June 20, 2015

The West Wing: "Take This Sabbath Day"

“Take This Sabbath Day” is unlike most West Wing episodes in that it concerns itself with only two storylines. In the smaller of the two, Josh meets with political campaign manager Joey Lucas after her Democratic candidate has been deliberately under-funded by the party. In the larger of the two, President Bartlet has two days to determine whether or not to commute the death sentence of a man convicted of drug-related murders.

This is, like “Mr Willis of Ohio”, very much an issues-based episode. In that episode the focus was in part on explaining the importance of the United States census to the viewers. In this episode the focus is far more direct and dynamic: it is almost entirely concerned with the issue of capital punishment. A Federal prisoner, Simon Cruz, fails on a Friday night to have his death penalty overturned by the US Supreme Court. As the state does not execute its prisoners on the Sabbath, his execution is scheduled for midnight on Monday morning. That gives his legal team two days to convince the President to commute the sentence by executive privilege.

The storyline was the product of two different ideas colliding in the writers’ room and turning into a story. The death penalty was an issue that had been mooted since the series began, but no one – least of all Aaron Sorkin – could find a way to tackle it without seeming preachy. At the same time Sorkin was keen to write an episode set over a weekend, with the White House senior staff ‘in sweaters and jeans’.(1)  The two ideas connected when staff writer Paul Redford noted that condemned prisoners are not executed in America on the Sabbath.

In writing the episode Sorkin consulted his own rabbi, Steven Leder of Los Angeles’ Wiltshire Boulevard Temple. ‘I said, “This is what I’m writing about right now. Do you have any thoughts?” And oh boy, did he.’(2) The phrase ‘vengeance is not Jewish’ was drawn from one of Leder’s own sermons. Rabbi Leder was credited in the episode’s end titles and given a small fee for the use of his sermon. Sorkin also consulted a Catholic priest and a Baptist minister regarding the issue of the death penalty, and how best to tackle it in the script.

Paul Redford said ‘it was a tough issue to dramatise. It was balanced. It led to a terrific episode that wasn't overtly preachy about the powers of the president.’(3)

The episode was inspired in part by the real-life case of Juan Raul Garza. He was convicted in 1993 of murdering three people while running a marijuana distribution ring in Texas. After being sentenced to execution, Garza appealed the sentence via his lawyers, claiming that the jury were not told they could recommend life imprisonment instead of the death penalty when delivering their verdict. Garza’s original jury were also told he had been suspected of four murders in Mexico, despite having never been charged or convicted of those crimes.

In real-life, as in The West Wing, Garza’s appeals failed. President Bill Clinton granted him a six-month reprieve in December 2000 to allow the Justice Department ‘time to gather and properly analyse more information about racial and geographic disparities in the federal death penalty system’(4). The following year President George W. Bush refused to grant a reprieve or commutation. Juan Raul Garza was executed by lethal injection on 19 June 2001.

Noah Emmerich played public defender Bobby Zane. A popular supporting actor of the big screen, Emmerich had co-starred in a string of successful motion pictures such as Beautiful Girls, Copland, The Truman Show (as Truman’s best friend Marlon), Crazy in Alabama and Life. Subsequent to “Take This Sabbath Day” he appeared in Frequency, Windtalkers, Miracle and Super 8, among others.

Joe Cosgrove plays Hayes, Simon Cruz’s public defender. Cosgrove is a real-life attorney, and a friend of Martin Sheen’s – Sheen personally suggested Cosgrove for the small role. Cosgrove is an active campaigner against capital punishment, and a strong supporter of the final episode. ‘Maybe there’s some kind in law school who’ll watch it and learn the right message – they won’t think they can rely on the President to save someone.’(5) Cosgrove would briefly return to The West Wing in 2002, playing a Cardinal in “The Red Mass”.

