The West Wing: In Excelsis Deo

“Just tell me, is there anything else I’ve arranged for? We’re still in NATO, right?”

When a homeless veteran dies wearing Toby’s old coat, Toby arranges a funeral for him at Arlington with an honour guard. Meanwhile, it’s Christmas, and everyone is starting to feel the love…

I was going to start this review with ‘If there’s one thing The West Wing does really well…’ but of course, The West Wing does most things really well. But one of those things is Christmas episodes. It was a Christmas episode (season two’s Noël) that got me hooked on The West Wing, and of the six they did, there isn’t a dud among them.

Readers around the world may not be familiar with the British soap Eastenders, a miserable kitchen-sink drama with a great theme tune. I bring it up because Eastenders decided long ago that what people really want to watch at Christmas is a healthy dose of shock, violence and/or tragedy. Thing is, they may not be completely wrong. The West Wing has also worked out that in amongst all the joy of Christmas, it can be very effective to drop just a little bit of tragedy.

What they get right where Eastenders goes wrong is in the nature and scale of that tragedy. Where Eastenders endangers regular characters and burns down pubs (I think – or maybe that was Neighbours), The West Wing saves that sort of thing for season finales. At Christmas, it goes for something a little more contemplative – in this case, highlighting the plight of both the homeless and of veterans abandoned by the state they fought for. This first Christmas episode set the tone for many of those that followed, and presents a beautifully melancholy story that also helps to flesh out the characters of Toby and Mrs Landingham.

Poor Toby is socially awkward at the best of times and boy do you feel for him when he goes to talk to the homeless men under the bridge. It seems daft that our sympathies are with Toby, the incredibly wealthy White House employee, in this scene, but the fact is most of us who are sitting at our computers, messing about on the internet right now, even when things are bad financially, are a lot closer to Toby than to Walter’s brother George. We feel for George and the others, but even more strongly we feel Toby’s privileged guilt as he shoves money at one of the men desperately urging him to ‘just take it.’

Meanwhile, Mrs Landingham fleshes out the story of the two sons she lost in Vietnam, mentioned briefly in 'The Crackpots and These Women' – twins who died together. Kathryn Joosten is brilliant here, so calm but with so much emotion behind her voice. Dulé Hill’s soulful eyes are the perfect recipient of this information, too. If Charlie worked in my office, I swear, I would tell him every little thing about myself because he looks so darn kind and sympathetic.

It can’t all be doom and gloom at Christmas though, and Toby’s poignant story is balanced out by all sorts of delightfully sappy goodness. Danny finally gets a date with CJ by being there on a bad day and disagreeing with her on hate crimes, and despite the fact that CJ had made an actual list of reasons they shouldn’t go out with each other (luckily Danny takes this better than Rachel on Friends). CJ is obviously painfully lonely, asking everyone if they’re doing anything and even offering to cook for Leo. Leo, as he insists to the President, is quite happy to work on Christmas and get things done, but CJ would obviously like to enjoy the holiday with someone, and that’s the main reason Danny finally gets a date. Well, that and he’s adorable.

Most important of all, though, this episode features Josh and Donna’s first overtly shippy story-line. Donna wants skis and skiing equipment for Christmas; instead, Josh buys her an antique book on alpine skiing with a heartfelt dedication in the front. We never see or hear what Josh wrote, which is a great decision, as nothing could convey the personal meaning it has better than Janel Moloney’s reaction. As Donna hugs Josh asking ‘Skis would have killed you?’, surely there can’t be a viewer left not desperate for them to act on their obvious chemistry. Most adorably of all, Josh then watches Donna re-read his dedication through the window – not in a creepy way, but simply in an affectionate, I-just-want-to-be-with-this-person sort of way. It is perfect.

Bits ‘n’ pieces

 - Wow. It's the tail end of 1999, and Toby is insisting it’s not the millennium, because that will come on New Year's Day, 2001. I’m bathing in nostalgia while I remember that argument.

 - Josh and Sam try to lean on Laurie for dirt on Republicans. Josh actually calls her a hooker. She gives them what for. Go Laurie.

 - Sam gets to the crux of what the real problem with Leo’s drug habit was – he was running the Labour department at the time.

