[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin and Peter Parnell | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 12/20/2000]
“That doesn’t really sound like something they let you have, if you work for the President.” – Josh
I’ve said it before, and as surely as the sun will rise, I’ll say it again: The West Wing is all about its characters. The political themes and storylines, for all their built-in idealism that makes them stick sharply out on the television landscape, boil down to the people who experience these events and project this idealism onto its audience. We would not care so deeply about the show’s story arcs if the characters that got swept up in them weren’t such well-rounded, lovable, and fully-realized individuals.
And with my reviews, I’ve attempted and continue to attempt to chart these characters. Over the seven years this series aired, the individuals within it developed layers, grew in and out of friendships, and, in most cases, went through remarkable changes. Bartlet, Leo, Toby, CJ, Sam, Donna, Charlie, and so forth – the depth imbued in these characters shook off the romanticized visions which made them impractical on a surface level and convinced us that they were indeed fully-functioning and realistic human beings.
Notice that I left a rather prominent series name off the above list. Josh Lyman, for all his likable qualities (as well as his so-unlikable-they’re-likable qualities), doesn’t have quite the same privileges that the other characters get when it comes to development. In fact, when stacked up against the rich depth of his fellow staffers and employers, he feels a bit underdone.
Think about it. CJ goes from a minor-player of a Press Secretary into one of the administration’s most outspoken and important staff members. Toby transitions from a reticent, business-minded employee into a more family-conscious and morally conflicted individual. And Bartlet… well, he may have gone through a phase or two. All these people, as well as their fellow coworkers, undergo some significant transformation between the time they enter the White House and the time they leave it.
But Josh never really changes. Sure, he has occasional moments of cognizance when the idea of changing himself becomes a viable option (“Talking Points” [5×19], for example). But for the most part, he remains a pompous, self-serving, and egotistical individual from start to finish. Even when he sets out to help Matt Santos inherit the Presidency in Season Six, he maintains a commanding nature which blindsides him to his own faults in the campaigning. Josh Lyman was, is, and will presumably always be… Josh Lyman.
And yet – despite his lack of transformative development, Josh is just as fascinating as any of the other characters you can find in the series, and perhaps even more so. How is this possible, you ask? Well, let me tell you about a little episode called “Noël”.
What is “Noël?” Well, on one level, it’s an emotionally-charged character drama. On another level, it’s a rivetingly tense psychological thriller. And on still another level, it’s as marvelous a feat of directing as this show has ever seen. But above and beyond all other levels, it’s a shining example of just how indelible the characterizations on The West Wing truly are.
When Josh was shot in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part I)” [2×01], the fragile optimism of the world this series inhabited was treated to a brief, unsettling jolt. The shock, however, eventually wore off, and, for all intents and purposes, Josh returned to normal. The start of “Noël” finds him very much like the Josh we knew in Season One – he responds to Dr. Keyworth’s questions with gall and chutzpah, not unlike how he’d deal with conservative opponents on the Hill. Josh Lyman is back, baby!
Or… is he? “Noel” plays a very tricky, very precarious game with the viewer. At the start, it asks us to accept Josh at face value, and then spends much of its duration toying with our perception of him, constantly leaving us with questions while never openly tipping its hat in favor of any final judgments. For first-time viewers, “Noël” can be incredibly vexing, because it’s never clear to what extent – if at all – we’re meant to put stock in what Josh is saying, or even feeling.
A large part of this can be attributed Stanley Keyworth, making a first and incredibly promising appearance. Keyworth can perhaps be described as an amalgam of all the Sorkinesque character traits which grate on some viewers, only one who projects them in a manner that makes them starkly and dramatically effective. He has a seemingly superhuman skill level in his field, and communicates in a manner so succinct that you’d swear he knows the next five things Josh will change every time he opens his mouth. He even takes Sorkin’s oft-criticized device of having characters repeat the exact same line three times over (“How did you cut your hand?”) and raises it to new dramatic heights. Keyworth is one of the more remarkable supporting characters of the early seasons, to the point that perhaps the biggest loss of the post-Sorkin years is their complete and unexplained lack of him.
Surely “Noël” knows how to utilize Keyworth, pitting him toe-to-toe against Josh in a battle of mental stamina, and never maneuvering us to side with either of them. Keyworth, like Josh, is kept at something of an emotional distance from the viewer for much of this episode, which makes it all the more gripping to watch the scenes between the two of them, awaiting the slowly dawning but inevitable moment when Keyworth convinces Josh that no, he is not talking to the paper boy.
