Flashback review – The West Wing 2×10: ‘Noel’

Courtesy of leavemethewhite.com

Nothing says “Merry Christmas!” quite like bundled-up carolers singing outside, tinsel adorning the trees, and… PTSD run amok?

In this episode, one of the series’ best, Sorkin confounds expectations of what a Christmas episode is supposed to be and gives to his viewers an intimate exploration of a man in crisis and his family that comes together to help him.

“What’s next?” Find out after the jump…

It’s a stroke of genius that Sorkin chooses to set Josh’s (Bradley Whitford) battle with his unconscious demons during the Christmas episode. It would be a welcome change if only because it’s a storyline not done to death during the holiday season (as opposed to stock issues like hosting family gatherings and work parties, or bringing about some kind of Christmas “miracle”). But what’s most impressive about Sorkin’s choice is how he uses the Christmas trappings to his advantage. The holiday distractions, like the brass quartet playing in the lobby and Donna’s (Janel Moloney) obsession with seeing Yo Yo Ma play at the Congressional Christmas party, become another way for Josh to deflect attention away from his growing fear and anger over the shooting at Rosslyn.

It’s this deflection that makes this episode so compelling. First, it sets the stage for the fantastic battle of wills between Josh and Stanley Keyworth (Adam Arkin). The scenes between the two of them are expertly done in every aspect. Sorkin builds the dialogue so carefully in these scenes, so that with every line Josh takes one step towards opening up but then jumps back fifty feet with a snarky undercut as usual – of course Josh would show off how much he knows about Keyworth’s group ATVA with the cocky “Did you think you were talking to the paper boy?” And even though this is the first episode Stanley is in, because his lines are so well-written – perfectly disarming yet incisive, as it should be for a psychologist: “You’re not talking to the paper boy either” – the audience knows immediately that he is an adequate competitor for the combative Josh Lyman.

It helps that Bradley Whitford throws everything he has into this episode, especially as we see him react so physically to the pain of the shooting during the cello performance. And it should be mentioned that for this episode alone, director Thomas Schlamme won an award from the DGA and cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth won an Emmy. The awards are well earned – they broke away from their usual West Wing mode of walk-and-talks for more interesting camera angles that help sell Josh’s confusion.

Courtesy of leavemethewhite.com

But while the Josh and Stanley dynamic makes for great theater, it’s that Josh’s friends, who’re more like his family, step up, recognize that he has a problem, and help him face it that makes this episode great television. Just like the audience, the staffers all see Josh behaving out of character, even before he yells at the President (Martin Sheen) in the Oval Office. And it’s father figure Leo (John Spencer) who forces Josh to see Stanley and, along with Donna, waits for him until after the session is over. The guy-stuck-in-the-hole story may be a little on the nose, but it’s not often that we get to witness characters swear this kind of unconditional statements of support and can believe it. It may not be the Christmas miracle most television watchers expect from holiday episodes, but it’s a beautiful family moment all the same.

Other considerations:

  • This episode also gives us one of my favorite insults from television ever, in the form of Bernard Thatch’s thinly veiled barb: “CJ, your necklace is a testament to bourgeois taste.”
  • Just slightly less delicious than that line? His response to CJ’s declaration that he is actually a nice guy: “You’re a freakishly tall woman.”

And now it’s your turn. Where do you rank this episode of The West Wing? And who would you honestly rather see more of, Stanley Keyworth or Bernard Thatch? Sound off below!

Join me next Wednesday as the reelection campaign starts to rear its ugly head in the next two episodes, “The Leadership Breakfast” and “The Drop In.”

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