West Wing 1×10: In Excelsis Deo

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin & Rick Cleveland | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 12/15/1999]

Let me clear myself right from the start: I don’t celebrate Christmas. I’ve never been brought up to celebrate Christmas. Having been raised in a fundamentally Jewish household, my Christmas experiences were generally limited to Charlie Brown, the Grinch, and the stars of all those other prime-time animated specials which popped up on the schedule each December.

These specials all claimed to be centered on what they called “the true meaning of Christmas”. However, after watching them year after year, it became apparent to my impressionable young mind that there was no single true meaning to this strange, menorah-less holiday. That’s because each special seemed to be delivering a different message of its own: There was the one which said Christmas was about letting go of material possessions and immersing yourself in spirituality. There was the one which said it’s about how love trumps all other emotions, and can perform marvelous miracles beyond the explanations of known science. There was the one which said that putting a hat on a snowman’s head was somehow able to bring him to life, and that was enough to convince me to never build a snowman in my yard again.

Now, I didn’t come here to knock the world’s most popular holiday. I’m just saying that outside of the vacation and lowered store prices which came along with it, I never quite understood what all the fuss was about Christmas.

And then I saw “In Excelsis Deo”.

Not only was this the episode that made me a true Wingnut, it was also one of the very few television episodes I’ve seen which genuinely yanked at my heartstrings. It achieves a great level of genuine emotion through the seemingly simple setup of a Christmas special.

Actually, I shouldn’t just compare the setup to “a” Christmas special, since the show is skillfully woven with the themes and messages of many different specials, packed together and tied up with a neat little bow. This is the high water mark of Season One, even if it owes a good deal of its power to one story thread and character in particular.

Toby Ziegler is the quintessential Sorkinian character: Strong-willed, moral, and firm in his beliefs, with a dry sense of humor which he uses to deflect any threats to his certitude. He is also ultimately the show’s most tragic figure, with a story arc filled with familial and friendly relationships that go awry due to the very personality traits which define him. “In Excelsis Deo” begins to introduce the more difficult side of his character, even if it’s executed in the bright and optimistic fashion typical of Season One.

In “The Crackpots and These Women” [1×05], the relationship between Toby and President Bartlet was established, and promised to be among the most intriguing of the show’s character relationships. Bartlet sees Toby as a capable and necessary member of his staff, and will turn to him for measures of advice too delicate to be given by any other of his staffers; Toby is always ready to give his own assessment of any situation, and due to dedication as well as his respected and authoritative stance, is a man who usually accomplishes his goals. Toby is so devoted to his political morals, in fact, that he appears the type who would potentially sidestep Bartlet’s authority if it meant achieving them. And in this episode, we see that potential achieved.

Who is the dead man on the park bench? A hapless hobo, the kind most people wouldn’t even spare a passing glance. But who was he? A Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient. Toby recognizes the man’s former glory, and decides to use his power to ensure the man gets a proper funeral. It does not matter that Toby has never met the man. What matters is preserving political honor.

This is the true mark which makes Toby such a wonderful character. He’s not driven by personal desire. He’s simply a strong adherent toward the law. He holds the Constitution in the highest esteem, and even knows exactly how many words are in the Gettysburg Address. His actions in this episode are the actions of a man doing his best to uphold the principles of a country he respects like none other.

That Toby has difficulty with the more personal aspects of his job should be readily apparent, given the way he was brought up on fundamentals. But the fact is beautifully captured during the scene where Toby attempts to talk with Walter’s mentally handicapped brother. Note the nervousness Toby exhibits while trying to explain how he is capable of honoring Walter, particularly at the moment when he identifies himself as “a very powerful person”. Personal interactions are not Toby’s forte, and Richard Schiff gives a commendable (and ultimately Emmy-winning) performance showing it.

Now this, of course, is not the last time Toby will circumvent Bartlet’s authority as a means of accomplishing his goals. Taking into account his willingness to see Walter Hufnagle appropriately honored, his leaking of the space shuttle information in Season Six becomes intriguingly more plausible, as does Bartlet’s damaged response. As I’ll note many times throughout these reviews, The West Wing is one long, multi-part story, and the events of episodes can often be thematically and characteristically linked to later ones.

All the trouble Toby goes through in this episode is almost surprising, given how it’s all the means to an ultimately simple end. But his actions here are influenced by more than just his own political strivings – he’s also been affected by the goodwill that comes along at that specific time of the year.

This is the underlying theme of the episode: At Christmastime, everyone gains a new level of sympathy and compassion for their friends. It’s not the most inspired or complex of themes, I’ll grant, but it ties in nicely with the season’s thematic arc (a trend which the show will continue in its future years). We’ve already seen just how solid the various bonds between the main characters are, and Sorkin, with co-writer Rick Cleveland, take the opportunity to further develop and deepen their relationships. Under ordinary circumstances, this sort of storytelling could prove abruptly and nauseatingly saccharine. But the shift in tone is minimal, and the characters all benefit from that fact.