That moment is a long ways in coming, but that makes the wait all the more thrilling, and the thrill only grows on rewatch, once we know how it all turns out. As Keyworth is quick to quietly diagnose but Josh takes some time to realize, he is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The very fact that Josh completely fails to recognize his own psychological trauma is a subtle commentary on his own self-manipulating naiveté – he refuses to believe anything is wrong with him, especially when he feels oh-so-right.
You could get playful if you wish, and refer to “Noël” as a mystery – a “Whodunit?” sort of episode, with Josh’s sanity the victim and the music which initiates his PTSD the culprit – and I wouldn’t disagree. But that sort of view bodes the danger of passing up the suicidal pilot who shares Josh’s birthday as a red herring, meant to draw our attention away from the real cause of his breakdown. The incident with the pilot opens up a new, unsettling sort of possibility for Josh – could he also be on the verge of suicidal tendencies?
The incident thus provides Josh with a truly frightening incident he can unfortunately connect with. But more crucially – and even more unsettlingly – it provides us with a way to associate with Josh’s predicament in this episode. Real-life tragic stories abound in the local news of teens and young adults committing suicide – when any one of us hears of such an incident involving a person on the exact same level as us in age, race, ethnicity, or some equally comparative factor, doesn’t it make us feel just a little more disturbed? Compound this deep-rooted psychological effect with Josh Lyman’s already apparent vulnerability, and it becomes distressingly understandable when he slams his palm through his apartment window.
“How did you cut your hand?” is this episode’s recurring vocal motif, and as the therapy session wears on, it gains more and greater weight. We’re initially led to believe that Josh cut his hand when he accidentally set a glass too forcefully down on a table, but Keyworth’s persistent questioning makes us wonder if this was in fact the case. Keyworth’s ability to detect Josh’s lie is not pure plot contrivance, either – we get a red flag ourselves when Josh openly admits to his own clumsiness in setting down the glass. Josh, ever the self-loving perfectionist, never admits he’s committed a faulty action so freely – the only time he came close was in “Celestial Navigation” [1×15], and even then, his self-deprecation was only a front to dilute the effects of his shortcomings. Something clearly isn’t right with Josh, and we’re about to find out what it is.
It’s in the final act of the episode that you truly gain a sense of appreciation for Thomas Schlamme, who times the filming of the scenes to perfection. Schlamme’s masterful directorial techniques are on display throughout the episode – key flashback scenes open with a White House musical group playing in the background, setting Josh up for several evoking moments, the last of which culminates in him losing his cool in front of the President. But even that can’t prepare you for the way he builds things to a crescendo in the climactic final act, which takes Josh Lyman’s slowly dawning comprehension of his predicament and thrusts its effects at the viewer in the tensest and most horrifying of ways.
The scene where Josh stirs in his apartment, intercut with the Yo-Yo Ma concert, the Keyworth interrogation scenes, and snips from the end of “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22], is one of the most powerful and unforgettable scenes in the entire series. The timing is impeccable – the inter-spliced shots of an agonized Josh in the confines of his study, the lavish yet somehow even more confining space of the concert hall, and the gunshots from that terrifying night in Rosslyn, all framed against the ever-rising chords of Yo-Yo Ma’s music, building directly to the moment when Josh, in a conflicted mixture of rage, fear, and emotional stress, slams his palm through his apartment window.
“How did you cut your hand?”
It’s a shocking moment, yet even as Josh stares at his bloodied hand, it slowly morphs into a cathartic one. Because not only do we now know what happened to Josh – now he knows it, too.
The moment Josh acknowledges what happened to him at the end of that fateful day is the moment that his business with Dr. Keyworth officially comes to an end. On a first-time viewing, it may seem a little abrupt, as Josh has only begun the process of healing, so to speak. But it was never Keyworth’s intention to cure Josh – only to break down his barriers. Josh’s worst enemy is his own ego, and it takes the even greater ego of Stanley Keyworth – a man so confident that he can diagnose Josh’s condition that he brings along one of his assistants to give her a sort of “training exercise” – to crack him open.
Of course, Josh doesn’t want to end things with Keyworth, the man who may have just saved his sanity. Like a child who’s suddenly come face-to-face with Santa Claus, Josh pleads with the good doctor to stick around just a little longer. But he’ll have to settle for a more conventional therapist at this point to cure him – and cured he will be, because, as Keyworth assures him, “We get better.”
