When Christmas Cheer Sounds Like Panic: The West Wing’s ‘Noël’

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In times of uncertainty and tragedy, I always turn to The West Wing. Not because it is a comforting show; in fact, it feels almost counterintuitive to watch because of its emotional weightiness. Trying to find an episode that is consistently upbeat is nearly impossible. So many of them are centered on injustices and sudden cruelties, from political losses to bodily violence. Yet, I return to The West Wing over and over because, despite its tendency to be preachy (at times embarrassingly so) or its superiority complex, there is much to be gleaned from its compassionate handling of tragedies. The show becomes a guide to coping with the crushing weight of trauma, or meditations in an emergency.

Because of The West Wing’s quick walk-and-talk pacing, moments where we get to see the characters processing trauma are often shoehorned into an episode as a way to add texture to a show so heavily focused on the minutiae of big-picture politics. A tragedy occurs, but it is one of a hundred tragedies that happened that day alone. We have to move on quickly; aftercare becomes almost an afterthought. However, when the show slowed down enough to process trauma in-depth, it managed to produce some of the most powerful, moving scenes ever aired on television, such as President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) cursing God in Latin in “Two Cathedrals,” or ever-loyal Donna Moss’s (Janel Moloney) heartbreaking realization that her boss has been shot in “In The Shadow of Two Gunmen.” Processing pain and tragedy is a place where The West Wing succeeds as a show, picking and prodding at a wound until it hurts, so that the healing can begin.

“Noël” was a rare episode of The West Wing that focused almost exclusively on the internal trauma of a single character, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford). At the beginning of the second season, Josh was shot in an attack on the President, his family, and his staff. A two-part season-opener is dedicated to the fallout from the Rosslyn shooting; everyone is allowed a few brief moments to examine their pain, except Josh, who is in hours-long surgery. In fact, when Josh wakes up from said surgery, he asks the president, in an unheard whisper, “What’s next?” Ready to move on from the incident and dive right back into the work.

“Noël” doesn’t really seem like a holiday-themed episode, but rather an episode that just happens to take place during the holidays—much like the holiday-flavored episode “Bartlet for America” the following year. The seasonal elements of the episode— the congressional Christmas party and the president’s insistence on signing his Christmas cards by hand despite the list of recipients numbering over a million—are almost wholly relegated to the B plot. In the first 15 minutes, “Noël” seems poised to politely acknowledge the holidays and then get back to (political) business.

Christmas episodes of TV shows often draw on the themes that are inherently connected to the season through the grand narrative—themes of togetherness, warmth, and light-hearted stress that only seem to exist in sitcoms, little family dramas that can be easily solved within the half-hour, possibly incorporating a carol or two by the fireplace. If handled improperly, Christmas episodes easily become filler, to be skipped in subsequent Netflix viewings, because they reiterate these typical narratives of peace and joy in a (ironically) soulless way. And what’s more, we’ve seen it all before. Christmas episodes are so often a bad attempt to re-gift old narratives year after year. They feel more contrived; add a little bit of snow and the glow of Christmas lights to a mediocre plot to manipulate emotion and then move on to a better episode instead. However, in a show like The West Wing, which deals almost exclusively in emotional weight, a holiday episode cannot be wasted rehashing the usual themes. “Noël” could have been filler had it approached the issue of mental health in a “rub some dirt on it and move on” type of way, or even ignored it completely in favor of a more familiar sitcom-esque plot. But this is The West Wing, and educating the public through television was always its modus operandi.

At first, life goes on at the White House without much regard for the season, save for a few passing references to poinsettias and Christmas trees, bagpipe players playing “Green Sleeves” in the lobby, and the president’s Christmas cards. But as the episode continues, the holiday season gradually becomes a set piece—integral to the emotional breakdown of Josh Lyman, fueled by his post-traumatic stress.

The Christmas cheer begins to sound like panic.

There’s a strong urge on the part of the West Wing staffers to not feel out of step with the holiday spirit; there’s a certain performativity that comes with Christmas, and participation is all but required. Even cynical curmudgeon Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) attempts to participate in the sentimentality. When Josh questions Toby’s decision to hire various musicians to play in the West Wing’s lobby, he snippily responds: “The last two Christmases in the White House, I’ve been accused of not being in the proper spirit. I was called names. Not this year! For the next three weeks, I will be filling this lobby with music in the mornings and evenings so that we may all experience this season of…peace and joy.”