Playing the role of Bartlet’s priest Father Tom Kavanaugh was veteran actor Karl Malden. A legend of Hollywood cinema, Malden had won the Academy Award in 1952 for Best Supporting Actor in A Streetcar Named Desire. In 1955 he was nominated again for On the Waterfront. During the 1970s Malden was nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy four years in a row for his performance as Detective Lt Mike Stone in The Streets of San Francisco. His other notable roles included General Omar N. Bradley in Patton, Zebulon Prescott in How the West Was Won, and Harvey Shoemaker in The Birdman of Alcatraz.

At first no one believed that Malden would agree to appear on the series – he had quit acting altogether six years earlier. In 2004 Malden explained: ‘Martin Sheen called me and said that even though everyone told him I wouldn't agree to do a TV role, he wanted to convince me. After I read the episode script, it didn't take much to convince me.’(6) The episode wound up being Malden’s final performance. He died on 1 July 2009. Keen viewers should take note of Father Kavanaugh’s Bible – it is the exact same prop that Malden used in On the Waterfront.

David Proval plays Rabbi Glassman, whose sermon on the Saturday attempts to force Toby into changing the President’s mind. At the same time as making “Take This Sabbath Day”, Proval was also performing the role of Richie Aprile in the hit drama series The Sopranos. His other roles have included Tony in Mean Streets (1973), Snooze in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Danny Sussman in The Siege (1998). His TV appearances have included episodes of Cagney & Lacey, The Equaliser, Fame, Miami Vice, L.A. Law, Quantum Leap, Picket Fences (as Frank the Potato Man) and Felicity.

The piece the cantor sings in the synagogue, which is repeated at the end of the episode, is a prayer for peace called “Hashkiveinu” (Cause Us to Lie Down in Peace).

Martin Sheen initially objected to the episode’s ending, in which President Bartlet fails to commute the sentence and allows the condemned man to die. After several heated debates on set, including the possibility that two endings might be shot, Sheen agreed to shoot the ending as Aaron Sorkin had written it. The result, as Bartlet kneels by his family priest to give his confession, is one of the most powerful moments of the first season. ‘To see the most powerful man in the world get down on floor of the Oval Office,’ noted Sheen, ‘and ask forgiveness for his sins – finally I got to do something personal.’(7)

Speaking in another interview Sheen said ‘our President on The West Wing is not Catholic by accident. We added that so that he would have a moral frame of reference, and take personal responsibility for sin.’(8)

The episode includes the first appearance of Air Force One, the President’s plane. The name "Air Force One" is the official designation for whatever plane the President flies on. Were he to get onboard a small Cesna, that plane would be Air Force One while he was a passenger. For The West Wing Air Force One was represented by a Virgin Atlantic 747 named “Scarlet Lady” – the United States livery was digitally added to the plane in post-production. The scene was shot on location at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. Several of the extras playing Virginia State Troopers were actual real-life state troopers, moonlighting out of their day jobs for a little extra money.

Marlee Matlin makes her series debut in this episode as Democratic political operative Joey Lucas. Matlin was born in Illinois in 1965. When she was 18 months old, she contracted roseola and lost all hearing in her right ear and 80 per cent of the hearing in her left. She made her stage debut at the age of seven, playing Dorothy in a children’s theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. She continued to perform with the International Center on Deafness and the Arts (ICODA) throughout her childhood and adolescence. On the basis of her later performances she was head-hunted and invited to audition for the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God, based on the successful play by Mark Medoff.

Matlin’s performance as deaf student Sarah Norman was widely acclaimed, and led to her receiving both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Actress. Matlin was 21 years old at the time, making her the youngest recipient of the award in history. She subsequently received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in the television drama Reasonable Doubts (1991-93) and an Emmy nomination for her guest appearances in Picket Fences – she became a series regular in Picket Fences’ final season.

