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The West Wing: Shibboleth

"They made it into the New World, Josh. You know what I get to do now? I get to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving."

It's Thanksgiving at the White House, and since CJ was sick last year, there are some surprises in store for her.

I'm not sure there are enough superlatives in the English language adequately to convey my feelings about 'Shibboleth'. It is an almost perfect hour (well, 45 minutes) of television. It is warm, and funny, and heartfelt, and sweet and did I mention hilarious?

I suppose I should discuss some specifics. Well, there's the story about the Chinese refugees, which fits perfectly with the theme of Thanksgiving. America, with the exception of Native Americans, is a nation of immigrants, many of whom arrived because they were escaping religious persecution, so what better idea for a Thanksgiving episode than a story about the President finding a way to allow a new generation of religious refugees to do the same thing?

Then there's the President giving Charlie a family heirloom, which is just beautiful. OK, he could have given it to one of his daughters, but then the other two would have lost out. Charlie is a very young man forced into a parental role early and Bartlet has taken even more of a fatherly role towards Charlie than he has towards Josh, and this is a lovely affirmation of that. The status of Charlie and Zoey's relationship at this point is very unclear, but this moment is about Charlie's relationship with Bartlet independent of his daughter, and it's wonderful.

And there's CJ and the turkeys. A plot that's utter nonsense and utter fluff and utterly wonderful. This is a holiday episode, and this storyline is perfect for watching together during a holiday (in our case, usually Christmas because we don't have Thanksgiving, but it works anyway). It's sweet, it's daft and it's hilarious from start to finish. If it's possible to watch this storyline and not enjoy it, I don't want to know.

Oh, you want criticism? OK, fine. It's pretty cheesy, I guess. It's unrealistic on several levels. I'm not sure a cheque signed by the President (so you can either keep the President's signature and go hungry, or cash it and lose it) is an appropriate substitute for a huge and very fancy turkey. While Toby and Leo's sister Josephine's storyline makes some important points, Bartlet's dismissal of Josephine as 'All About Eve' is a sour note. And while dioscorea is indeed the Latin species name for the yam, that's fairly irrelevant to Bartlet's Classical interests, because the Romans didn't get as far as sub-Saharan Africa so wouldn't have had them - the name is Latin because all plants and animals have Latin or Latinesque names.

None of which makes the episode any less awesome in the slightest.

Bits and pieces

 - Mrs Landingham tries, unsuccessfully, to get Bartlet to use the intercom, offering to get a fourth-grader to show him.

 - British people problems: I had never heard of Paul Revere when I first saw this episode, though I realised he must be someone important. I didn't know what a yam was, either (turns out it's a sweet potato).

 - The pardoning of the turkey also came as something of a surprise, but then, it did to CJ too.

 - I may have got a Master's degree at least partly so that I could snap at people "I have a Master's degree from the University of Bristol" when they annoy me in some way. It hasn't happened yet (and the PhD sort of trumps it anyway) but it's there if I need it.

 - I've been a practicing Catholic all my life, but I'm far better at naming all 13 dwarves from The Hobbit than the 12 apostles. And I'd never heard of 'shibboleth' until this episode (though it reminds me of the British using 'weather' as a password in World War One).


Toby: That fourth grader, that's the prize.

CJ: I chose Eric because Troy doesn’t like to be touched, which surely we’re not gonna execute him for.

Bartlet: Won't I get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?

C.J: They sent me two turkeys. The more photo-friendly of the two gets a presidential pardon and a full life at a children's zoo, the runner-up gets eaten.
Bartlet: If the Oscars were like that I'd watch.

C.J.: Morton, this is President Bartlet.
Morton: Wow.
Bartlet: Well said.

C.J.: Donna, will you have Morton take Troy back to his pen, and remember to support his hindquarters.
Bartlet: What’s wrong with...?
C.J.: The turkey’s hindquarters.

You want to know the really scary part? This isn't my favourite episode. It isn't even my favourite episode of season two. But can I give it five out of four turkeys that don't like to be touched?

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


  1. Lovely review, Juliette. This is just a wonderful episode. We had a touching moment about a turkey, and a completely different touching moment about a carving knife. You'd think those two things would conflict, but they don't.

    Allison Janney and two turkeys are comedy gold. Although again, it just doesn't feel fair for them to just dump them in her office. : )

  2. I just don't want to think about the mess...!

  3. So, history lesson for my British friends. :)

    Paul Revere was the most famous person who warned us Colonials that you guys were landing to try to quelch our little rebellion in the 1770s. On April 18, 1775, our (America's) collective belief is that Paul Revere rode from home to home yelling "The British are coming!" in order for the volunteers, called Minute Men to be ready to fight.

    That's probably not what actually happened, but it makes for a good poem. ("The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)

    I impressed some friends about a month ago. Back in 6th grade, we had to memorize the first two stanzas of that poem. I still know them:

    Listen my children and you shall hear
    of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
    On the 18th of April in '75
    Hardly a man is now alive
    Who remembers that famous day and year.

    He said to his friends "If the British march
    By land o'er by sea from the town tonight
    Hang a lantern aloft in the Belfrey Arch
    Of the Old North Church as a signal light.
    One if by land and two if by sea
    And I on the opposite shore shall be
    Ready to ride and spread the alarm
    To every middlesex village and farm
    For the country folk to up and to arm."

    It goes on from there. We didn't have to memorize the whole thing, and I didn't. This is what I remember from sixth grade. I didn't look it up, so if I made a mistake, I will blame my sometimes faulty memory.

    (Also, people may tell you that sweet potatoes and yams aren't exactly the same thing. The flavor is different, as well as the texture. I prefer sweet potatoes--baked or mashed. HATE candied ones.)

    Anyway, long post (sorry), but great review!


  4. THAT'S where the phrase 'the British are coming!' comes from! Thanks Kat!

  5. As I was watching this, I not only remembered how funny it is but I was wondering how much you would like it, Juliette. It is so American, from the history to the songs. Great review!

    My favorite moment is Toby getting frustrated with CJ's mixing up the various centuries. It is also a touching moment when we realize why he is so against school prayer.

  6. I think the fabulousness of comedy turkeys transcends national and cultural boundaries Chris! :)


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