Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Season 1, Episode 10: "In Excelsis Deo"

Plot summary
: As Christmas Eve approaches, President Bartlet eagerly sneaks out of the White House for some last-minute Christmas shopping, while a haunted Toby learns more about a forgotten Korean War hero who died alone on the district's cold streets while wearing a coat that Toby once donated to charity. In other hushed corridors, Sam and Josh ignore Leo's advice and consult Sam's call girl friend concerning her confidential clientele when one political rival hints at exposing Leo's previous drug problem. C.J. wonders aloud about the President's public response to a notorious hate crime while her personal resolve weakens as a persistent reporter continues to ask her out.

Click here to watch "In Excelsis Deo"

Av --

I've mentioned before that I'm glad not knowing much about the content of the show as I watch it for the first time; aside from being more enjoyable, it allows me to form opinions about things with no influence whatsoever. Well, I blew it this time. In reading about Aaron Sorkin before sitting down to start the show, I read all about the controversy surrounding the Emmy win for "In Excelsis Deo" for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. Thus I knew this episode had won the coveted award. Since the Emmys don't have a "Best Episode" category," the Outstanding Writing award serves as a de facto award for the entire episode - writing, directing, acting. And as someone who's now seen nine of the last ten winning episodes in the category, I've come to expect nothing other than the best of the best television has to offer. Which is my way of saying this episode was great but managed to leave my heightened expectations unfulfilled. At the same time, I understand this episode's massive popularity; how could you not respond to wave after wave of naked human emotion presented on the screen? The performances by the actors called on to convey this emotion were exceptional as well.

Here's Mrs. Landingham, revealing the scars she carries on her heart without carrying an ounce of self-pity. More than just being the nice old lady who serves as the president's personal secretary, she's clearly someone who understands her role, and serves it with quiet dignity. There's Donna, often a foil for her boss, sincerely appreciating a heartfelt inscription from Josh more than the gift itself. (Given that said gift was a rare book, who could blame her?) Here's C.J., trying to have her personal voice heard on an issue she cares deeply about, fighting through her assigned role, hoping to be heard. I got the sense that her agreeing to finally going out with Danny is less about romantic interest, and more about just having someone she could speak in-depth with and be listened to. (Also, it seemed like she was practically desperate for some holiday company.) There's President Bartlet, allowing himself to be moved by the tragic death of a hate crime victim before resuming his Christmas photo-op with schoolchildren. Here's Laurie, embarrassed in her own home, refusing to capitulate to Sam's pressure and Josh's threats, reminding the pair that they're "supposed to be the good guys." And of course, there's Leo, clearly aware of the possible ramifications of his past coming to light, trying to maintain his composure in the face of the collapse of his professional life potentially coming on the heels of the collapse of his personal life. (Your explanation in our last correspondence as to why his past pill addiction being a problem makes sense, but the revelation that he was Secretary of Labor at the time certainly adds more substance to it.)

There's Toby. And there's Richard Schiff, Emmy winner for his work on this season, who likely won it for this episode. The storyline was pitch-perfect for the character. The beauty of it lies not simply in Toby's commitment to doing the most he can do to make a situation "right." Rather, it's the litany of emotions, some at odds with each other, that Toby experiences on his quest to properly take care of a deceased homeless Korean War veteran. He clearly feels guilty that all he "gave" this man was his coat, and feels he should have done more, even though he never knew him. But he's smart enough to realize the inappropriateness of the guilt, and instead channels it into trying to take care of a man when nobody else will. Then there's the heartbreaking scene where Toby informs the man's slow brother about the death (1:24 into the clip). Part of Toby is still wondering why he's here, why he's doing this, the other part of him won't rest until a veteran's family is informed and a Purple Heart recipient is buried with honor. He fully understands what he's capable of given his job in the government, yet the man is incapable of saying the words "I'm an influential person. I'm a very powerful person" without being frustrated by his need to say them and ashamed of having said them. (In between the two times I watched this episode, I learned that this storyline was originally written for Sam. It's a good thing they changed their minds; Rob Lowe could not have come close to pulling off this scene the way Schiff did.)

Though I mentioned above that this episode on the whole fell short of the "best of the best television has to offer" mark that I've come to expect from Outstanding Writing-winning episodes, the same can't be said of the beautiful and touching final scene. The level of detail with which it was written and directed is incredible, from the on-location filming at Arlington and its real-life superintendent appearing at the funeral, to the close-ups of Toby and Mrs. Landingham flinching during the gun salute, one maybe because he's not used to the sound, the other maybe because it brings her back to another military funeral she attended. The cross-cutting between the funeral and the staff lining up beside the president is elegant, though I'm not sure what the lining up is supposed to signify. And then there's the choice of Christmas song. You may recall, Av, a 3300-word email I sent out on Christmas Eve 2007, listing my Top 20 favorite Christmas songs. (If you don't recall, by all means search your archives to confirm this.) "Little Drummer Boy" was, and still is, #1, and it is the perfect choice to complement this scene. For one thing, the gun salute going off with the rhythm of the song makes for a stirring soundtrack, but it's more than that. At its core, "Little Drummer Boy" is about a simple boy who doesn't have much, who gives the most that he can give in service to something he believes in. What better metaphor for a homeless war veteran? The carol concludes with a show of appreciation for his small act of service: "Then he smiled at me." And as the choir singing for the president reaches this point in the song, Toby, representing his fellow Americans, fulfills that last part of the analogy.

