The West Wing: Noel

“I can hear the damn sirens all over the building!”

On Christmas Eve, Josh sits down with a therapist from ATVA to talk about how he cut his hand.

'Noël' is the episode that made me fall in love with The West Wing. I’d seen the pilot, I think, and not paid much attention to it. Sometime in late summer or autumn 2001 – which is when season two made it to terrestrial British television – I ended up sitting down with my parents, who were watching it. I was hooked. Mum and Dad kindly taped the back half of season two for me, plus a convenient re-run of ‘Shibboleth’, and when I came home from my first term at university for Christmas, I watched everything from ‘Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail’ to ‘Two Cathedrals’ all at once, which I can tell you is by far the best way to watch those episodes.

So, what impressed me so much about this episode? Well, Josh Lyman, for one thing. I definitely fell in love with Josh as much as I fell in love with the show. In some ways, the character of Josh is at his worst here; he’s arrogant, rude, belligerent and inpatient. He is all these things, partly because Josh is a bit like that, but mostly because he’s feeling extremely vulnerable and barely concealing the fact he’s seriously struggling under a layer of outward bristling and short temper. All of this is clear from both the writing and Bradley Whitford’s performance and makes him incredibly relatable even as he's tearing into all his co-workers and his boss. Add to this that mysterious, unquantifiable chemistry with Janel Moloney’s Donna and their sweet scene together at the end, and Josh was immediately cemented as my favourite character.

For the most part, this episode is All About Josh – having explored the reactions of other members of staff to the shooting in subplots earlier in the season, it makes sense to devote more or less a complete episode to Josh, the most badly injured. But the other subplots and vignettes in this episode show off the rest of the cast pretty well too. CJ restores a family heirloom to a holocaust survivor, which is nice, and while Toby’s attempt to spread joy through music is a requirement of the plot, watching him try, stony-faced, to persuade people that he is full of Christmas (or, presumably, Hanukkah) joy is very funny.

This is also a Christmas episode, something The West Wing always did rather well. You can tell this partly from all the decorations and so on, and partly by the presence of special guest star Yo-Yo Ma, who is brilliantly used here. Music has frequently been integral to the show and it comes to the forefront in this hour, in both the party scene and the almost eerie finale. Ma’s performance is beautiful, moving and completely integral to the plot, so it never feels like something shoved in for Christmas. Even more importantly, the episode ends on a really lovely message of hope, in Stanley’s words to Josh, and love, in Leo’s (see his frequently-quoted speech below). That is what Christmas episodes should be about.

Bits and pieces

 - In this episode, we are introduced to Josh’s second therapist called Stanley. I’m starting to suspect Aaron Sorkin may at some point have had a therapist called Stanley. He seems to have liked him.

 - This episode also introduced me to the Carol of the Bells, which I’d never heard and which must be one of the creepiest Christmas carols ever written (in competition with the Coventry Carol, which is all about mass infanticide).

 - CJ and Donna get glammed up again, and the boys are all in white tie. My brother had to wear white tie recently. We all stood around quoting this episode at him.


Charlie (on white tie): I didn't know people dressed like this anymore, sir.
Bartlet: I've brought it back.
Charlie: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Like Woodrow Wilson and top hats.
Charlie: We're not gonna wear top hats with this are we, sir?...
Bartlet: Charlie, this is how Statesmen dress. This is how they dress in times of occasion.
Charlie: Yes sir.
Bartlet: It's regal.
Charlie: Yes sir.

Josh: So that's going to be my reaction every time I hear music?
Stanley: No.
Josh: Why not?
Stanley: Because we get better.

Leo: This guy's walking down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up "Hey you! Can you help me out?" The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up "Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. "Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here!" and the friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out." As long as I got a job, you got a job, you understand me?

Beautiful. Four out of four really creepy Christmas carols.

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


Juliette said...

this has been a one-off West Wing review, as I happened to have got up to 'Noel' in my run through season two and this seemed a more appropriate time to review it than summer! Regular West Wing reviews will return in 2015.

Billie Doux said...

Another four star Christmas episode. I recently did a rewatch and it was only the second time I've seen it, and this time I noticed how the scenes in the first half of the episode were either dark or loud, like the shooting. I didn't even think about how all of the cast members had been traumatized but we weren't seeing it. How lovely that Donna was the one who saw it.

The little story Leo told Josh (that you quoted) made me cry.

Juliette said...

Me too! And Stanley saying 'We get better' gets me every time.

Kathy said...

This is my favorite West Wing episode.

I fell in love with Josh from the pilot. I identified with him the most. And this episode was just so beautiful. Beautiful performance by Bradley Whitford.

This is on my list of best episodes ever.


Marianna said...

This is easily my favorite West Wing episode. I saw it when it first aired, and it has stayed with me. I had heard Leo's parable many times before (it is a favorite for priests to tell), and yet I really enjoyed Leo telling it even though I knew how it would end.

Fun story: I was once practicing the piece Yo-Yo Ma plays in this episode (I was playing French horn, not cello). When I finished my brother said, "That sounded really good! I was acting out Josh's PTSD while you were playing." =)

ChrisB said...

This show does Christmas well and this is another exceptional episode. Josh is so awful here, yet I still love him because he is in, as Stanley says, "nine kinds of pain." It's all over his face.

Plus, Donna. The two of them together are magic and the scene at the end always makes me smile.

I love Bernard and his comments. His delivery of the zinger is spot on.

I didn't know that the parable is well known. I'll need to stop crediting Sorkin with it when I use it. Which I do, frequently.