West Wing 2×08: Shibboleth

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Patrick Caddell | Director: Laura Innes | Aired: 11/22/2000]

“If you think I can pardon a turkey, then you’ve got to go back to your school and insist that you be better prepared to go out in the world.” – Bartlet

A series of events all take place around a national holiday. Whether or not by conscious thought, the behavior of the various characters all comes to in some way reflect upon said holiday. Although the spiritual nature of the holiday is underplayed throughout the episode, we get an understanding by the end that it has influenced the characters in their decisions.

Or in other words, it’s “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10] for Thanksgiving.

Of course, this immediately begs an obvious question: Why isn’t “Shibboleth” as good as “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10]? Well, if all the holiday specials I’ve consumed over the years can be trusted, Thanksgiving ultimately doesn’t have the same impacting spiritual power of Christmas. “Shibboleth”, thus, is a more benign version of last season’s Christmas outing, and if it lacks that episode’s moving emotional crescendos, it at least proves there’s a great deal of depth to be plumbed from our National Turkey Day.

Including, predictably enough, turkeys. Yes, in the episode’s most instantly memorable storyline, CJ gets a crimp in her professional résumé as she is tasked with the unenviable problem of trying to figure out which of two turkeys is more photogenic, and thus more suited to be pardoned by the President in a ritual that is arguably even more amusing than Big Block of Cheese Day – yet actually true-to-life. (Seriously. Google it.)

The idea of spending her work hours around a pair of birds is just the kind of thing that would mess with CJ in her continued desperate bid to gain ground in the White House. Surprisingly, though, not much is made about the way the turkeys peck holes into CJ’s self-esteem. Instead, the episode shifts its focus onto how the turkeys reflect on the power of the holiday itself, making CJ out to be a more affable version of Ebenezer Scrooge. Unlike Sam, Josh, and Toby, CJ simply doesn’t “get” Thanksgiving, preferring to focus on her work rather than holiday plans. (This, of course, is a sign of her growing seriousness toward her work, which becomes more apparent as the season progresses.) But despite her initial revulsion toward Troy and Eric, they eventually garner her sympathy, to the point that she cannot bring herself to let one of them end up on the dinner table.

CJ may not be a big fan of the holiday, but she does get her own little moment of thanksgiving at the end of the episode when Bartlet agrees to pardon both turkeys, and is now even able to lead the Boys and Girls Club of America in song without feeling humiliated. Without knowing it, CJ has cleared another hurdle in her strive to become an integral White House staffer, embracing two duties of the Press Secretary (turkey-choosing and choir-leading) outside of her normal venue, and effectively proving her flexibility.

Bartlet himself is swift and off-handed in pardoning the second turkey. As he matter-of-factly explains to CJ, turkeys cannot actually be pardoned – it’s simply an amusing ritual that’s been passed along the Presidential line. Bartlet is not especially interested in the humorous aspects of Thanksgiving – he understands the deeper meaning of being “thankful” on the holiday, and wants to make sure his staff understands it, too. He continually pushes Charlie to find him a new carving knife, an act which initially veers toward comedic, but takes a moving turn at the end of the episode when Bartlet reveals that he’s passing on his own family carving knife to his young aide. Charlie’s interactions with Bartlet have, up to this point, been relegated to the sort of curt nods and amused smiles one can expect when working with a President as broadly verbose and lightly teasing as Bartlet, but with this simple, noble act, Bartlet has demonstrated that Charlie is more than just the quiet young man who holds the door open for him and whose sole catchphrase appears to be “Yes, Mr. President.” Charlie is an integral part of Bartlet’s unofficial family, and the look on the lad’s face when the President hands him the knife gives us no doubt that he has something to be thankful for this holiday.

But the crowning example of Bartlet’s embracing of the Thanksgiving spirit is displayed, unsurprisingly, in the primary story of the episode. When a boat filled with religious Chinamen washes up on American shores, Bartlet is faced with the choice of whether to grant them asylum, or see them back to persecution in their native land. As one would expect, this situation comes with its fair share of difficulties, and even with Bartlet’s headstrong policy, it’s difficult to see if either decision can avoid ending in disaster.

So for the first notable time since the start of Season Two, Bartlet chooses not to specifically rely on his policy. Instead, he arranges his own litmus test, giving the fleeing Christians a chance to truly prove their faith, and in turn prove their honesty in wishing to seek refuge for their given reasons.