Josh bristles at what should be considered holiday cheer. He’s cagey, shouting at his staff for perceived loudness. He sticks out in an otherwise lighthearted episode, emotionally out of sync with his fellow coworkers and friends. Josh’s inability to appreciate the Highland Delaware Regiment’s rendition of “What Child is This”—likening it to sirens that he can hear all over the building—alerts Toby to an impending breakdown. The way in which Toby intones Josh’s name, as if it were an oh-so-delicate question of his emotional state, is genuinely heartbreaking. The usually cheerful sounds of Christmas music become a trigger for Josh, a reminder of the deafening sirens from the Rosslyn attack. The conflation of the two raises the alarm for his unaddressed trauma.

After yelling at President Bartlet in a panicked outburst in the Oval Office, Josh is ordered by the Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (John Spencer), to sit with a psychologist from the American Trauma Victims Association. Josh’s response to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, after a particularly harsh therapy session, is perhaps even more upsetting now in light of recent generalizations about PTSD from President-Elect Trump, which drew swift criticism from veterans’ groups for reinforcing the stigma that still surrounds the disorder. Josh’s revelation that PTSD “doesn’t really sound like something they let you have if you work for the President” sheds light on his biggest fear: that he will have to be removed from his job because he is unfit, suddenly unqualified to serve because of the stigma surrounding trauma-induced mental instability.

I hesitate to agree wholeheartedly whenever someone labels The West Wing “comfort television.” I always need clarification. Usually, they mean the show is comforting because it often worked as an antithesis to actual American politics at the time; it showcased a parallel universe wherein intellectualism and passion intersected, where public servants were soft-hearted, quick-witted, and well-spoken. It depicted an America that could never truly be, but one we longed for anyway.

But was the show really all that comforting? At its heart, The West Wing’s goal was to agitate, to educate, to spark uncomfortable conversations. It was more like an actual therapy session, akin to Josh’s in “Noel”—a place to go to talk it out, to consult the experts. But most importantly, The West Wing was a consistently motivating force to get up and go do the work, together.

At the end of the day, each member of President Bartlet’s staff was dedicated not only to the wellbeing of the country, but also to one another, as highlighted in Leo’s famous monologue to Josh at the end of “Noël”:

“This guy’s walking down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep. He can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up ‘Hey you! Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up ‘Father, I’m down 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!’ and the friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’”

What “Noël” so cleverly does is to explore the nuance of the oft-clichéd theme of togetherness. In dealing with the darkness of pent-up trauma, it recognizes that the sitcom-esque tone that Christmas typically implies would downplay the seriousness of the issue. Leo’s anecdote about the man in the hole works because it recognizes and legitimizes the inherent darkness of struggling alone. Togetherness for The West Wing is a different sentiment entirely, one that values community and support. “As long as I have a job, you have a job,” assures Leo.

The episode ends with the return of Josh’s trigger: music. As Donna leads Josh away for the evening, a group of carolers outside the White House sing the “Carol of the Bells.” The scene mimics the sensations of panic; the camera swerves in a dizzying way, disorienting the viewer. As the episode ends, the song mingles with the sound of distant sirens, and Josh’s eyes glaze over. But this time, Donna links arms with him, leading him away from the carolers—a literal support system for him. The moment serves as a reminder that recovery is not immediate, and that Christmas isn’t a pause button for trauma. In fact, Christmas stresses often irritate underlying, festering mental wounds, bringing them to the surface—the warm bustle of the bullpen becomes a panicked crowd, Yo-Yo Ma’s Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 a reminder of echoing sirens post-gunfire.

“Noël” isn’t a traditional Christmas episode in the sense that Christmas isn’t the force that ultimately saves the day. There isn’t a magical, unexpected snowfall or even the giving of sentimental gifts (à la Josh to Donna in the first season’s more traditional Christmas episode “In Excelsis Deo”). Instead, the saving force is a network of coworkers-turned-family members that are all steadfastly committed to each other’s survival. Being together isn’t only exchanging gifts, sharing meals, and singing by the fireside. Togetherness demands a certain level of empathy that often brings us out of our own comfort zones. But there is something reassuring about the dedication to one another that is required of us.

After a particularly trying election season in the real world, when the darkness seemed to be closing in and I often felt panicked, I returned to The West Wing, seeking out not only its compassionate take on politics, but also the solace inherent in familiarity. I picked “Noël” because I remembered it being a particularly good episode, and Christmas-themed at that, completely forgetting that Leo’s “man in the hole” monologue was tucked near the end of the episode. It still gets me, that kind of stubborn support of one another upon which the show seems thematically founded. The willingness to dig down with your troubled friend and work through the darkness together, because you’ve been there before and you know the way out.

Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?