Take Leo, for instance. He grumbles his way through signing presents and Christmas cards, all while maintaining a business-as-usual expression – a watered-down version of Ebenezer Scrooge. But his Tiny Tims (read: Josh and Sam) manage to dig their way through Leo’s serious exterior with their selfless attempts to aid him in his hour of need, even if he disapproves of their methods.

Laurie does not seem like the type to tell Sam and Josh that they should “act like the heroes”. Yet the fact that she does puts a lot of their actions in perspective. Josh’s fight-fire-with-fire tactics are fueled by his own cavalier attitude, while Sam wants to atone for his ill-begotten fling with Laurie by using her “talents” for productive purposes. Both are unified in their motives to clear the name of their mentor and good friend. But both are humbled – by a call-girl, of all people – to realize that in trying to do what’s right, they can very easily be baited into doing something wrong.

Then there’s CJ. We’ve already seen signs in previous episodes that Danny’s feelings toward her are reciprocated – she’ll be keeping the goldfish he’s given her for the entire duration of the series. But only now does she actually take him up on his offer of a dinner date. In her eyes, it’s the most romantic time of the year.

And how about Donna? As with much of Season One, her character is marginalized to a few bickering conversations with Josh. But there’s a more heartfelt ending here, as Josh shows his more tender side by buying her a gift. Donna maintains her snappish persona even as she tearfully thanks Josh for his gift, but this is the most notable emotional connection the two of them have had since the series began.

Even Mrs. Landingham gets a moment to shine in the episode, as she takes one of the episode’s quieter moments to reminisce about her two sons, killed so many years ago in Vietnam. Kathryn Joosten does a wonderful job conveying emotion without forcing it onto the audience in this small but affecting scene. A minor character, but a major accomplishment.

Bartlet himself, most interestingly, remains unchanged by the holidays – he’s still the same quick-witted, Shakespeare-quoting father figure he always is. But this fact only further conveys the strength of his character – Bartlet sees Christmas as a time to be his own caring and giving self, and even takes the opportunity to do so with added emphasis. I defy you not to smile during the entire scene he shares with the group of kids touring the White House, particularly his straightforward response to the precocious young girl who asks him what his favorite part of the job is.

The themes juggled by the episode through these various characters are numerous – love, friendship, generosity, kindness, and family. But they’re all brought together marvelously under the banner of Christmas. Because the holiday isn’t about any single one of these themes – it’s about all of them.

Bearing that in mind, let’s return to Toby. More than any other character, “In Excelsis Deo” is about him. And through his efforts in this episode, we see a blending of these themes touched upon and executed with maximum emotional effectiveness, leading up to a final funeral scene that never fails to wring my eyes dry. This is The West Wing at its finest.

If you’re trying to introduce a friend of yours to the series it would do well to start from the “Pilot” [1×01]. But if your friend is extra-impatient and needs to be hooked on their very first episode, show him this one.

Because if it can affect a non-Christmas-celebrating guy like me, it can affect anybody.


Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ “Flamingo.” Snicker.
+ Josh promising to look at Donna’s list, right before dropping it in the trash bin.
+ Bartlet poring over rare books, while Leo humors him.
+ There’s a miniature Christmas tree in Gail the goldfish’s bowl. This is the first instance of a long running gag in which the ornament in Gail the goldfish’s bowl somehow ties in to the episode itself.


Foreshadowing

* CJ is rather vocal when expressing her anger toward hate crimes in the Press Room. Her personal opinions will get the better of her again in “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” [3×18], albeit with much harsher consequences.


[Score]

A+

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15 thoughts on “West Wing 1×10: In Excelsis Deo”

  1. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on February 2, 2014.]

    Nailed it. With the score, and the review.

    “In Excelsis Deo” belongs on anyone’s list as the first unabashedly great episode of the show. In general terms of quality, you’re probably right that it represents the high point of the first season, although there are definitely some great ones still to come (before Season 2, when TWW really took off into sublime territory in earnest).

    As I’ve been reading these reviews, it’s gotten me thinking again about the major guiding themes from season to season. I’m fairly certain that you’re right that *Power* is the most important in terms of shaping the story. But in terms of getting at the heart of the characters, I think that there is a deeper one: The West Wing at its most fundamental is a show about Idealism.

