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The West Wing: Take This Sabbath Day

“Leo, there are times when we are absolutely nowhere.”

A man is to be executed at 12.01 Monday morning unless Bartlet commutes his sentence. He has the whole weekend to think about it, because executions are not carried out on the Sabbath, and to be on the safe side, this means neither the Christian Sabbath (Sunday) nor the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). So everyone thinks about it. A lot.

At one point in this episode, Josh says he doesn’t want to have a debate on the death penalty. He doesn’t get his wish, because aside from a fabulous B plot (see below) this episode entirely comprises a debate on the death penalty. The guilt or innocence of the condemned and the severity of his crime is never in question – he appears to be unequivocally guilty of double homicide, so if one were to argue for the death penalty at all, this would be a case where it would apply (though Sam does say something about the man being young at the time of the crime at one point, and his reformation in prison could be factor). This episode is not interested in the particulars of the crime, but in the death penalty as a concept.

What fascinates me the most about it is that what I (an ignorant Brit, I admit) understood to be a fundamental rule of American politics, the separation of church and state, is completely thrown out of the window. Bartlet is sent a priest, a rabbi and a Quaker over the course of the weekend, he actually wants to phone the Pope at one point (there was outcry round these parts at the idea Tony Blair might so much as pray in a Catholic church, never mind phone the Pope!), and although Sam mentions a few issues around the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent right at the beginning, nearly all the arguments put forward are religious, and specifically Judaeo-Christian, in nature. And anti-capital punishment.

On the other hand, maybe that’s the point. Not the importance of religion exactly, but the importance of personal conviction and conscience, religious or otherwise. In the rather beautifully understated final scene, Bartlet at first asks his parish priest, who’s known him since boyhood, to address him as ‘Mr President’, because while he is in the Oval Office, he represents the office, not a person. Now, let’s briefly pass over how ludicrously pretentious this is – if Bartlet’s going to insist on ‘Mr President’ he should surely address his priest as ‘Father Cavanaugh’ not ‘Tom’ – because I think the point Sorkin is trying to make is that you can never stop being yourself. Whatever position you hold, however important your job, ultimately you’re still a person and you still have to act according to your own conscience.

It’s in these moments where we get a glimpse into new facets of our characters’ personalities that the death penalty story really works. The smaller ones, as a rule are the most effective. CJ and Mandy are both fairly apathetic about the whole thing, but CJ finds herself uncomfortable when confronted with the actual act of killing, and with personal details that make the man a human being rather than a crime statistic. In the most revealing moment, sweet, gentle Charlie declares that he wouldn’t want to see his mother’s murderer executed, he’d want to do it himself. It’s an understandable position, whether you agree with him or not, but it also reveals an inner steeliness and a level of passion to Charlie that we’re not always able to see in his interactions with the President.

My favourite part of the A plot is definitely Fr Cavanaugh’s story about the man in the Flood who expected God to save him but made no effort to save himself, which is reproduced below. I’m not sure entirely how applicable it is to Bartlet’s situation, and how Cavanaugh knew that Bartlet had met with a rabbi and a Quaker is a mystery, but in itself as a parable on the importance of getting on with things and not expecting a deity or other external force to do all the hard work for you, it’s brilliant.

Luckily, to go with all this gloom and seriousness, there is a glorious subplot which puts Josh in fisherman’s gear and a coffee-stained vest, has him promise Donna shoes in exchange for working on a Saturday, and introduces the sublime Joey Lucas and her fabulous assistant Kenny. Drunk/hungover Josh is the best and funniest Josh, he and Donna banter like an old married couple, and Joey (and Kenny, who doesn’t get enough credit for a role that isn’t showy, but requires a lot of subtlety and intuition) is immediately awesome, yelling at Josh, holding her ground (politely) with the President and accepting defeat gracefully. No wonder Bartlet thinks she should run for office.

I actually like this episode a lot, but then, I’m a Catholic from a country that doesn’t even have the death penalty. I can’t help feeling that if my views on either capital punishment or religion were different, I might not be quite so keen. Still, and I can’t reiterate this enough: any episode that puts a hungover Josh in front of a beautiful woman wearing fishing gear is an episode in which everyone can find something to enjoy, even if they hate the rest of it.

Bits and pieces

 - Sam and Josh both immediately assume ‘Joey’ must be a man. And Josh explains she isn’t by saying she’s got very nice legs. I just… Is this like 1960s Star Trek? Were we all just that unaware of things like the possibility that men can have nice legs, or that gender-neutral names might belong to a woman, ten years ago? Sigh.

