You know it’s an unusual episode when there’s no ‘previously on The West Wing’ introduction summarising previous events. Everything that happens in this episode requires no knowledge of continuing sub-plots.
And there are only two stories: the death penalty and Joey Lucas.
It’s difficult to untangle exactly how Sorkin came to tackle the executive power to commute a legally decreed execution, after all appeals have been exhausted.
If he was thinking that the USA should not have a death penalty, I could have thought of a dozen different ways to make more obvious and pointed forays into that territory. And so could he.
Instead he chose to tell a story in which religion is portrayed as the ethical guide. A notion so nauseating for me that I wonder whether this was deliberate deference to conservative critics of the show as too ‘liberal’. It doesn’t matter that there’s a marvellous piece of acting by David Proval (Richie Aprile from The Sopranos) as Rabbi Glassman, or that we get the hail fellow well met cameo by Karl Malden as Father Thomas Cavanaugh, the lesson remains the same: eschew personal judgement and responsibility by seeking justification in the words of someone else claiming to speak for a higher power.
That isn’t ethics. That’s moral infantilism, or just surrender to authoritarianism. But I must admit that the scene with Martin Sheen kneeling on the great seal in the Oval Office, to be confessed by Cavanaugh, was powerful television, even if as a repulsive reminder of the theocratic inroads into a body politic established as mindfully secular.
The only character who comes out of the episode looking reliably mature is Sam Seaborn, who is contacted by the condemned man’s lawyer as a Hail Mary pass. Seaborn reveals to that lawyer where he can find his boss, Toby Ziegler.. The place turns out to be a synagogue, and the layer persuades the rabbi there to sermonise against capital punishment. But while Ziegler’s moral reservations are drawn from a cleric, Seaborn dissects the legal case to expose a miscarriage of justice in the condemned man’s conviction. Seaborn’s lines are among the best, too, including explaining his ethical decision to reveal Ziegler’s whereabouts to an outsider as something that seemed to be the right thing to do. The best comes when McGarry tells Seaborn that the President won’t intervene:
Seaborn: The U.S. is one of five countries on earth that puts to death people who’re under the age of 18 when they committed a crime.
[Charlie] Young: Nigeria.
Young: Saudi Arabia and Iran?
Seaborn: Yeah. So, that’s a list we definitely want to be on.
McGarry: [comes out of the Oval Office] Sam …
Seaborn: Leo, I put my notes together. I…
McGarry: Walk with me.
Seaborn: Actually, I was hoping to see the President.
McGarry: You’re not going to see the President, Sam.
Seaborn: Leo …
McGarry: He’s done.
Seaborn: We have six hours…
McGarry: He’s done.
They walk into the hallway.
Seaborn: Leo, it’s not an impossible sell.
McGarry: I’ve lived longer than you, Sam …
McGarry: [raised voice] He’s done, and I gotta tell you, Sam, this was bungled. We were totally unprepared for this.
Seaborn: What the hell are you…?
McGarry: We were caught in the headlights. This thing was supposed to go back to the sixth circuit. And I don’t know how it happened …
Seaborn: [animated] What are you talking about, prepared? The court sat. What would you have done differently?
McGarry: I’d have…
Seaborn: What would you have done different? You’d have kept the President out of the country another two days?
McGarry: [softly] Yes.
Seaborn: Leo, there are times when we are absolutely nowhere. [turns back on McGarry and walks away]
Any reality of the situation I can imagine is pure politics. Every president swears to uphold the laws of the nation. Contradicting the Supreme Court doesn’t sit too well with that pledge. However, since the method of appointments to the bench is inherently political, so is the president’s response to its rulings. To stay the execution, or even pardon a condemned man would be the equivalent of a back-hander across the collective face of all the jurists instrumental in upholding the death sentence.
In this particular case an oblique reference was made by Seaborn that the bench was politically skewed (to the fire and brimstone right). But for McGarry the issue is one of timing and handling, not life or death.
Even Charlie Young’s response to the question of legal executions was better than the trite and repetitive recitation of doctrine that pretends at ethical discussion:
Bartlet: What happened to the guy who shot your mother?