    It sounds rather obvious when stated like that – it’s a Sorkin show, of course idealism is a dominant motif – but this is what I think gets closest at the heart of what makes the show tick. The major characters (specifically, the ones who make it into the opening credits) from beginning to end, make up an immense range of personalities, histories, and character traits, but every single one of them is ultimately an idealist, and what drives the story is the different, even clashing ways that they express that idealism in the world of power and politics that they collectively inhabit.

    This extends to the minor or supporting characters as well. Clashes with them arise out of professional divides (eg. Danny) or political creed (think Ainsley Hayes or Santos/Vinick), but the ones who we still identify as being among the the ‘good guys’, regardless of which team they play for, share with the heroes the sense of being animated by a root source of idealism. Conversely, the true antagonists of the show are almost invariably those who are animated at heart by their cynicism. They aren’t necessarily bad people, but they represent what the protagonists have to overcome (think of the two Vice Presidents, or the Speaker of the House in Season 5).

    Coming back to Season 1, I think that this is the real reason that Mandy feels like such an odd and superfluous character, apart from being really annoying and poorly developed. She’s the only member of the main cast that never shows any sign of exhibiting that same sense of idealism, and consequently just doesn’t fit.

    Luckily, she didn’t last long.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on February 3, 2014.]

    Well said. I’ve mentioned it on the forums, but the idealistic nature is what separates The West Wing from other political shows. Even in the later seasons, when the show adopts a more pragmatic nature, it still maintains a positive outlook on politics in general.

    Also, completely agree about Mandy.

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  3. [Note: Sam L posted this comment on July 30, 2014.]

    Jeremy, I couldn’t agree with your review any more. In fact, it’s almost like I could have written it myself–Jewish household and all–although I’m not sure I could have done it as well. Personally, I don’t think the show ever got any better than this. I don’t know if that’s a popular opinion, but it’s how I feel.

    Kudos.

    Like

  4. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 9, 2015.]

    Let me tell you what prevents me from rating this episode higher: the music in the final scene. Because the episode is named “In Excelsis Deo,” so you’d think that the choir would be singing Gloria, right? But no, they’re singing… “The Little Drummer Boy.” And I cannot in good faith give a perfect score to an episode that has “The Little Drummer Boy” in it.

    Otherwise this is the best episode so far.

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  5. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on August 17, 2015.]

    Also, having now watched “Shibboleth,” and in particular the scene where Toby remembers being beat up for refusing to participate in school prayer, I’m suddenly caught wondering why Sorkin chose to focus the Christmas episode around a character so entrenched in his Judaism.

    Like

  6. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on December 17, 2015.]

    Great episode, you nailed it in your review, I don’t really have much to add other than this is easily the most resonating episode so far. I think I’m hooked now.

    Like

  7. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on March 13, 2016.]

    While I’ve celebrated Christmas over the years (despite being Christian, there’s actually many in my religion who do not as a bit of protest over using a Pagan holiday and overwriting it by arbitrarily calling it the date of Christ’s birth), it’s not a holiday I particularly like. And I think that’s because it’s supposedly about giving, but the things that are given are hardly ever useful things.

    This episode really struck me more as Christmas adjacent than an actual Christmas episode. Where Christmas seems to be a time to celebrate what we have, this episode takes the opposite tact and instead decides to focus on things lost, and whether they can be recovered. And I think that’s why it works, not because it taps into that corny spirit of Christmas but because it acts against that grain. And maybe Bosc, that’s why they chose one of the Jewish characters to structure the episode around, as pushing that running against the grain of “Christmas spirit.”

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  8. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 13, 2016.]

    Well, I’m going to assume you know more about what works for or against the Christmas spirit better than I do.

    (The West Wing actually does have a weird habit of structuring Christmas episodes around Jewish characters. I will likely be bringing this up in the reviews at some point.)

    Like

  9. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on March 13, 2016.]

    Of course, one of the later seasons flips the script with the controversial episode where C.J. talks a big deal about her plans to celebrate Ramadan with her father but mysteriously skips town for twenty-minute intervals twice every day between dawn and sunset carrying a discarded Egg McMuffin wrapper.

    I refer of course to the Season Four classic, “The Fast? Goodbye!”

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  10. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 13, 2016.]

    I would have definitely preferred that to… whatever it is we actually got.

    (And something tells me I’m not alone.)

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  11. [Note: Steve posted this comment on September 26, 2016.]

    Great review, although I’d reduce the grade to A- for a continuity flaw (which I’m happy to be corrected on).

    CJ asks Sam what he and Josh have going on tonight and he says he’s going to Bermuda. So why did he present himself with Josh to be scolded in Leo’s office the next morning?

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  12. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on September 27, 2016.]

    Hm, I never actually noticed that.

    But when all is said and done, that’s more of a “Minor Con” than anything else, and doesn’t really affect the overall impact (and score) of the episode.

    Like

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