[Writer: Aaron Sorkin, Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr., Paul Redford | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 02/09/2000]
There’s a common thought shared by many a television fan and critic that The West Wing was one of the pioneers in the new age of quality television. As you’ve likely guessed, I’m among those who share this thought, and I’ll readily offer my reasons to any and all who enjoy well-written stories with vivid characters and intriguing themes.
At first glance, “Take This Sabbath Day” appears to meet the above credentials. Coming in the midst of an impressive first season, the episode offers up what could make for a sumptuous storyline about crime and punishment, featuring a bold conflict of priorities with the good President caught in the middle. How can it lose?
But the more I look into this episode, the less I find myself intrigued by it. Certainly, “Take This Sabbath Day” is well-crafted. And it features a stirring position for its protagonist, as well as for many of its supporting players. But when taken in context with the first season, or with the series as a whole, the episode is disappointingly ineffectual.
The story can be summed up rather curtly: A murderous convict has been sentenced by the judicial courts. Several of Bartlet’s friends and staffers try to convince him to stave off the impending execution, but the President is worried about how the country will react. In the end, the convict is executed, leaving Bartlet to question his position and effectiveness over the country.
It’s an amiable concept, and it fits right in with the overall theme of the season. But despite the promise of the episode’s setup, its execution leaves a great deal to be desired.
Let’s begin with the problem of its structure: “Take This Sabbath Day” is a standalone story, only tangentially referencing the events of the episodes before it. This is evidenced by the fact that it’s one of the very few episodes of the series to lack a “Previously On…” at its beginning. Standalones are tricky fare in serialized dramas, because if they don’t leave a mark that emphasizes the best qualities of the show, it will stick out rather awkwardly from its episodic brethren.
Now, to its credit, this episode does use its plot to highlight Bartlet’s character in a way that’s perfectly in tone with what we’ve seen earlier. Here is a man who wants to do what’s right by both the country’s principles and by his own, but can’t seem to correlate the vexing differences between the two. There’s ample opportunity here for character depth and introspection. Unfortunately, “Take This Sabbath Day” isn’t especially interested in either of those things. Instead, the episode fills out its running time with numerous lengthy debates about the potential rights and wrongs (though mostly wrongs) of capital punishment. Whereas previous episodes kept the politics of the show as a secondary element to the characters, this episode emphatically pushes them to the frontlines.
The result is an episode which feels uncomfortably similar to a Sunday school lesson on the measurements of the law vs. the people. One or two conversations regarding the issue would have been perfectly suitable, even necessary to a story coping with these themes. But this episode just piles the lectures on and on, until the whole thing becomes stressfully redundant. Sam, Leo, Joey Lucas, Rabbi Glassman, and Father Cavanaugh each get their chance to weigh in their two cents on why executing criminals is wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m no fan of capital punishment myself, but instead of providing an introspective view into the issue, this episode just made me wish that all the characters would kindly stuff their stockings.
The episode is best remembered for its final scene, in which Bartlet, feeling guilt over his ineffectiveness regarding the execution and touched by Father Cavanaugh’s words, agrees to take part in confession. And indeed, this scene has merit. For one thing, the performances are fantastic – Martin Sheen delivers his lines with just the right level of angst and uncertainty, and the late Karl Malden, in his final acting role, is brilliant as Father Cavanaugh. I’d even go on to support this scene for the way it cements Bartlet’s religious views in preparation for the long run – the impacting scene in “Two Cathedrals” where he curses God in the Latin tongue becomes even more affecting when you realize just how devoutly religious Bartlet was before the tragic events which precluded that episode.
But placed in context with “Take This Sabbath Day” itself, the scene doesn’t feel dramatically earned. The episode at large merely redundantly stresses Bartlet’s great burden of the first season, and by the time it reaches its end, there’s a sense that what we’ve just been handed is a grand missed opportunity. Imagine how far more compelling a story could have occurred if this entire episode were merely a five-minute setup, and the conflict of Bartlet struggling with a moral and spiritual crisis, post-execution, were the payoff.
So what does this episode do right? Well, for one thing – Sam Seaborn. Thus far, we haven’t got much development for Sam outside of where his love life (specifically, Laurie and Mallory) are concerned, and this episode does a fine job remedying that. This is evidenced in the teaser scene, where Sam has prepare to leave his office for the weekend and head out for a vacation, only to hurry back inside to answer his ringing phone. This little touch shows just how committed Sam is to his work, striving for perfection to an almost obsessive degree. (This was previously alluded to on a more humorous note during his determination to write out a birthday message in “Enemies”.) He also provides the episode with its only genuine moment of thematic development, giving voice to the troubles the Bartlet administration continually grapples with: “Leo… Sometimes we are simply nowhere.” Sam is not one of the show’s most developed characters, but signs of his growth and maturity are evident at several points throughout the early seasons.
The definite highlight of this episode, however, is the introduction of Joey Lucas, and her subsequent interaction with Josh. As great as Donna is at paring Josh down a few notches, she’s neither abrasive nor distant enough from him to really get under his skin. Enter Joey, in an introduction scene so hilarious that it may actually rival Bartlet’s intro scene in the “Pilot” for pure ingenuity.
Joey proves to be the perfect foil for the hoity-toity Josh, and not just due to her standoffish personality. After all, who better to counter a man who loves to let other people hear his own voice than a woman who can’t hear him at all? Separated from Joey by a translator, Josh is caught off-guard by her sharp, callous remarks. By the end of the episode, though, there are signs that he’s gained a little respect for the woman, in part due to the fact that his boss has, too. It’s a shame that the Josh/Joey scenes take up so little of the episode in comparison to the main plotline, as they’re far more in tone with what the series as a whole does so well – subtle character development which manages to be both rewardingly insightful and richly entertaining.
The West Wing, as I’ve said, is quality television. But there are times when it can become a little too full of its own “quality”. And when that happens, we get an episode like this one. Just as with “In This White House” or “The Women of Qumar”, “Take This Sabbath Day” winds up eschewing character development in favor of tediously didactic morals.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Josh sleeping on the floor of his office, post-bachelor party.
+ Everything about Joy’s introduction scene, straight down to Josh’s drunkenly bewildered reaction.
+ “Toby went to Shul.” Hee.
– How the hey did Father Cavanaugh know that Bartlet was visited by a Rabbi and a Quaker?
* Regarding the execution, Leo tells Bartlet, for the first time, “Let that be the next guy’s problem.” This hints to Leo’s larger political agenda in “365 Days” – before exiting the White House, they should leave plenty out on the table for the next guy.