In the fourteenth episode of the first season of The West Wing, a last minute Supreme Court decision throws the White House into the death penalty argument, while Josh deals with a furious campaign manager from California.
Well, that was sad. Really, really, really sad.
Before I get to the plot that actually took up the majority of the episode, let’s talk about Joey Lucas, played by the lovely Marlee Matlin. It would be easy to say that her plot was a way to show us that you shouldn’t judge people prematurely, but I think it was also a lot more complicated than that. At one point, the President tells Joey that he’s a politician, and I don’t believe that was a flippant line or a joke. What we witness with Joey’s story is the very kind of maneuvering that politicians do. The DNC limited the funding to O’Dwyer because they don’t like him. They don’t find him sincere. Sure, it would be nice to have another Democrat, but when the Republican in the position provides them with such horrifying and money-making lines, it is smart politically to keep him around. That’s not to say I necessarily agree with that; personally, I find the practice abhorrent because people are often affected by the awful policies and laws these assholes put into place. But I understood what was happening here.
Let me also state that I fully support Joey Lucas becoming a recurring character, especially one who makes Josh look like a fool over and over again. YES, PLEASE.
The Death Penalty
I will admit that there are some fairly heavy-handed moments in “Take This Sabbath Day,” and the script views the death penalty through the lens of some major Abrahamic religions. It doesn’t shy away from how uncomfortable this is, either, and personalizes it in a way that did impress me. The focus of this episode is about the viability of the institution of the death penalty. Should our country still execute criminals? Simon Cruz was convicted of two murders, so this isn’t an issue of someone being wrongly convicted. How that didn’t come up, however, is this episode’s major failure. If you’re going to spend forty-odd minutes having priests, rabbis, a Quaker, and multiple characters express their distaste with state-mandated murder, why didn’t one person bring up the fact that we have absolutely executed innocent people? I have a lot of reasons why I personally don’t support the death penalty. I was once a Catholic, and it was one of the few things where I agreed with the church. But I’m most distraught over the idea that we have kept this institution with even the smallest shred of doubt about the guilt of anyone we’ve put to death. That alone feels like enough to abolish it.
But I digress. As much as “Take This Sabbath Day” lacks subtlety, it still explores the death penalty in a personal way. Sam cancels his weekend boat trip because it means so much to him to get a stay of execution for Simon Cruz. I made a comment during the video commission for this episode that these characters never seem to get time off at all, and this is certainly true here. While I think it was inappropriate to reveal to Bobby Zane where Toby goes to temple, I understood why he was doing it.
And in Toby’s case, a very personalized sermon from his rabbi gets his attention, too. It’s frustrating to watch him struggle with this because you know he can’t technically do anything but offer his opinion to the President. I think that Rabbi Glassman understood that on some level, but his orchestration of events to influence Toby showed that he was also willing to go above and beyond what he normally would to impart the importance of opposing the death penalty on Toby. His message was so important, too! Yes, our holy texts say many things about what standard we should hold ourselves to, but they were written thousands of years ago. The context of them is important, and it’s something a lot of religious folks don’t seem to want to acknowledge. WHICH WE DON’T NEED TO GET INTO BECAUSE THAT COULD LAST A BILLION YEARS WORTH OF REVIEW SPACE. But the point here is that we, as a nation, have to figure out what our standards are. Are we going to continue a cycle of vengeance? There’s a moment (it’s brief) where Sam mentions that there is no real evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime. So why are we keeping it?
But the White House team isn’t all on the same page. Both Mandy and C.J. feel indifferent to the idea. They aren’t bothered by the idea of someone who murdered two drug kingpins being put to death. For C.J., though, her reluctance comes from the fact that she found something to personalize this death: she learned Simon Cruz’s mother’s name. And it’s fascinating to me that this moment, as small as it was, spoke to how these people never seemed to talk of Cruz’s humanity at any point. Yet it’s C.J., who has do to do biographical research to help Sam, who finds something that disturbs her. A mother is going to lose her son, and there’s nothing that mother did to deserve that. Plus, C.J.’s role in this whole debacle is merely to tell the President that they just allowed a man to get killed by the state. All that being said? This episode doesn’t show us Simon Cruz until that greyscale flash of him strapped to the gurney in the very end, and… well, I suppose that’s another fault of this episode in one way. For all the talk of Simon Cruz, why do we never see him? It could be argued, though, that this was the point. None of the characters would have any reason to see him, and it conveys the detachment the team has from him.
At the end, even President Bartlet seems to express some sort of regret. Father Cavanaugh, who Bartlet grew up with as his priest, arrives just minutes before Cruz’s execution. In the best scene of the episode, Father Cavanaugh excoriates the President for failing to see any number of signs sent his way. (A note on that: Cavanaugh never met Toby or Joey, so… how could he know that Bartlet had seen a rabbi or a Quaker???) As much as the President said he tried to find a way out, there was always one there. Like C.J., Simon Cruz’s death becomes an issue of concern for him. Did he really just let a man die when he could have done something?
The West Wing continues to be this optimistic, liberal view of politics, both innately personal and emotional. I’m still quite okay with that, even if it deviates from what’s really going on. Like I said before, it’s like we’re watching a government we wish we had, where politicians take human life seriously, where they give up their weekends off to try and save someone. But in the end, Simon Cruz is executed, and the team has lost. This is a grim ending, and it’s not what I expected.
Oh lord, is the confirmation hearing for Mendoza next? I CAN’T WAIT. MORE EDWARD JAMES OLMOS ALL THE TIME.
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Mark Links Stuff
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