Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S02E08 – Shibboleth

In the eighth episode of the second season of The West Wing, everyone prepares for an eventful Thanksgiving Day. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

Oh my god, everything worked out, and there are so many cute scenes, and EMOTIONS, and I LOVE C.J. FOREVER.

C.J.

Let’s just start here because I cannot. For the most part, this is one of those whimsical, beautifully saccharine episodes that makes me happy because my characters are having happy things occur to them. I love that “Shibboleth” acknowledges C.J.’s sickness from the year before and builds from it, using this opportunity to introduce her to all the Thanksgiving traditions at the White House. Like turkey pardoning! Sorkin plays this up as some of the best absurdist comedy I’ve seen on television, especially when C.J. is very seriously determining which turkey is the most photogenic, or when she’s debating the legal legitimacy of Bartlet pardoning a turkey. She got a degree at Cal Berkeley, and she’s finding out which turkey deserves to be in front of a camera. It is everything she has ever worked for. Let us not forget the day in which C.J. spared both Todd and Eric, for it is a holy day, and it is the true meaning of this holiday. BLESS THIS SHOW. BLESS IT.

Charlie

You can’t do this to me. You cannot do this to me. Again, this show took something that was very funny (Bartlet’s obsessive behavior over a good carving knife) and then made me cry. Over a knife. I cried over a knife, and I feel no shame for this. Obviously, Sorkin when straight for the heart here, but I don’t see this as a negative thing at all. Yeah, this show can be charmingly sweet at times, but it’s why I like it so much. At the end of this episode, Bartlet’s gift to Charlie (HOLY SHIT, PAUL REVERE MADE THE KNIFE I AM SO DONE) is a sign that he appreciates what Charlie does for him every single day. To me, that is why Bartlet makes such a good president. His treatment of those who have less power than him is so sincere. I’ve mentioned this multiple times in the past, but it’s this sort of portrayal that makes this show feel like what we’d all want in a politician. The writers haven’t ever strayed from depicting the complicated world of American politics, but it’s the humanization of these characters that keeps me entertained and engaged.

I cried over a knife. No shame.

Josephine McGarry

I do feel like Charlie and C.J.’s plots are emotionally powerful enough for me to latch on to immediately, but there are a couple important social issues brought up in the midst of “Shibboleth” that deserve discussion. As an atheist, I do find the issue of public prayer in schools to be an important issue, but it’s not the most important thing to me. I was Christian in high school; my falling out of the Catholic church really didn’t come to fruition until I’d graduated. Even then, I was firmly against prayer being in the classroom, which is an issue that my own school district had to deal with multiple times. If you haven’t been following my Friday Night Lights posts, I’ve spoken multiple times about the town I grew up in for most of my life. Riverside had a deeply Christian culture rooted in its core, so much so that I don’t really feel comfortable being at home. (Well, that, and about a million other reasons, which is neither here nor there!) We had abstinence-only sex education; we had prayer in a number of our school-wide assemblies, which happened due to loopholes that people purposely exploited to get away with. The few vocal atheists we did have at my school were routinely harassed for ever displaying anything regarding their own lack of faith. We had kids who were suspended or forced to change their clothing for displaying pentagrams, referencing the band Bad Religion, or making statements about Christianity in any form. It was always ruled as being “distracting” to other students, but all of the open displays of Christianity were always protected.

So I wondered what on Earth the Republican leadership had on Josephine that could be worse than her enforcing the separation of church and state. After “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” I got the sense that this administration was really trying to bring important issues to light instead of staying comfortable in the moderate center. That’s what we’ve seen over the course of this season so far! However, Josephine’s rejection isn’t because of her position; it’s due to her behavior. This story did not end how I thought it would, y’all. The damaging photo is bad enough on its own, but that’s not why Leo refuses to push his own sister forward. It’s because she orchestrated the whole thing. Odd’s bobs, that is SUCH A BAD THING. I love how Leo explains this: You do not strut while enforcing the law, and that’s what she did.

But this isn’t the sole reason Sorkin includes this plot. I was immensely touched by Toby’s meek admission that the issue of prayer in schools was important to him because he was bullied for being Jewish. That is what makes this issue so vital. Prayer in schools would favor expressions of Christianity over other religions, and it would be yet another way to make kids feel bad for not being like everyone else. Ugh, can we go back in time and hug 4th grade Toby? I’d like to do that.

Shibboleth

Christianity in America is addressed in multiple ways in this episode and perhaps best used when a group of Chinese immigrants are caught inside a boat from China, claiming religious asylum because they were persecuted in their home country. I’m glad that this episode steps outside the idea that Western representations of religion, because there are places where Christians are persecuted. (Though one of the examples that Reverend Caldwell gives is shaky at best. When people sneak into another country to spread the gospel of Jesus and receive a less-than-positive response, that’s… that is not oppression. You traveled to a foreign country under false pretenses, you assumed you’d be welcome for trying to convert people to another religion, and that… that isn’t oppression? No. No, it’s not.) What Bartlet faces is a difficult choice: Are these immigrants sincere? Does he grant them asylum while pissing off China? I was worried about what Bartlet was going to be able to do by bringing in one of those seeking asylum because… how the hell was the President going to single-handedly determine the validity of their claim? Through a Shibboleth! Well, not exactly. While Jhin Wei passes the President’s arbitrary test in a rather emotional scene, this wasn’t what Bartlet actually had planned. I’m not certain of the legality of what he does, but I kind of don’t care because it ends up being the best Thanksgiving metaphor possible. Even if these immigrants had been lying, Bartlet wasn’t going to turn them away. They risked death to come to American, and Bartlet was more than happy to find a way for them to conveniently “escape” from an INS detention facility. Bless you, Bartlet. Bless you.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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