-- Binny


Binny --

I had the opportunity to watch part of this episode with the DVD commentary (Sorkin, Schlamme, and producer Alex Graves) and one of them points out that this episode, more than many others, feels like a short movie in which Toby is the main character. The way the first scene after the credits, in which Toby meets with a D.C. policeman played by Lance Reddick (who is now second only to his Lost colleague Michael Emerson in the "actors who freak me out no matter how innocuous the role they play is" contest), sets up Toby's mission in the episode and sets him up as the protagonist is a perfect example of this. Richard Schiff's performance in this episode is pure brilliance. The range of emotions that he exhibits in it is startling, highlighted as you pointed out, by the scene where he has to break the news to George Huffnagle that his brother, Walter, has passed. What I found most interesting, and what I think is Toby's motivation throughout this episode, is the desire of a senior staffer at the White House to capitalize on a rare opportunity to help another human being in a monumental way. I say "rare" with knowing irony because although surely people who work in politics get into it to effect change and do good, the overwhelming of the good that they do is in the abstract. Toby is a speechwriter. So, sure, he can write speeches that influence legislation that benefits Americans, but how often does he get to help a real person with a real problem? He can advise the president on how to reform our approach to veterans' affairs, but how often does he get to personally preserve dignity and respect for a dead American soldier? I found watching this journey of his both fascinating and inspirational.

As for the other characters, I think this episode makes it very easy to see how Jed Bartlet got elected president. He is able to be charming, warm, and funny at the same time. He is a good man with a good heart and a terrific sense of humor. I remember a rabbi once telling me that the hardest part of the job are the Sundays when he has to attend a funeral at 10 A.M. and then rush out of there to officiate at a wedding at 1 P.M. and has to be able to put on a somber face in the morning and a joyous one in the afternoon. This balance of emotions is certainly a similar challenge for a president and we see that front and center in this episode, as Bartlet is forced to step out of a room of young kids to learn that Lowell Lydell has died from a hate crime and then step back in to entertain the schoolchildren. C.J., too, is forced to balance her emotions, as she flirts with (and probably crosses) the line between representing the White House's position on the issue and airing her own views to the point that both Sam and Leo have to walk her back and remind her that she is the White House press secretary and that her job is to represent and defend the president. Simply put, if she wants a platform from which to express her own personal views on issues, she should either run for office or start a blog. You touched on Mrs. Landingham's role in this episode and I loved it as well. In fact, she offered my single favorite line of the episode when she "lectures" Toby for arranging the military funeral, repeatedly stressing with a prideful grin that he "absolutely should not have done that" in a way that showed she clearly meant "you absolutely should not have done that, but I sure am glad you did." I would compare it to a parent simultaneously disciplining their child because they did something they shouldn't have done, but also acknowledging a sense of pride in that there was something noble at heart in their misdeed. Finally, Leo, in an ongoing storyline is forced to balance his own personal interests against the president's. Interestingly, both he and the president seem to be putting the other's interests ahead of their own for the time being. (And yes, I knew that Leo was Secretary of Labor at the time of his entrance into rehab and that we would find that out in the very next episode, but what was I to do?)

Finally, as you mentioned, the final scene was cinematically sensational and a pure pleasure to watch. I need not elaborate on that as you have done a thorough job there. I share your love of "Little Drummer Boy" and I truly miss the holiday season that has left us too soon, if for no other reason that when it left it took with it the giant Christmas tree in my office building's lobby, which for a month, was my only way of knowing which side of the elevator bank to exit from. For the next 11 months, I will be totally lost.

-- Av


  1. I sort of had the opposite experience of Binny when watching this episode - I had no idea that it had won the Emmy for best writing , yet it was at the time and remains till now my favorite episode of The West Wing. The funeral scene was one of the few times during the series that I actually got choked up (as opposed to Av who seems to tear at every other Bartlet speech)and I think its because of my general belief that music is more than just a background for TV and movies in general - it has the ability to launch a scene from good to great, and in this case it was the perfect choice.

  2. Abie --

    I agree that the funeral scene is enhanced significantly by the music (and for what it's worth, upon the second viewing I also got choked up a little). I think the best example of this is this scene from Scrubs: It gets me every single time, and the music selection has a lot to do with it.

    Av --

    As far as the Leo thing goes, I know you didn't want to tell me what you knew (thanks), I was just pointing out that even if we never knew he was Sec of Labor, your prior explanation (citing Clinton, W, et al) was a solid one. Also, I liked your take on the Landingham quote, and I think there might even be another layer there -- saying "you shouldn't have" is something you also say when you're appreciative of something someone did for you. Yes, Toby didn't arrange the funeral as a favor to Mrs. Landingham, but she's sort of saying, on behalf of veterans, "you shouldn't have."

    Also --

    My encyclopedic knowledge of "A Few Good Men" keeps setting off Sorkin alerts. Last episode Toby says "I'm going to blame you" much the way Colonel Jessup does in an early scene. And in this episode, we learn Leo has a sister named Elizabeth. When Jessup was on the stand and grilled about who he called when he learned he was coming to Washington, the third call was to his sister, Elizabeth.

  3. Abe & Binny, you're not alone. "It was such a powerful and moving story. After every take, I broke down and cried."- Richard Schiff

  4. Michelle BernsteinJanuary 8, 2009 at 9:13 AM

    I am a bit further along in my watching than this blog is but the influence the show has over my everyday life and observations is astounding. Yesterday as I saw the pictures that I am sure most people reading this blog saw of President Bush inviting all past presidents and our future president-elect, I could not help but thinking what goes into that picture of all of them in the oval office. From watching the show, I am sure that President Bush was not just standing there waiting around to pose for that picture, but rather amongst all the chaos of what is actually going on in the White House and with a large staff working behind him, that photograph became a reality.

  5. As someone who has just started watching the West Wing (I'm a couple of eps ahead) I am so delighted to have found this site. Keep it up!