Bartlet’s plan points to his own religious faith, and how his deep association with it gives him the keen sense of being able to recognize it in others. His meeting with one of the refugees is a high point of the episode, as the connection the two make goes beyond the schematics of simple foreign affairs. Bartlet’s decision to secretly help the refugees escape from imprisonment is one of the most important choices he has made in his term of office yet. He puts his own ideals on the line, trusting that his own religious perseverance will guide him in making the right choice. This juxtaposition between Bartlet’s policy and his religious connections is another building block towards the all-knowing power of “Two Cathedrals” [2×22].

Even if you don’t buy into the spirituality of Bartlet’s decision, this episode does a wonderful job of correlating it with its main theme. In granting the religious escapees freedom, Bartlet truly gives them something to be thankful for. And in turn, he himself is thankful for his ability to grant their request. Or, as he tells Josh, “This is a great job.”

Bartlet’s growth in appreciation of his Presidential power bestows the episode with drama, and CJ’s poultry predicament grants it comedy. Between the two threads, there’s a lot to enjoy about “Shibboleth” from either end of the spectrum. But the episode isn’t content to stop there, and – to a slight detriment – works in another story that borders on the preachiness this show would do best to avoid. It’s not that the Leo/Josephine thread is bad per se, but it feels rather generic – a shame, given that familial relationships in this series are often rife with potential.

In her one and only series appearance, Josephine McGarry displays a self-righteous nature, something she arguably shares with her brother, as well as many of his peers. But as Leo tells her while explaining why she misused her governmental power, “We do not strut, ever.” As with Bartlet and the Chinese refugees, Leo finds himself facing a situation of religious persecution, and if the scenes between him and Josephine rub off as disappointingly simplistic (not to mention manipulative, as the episode takes every opportunity to paint Josie as a “bad person”), they are at least strengthened by their comparative nature: Bartlet relies on his knowledge of faith in deciding how to handle his situation, while Leo relies on his base instincts of right and wrong. That Leo’s situation is resolved so tidily speaks to the straightforwardness of the plot, but more subtly, it speaks to the differences between Bartlet and Leo, and how the latter sees no harm in resolving his disputes with a firm and simple talking-to.

“Shibboleth” may not be on par with “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10], but it’s still a memorable holiday-based outing with some good character work. Granted, it occasionally gets a little too full of itself in projecting its messages about the ups and downs of religious observance. But even there, it keeps in line with the holiday spirit. It’s just like Thanksgiving: By the time this episode is over, you’ll feel satisfied, but a bit overstuffed.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ Sam, Josh, and Toby all telling the delivery guy to put the turkeys in CJ’s office.
+ CJ walking into her office after Sam, Josh, and Toby all told the delivery guy to put the turkeys in CJ’s office.
+ CJ taking photos of the turkeys. She almost seems good-humored about it.
+ A nice bit of continuity with the return of Reverend Caldwell and Mary Marsh from the “Pilot” [1×01]. Although Mary is still a thanklessly spiteful character.
+ There’s a picture of one of the turkeys alongside the end credits! And he looks very photogenic indeed.


Foreshadowing

* Mrs. Landingham teases Bartlet about his not being able to use the Oval Office intercom. This is a funny moment, but more importantly, it sets up a key dramatic point in the climax of “Two Cathedrals” [2×22], when Bartlet explains to the apparition of Mrs. Landingham, “It’s not that I don’t know how to use it. It’s just that I haven’t learned yet.”


[Score]

B+

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2 thoughts on “West Wing 2×08: Shibboleth”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 17, 2015.]

    I have a question. What’s with the previously on for this episode?

    No, seriously– why does this episode start with a thirty-second montage of clips where the cast tells us what their respective roles within the White House staff are? Shouldn’t we know all this by now??

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on August 18, 2015.]

    The “Previously On…” is a staple of the series, and when episodes are not discernibly related to previous ones, they just fill it out with standard reintroductions. (This doesn’t happen too often, though, and isn’t really related to the script, so I ignore it.)

    When the show doesn’t feature a “Previously On…” at all, it’s typically to set a somber mood for the episode (“Take This Sabbath Day” or “The Stormy Present”, for example), since the lack of music and familiar characters/scenes that come with those “reminder” clips is the sort of thing that somehow puts viewers in a downer mood.

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