In this Thanksgiving episode, religious freedom is examined in different angles. The discussions of prayer in school and granting asylum for religious reasons are played out all neatly wrapped up with a Thanksgiving proclamation at the end.
The episode opens in the San Diego harbor, where a shipping container full of Chinese refugees is found. After the intro theme, viewers are jetted back to the West Wing, where Sam and Toby are working on a Thanksgiving proclamation, CJ is stressing out that there is too much Thanksgiving going on, and Donna introduces the senior staff to the kid dropping off the turkeys for the president. The guys instruct the kid to let the turkeys wander free in CJ’s office. (Guys, this is not how you revere CJ Cregg, our goddess. She will get you in the end.~ SJ)
Josh takes a call about “a boat from China” and then briefs Leo that 83 Chinese came over on a cargo hold of a container ship, and the INS has them in a temporary detainment camp. Josh then briefs CJ, just before she opens her door to… THE TURKEYS!!
Donna then briefs CJ that it’s now her job to decide which turkey is more photogenic to determine who gets pardoned by the president.
Charlie arrives on the scene, with his next attempt at a carving knife for Thanksgiving dinner. It almost passes muster, but the balance isn’t quite right.
Toby discusses the recess appointments with the president, it turns out that Leo’s sister is angling for the assistant secretary for primary and secondary education. Leo is against it, Toby thinks she’d be a good candidate. One of her battle cries is “no prayer in school,” which is inflammatory to some, and comforting to others (i.e., Toby).
Josh and Sam then brief the president that the Chinese refugees are now claiming to be Christian Evangelicals, and that they are requesting asylum. Josh and Sam meet with Christian leaders, Sam can’t keep his mouth shut or opinions to himself, but the meeting ends with the reverend in the room telling Josh that he’ll pay the bond for each of the refugees.
Toby then takes a meeting regarding Josie McGarry- the big issue is that Dr. McGarry does not believe in school prayer, at all. The arguments get heated, and Toby is confident that he’s made his point, until a photograph is revealed. Toby and Leo discuss the photo- it’s a photo of Josie standing by a group of students being arrested for engaging in a prayer at a high school football game.
Leo’s take? “A football game, high school, marching band, on their knees, the only thing breaking up Norman Rockwell are the cops, the handcuffs, the nightstick, and my sister.”
CJ consults Donna on what kind of song she needs to lead the children for the Thanksgiving Day celebration (CJ is not pleased with all of the extra “cruise director” tasks she’s given each holiday). She gives each turkey a little time, as she tries to decide which turkey to pardon.
Sam and Josh get another briefing on the refugees- it’s brought to their attention that each of the stowaways paid between $20,000-$40,000 to be smuggled in that shipping container. Because they don’t actually have the money, the refugees are then indentured servants to their smugglers, getting involved in drugs and prostitution and whatever else they are told to do to repay the debt. They go on to brief the president, and the complexity of the issue is made clear. The Chinese officials claim that Christians are not persecuted in the country, and that they broke the law by leaving the country.
Bartlet then introduces the term of “Shibboleth,” a term used in the bible to determine true Israelites from imposters. He tells Josh and Sam he’s meeting with one of the refugees, and he’ll be asking some questions.
Leo then meets with his sister. Leo tells his sister that he knows she’s been tipping off a photographer to photo-worthy events. She reluctantly signs a paper, Toby admits that Leo was right. Toby then tells Leo why school prayer is important.
Toby: I’ll tell you why it should be front and center. It’s not the First Amendment, it’s not religious freedom, it’s not church and state, it’s not abstract.
Leo: What is it?
Toby: It’s the fourth grader who gets his ass kicked at recess cause he sat out the voluntary prayer in home room. It’s another way of making kids different from other kids, when they are required by law to be there. That’s why you want it front and center, fourth grader, that’s the prize.
Leo: What’d they do to you?
The president then meets with a refugee, who happens to speak English. Bartlet asks some questions, some basic Christianity background, and the refugee sees through him. He impresses Bartlet with actually bringing up the term Shibboleth, and Bartlet knows he’s the real deal.
Leo then gives Bartlet some more things to think about with the decision he has to make. Even in this fictional television show, the relationship with China is a careful dance. They indirectly discuss what to do next, to avoid granting asylum, yet avoid sending the refugees back. As Leo puts it, “You need to ask yourself, how secure is the INS detention facility?”
On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, CJ is faced with the reality that one of the turkeys has to get returned to the farm. CJ offers to buy the $275 turkey, but he’s already been sold to someone else expecting their Thanksgiving dinner.
In the Oval Office, Mrs. Landingham gives the president crap about not using the intercom, and Charlie walks in with another attempt at the carving knife. He’s a bit annoyed by now, he’s been on carving knife detail for a while.
Then Bartlet, is, well, Bartlet.
He gives Charlie the carving knife that has been in his New Hampshire family for generations; generations, as in, Paul Revere forged it. Charlie is not often speechless, but he is in this scene.
CJ then bursts on the scene, and proposes to the president that he could pardon a second turkey. She banks on the fact that the high school kid won’t know that the president can’t really pardon a turkey. It’s kind of hilarious.
Josh and Sam inform the president that the refugees have escaped, and Bartlet then reads over his Thanksgiving Day proclamation. It’s good timing, really, and wraps up all of the episodes themes nicely.
Josh catches on to what just happened with the refugees, and Bartlet gives him an inspiring speech and ends the episode with, “This is a great job.”