“We get better.” It’s a simple message, and in the world of modern-day television, it’s not an especially admirable one. Too often shows will revert to the status quo at the end of each episode, tidily wrapping things up in time for next week. And indeed, “Noël” seems to fall victim to this trap – before long, Josh will be back to his cocky, arrogant old self, and his PTSD will become nothing more to him than a brief hiccup – even, as displayed by “Evidence of Things Not Seen” [4×20], a mere joke.
And yet despite the tidiness of its ending, “Noël” does not feel the least bit inconsequential. Part of this can be attributed to its thematic relevance – its message speaks to a major facet of the overall theme of the season, a message that will only come more prevalent as Season Two heads into its back half – no matter what the odds, a good dose of idealistic thinking will help you prevail. But more ingeniously, “Noël” works because of the way it redefines Josh Lyman in our eyes without actually changing him.
When Josh emerges from his daylong, exhausting session with Keyworth, he feels what is perhaps his first true level of relief since the start of the season. Josh, who has always believed himself to be the most intelligent person in whatever room he sets foot in – and made that abundantly clear in this episode, when his PTSD goaded him into yelling at the President in the Oval Office – has been humbled through being, for once, the least intelligent person in the room. Josh has displayed vulnerability, but more to the point, he has been rounded out as a character. Although he’ll be back to his old self before long, he has gained a new bond of sympathy with us, one that will not easily be severed.
For evidence, notice the scene where Josh, having just wrapped up his session with Keyworth, heads toward the White House exit, only to bump into Leo. After hearing Josh apologize for his recent behavior, Leo suddenly relates a semiserious story which speaks amusingly to Josh’s quagmire and assures him that, no matter what he goes through, Leo will always be there for him. We’ve seen signs in the past that the connection between Leo and Josh is fueled less by professionalism than by friendship, particularly during Leo’s alcoholism arc in Season One, but it hasn’t been given front-and-center treatment in a fully serious fashion. (Remember the almost-hug in “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22]?) But with his sweetly touching anecdote, Leo assures us that he is more than just Josh’s superior… and even makes up for that off-color “How did that bullet not kill you?” line in “The Midterms” [2×03]. It’s a lovely little moment between the two, and it’s one that gets even more wonderfully reciprocated in “Bartlet for America” [3×09].
The relationship between Leo and Josh is but one face on this multi-faceted diamond of an episode, which leaves us with a final scene that is simultaneously haunting and beauteous. As Donna – ever Josh’s loyal assistant, and growing more prominently so by the episode – escorts Josh to the hospital to tend to his now-revealed-to-be-serious wound, we get a final scene that is simultaneously unsettling and uplifting, a wonderful curtain call for such an emotionally devastating episode. Whereas “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10] pushed the theme of Christmas to its forefront, the primary plot of “Noël” just makes passing glances at the holiday, only giving it full attention in the episode’s last few moments. As Josh watches a group of carolers singing and musically clanging their bells, we watch how the music affects him. We watch how the music changes him.
And how does it change him?
In no conceivable way whatsoever.
The West Wing is a show about its characters. But in as much as it revels in developing these characters, it is also bold enough to assert that it can be just as enriching to merely sit back and look at these characters as they are. There is no better proof of this than Josh Lyman, and no better showcase than “Noël”.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Okay, okay, I’ve completely ignored the subplot with CJ and Bernard and that mysterious scream-inducing painting. Rest assured, that story was hilarious. Had I more energy, I would probably write up a whole allegorical segment about how that storyline captures the essence of Christmas, over the course of which I would likely compare the upper-crust Bernard to Ebenezer Scrooge. Or maybe the Grinch. In the latter case, I suppose the free-spirited CJ would stand in for Cindy Lou Who. Okay, I’ll stop now.
+ Speaking of Bernard, can I just mention how much I love that guy? He leans a little too heavily toward a British stereotype, but his tired contempt at everyone and everything around him gives this episode a much-welcome jolt of humor. It’s a shame he’ll only make one more appearance over the rest of the series (that being in “A Change Is Gonna Come” [6×07].)
+ Toby visibly tries to get in the Christmas spirit this year. This is nice follow-up from “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10].
+ Bartlet rockin’ the white tie.
+ Josh is right – Yo-Yo Ma is really quite something.
+ As the final scene with the musical carolers fades out, sirens can be heard in the background. Sorkin, you sly devil.
* Keyworth tells Josh that he’s “too easy a case for me”. Comparatively, this should make his sessions with Bartlet in Season Three and Four carry a good deal of extra weight.