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October 13, 2015

The West Wing: Shibboleth

by Bob Sassone, posted Nov 26th 2008 1:01PM
(Originally aired November 22, 2000)

Last year I picked The West Wing's "The Indians in the Lobby" episode as a standout episode of the series. It just so happens that we're blessed with two Thanksgiving episodes of the show that are standouts. This one is called "Shibboleth."

The plots: While President Bartlet has to figure out what to do with dozens of Chinese immigrants who have stowed away on a freighter, Toby tries to get Leo's controversial sister nominated for an education post, C.J. has to pick one of two turkeys who will get to be pardoned by the President, and Charlie goes shopping for the perfect carving knife for the President.

I just realized that to someone who isn't a West Wing fan, that summary of the plots makes it seem like this episode is really heavy on lighter "B" plots, but that's not the case at all. While the subplots make for some really funny moments (Josh, Sam, and Toby putting the turkeys in C.J.'s office and C.J. discovering them - watch Bradley Whitford in the background closely when C.J. goes to her office, along with Charlie looking for a knife for a very picky President), they're also meaty, strong plots in themselves, and don't end in ways you think they will.

We learn that a President can't really pardon a turkey, and the President gives a little lecture to C.J., Donna, and the kid from the turkey farm about it (though apparently a President can deputize a turkey so he isn't killed). We also learn why the President wants a new, perfect carving knife: he's going to give away the one that has been in his family since it was given to the Bartlets by Paul Revere to someone special - Charlie. No one does "funny subplot that leads to an emotional conclusion" better than this show.

Speaking of emotional, the Chinese immigrants stowed away on the freighter story leads to a nice scene with the President and Josh about the meaning of Thanksgiving. I have no idea if what Bartlet does with the immigrants is either legal or logical (conspiring with the Governor of California to let them escape rather than force them to go back to China), but the way the plot is handled, from Josh and Sam's meeting with the good Reverend Caldwell and the not-so-good Mary Marsh (who battled Josh in the pilot episode too) to the President's testing of one of the immigrants to see if he is truly religious, is remarkably well done.


Sam and Toby going over a speech:

Sam: Well over three and a half centuries ago, sprinkling by faith and bound by a common desire
for liberty, a small band of pilgrims sought out a place in the New World where they could worship
according to their own beliefs ... and solve crimes.

Toby: Sam ...

Sam: It'd be good.

Toby: Read the thing.

Sam: By day, they churn butter and worship according to their own beliefs and by night, they
solve crimes.

Toby: Read the thing.

Sam: Pilgrim detectives.

Toby: Do you see me laughing?

Sam: I think you're laughing on the inside.


C.J. arguing with Toby and Sam about Thanksgiving at the White House:

C.J.: That's 'cause every time we come up on a holiday, you guys check out like seniors who are
done with finals.

Toby: We are writing a very important Thanksgiving proclamation.

Sam: And possibly a new action-adventure series.

Toby: Nobody here has checked out.

Josh walks in: Hey, I was just flipping a nickel in my office. Sixteen times in a row, it
came out tails.

C.J.: (Pause) I'm going home.


Josh, to Leo about not eating dinner with the First Family: I'm just saying, we've been working hard and we'd prefer to watch football rather than listen to a history of the yam in Latin.


Josh meets with religious leaders about the immigrants:

Josh: Good morning everyone. Welcome. Good morning, Mary.

Mary Marsh: Josh, the White House will face considerable embarrassment if the President continues to maintain
his stranglehold on indifference when it comes to persecuted Christians around the world.

Josh: (Pause) Okay, we're done with good morning.


C.J. introduces the President to Morton, the kid from the turkey farm:

C.J.: Morton, this is President Bartlet.

President Bartlet: Hey, Morton.

Morton: Wow.

President Bartlet: Well said. Is that the turkey?

Donna: Yes.

President Bartlet: You're pardoned.

C.J.: Sir...

President Bartlet: What do you want?

C.J.: Well, you know...

President Bartlet: By the power vested in me by the Constitution of the United States,
I hereby pardon you.

Morton: Okay.

President Bartlet: No, it's not okay.

C.J.: Sir...

President Bartlet: Morton, I can't pardon a turkey. If you think I can pardon a turkey, then you have got
to go back to your school and insist that you be better prepared to go out in the world.

Donna: You can't pardon a turkey?


This episode was directed by Laura Innes (Weaver on ER).

Toby's chastises C.J. about getting her history screwed up, but the West Wing writers got their history screwed up in his little rant, placing an event in the wrong century.

(You can watch a preview of the episode here.)

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Thanks for the reminiscences. A FABULOUS episode. But while I LOVE that conversation between Sam and Toby (by night they solve crimes! I'd watch!) I think the quote should be "strengthened by faith," not sprinkling. :)

December 15 2008 at 11:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I love this show. OF all the crap that networks bring back year after year (knight Rider, Bionic Woman) they should do something smart and bring back The West Wing. New president or with Santos. some new characters and if they could get some old ones that would be great. After the last few years as a nation we have all had, and the press that the election has had, we are in dire need for a return to the presidency and the west wing. It would be new to a new generation while filling a whole on networks where they keep giving us the same stupid things like Worst week, Kath and kim etc... But instead we are sure to get a revisioning of The A-Team or The Six million dollar man. Something we not only don't want but don't need.

December 02 2008 at 2:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Is this also the episode that Bartlett was obsessed with how he brined his turkey?

November 26 2008 at 5:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Omg I love this episode and the West Wing!! Great show =]]

November 26 2008 at 4:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Whether it is Thanksgiving or Christmas, nobody did holiday episodes like The West Wing. Toby's Christmas episode and Josh's the next season really stand out. Then there is Bartlett's call to the butterball hotline in "Indians in the Lobby" with Toby helping out which floors me everytime.

November 26 2008 at 4:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The West Wing rules! I have every season on DVD, and after the recent elections have been watching them more often... the other day was "Indians in the Lobby", now I'm gonna have to watch "Shibboleth" tonight.

And you are 100% right; the way this show was able to weave 'b' and even 'c' and 'd' plots into either the 'a' plotline or it's own, stand-alone emotional ending was incredible, and I SO hoped for that in "Studio 60..." but, alas, it was not meant to be.

November 26 2008 at 1:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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