Flashback review – The West Wing 2×08: ‘Shibboleth’

Courtesy of leavemethewhite.com

Happy Fourth of July, dear readers! It’s a nice afternoon for grabbing a drink and setting off some fireworks. But if you’d like to join me in fictional D.C., we can pardon a turkey or two, discuss the history of the yam in Latin and review the series’ best Thanksgiving episode.

“What’s next?” Find out after the jump…

For all of its lofty idealism and inspiring monologues, The West Wing is most memorable when its comedy is on point, and there’s few better examples than “Shibboleth.” Each joke, each sight gag is perfectly timed and executed, and it makes sense that Laura Innes was nominated for an Emmy award for directing this episode. That shot of CJ (Allison Janney) standing in her office as she tries to figure out why the hell there are two live turkeys poking around her office is fantastic. Innes and Janney know enough to not play the moment over the top and have CJ freak out about it, but to let the absurd sight speak for itself, and that makes the sight so much funnier.

Sorkin takes advantage of the ridiculata surrounding the holiday to give Bartlet (Martin Sheen) some particularly hilarious moments as well. He gives him some classic rejoinders like responding to CJ’s request to pardon a second turkey by asking her “Aren’t I going to get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?” But what’s even better about these moments is how true to Bartlet’s character they are. It is completely understandable that Bartlet would take the time on Thanksgiving to scold a high school student for believing that he really has the power to pardon a turkey and to demand a better education from his teachers as the kid stares at him, awestruck.

It wouldn’t be a holiday episode without a sentimental plotline and a victory for the staffers via the release of the illegally immigrated Chinese Christians from their San Diego detention facility. It at times borderlines on overly sentimental, as Bartlet waxes on about the poetry of Chinese Christians escaping religious prosecution on Thanksgiving and we hear in the background children singing “We Gather Together.” But aside from the odious Mary Marsh, the characters discuss the issue substantially and pragmatically without residing to histrionics, so it never crosses that border. Even the representative of the immigrants, who could have easily been a desperate or angry victim, acts like a person who cares about his faith and the people with whom he risked his life to escape.

Courtesy of leavemethewhite.com

The most interesting through line, however, is Toby’s (Richard Schiff) fight for the nomination of Leo’s (John Spencer) sister Josephine, adamant supporter of keeping prayer out of public schools, for Assistant Secretary of Education. Toby is always so guarded about his emotion, but his actions and his unwavering pursuit of certain causes are dead giveaways of his passions. And to see how far he is willing to push this agenda, despite the potentially deadly political consequences, speaks volumes for how painful this issue must be for him personally. Leo asks Toby what kids did to him in school when he didn’t participate in voluntary prayer, and Tobey doesn’t even need to respond for us to know how hard it must have been.

Other Considerations:

  • The series I’m surprised hasn’t been adapted by TNT or USA yet? Sam’s (Rob Lowe) “Pilgrim Detectives.” As he explains it, “by day they worship according to their own beliefs, and by night they solve crimes.”
  • Again, John Spencer is usually fantastic as Leo, but his line reading of “We do not strut ever!” is especially commanding.
  • The passing of the Paul Revere knife from Bartlet to Charlie (Dule Hill) kills me every time I watch it. I just love hearing the way Bartlet says, “Charlie my father gave this to me, and his father gave it to him, and now I’m giving it to you… I’m proud of you Charlie.”

So what did you all think? Which of Troy or Eric would you have pardoned? Should Innes have won the Emmy for this episode? Sound off in the comments below!

And join me next Wednesday as I review “Galileo.”

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