Young: They haven’t found him yet sir.
Bartlet: If they did, would you wanna see him executed?
[Young looks at him uncertainly.]
Bartlet: Killing a police officer’s a capital crime. I figured you must have thought about it.
Young: Yes sir.
Young: I wouldn’t want to see him executed, Mr. President —
Young: — I’d wanna do it myself.
Bartlet: [Looks thoughtful] Yeah.
Aaron Sorkin is said to have remarked that conservative critics of the show should have been well pleased with a president deciding not to stay the execution, and kneeling in prayer in the Oval Office. It is also said that Martin Sheen argued for his character to commute the execution, but that he lost out to considerations of dramatic impact. I confess I was expecting the President to intervene when I first saw this episode, and it did work better the way it was actually presented.
I was also impressed by director Thomas Schlamme’s superimposition of the execution tableau onto a shot of the President, holding a rosary as he looks out of the window at falling snow, ending with the image of the condemned man’s mother, also holding a rosary. It was a superb few seconds of impressionism in advocacy of the story.
The comical circumstance of Josh Lyman being hung over and dressed in Seaborn’s yachting oilskin pants to greet political operative Joey Lucas on a Saturday morning seemed jarringly out of place in this episode. But it did increase the power of the full frontal assault by Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas, and the interplay with her interpreter. It also made Lyman’s obvious debasement that much more funny, as familial Schadenfreude, as he struggles to understand where he is and what’s going on.
I had difficulty in the past, and still today, working out what the hell Sorkin was doing here. Sure, interest is raised by the ‘accidental’ circumstance of meeting the President, and Lyman’s follow-up to confide in her that the President thinks her Democrat candidate boss is an idiot, but he’d support her if she decided to run. It means that Sorkin was looking for what Americans call a story arc, or an opportunity for a sub-plot stretched across several episodes with a new face. Is that a formula device for writers? I don’t really know, but it does look like it.
Nevertheless, the whole thing sat at considerable odds with the main storyline.
Marlee Matlin was a darling of Bill Clinton’s administration in the later 1990s, and is today still a Clinton supporter. I was completely indifferent to her in the 1990s, and remain unconvinced that she represents the special something she seems to represent in American shobiz. I asked myself whether she was an engineered face to put wholesome tits and arse together with just causes? Or a vehicle to explain what ‘political operatives’ do? It turned out there was both of this in future episodes.
But I wouldn’t have dropped her introduction into a script so heavily skewed by the execution story. I might have opted for two or three more personal anecdotes about Charlie Young, Donna Moss, and maybe Zoey. There was an opportunity to show something of Young’s home life after the shooting of his mother. Something about Moss foregoing personal plans and working unpaid overtime to be there for Lyman when he needed her. Something about Zoey opposing the death penalty, maybe?
Joey Lucas might then have had a grander entrance dovetailed into a less intensely focused episode.
For all my personal misgivings about the morality play, I suspect this was one of the top ten most powerful TV episodes in 2000. No violence. No swearing. No sex. None of the staples that drove some of the other popular shows that season. Instead – a dramatically well-crafted introspection into who Americans were in that year. Whether I was well-inclined to the exposition of themes or not, this was one of the episodes that made The West Wing a phenomenon in its time, and across the years still.
Written by Aaron Sorkin from a story by Lawrence O’Donnell Jr, Paul Redford, and Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. First aired on 9 February 2000.
Headline cast in opening credits: Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn; Moira Kelly as Mandy Hampton; Allison Janney as CJ Cregg; Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler; John Spencer as Leo McGarry; Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman; and Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet.
Special guest star: Marlee Matlin as Joey Lucas.
Guest starring Noah Emmerich as Bobby Zane, Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Bill O’Brien as Kenny Thurman (Lucas’s interpreter), David Proval as Rabbi Glassman (Ziegler’s rabbi), Renee Estevez as Nancy.
Special appearance by Karl Malden as Father Thomas Cavanaugh.
Co-starring Devika Parikh as Bonnie, Ellen Sugarman as Cantor, Melissa Fitzgerald as Carol Fitzpatrick, Joe Cosgrove as Peter Hayes, Richard Gross as a bailiff.