In the eleventh episode of the fourth season of The West Wing, I am constantly surprised by how this show finds new ways to ruin me. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
SWEET MOTHER OF GOD, HOW DOES THIS SHOW KEEP DOING THIS TO ME?
(Bear with me; this isn’t as easy to separate by character, as the various plots are all incredibly intertwined, so I’m going to address this a bit differently than usual.)
Will is in the opening credits! Oh shit, that’s about as good of a sign that he’s joining the cast as one could get. I love everything about this idea. I love that he’s nothing like Sam. I like that he has a respectability to him. He’s just so entertaining to watch. Clearly, his postponement of his vacation is going to last a lot longer than I anticipated, especially since Toby spends 90% of his time with Will refusing to let Will leave in any capacity. I blame that partially on the note that Sam passed along to him through Will. (What the fuck is with this show and notes? Stop hurting me with them.) Toby trusts Sam’s opinion here, and I think that’s why Toby is willing to test Will, to put Will through the experience of being a speechwriter in the White House, because he believes Sam. Well, and Will is quite good at what he does.
I’m also thankful that this episode has given us the scene where Will calls the President “Mr. Justice,” as it’s clearly going to be something he’ll never, ever live down. How could he? If that’s the worst that Charlie has seen, then good lord, that’s going to stick with Will for all of eternity. Truthfully, though, Toby’s test was about determining whether Will could still tell the truth to the President. Granted, he didn’t necessarily do so to the President’s face, but Will did say he didn’t want to see the President. I don’t doubt that he’ll criticize the President when he needs to; I just think he was off his game because Toby made him uncomfortable every five seconds. And yet, even then? Will is still fantastic.
I’m just so excited that he’s a part of this show now, y’all. Thank you so much for not spoiling this for me.
We don’t get much of his character here except in a supporting role, but CAN WE TALK ABOUT HOW NO ONE EVER TOLD ME THAT ZOEY AND CHARLIE HAD BROKEN UP? This isn’t even the only plot in “Holy Night” that seemingly comes out of nowhere. (I’ll address Toby’s father at the very end.) Oh god, I did wonder if I’d just forgotten that detail, but I’m fairly sure this isn’t the case. So everything is awkward! And Zoey is dating French royalty! And this all was very bewildering and I don’t know how I feel about it. I did love seeing Zoey again! More Zoey in season four, please. That would be grand!
That story that ends with Josh, Leo, and Bartlet is spread all over “Holy Night,” and all three characters cope with their guilt in various ways. It’s fascinating to me how Josh’s guilt over his affection for Donna is paralleled with the guilt that Leo and Bartlet experience over what they did with Sharif at the end of season three. Obviously, these are drastically different situations; Josh’s guilt is over a personal matter, whereas the other two experience guilt over something that has international ramifications. And yet, all three men involve other people in their own crisis.
Josh is haunted by what Jack Reese told him in the previous episode, and we see that manifested here as he VERY OBVIOUSLY has conflicting feelings for Donna, which Leo is able to figure out in less than five seconds. I love that everyone in this show already knows that Josh likes Donna, despite that he is in perpetual denial of it. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that this likely would not have happened as it did if it weren’t for Leo and Bartlet, who both act out their own guilt by obsessing over issues that might make them feel more moral. Initially, I hadn’t realized why Leo was so upset over the Nativity, nor why Bartlet was so insistent on pushing on infant mortality rates. Why now? Why did this have to happen at the last minute?
