Monday, 19 November 2012

S02E10: Noel

Noel is simply a perfect episode of television. Early on it's easy to see it's going to be something special. We're used to seeing Josh ride roughshod over people so his "you think you're talking to the paper boy" jibe is nothing to write home about, but the way Stanley comes back with "you're not talking to the paper boy either" salvo still has the power to send shivers down my spine, even though I must have seen this particular episode over a dozen times. What follows is a wonderful examination of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The first flashback takes us three weeks back. Nothing seems strange; Josh seems perfectly normal. We know the pilot has to have something to do with his issues (whatever they are - we still don't know as yet), Sorkin has already established the expertise of Stanley so when he picks up on the pilot comment we do too. As a result our ears prick up more over that subplot than any of the other stuff we hear in the opening segment. And then there's the knock at the door...

What's really clever about the way Sorkin deals with this is that he knows most of his audience don't know the first thing about PTSD, but he doesn't just want to tell us that Josh has it - he wants us to figure out what's going wrong with Josh (and more importantly why) at more or less the same rate as Stanley. It's far more nuance than you'd expect from the average network show, but this isn't the average network show.

The scene where Josh loses it in the oval office is tough to watch for me. I've probably mentioned it a time or six, but just to remind you Josh is my favourite character. Thing is, the person in that office isn't Josh. His whole demeanour is different straight from the off and watching him unravel in front of our eyes isn't easy viewing. Bradley Whitford is unbelievably good in the whole episode, but I think it's this scene which won him the Emmy that year.

Then we get Josh reliving the shooting during the Yo-Yo Ma performance and we begin to realise just how much he's been bottling up for the past ten episodes. When he puts his hand through the window it may not technically be cutting but it's not far off. By the end of the episode he's far from cured but at least he can see light at the end of the tunnel.

As an aside, the English snob working at the White House provides some much needed levity in an episode that could easily be a little too dark for most people.

Random observations:

Stanley is better known as Aaron Shutt, ace neurosurgeon from Chicago Hope. As much as I raved about Bradley's performance in the episode, Adam Arkin's is great too.

Does the President really receive a million letters in a year? That seems high.

"Long as I got a job you got a job." Thank goodness for that.

I can't hear Carol of the Bells without thinking of this episode. I get chills every time I hear it.

Episode grade: A+

So what did you all think?


  1. My only complaint about this episode is that I wished it felt more Christmas-y, the way In Excelsis Deo does. The fact that it plays out during Christmas feels like a side-note to the powerful and dark therapy plot.

  2. This is one of my favourite West Wing episodes so far. It's very different from the others, and I feel like before this point - halfway through season two - it wouldn't have been possible for it to have the intended impact. In a season and a half, Sorkin has crafted some astoundingly well-concieved and holistic characters, of which Josh is one. The impact of watching the emotional breakdown of a character we feel like we know, understand and love is hefty. I agree, too, that the episode unfolds brilliantly. Sometimes it feels like Sorkin creates such a beautiful 'episode' that it could stand on its own legs as a commendable unit of film - only improved upon by the emotional build up and context provided for us by all the other episodes. Bradley Whitford gives the performance of the show, too. I agree that the scene in the Oval Office is amazing, but what really takes the biscuit for me is the Yo Yo ma scene. I think it's the subtlety. Other than Yo Yo Ma, the scene is static, and those winces on Josh's face make me sick to my stomach at the implication of what he's going through. Incredible.

    Good to read your review, thanks for posting this.