Welcome back to Better Late than Never. Yesterday, we began a multi-episode arc that involves Leo and his murky past as an addict in the upper echelons of D.C. His reputation is threatened by a congressman with a snake in his boot and a bone to pick with the current administration. Leo is convinced, in this episode, that he and the President need to come up with an exit strategy for him, but the President isn’t so convinced.
Elsewhere, it’s finally Christmas. Mandy and CJ have a public appearance set up for the President but Toby, ever the curmudgeon, isn’t so interested in the Christmas spirit. (Of course, I’m sure some of that comes from the fact that he’s Jewish, but that’s neither confirmed nor denied in this episode.) This reluctance to show Christmas spirit is further compounded when he gets a call from police about a deceased homeless man near the military memorials. What follows is a touching exploration of who Toby is as a character and just how much he cares.
It’s the first Christmas episode of the show, folks. Grab some tissues and let’s dive into “In Excelsis Deo.”
- Uh, Mandy, Dickensian costumes and Santa Hats would clash and I worry about your job as a media consultant if you can’t see that. Thank goodness for CJ for thinking, basically, the same thing I was thinking.
- “Flamingo is on her way.” “Wait, what did he call me?” I think CJ is the only one surprised that she has that code name. Sam didn’t even blink. He just grabbed her and dragged her away. I don’t care what anyone says, flamingos are beautiful and majestic birds, just like CJ is also beautiful and majestic. (Though, can we acknowledge that Allison Janney can take one heck of a pratfall and make it graceful?)
- Toby might say he doesn’t care. He might act like he doesn’t care. But, let me tell you something, in case you didn’t notice, HE REALLY CARES. I’ve seen some Toby hate. Sometimes he annoys me, but no one, I repeat, NO ONE can say that he doesn’t care about people, that he doesn’t have a heart, or anything else negative because it’s just not true. I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. His prickles, while sometimes off-putting, are still in service of the greater good. They’re ALWAYS in the service of something, or someone greater. That’s what makes him so special.
- “We like to spread holiday cheer.” “Who the hell is this guy and why do I care if he has a Merry Christmas?” “Just sign the damn thing.” This is one of the best exchanges between Margaret and Leo so far. Lots of characterization things going on here and I love every second of it.
- Jed and the kids, though. You can tell from this exchange that he was a fantastic father. He still is a fantastic father. I mean, we all saw him with Zoey when she ran into trouble, but this sequence with the kids visiting the White House is such a beautiful and telling sequence. He cares about these kids. He puts on a show for these kids. He wants them to have the best visit possible. It’s just so sweet.
- Josh and Sam’s protection of Leo is so heartwarming. It’s absolutely beautiful. I could say more about it, but I don’t even know if I can find the words for it. That kind of loyalty isn’t as prevalent anymore, not like it used to be. If there is that kind of loyalty, it’s drowned out by all the negative news. Either way, it’s so touching.
- “An hour with you in a rare bookstore? Couldn’t you just drop me off the top of the Washington Monument instead?” “It’s Christmas, Josh. No reason we can’t do both.” Sometimes I feel like the rapport between Josh and Jed is so overlooked. I feel like it gets downplayed as the seasons go on–or maybe I’m just imagining that it does–but I think it’s so special and we don’t see it enough.
- CJ really made a list of all the reasons why she and Danny can’t be together. Bahahaha. I love her so much it’s not even funny. I’m also starting to really like Danny and CJ together. It’s ridiculous, but they’re cute.
- Josh bought Donna a rare book on the history of alpine skiing and wrote a note inside that makes Donna cry. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is. Remind me again why it took SEVEN SEASONS for them to get together? Remind me. Please. Someone. I beg of you. Why? Why did it?
- I love Toby’s heart. I really do. God, do I love his heart. I also love Mrs. Landingham. The last three minutes of this episode makes me sob every time. The cinematography, the shot composition, all of it. It’s beautiful. Sorkin outdid himself. So did director Alex Graves.
This episode is the first in a long line of stellar Christmas episodes for The West Wing. “In Excelsis Deo” won three awards, including the Emmy award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for Richard Schiff. It was a well-deserved and well-earned honor. Toby has the “a” storyline in this episode and everything about it is just a wonderful exploration of what makes Toby tick and, in return, we learn just how deep his compassion goes, even if he does hide it behind prickles and thorns.
I’m going to go ahead and touch on the other characters first. As always, John Spencer shines in this episode. Everyone does, but Spencer and Janney are the brightest stars, though Janney and Schiff get the meatier parts of the story this time. Leo has his brief moment of worry with the President, but Jed waves him off and tells him not to worry about it, but, for the most part, Leo and Margaret have to deal with Christmas presents and it’s the greatest thing ever. We really get their chemistry in this episode and we get to see Spencer’s comedic timing. Honestly, it’s the best thing ever. It really is. Every scene that Margaret and Leo share is comedic gold.
Janney has her moments too with Timothy Busfield and the whole “code name flamingo” thing, but CJ’s involvement with Lidel boy and the hate crimes legislation is worth mentioning too. Sometimes it feels like CJ isn’t very politically minded. At this point, we don’t know her background. We don’t know how she came onto the President’s staff. We learn later that she came from a PR firm and ran local campaigns but nothing on a national level like this. There are things that she’s passionate about and there are things that she doesn’t understand. Hate crimes legislation is both and Janney acts the many facets of CJ personality perfectly. She’s fierce and compassionate, yet there’s also a softness to her. I love CJ and I love how Sorkin wrote her.
Speaking of fierceness and compassion, let’s talk about Toby for a moment. Ten episodes in and I’ve already complained about him and his characterization and how he acts morally superior to everyone else, but I’m here to tell you that I like it when I’m wrong. The thing is, I’m not entirely wrong. Toby still has a morality complex and that comes back around and cycles in future episodes and I’m sure I’ll complain again, but let’s be real for a second. Toby is actually my third favorite character, or he would be if I was forced to rank them. (They’re unrankable. Let’s be real.) The reason? Well, because he’s a curmudgeon with a heart of gold. This episode put that on full display and Schiff acted it with such nuance and finesse that I was mesmerized.
Toby gets a lot of flack, or maybe I’m imagining that, but I feel like viewers see his prickles and see his high flying morality and are put off. Second to Josh right now, (though maybe, it’s actually third because of Leo, but let’s ignore that for a moment) he’s the most nuanced and well-developed male character of the series so far. We clearly know his motivations, his stances, his flaws, we know it all, and “In Excelsis Deo” plays to those motivations well. It plays to his compassion. It chips away the facade to expose the bleeding heart underneath. It’s touching and a friendly reminder that even the grumpy ones can love and show emotion, they just might do it in a different way than other people. It doesn’t make it any less valid.
Of course, Toby does do something that he should’ve, but there he is, appealing to the President’s better angels and always pushing for him to do better and be better to show the world they can. Is it done in the right way? No, which goes back to his flaws, but we’ll forgive him this time.
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