All of this relies on Danny Concannon (somewhat). He makes a glorious return to The West Wing by surprising C.J. at the last press conference before Christmas. Dressed as Santa, he plants a big kiss on her lips, and EVERYTHING IS SO WONDERFUL AND SURPRISING. We cut later to him telling her about what he’s been spending his time doing, and y’all, it’s one of the best written scenes in the entire show. Being Danny, we expect all sorts of odd stories from him. I absolutely adore the way that the camera frames the scene from a distance and slowly pulls into his face as he relates a story to C.J. about a man who works at an airstrip in Bermuda. Of course, we don’t know why this story is being told; I listened because I like his stories. Just as the camera frames his face, he reveals that U.S. Army Rangers cleared the airstrip just hours before Sharif’s plane was shot down. It is one of the most unexpected gut-punches in the entire show, not only because of the way it’s written and filmed, but because we had forgotten about the issue. With the election, Sam’s departure, and Toby’s story all in our minds, Sorkin then unravels Bartlet and Leo’s secret in one long shot. It’s unsettling and terrifying, especially because I’d also forgotten that C.J. and Josh had no idea what happened. I ended the last season terrified that the staff would find out what had happened, but then PROMPTLY FORGOT THAT THIS WAS A CONCERN OF MINE.
Y’all, this is not going to end well. I can tell by the look on C.J.’s face. I can tell by the way that Leo tells Josh that he has something he needs to confess. I can tell by the way guilt manifests in Bartlet. It’s fascinating to me that independent of Danny’s reveal, Bartlet, when speaking to Stanley, mistakenly revealed what was on his mind: an airplane. Sharif’s airplane. It’s all going to come undone, isn’t it? And what is this administration going to do when Danny reveals the truth? They know that they can’t stop him, and C.J. already suspects he was telling the truth. So how? HOW ARE THEY GOING TO MAKE IT THROUGH THIS?
Like Charlie’s story, I was so surprised by the very sudden introduction of new information about a character who had been around this whole time. And as jarring as the cold open is, I do think it works in the context of the show’s greater tone and this specific episode’s rumination on guilt and the holidays. This uncomfortable plot explores Toby’s own sense of loyalty to his father, who was involved in the contract killings and illegality of Murder, Inc fifty years prior. Of course, the way this story is presented makes it hard to follow exactly what Toby is mad at Julie for. He was involved in a thing? Toby hates him for it? When it’s finally revealed that Julie had extremely close ties with the mafia, it leaves us in an uncomfortable position as the audience. What exactly did Julie do that Toby despised so much? Did he ever kill anyone? Did he just help other people do that? How long must you give a person before you forgive them? Clearly, Toby had no interest in even breaching the topic with his father. He was going to be unforgivable until the very end.
It takes Josh’s influence (and intervention) to get Toby to look at his father. Did anyone else feel like they’d been shoved out of a window once Josh delivered that brutal line about wishing he had a felonious father to even be mad at? BECAUSE GOOD GOD, WHAT A DELIVERY. I think the line could have come off without the same kind of effect had Bradley Whitford not knocked it out of the park, but I can’t. And while I don’t think Toby is silly to dislike and hate what his father was involved with, Josh had to remind Toby that some people don’t even have fathers to hate. I think that if we’d gotten more information on Julie, though, this sort of logic could have fallen apart. I don’t necessarily buy the idea that we must be friendly with or forgive parents who have done horrible things. If you’re familiar with my work, you know why I would say that. Still, all that we know about Julie is that he did a few illegal things that made him a felon many decades ago, and I think Josh was pushing Toby to think about how long he was going to punish his father for something that was long over.
There’s a neat bit of coincidental magic, too, in the use of the Whiffenpoof to draw a direct line from the night of Toby’s birth in 1954 to the present. Call it Sorkin’s idea of religion or God or what have you, but I liked it a lot. Because sometimes, we do get these weird signs that bring back long-lost memories, and in that instance, it was like the world was telling Julie that he was supposed to have come to see his son before Christmas. It was a suggestion of a deeper meaning to this holy night, and it fit. Ultimately, that’s what I care about when it comes to this show. Yeah, that cold open is immensely jarring, but not in hindsight. I needed to see that to understand these characters, and I love that The West Wing gave that to me.
No exaggeration, but as of right now, I think season four is the best season. I’m not even halfway through it and it’s been eleven straight episodes that I’ve enjoyed greatly. LET’S HOPE THIS CONTINUES.
The video commission for “Holy Night” can be downloaded right here.
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