Her 2009 autobiography I’ll Scream Later (the title comes from her statement to the press when nominated for the Academy Award) revealed a difficult and turbulent life, including two separate incidents of sexual abuse as a child and teenager – abuse that led to drug abuse in her teens and 20s. Matlin was in a rehabilitation clinic when she received her Oscar nomination. Her short relationship with William Hurt – her co-star in Children of a Lesser God – was marked with drug abuse and violence. Matlin said: ‘We started our relationship during the end of the screen test process for Children of a Lesser God before I even got the role. And it continued until I got the role. And it continued throughout the film. And it continued after. And I lived with him with for two years.’(9)

Marlee Matlin brings a wonderful energy and passion to the character of Joey Lucas. From the outset she provides an energetic and intelligent sparring partner for Josh, something that Moira Kelly’s Mandy Hampton did not seem to do. In fact, it is interesting to note how sporadically Mandy appears in each episode as the season progresses. Sorkin doesn’t quite know what to do with the character, and for the moment his strategy appears to be to almost ignore her entirely.

Matlin and Whitford’s on-screen chemistry was clearly recognised by the production team, since Joey Lucas is ultimately one of the few supporting characters who appears in all seven seasons of the series. She appears in 17 episodes in total, making her final appearance in Season 7’s “Requiem”. Regarding her casting in the role, Matlin said: ‘Aaron Sorkin never intended it to be a part of the show - my deafness that is. It was just part of who I was. Just like John Amos who was on the show happened to be black, etc. Aaron was intelligent enough to know that it was ability that mattered, not disability. Which is a word I’m not crazy about using.’(10)

The episode’s conclusion points to Joey independently standing as a Democrat in the future, rather than to manage the campaign for an ‘empty shirt’. The subsequent episode “20 Hours in L.A.” will aim the character in a very different direction.

Almost as integral to the role of Joey Lucas as Marlee Matlin is Bill O’Brien, who performs the role of Joey’s interpreter Kenny Thurman. While Matlin can and often does speak as Joey, it is O’Brien who actually delivers most of her dialogue. At the time of his casting O’Brien was producing director for Deaf West Theater (DWT). He received Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his staging of the play Big River, as well as acclaim for his deaf productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Oliver!. Bill O’Brien appears in 15 episodes of The West Wing, making his final appearance alongside Matlin in the Season 7 episode “The Mommy Problem”. He has also appeared in episodes of Gideon’s Crossing, Providence and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In 2006 he was appointed Director of Theatre and Musical Theatre for the National Endowment of the Arts.

Ultimately “Take This Sabbath Day” overran by 11 minutes in the original edit, requiring extensive cuts before it was broadcast. The episode earned Martin Sheen an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. He lost to James Gandolfini for The Sopranos.

The final moments of the episode, as Jed momentarily imagines Simon Cruz being put to death, is Aaron Sorkin’s favourite moment of the first season. As Bartlet stares out through the window of the Oval Office, just for a moment he – and we – can imagine Cruz being put to the death, his mother watching. It’s a wonderfully subtle and haunting moment, with Sorkin noting ‘it’s almost, did I see what I just saw?’(11)

If you want to read more, all West Wing posts have been indexed here.

1. Speaking at the Harvard Law School Forum, 26 September 2000. Posted online at the West Wing egroup by user Jenn.
2. Nancy Haught, “A true believer in The West Wing”, Religion News Service, 31 March 2001.
3. Brian McTavish, “From Shawnee Mission East to The West Wing”, Kansas City Star, 6 October 2000.
4. Clark County Prosecuting Attorney, Juan Raul Garza, retrieved 16 May 2010.
5. Sharon Waxman, “Hollywood Pleads its Case”, Washington Post, 7 May 2000.
6. Philip Potempa, “Hometown Hollywood hero”, Northwest Indiana News, 16 February 2004.
7. Tom Dunphy, “The President Acting”, Irish America, October-November 2000.
8. Frazier Moore, “Hail to the Chief of the West Wing”, Associated Press, 8 May 2000.
9. Interviewed by Joy Behar, Larry King Live, CNN, 13 April 2009.
10. Interviewed by Dominick A. Miserandino, Celebrity Café, 26 August 2004.
11, Gail Pennington, “Hail to the West Wing”, St Louis Post-Despatch, 4 October 2000.

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