and probably among the favorites of most TWW fans. “Take This Sabbath Day” is a quieter episode than any of those three, and it’s the subtlety of this episode that makes it pack as much of a punch.
Until “Take This Sabbath Day,” the role of religion in The West Wing has been marginal, at best. Aside from a few jabs at the religious right in the pilot and a handful of other, not necessarily flattering, scenes involving the influence religion and religiously affiliated groups can have on government and a nod to Bartlet’s Catholicism, this is the first episode where Sorkin really dove headfirst into some of the murkier areas where politics and religion overlap.
Simon Cruz, charged with murdering two people, is facing the death penalty due to an American law that allows capital punishment in some cases of murder in drug-related crimes. He has lost his final appeal, to the surprise of the White House, and is due to be executed at 12:01 AM on the following Monday morning. This decision is handed down at 8:00PM on Friday night, and Cruz’s defense team is desperate to find an ear at the White House. A member of the team used to beat up Sam Seaborn in high school (heh, I guess it’s who you know, not how you know them), so he offers to track him down. Sam, on his way to some sort of boat competition, catches the call on his way out and agrees to meet with Cruz’s lawyer. Sam tells him he’ll speak to Toby, and accidentally gives away both that Toby will be in temple in the morning and which synagogue Toby will be attending.
Sam heads back to the White House to grab his gear, but ends up canceling his trip to put on his serious business glasses and try to convince the President to commute Cruz’s sentence.
The following morning, while Toby is in temple, he gets a call from Sam. Sam asks if the Rabbi is giving a sermon on capital punishment, and Toby confirms that he is, with some confusion. The rabbi states twice in the part of the sermon we hear that “vengeance is not Jewish.” It seems Cruz’s lawyer found the rabbi’s ear, and the rabbi went for it and wrote a whole sermon just for Toby. Toby heads back to the White House to work with Sam. On his way to brief the president, Sam is doc-blocked by Leo, who tells him the president is done, he’s not going to listen to any arguments from his team. This doesn’t stop the president from talking about it with a few others, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
In the B-plot, and in this episode we only have two plots, which is a switch from Sorkin’s normal 5-6, which leads me to believe the death penalty is of some personal importance to Mr. Sorkin, we meet Joey Lucas, superstar campaign manager and future recurring character, played by Marlee Matlin. In one of the best introductions of a new character on television ever, Joey and her translator Kenny catch Josh half-drunk and mostly asleep on his desk after a bachelor party the night before. Pre-party, this exchange happened between Josh and Donna:
Josh: I can hold my liquor.
Donna: No, you can’t.
Josh: I can drink with the best of ’em, Donna.
Donna: You can’t drink with any of ’em, Josh.
Josh: I’m a politician, okay? I can drink.
Donna: You have a very sensitive system.
Josh: I wish you’d stop telling people that. It makes me sound like an idiot.
Donna: You’re gonna have two drinks and spend the rest of the weekend sleeping it off.
I love when this show lets Josh and Donna be the comic relief.
Pre-meeting, Donna finds Josh covered in champagne, dirt and shame on the floor of his office. She takes his suit to run it to the dry cleaner, ZuZu, who promises to have it back in time for his meeting. She gives Josh a pair of yellow plastic coveralls she borrowed from Sam, leaving him looking, as he says, “like the Gorton’s fisherman.” Decked out in the slicker pants and a stained tank top, Josh is face down on his desk when Joey and Kenny enter his office. Josh opens his eyes to Kenny yelling and Joey frantically signing, and their opinion of him does not appear to be very positive.
Joey Lucas is spitting mad that the Democratic party is draining the funding for her candidate, who actually has a chance of beating the Bible-thumping, far-right incumbent. Josh lets her know that the Dems actually like having the far-righty around, because every time he opens his mouth, the DNC gets talking points. Joey demands to meet the president, which Josh laughs at as never happening ever, right as the president walks up behind him. Bartlet takes Joey and Kenny on a tour of the White House, asks her opinion on capital punishment (commute the sentence, send him to prison) and tells her that her candidate is a blowhard. Bartlet tells Joey to bring them a real candidate, and he’ll throw the full weight of the White House behind her.
CJ, as the voice of the people this episode, has a brief scene with ToePick about knowing that Cruz’s mother’s name is Sophia. She doesn’t really have strong feelings on the death penalty one way or another, but she’s bothered that she knows Cruz’s mother’s name.
Toby goes to his rabbi and calls him out for custom tailoring his sermon to Toby.
Toby: The Torah doesn’t prohibit capital punishment.
Rabbi Glassman: No.
Toby: It says, “An eye for an eye.”
Rabbi Glassman: You know what it also says? It says a rebellious child can be brought to the city gates and stoned to death. It says homosexuality is an abomination and punishable by death. It says men can be polygamous and slavery is acceptable. For all I know, that thinking reflected the best wisdom of its time, but it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard. Society has a right to protect itself, but it doesn’t have a right to be vengeful. It has a right to punish, but it doesn’t have a right to kill.
Rabbi Glassman: Say what you will about the Catholic Church, but their position on life is unimpeachable: no abortion, no death penalty.
Toby: I spent yesterday…
Rabbi Glassman: You spent yesterday hoping the president wouldn’t call the pope.
Toby: You’re damn right I did.
Rabbi Glassman: If he had done it, after doing so, the fear of every non-Catholic who voted for him would be realized.
Toby: Congratulations, Rabbi Glassman, you may now join the White House communications staff!
In the final scene of the episode, President Bartlet meets with his childhood parish priest, as Cruz is being executed, before hearing Bartlet’s confession.
Bartlet: I know it’s hard to believe, but I prayed for wisdom.
Father Cavanaugh: And none came?
Bartlet: It never has. And I’m a little pissed off about that.
Father Cavanaugh: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 rowboat 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?” [pause] 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?
Special thanks, as always, to our friends at TWWCaps on tumblr for the lovely featured image, which you can see full-sized below.