 - British people problems: I get the Sabbath thing (despite the total non-separation of church and state there) but why execute people in the middle of the night? That seems really weird to me.

 - The music the singer at Toby’s temple is practicing is beautiful. And as the sister of a cathedral cantor, yes, they do practice.

 - The rabbi’s little speech about some of the things the Torah says is a dry run of a great rant that will appear in season two.

 - I need to find a Hebrew scholar to tell me if it’s true that the commandment says ‘thou shalt not murder’, not ‘thou shalt not kill’. The Greek Septuagint has ‘οὐ φονεύσεις’ at both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 (the verses are in a different order in the Greek to the English King James for some reason) which according to Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon can mean either murder or kill; although ancient languages often include several words for violent death, they don’t usually distinguish between ‘killing’ and ‘murder’ in this way.


Joey: I want to speak to the President!
Josh: Hey, lunatic lady, trust me when I tell you there is absolutely no way that you are going to see the president.
The President walks through the door.

Rabbi Glassman: He asked me if I had any influence over Toby Ziegler. I told him clearly he hadn't spent any time with Toby Ziegler.

Father Cavanaugh: You remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town, and that the all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, "I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me." The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along and he shouted, "Hey, hey you, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety." But the man shouted back, "I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me." A helicopter was hovering overhead and a guy with a megaphone shouted, "Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I'll take you to safety." But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well... the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter he demanded an audience with God. "Lord," he said, "I'm a religious man, I pray, I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?" God said, "I sent you a radio report, a helicopter and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?"

Your grade almost certainly depends on how you feel about a) the Bible and b) capital punishment. But for Josh and Joey Lucas alone, it surely deserves at least three out of four fishing outfits.

Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.


  1. This is a great episode, and you wrote a terrific, nuanced review, Juliette. Of course, I'm an American of the flaming liberal persuasion who is totally against the death penalty, so I'm not sure how pro-death penalty people feel about this episode.

    I loved what Charlie said, too. It added an interesting level to his character.

  2. I always liked this episode too, despite one massive glaring error on the part of the writers: the state of Michigan does not have (nor has ever had) the death penalty as a possible sentence.

    That said, I enjoyed this for many of the same reasons. The intro of Joey (and Kenny) was fantastic, especially when dealing with a hungover Josh. The many arguments and reservations about the use of the death penalty are similar to those had even today (many states in the years since have either abolished or put moratoriums on its use). I especially liked how each character basically came up with the same opinion using a different method of reaching said opinion (facts, beliefs, teachings, etc.)

    Contextually, this episode is unique in that it really is a "stand alone" episode. The plot doesn't carry over to the overall arcs from the first or any other season (with the exception of Joey and Kenny). It made for interesting conversation fodder, and a good way to address a hot-button topic.

  3. The beginning of this episode always makes me smile. Just by listening to Josh, Donna, and Sam talk to each other, we get so much detail about their lives. They work all the time; Josh can’t drink; Sam is a lousy sailor; Josh and Donna hang out together outside of work; Sam is incapable of walking away and cutting the cord. I love it.

    My issue with this episode is that I don’t think it was actually a debate about the death penalty; it was a full-blown outcry against it. The only “argument” we have for it is Charlie’s comment. While I think it is a wonderful character beat, he is hardly a dispassionate observer. We also have Mandy and CJ, but they admit they don’t really care one way or the other.

    Although like Billie I am a flaming liberal, I spent the first thirty something years of my life unsure about where I stood on this issue. I could see the arguments on both sides and thought both sides had merit. Until I went to hear a man who had been the warden of a Mississippi prison speak. This man had participated in four executions. He told us that the first three did not bother him. The men went to their death, acknowledging what they had done and apologizing to the families of their victims. The fourth, however, went to his death swearing his innocence. This fourth man was later cleared with DNA evidence, but it was all too late. At that moment, I realized that death by the state is unacceptable.

    But, the bigger issue aside, let’s cheer and cheer loudly for the introduction of Joey and Kenny. Joey fits better with the cast than Mandy and the chemistry she has with Josh is palpable. A better meet-cute it is hard to imagine.

  4. One more rewatch added comment:

    For years now, I have wondered when we'll join the rest of the civilized world and abolish the death penalty. This was a strong, thoughtful, well done episode and yes, it's nearly all from the abolish side. I'm okay with that.

    Karl Malden (the priest in that final scene with Bartlet) was one of the greats. He also played a priest in one of my favorite old movies, On the Waterfront. I thought bringing him in for that scene was just lovely.


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