[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Thomas Schlamme | Aired: 12/11/2002]
“When you get home tonight, you’re going to be confronted by the instinct to drink alone. Trust that instinct.” – Toby
Holiday episodes are an annual reliability for seasonal television shows, and The West Wing is no exception. Most of the yearly holidays, however, seem to come and go on this series depending on whether the show has a script for them. Thanksgiving can range from a central theme to a background element. Independence Day only fits in if a story arc extends into July. And Election Day… well, that’s just an obvious choice. So the only holiday that achieves a consistently strong presence in the series is, unsurprisingly, Christmas. The Christmas episode is an annual tradition in the West Wing saga – even if some installments are ultimately more memorable than others.
“In Excelsis Deo” [1×10], “Noel” [2×10], and “Bartlet for America” [3×09] comprise the great trio of West Wing Christmases, each episode more successful and emotionally effective than the last. “Holy Night,” “Abu el Banat” [5×09], and “Faith Based Initiative” [6×10] represent a less impressive trio – holiday episodes which coast on the success of their bar-setting predecessors, but lack the flavor with which to match them. (Though it’s partially due to the unusually serialized structure, the fact that Season Seven avoids Christmas entirely says something about the law of diminishing returns.)
That “Holy Night” is by some distance the worst of the Sorkin-era Christmases is indicative, once again, of how lackluster this mid-Season Four stretch has been. But it’s also indicative of just how great those first three award-winning episodes were. “Holy Night” is actually one of this season’s best episodes yet – the fact that it doesn’t measure up to the Christmas episodes that came before it is problematic, but not necessarily condemning.
Still and all, the fact remains that “Holy Night” is flawed. Whereas its emotionally-charged predecessors each featured a distinctive and fully realized tone, “Holy Night” feels like a patchwork quilt of the previous holiday episodes’ Greatest Hits. A group of carolers. Dr. Keyworth. A deposition. Toby in an emotional funk. All these factors have been used in prior Christmas outings, which makes “Holy Night” rub off as somewhat stale.
Perhaps the most awkward aspect of “Holy Night,” however, is the way it abruptly decides to reach back into the ether and pluck a pair of forgotten characters back into the show’s reality. The idea of characters disappearing and reappearing is nothing new to The West Wing, but the fact that Danny and Zoey – neither of whom have popped up since early Season Two – are suddenly both brought to the forefront in this episode is jarring, at the least.
Danny gets the better treatment, in part thanks to a memorable introductory scene (Is it sad that Timothy Busfield fills out that Santa suit so well?) and the fact that his return reminds us that the show has not forgotten about the Shareef incident. It’s something of a contrivance for him to return without explanation, and the episode doesn’t even try to hide the reason he’s been brought back, but Danny’s general likability is enough to let us overlook the seams in this story.
Less likable are the circumstances surrounding Zoey’s return. We’re left to assume that she and Charlie broke up sometime after he indirectly caused her father to get shot (that’s the best explanation I can think of, at least), and she now makes her first appearance since “The Midterms” [2×03]. Zoey is not a bad character, and it’s nice to see that the series hasn’t forgotten her. Unfortunately, her return is burdened by the introduction of (sigh) the single worst recurring character in all of The West Wing: Jean Paul.
Oh, God, do I hate Jean Paul. It’s frustrating enough that he’s a combination of two of the worst character archetypes on television – the smarmy antagonist boyfriend and the stereotypically rude Frenchman – but his arrival introduces a love triangle between himself, Charlie, and Zoey. Love triangles are by their nature a lazy fallback trope, but they generally feature some level of palpable drama. But given how abrupt Zoey’s reintroduction is, coupled with the fact that her breakup with Charlie was never allotted any screentime, why on earth should we suddenly care about their relationship when she abruptly returns from her two-year trip to Mandyville? In this episode alone, focus is already put on the barrier Jean-Paul sets between Charlie and Zoey. Rather than root for these two young lovebirds to reconcile, I just shook my head at the sight of the President’s aide and daughter acting like a pair of entitled brats.
