[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”, 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”. 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.
* 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”, albeit with much harsher consequences.