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Throwback Thursday - The West Wing - Noel

Does anyone actually do Christmas in July anymore? Did anyone ever to begin with?

We’re more than halfway through this year that is just as confusing and depressing as the last, and regardless of social convention, I need a bit of the Holiday spirit in my life. As this continually difficult era remains continually difficult, I’m craving a way to both acknowledge how hard everything is all the time and while still giving me hope for the maskless, diseaseless days that have yet to make themselves known. So what better way to get into that very specific mood than Noel, one of The West Wing’s most nuanced triumphs, that reminds us all of the depths of trauma, the release of friendship and - in this era of hyper-serialized tv designed for binge-watches - the gift of a single episode.

But first, we begin with The West Wing itself: the quippy, melodramatic, sentimental and self-aggrandizing testament to the burgeoning prestige drama trend of the late 90’s and early 00’s. In an era where television was early in its revelation that it could also be art, the ‘99 debut of Aaron Sorkin’s second foray into television represented everything that a TV drama could want to be in the time: easy to chew on and hard to fully understand, with heroes impossible to hate and unanswerable moral quandaries answered in 45 minutes or less. Who wouldn't want a government led by Jed Bartlets and Leo McGarrys and C.J. Creggs? TV in this era was overflowing with characters who were the pedestal of correctness, who stand for what’s right and never back down - their one weakness is how much they care.

And yet for all of the relative shallowness of TWW (which, to be clear, does not detract from the show’s appeal in the slightest), it also had some truly forward-thinking moments, moments of genuineness that cut through the show’s sugary-sweet coating like a laser beam, the most notable of which was Noel, season 2’s Josh-centric semi-bottle episode.

(Not to date myself, but) I wasn’t even alive when the second season of The West Wing first hit the airwaves. The hype surrounding the show’s season 1 finale cliffhanger - where the members of President Bartlet’s staff are caught in the crossfire of a mass shooting event - was something I only hear rumbles about, old war stories from my television elders. When season 2 rolled around, anticipant fans tuned in to find that the victims of the cliffhanger were the President himself (albeit with a rather minor injury) and his high-strung goofball Deputy Chief-of-Staff, Josh Lyman. Although Josh’s fate was toyed with in the season opener, as it all turned out, none of the show’s ensemble were actually killed off in the incident (although, come to think of it, we never did see Mandy again). But the trauma of the incident was not limited to the season premiere, and as Bartlet said in season 2’s second episode, “We don’t know what the injury count is yet.”

When we come to “Noel,” it’s Christmas Eve, and Josh is called into a meeting with a renowned psychologist, Dr. Stanley Keyworth. The two exchange formalities, and when Keyworth asks Josh about his bandaged hand, he explains he cut it by putting down a glass. The reason for Keyworth’s visit is purposefully obscured to the viewer, although right away we get the sense that it's because members of the White House Staff have expressed concern for Josh's state of mind.

Josh is known for being witty and prideful, but he finally meets a match in this episode in the form of Keyworth. The no-nonsense pragmatist has a way of getting under Josh's skin, and the meeting quickly becomes a battle of wits between two people who both want the same things.

Keyworth and Josh continue to spar, their conversation juxtaposed with flashbacks to the events leading up to their meeting. The episode unfolds in triangles, giving us corners and edges of a single idea - that Josh is suffering from PTSD, reliving the night of the shooting in his head. It also comes up that he relates music - which, as it’s Christmas time, is playing around him constantly - to the sound of sirens. After a beautifully-edited dramatic montage of buildup, it is revealed that Josh didn’t actually cut his hand on a glass but by shoving his hand through a window in his apartment.

After this confession, Josh leaves only to find Leo waiting for him in the lobby. In one of the most memorable moments in West Wing history, Leo tells Josh a story.

"This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by and guy the guy shouts up, 'Hey, you! Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down here in this hole. Can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by. 'Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out.'"

It has its places and times, but Sorkin’s dialogue never shines more than in empty spaces. Sans plot, sans character development, sans major idea that needs to be communicated, Sorkin is at his best when he is just writing two characters talking. It’s in moments like these that truth and plot and character and all that good stuff come seeping out naturally, as if by coincidence or accident. Dialogue is the beginning, middle and end of a good Sorkin project, and “Noel” orbits around this idea. The plots about the painting and the pilot and so on and forth are, in comparison, nothing. The plot and the PTSD, too, is nothing, a mere endnote to a greater symphony.

Bradley Whitford (who rightfully won an Emmy for this episode) shows off possibly too many layers for television in this performance, eking out Josh’s fears and then retreating them, letting his nerve show without ever letting his guard down. Like an elegant fighter, he in turn uses Josh’s wit and nerve and stunned silence as a weapon and a shield. Yes, Josh is being tactful in these moments, but so is Whitford; just as the plotline slowly unspools, Whitford gives and withholds information throughout the hour with intent.

I think that it’s safe to say that TV has a problematic depiction of trauma, in general. With so much ground to cover and such a broad potential audience, nuance and care have historically been left out of the way that TV looks at PTSD and mental health as a whole. And, to be fair, TWW isn’t exactly the shining example of mental health representation either, but dang does it get close with “Noel,” especially acknowledging the time period it came out in, where care for sensitive topics was even less common than it is now.

It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s hopeful and a twinge nihilistic. And yet, the biggest takeaway I get every time I re-watch this episode is the idea of the capabilities of a single episode. There’s something pure about the entirety of “Noel,” a complex thought condensed and packaged into 45 minutes. TWW, and dramas like it, seem to recognize the way that episodes act as paragraphs in an essay, singular supporting arguments to a greater theme. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the now-commonplace tendency of serial storylines made for binge-watching, but there are many shows that could benefit from an episode-by-episode model of plot resolution like this one.

Well, it’s not quite a merry Christmas (nor is it Christmas), but “Noel” still brings a bit of TV nerdy joy into my life in an era that is really taking its time getting back to being precedented. What did you think of “Noel,” and The West Wing’s legacy in all? Let me know in the comments!

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