But we’ll have time to discuss the terribleness of Jean-Paul and the surrounding love triangle in future reviews. For now, I need to dial back the negativity – because, despite its very apparent flaws, I still think “Holy Night” is a pretty good episode.
Sure, it’s manipulative. The plot is underdeveloped and too derivative of past Christmas episode clichés. But there’s a reason why these clichés have been used so often – because, when all is said and done, they work. Ending the episode with a group of carolers harmonizing to a classic tune is still effective, especially since the episode manages to tie them in (however minimally) to the relationship between Toby and his father.
Then there’s that relationship. It’s not very deeply explored, and the idea that Toby’s dad was a hitman for Murder, Inc. is one of the stranger ideas that Sorkin has dreamed up. But despite the odd setup, the episode never gets showy in attempting to exploit the relationship between father and son. Toby, of course, will soon be a dad himself, and there are thematic whispers about the role of fatherhood between one generation and the next. But for the most part, the drama hinges on Josh’s statement that Toby should at least be glad he has a father to get angry at.
Centering a Christmas episode on the show’s most visibly Jewish character was a strange idea back in “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10], and it may seem even stranger now. But Toby’s disconnection to the holiday works well to fuel his relative coldness in this episode – so that when he finally stops ignoring his father, it’s among the episode’s most affecting moments.
Also affecting is Bartlet’s session with Dr. Keyworth (making his final appearance in the series before he – you guessed it – disappears with no explanation). Still unable to tell his psychiatrist about the Shareef assassination (though he lets the word “airplane” slip at one point), Bartlet tries to keep the conversation about political issues. But Keyworth keeps bringing the conversation back around to the President, and ultimately, to the point that he’s lately been spacing out during meetings. Very little is embellished, but very little needs to be – after the events of “Posse Comitatus” [3×21], Bartlet is mired in more self-doubt than ever.
Amidst the glimmers of psychology, we learn that Bartlet took the SATs again after getting just one raw score below perfect. It’s a humorous detail that embellishes his character’s perfectionist ideals, but it also indicates the influence Bartlet has had on his many staffers, which is nicely on display in this episode. Both Donna and Josh display great initiative here when faced against intimidating odds, choosing to hold off on their Christmas plans to continue making the country a better place. And even if Will may have seemed like the most idealistic person in the world when we met him a few episodes ago, “Holy Night” demonstrates that he still needs to go through a “rite of passage” before being accepted into the Bartlet administration.
There’s no question that “Holy Night” is a step down from The West Wing‘s previous holiday outings. Yet despite the overused clichés, frustrating contrivances, and occasionally manipulative writing, it works pretty well. Perhaps my heart’s just grown three sizes today, but I enjoy “Holy Night,” to the point that I’m willing to (partially) ignore its obvious flaws.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ This is the last West Wing episode directed by Thomas Schlamme. Please, take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness that is Thomas Schlamme.
+ Maybe it’s just my New York Jewish roots, but I love the teaser sequence. It reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in. Except, you know, with more killing.
+ Curse you, Whiffenpoofs. You’ve gotten “Bye Bye, Blackbird” stuck in my head.
+ The goldfish pin. What a charming callback.
+ Bartlet mimicking (poorly) an Agatha Christie character.
+ Will has bicycles in his office. That shouldn’t make me laugh. But it did.
+ Donna asks the Whiffenpoofs for a song. Hilarity, of course, ensues.
+ Okay, I have no idea what’s in Gail’s bowl in this episode. But whatever it is, I’m sure it further proves that Gail is one creepy little fish.
– “Zoey talks about you all the time. She talks about you so much, I think sometimes I want to kill you.” Wow. Literally the first line out of Jean-Paul’s mouth makes me hate him. It’s going to be a looooong half-season.
– Bartlet tells Zoey that she was the toughest of his daughters for him to connect with. This doesn’t click with what we learned from “Ellie” [2×15]. Then again, hardly anything in the series clicks with what we learned from “Ellie” [2×15].