 - Bartlet with the kids is adorable.

 - Gail’s bowl watch: it contains a Christmas tree.

Quotes

Josh: Sam knows a girl.
Leo: I’ve heard rumours. So they did well keeping that secret from Leo, then.

Mrs Landingham: Charlie, it’s important that you remind the President throughout the day that he’s allergic to eggnog.

CJ: My secret service code name is flamingo.
Danny: Nice bird.
CJ: Go away.
Danny: Okay.

Bartlet: You know, Zoey is starting Georgetown in two weeks. I was thinking about getting this for her - The Nature of Things, a Didascalic poem translated from the Latin of Titus Lucretius Carus. What do you think?
Charlie: I think she would like that better than a new stereo, sir.

Danny: I’m gonna ignore your list cause it’s ridiculous. Also, I’ve got a crush on you.

Laurie: You’re the good guys. You should act like it.

Leo (signing Christmas cards): Who's Elizabeth?
Margaret: Your sister.

CJ: My secret service name is flamingo.
Danny: That’s nice.
CJ: I have to feed my fish.
Danny: Okay.
Josh: Hey, Danny.
Danny: Hey, Josh.
Josh: How’s it going?
Danny: Hard to say.

This is the first episode of The West Wing that made me bawl like a baby. It was not the last. Three and a half books on alpine skiing (half deducted for Josh being an ass to Laurie).

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

8 comments:

sunbunny said...

You've been busy today! :)

I did a rewatch a few months ago and it's funny what sticks in your head. I don't remember the sappy parts of the episode, but I do remember Toby's quest to get random veteran a proper burial. I love how uncomfortable he seems with the whole thing, almost like, in his kindness, he's trying to get rid of the feelings the vet's death invoked. I like the lack of huge dramatic payoff in the story is very real too. It could've gone in a soapier direction. The show has a really great ability to know when to soap it up and when to just let the drama play.

Props to you for noticing a tiny Christmas tree in a fish bowl!

Billie Doux said...

I love their Christmas episode. I loved this one.

Juliette said...

Confession: I read about the Christmas tree on imdb!

I keep trying to remind myself to keep an eye on Gail's fish bowl; trouble is, to write the reviews, I put the episode on telly and open up a draft on the computer... which involves sitting with my back to the telly! But I am determined to try to catch the various fishbowl decorations this time through, as I always forget...

ChrisB said...

In the article we all did last Christmas, I talked about this as my favorite Christmas episode of anything, ever. I'll just repeat what I said there.

What makes this episode so amazing is the final few minutes. With a children's choir singing “Little Drummer Boy,” the show cuts between the funeral at Arlington and the staff gathering around the Christmas tree. The tears always fall.

ChrisB said...

I forgot to mention that this was the only episode in the entire run of the show that won an Emmy for the writing.

Well deserved, I believe.

Kathy said...

I love this episode. You're right: The West Wing did Christmas episodes brilliantly!

I remember there was some controversy over some people misunderstanding a line of Toby's. Having not seen the episode for a while (really need to dig out my DVDs), I think it was the line saying that the homeless man got better treatment in Korea. However, the "he" sounds a little like "I," as in "I received better treatment in Korea." The controversy was that Toby obviously is not old enough to have fought in Korea. Some people made a huge deal about that! I remember that.

A couple years before the episode aired, I won a trip to Washington D.C. And TWW filmed in L.A., but occasionally, they got to film in DC. I remember being very excited to see Toby standing in places that I had seen, like the Korean War Monument.

Kat

Billie Doux said...

This is a practically perfect Christmas episode. What Toby did made me fall in love with him. And when Mrs. Landingham said she was coming along, I started crying. Mrs. Landingham telling Charlie about her sons was moving. And we got some lovely shippy moments between C.J. and Danny, and Josh and Donna.

The only off note was Josh and Sam going to Laurie's and trying to get her to name someone. They could have left that one out.

Apropos of nothing, my grandfather was an officer in the Marines and he's buried at Arlington. I've never been there. It's on my to-do list.

Josie Kafka said...

Billie, I've been there. I don't have any relatives--well, ones that I know of--buried there, but it's incredibly depressing. Just row after row after row. And then more rows. And then some space for future rows.