[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Debora Cahn | Director: Lesli Linka Glatter | Aired: 12/03/2003]
“We seem to have lost our quorum.” – Abbey
From its earliest days, the Bartlet administration has felt like a family. More so than most workplace dramas, the show has built deep trusts and connections in its relationships, building familial bonds between Jed and Leo and all the senior staffers. Much of the show’s charm can be attributed to these close-knit character bonds, which corral all our protagonists under both a literal and figurative roof.
But what of Jed’s actual family? That’s a fair deal more difficult to gauge. The Bartlet women – and the daughters in particular – only rarely feature prominently in the show’s world, and even then, they’re mostly defined by their relationship to Jed. The show has given Abbey a few spotlights, and Zoey has featured in a couple of arcs, but the President’s family has never been a driving force for the series at large. (To this day, plenty of us have trouble remembering the eldest daughter’s name.)
This, I can only assume, was by design. Sorkin developed The West Wing to be a politically-driven show, and personal developments would have largely been a distraction from the show’s global-encompassing scope. Wells, however, flipped this design, pushing personal crises to the forefront and emphasizing conventional drama. And there are few breeds of drama more conventional than that concerning one’s own family.
So before the Season Five premiere had clocked in ten minutes, we met Liz, a character who’d been conspicuously absent for the duration of Sorkin’s tenure. We also get an increased focus on Ellie, who earned only one appearance in the show’s first four seasons. And in “Separation of Powers” [5×07], the writers gave Zoey her own subplot, entirely disconnected from Jed or Charlie.
And yet despite all this, it’s still very difficult to judge the Bartlet family as a family. In “Abu el Banat,” for example, they’re all scheduled to gather at the White House for Christmas dinner. Yet at no point in this episode do all five of them appear in one scene. At best, we see them in fragments – Jed briefly interacts with his wife and each of his daughters at some point in the episode (excepting Ellie, who is absent until the final act), but these dialogues work mostly on individual levels, and fail to deepen our understanding of the Bartlet family at large.
And yet when all is said and done, this proves to be an asset. “Abu el Banat” is less focused and cohesive than The West Wing previous Christmas episode, and thus lacks the emotional cymbal crash we’ve come to expect. But it somehow manages to be most intriguing portrait of the Bartlet family the series ever painted.
Part of the episode’s accomplishment can be attributed to a family member who isn’t even a Bartlet. Doug Westin is not an especially interesting character, nor is he a very likable one. But his bid to run for Congress, and his requesting the Bartlet administration to endorse him, gives the familial messages of the episode a twisted sense of irony. Zoey has always made an effort to distance herself from her father’s affairs. Ellie prioritizes her medical responsibilities over family dinner. And Liz reserves special care for her husband and son. Thus, the only second-generation member who takes real pride in the Bartlet name and legacy is Doug, who simply wants to use his father-in-law’s reputation to springboard into a political career.
And what of that father-in-law? Bartlet himself spends much of the episode engaged in all sorts of politics, from a hostage crisis to a controversial law regarding euthanasia. (The latter topic is, predictably, too hot-button for the show to take a definitive stand on, and in typical Season Five fashion, the climax rolls back on the issue to minimize the flames.) Even when spending time with his family, his focus is on national traditions, such as the ceremonial lighting of the White House Christmas tree. It’s only when Doug directly calls attention to his political stature that Bartlet draws the line between family and business.
And yet even that line is easily severed. “Why the hell don’t you run?” Bartlet asks Liz late in the episode. He wants to pave a political road for his family, but on his terms. Liz is the proud and upstanding eldest daughter; Doug is the goofball son who isn’t nearly good enough for her.
But then again, who is good enough for a Bartlet daughter? “My children choose morons,” he confides in Debbie. “Every one.” Like any dad, Bartlet wants the best for his children, but his interests often threaten to overpower theirs. His position seems made to engender sympathy – as his anecdotal story relating to the episode’s title indicates – but Liz, Ellie, and Zoey have wishes beyond simply being the First Daughters.
If “Abu el Banat” raises any new concept, it’s that fragmentation of the Bartlet clan did not begin with Jed’s Presidency. As Abbey points out, factors like her job and Liz’s marriage have broken up their Christmas gatherings for years. But that only makes the family’s moments of interaction – particularly at such an intimate time of year – more meaningful. There is genuine emotional satisfaction in watching three sisters stand, arm-in-arm, as they watch and listen to the White House’s annual choir. (The song the choir sings at the end of this episode is What Child is This – and the metaphor could not be more fitting.)
Equally, there is satisfaction in watching Jed Bartlet take some quiet time to bond with his grandson, allowing him to flick the lights of the national Christmas tree on and off. As with many of Season Five’s best moments, this one is dialogue-free, allowing the episode’s final scene to be touching without overtly tipping into cheesiness.
“Abu el Banat” is by no means a brilliant episode, but it’s roughly on par with “Holy Night” [4×11] in both its modest ambitions and equally modest results. For a season that (as the next few episodes will prove) too often struggles to find a direction, it’s comforting to see that the annual Christmas episode can stick the landing.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ If a Christmas tree falls on Toby, and CJ is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
+ CJ briefing Gus. That made my week.
+ Charlie lightheartedly teasing Zoey. That makes up for his creepy stalking in Season Four.
+ Josh got Donna a gift. It better not be socks, Josh.
+ There is a Christmas tree in Gail’s bowl. Thankfully, it does not fall on Toby.
+ Will and Toby bickering again. Bah, humbug.