It’s Christmas on The West Wing, which means two things: choruses and Dr. Stanley Keyworth, notable Anthony Bourdain lookalike. And “Holy Night” has plenty of both. The Whiffenpoofs, an a capella group from Yale and the name of the fifth house at Hogwarts, are performing at the White House with both CJ and Donna fawning over their vocal chords and… vocal chords. Dr. Keyworth and Bartlet have a session, discussing Bartlet’s SAT perfectionism (he scored a 1590 and took it again to see if he could do better), his new dreams about airplanes that might signify death, and how his MS symptoms are getting worse. Both the Whiffenpoofs and Dr. Keyworth wind up trapped when the airport closes—victims of circumstance.
Every visitor to The White House in “Holy Night” can relate, even Toby’s father Julie. The cold open of the episode shows the man in 1954, outside a night club in Brooklyn, in a car with two other Yiddush speakers. They banter about Cole Porter and the borderline unpronounceable name of the college group he sang in (HINT HINT IT’S THE WHIFFENPOOFS!!!!!!!!!), then two men leave, go into an alley, and only one man returns. Julie hears the gunshot when he’s outside the car, smoking a cigarette, looking over at a baby and whispering the name of his newborn son: Tobias. Little Toby.
Toby’s siblings have let Julie into their lives, allowing him to play with their grandkids and come and visit on a schedule. Instead, Julie has to talk to Josh Lyman and get a pass, show up unannounced in Toby’s office, and hang around because he didn’t even get a hotel room.
There are two things going on here. The first is that Toby grew up to resent his father, clearly, for all the terrible things he did. Sure, Toby wound up going to school while his father sat in prison, but the important thing to Toby is the prison, not the school. Julie has multiple felonies attached to his name, and thus can’t even walk around the White House unattended. To Toby, there is such a thing as absolute good. It’s why he gets into so many fights with Bartlet, who sees sometimes that the end can justify the means. Like, remember how upset Toby was when he found out about Bartlet’s MS? He was most upset, actually, at Bartlet, who disappointed him. Jewish guilt thrives in Toby Ziegler!
Toby’s dad is a felon, plain and simple. He doesn’t want the man to be a part of his life, yet here he is.
The second thing going on is that Julie chose now, of all times, to visit. Ostensibly, he read something in the paper about Andy expecting twins, and decided that perhaps the promise of future grandkids would soften the blow of his visit. So, too, might his explanation of his past behavior, cursory as it may be: That’s just what the neighborhood was like, he says. I’m sure he had little choice in the matter; a life of crime, even by association, was the only way to ensure a future for his children. He, too, was a victim of circumstance.
And now Toby finds himself as one, too, when the snow delays his pop’s exit from the White House. So Julie sits quietly as Toby works, watching proudly over his son as he works in a high-powered government job. Julie and Bartlet are cut from the same cloth; it’s no wonder Toby takes out his residual parental aggression on Bartlet. He expects a lot from his leaders, because the leaders of his own life let him down so regularly.
There are a couple of moments in “Holy Night” that are in danger of bordering on extremely sappy, but thankfully don’t give in to full-on saccharine. The first is when Josh and Toby finally have it out about Julie being let into the office. Toby insists Josh mind his own business, and Josh politely tells him to go fuck himself. Because Josh, as he says, would give anything to have a felon father, if it meant having his father still be alive. There’s not even a visible change in Toby’s demeanor. He just listens, acknowledges nonverbally that he heard, and storms off.
It’s enough, though, because later Toby reluctantly agrees to let Julie crash on his couch, and as they exit, Julie notices the singers and wants to listen. He speaks a few words in Yiddish and whispers, “I’m having the strongest memory.” Toby doesn’t follow up. He just stands there, quietly accepting the fact that there are going to be plenty of people in his life that let him down, but oh well.
As long as we’re on the topic of the end justifying the means, perhaps the most salient example of this remains the time Bartlet ordered a military strike on the plane carrying the leader of Qumar. It involved dismantling the plane, spreading its pieces throughout the ocean, and never speaking of the moment again. The United States ousted an evil man, and washed their hands of the whole matter. The only thing was, they had to keep it a secret.
As luck would have it, our good pal Danny was in Bermuda for a few days, and met a guy who told him quite the tale. It seems the man works at a small airstrip, and was given the day off May 22. Only he forgot his cricket bat at work, so he walked over to retrieve it, and was greeted by military personnel from the United States, who denied him entry. This just so happened to be the day the Qumari plane went off the map.
Danny has the story, and he’s asking CJ for help. “I think you know how I feel about you, but don't mess me around on this story, okay?” he says before getting out of his Santa costume. Oh, right, he surprised CJ as Santa delivering a goldfish pin as a gift. Welcome back, Danny, complicated feelings and all.
Danny’s a victim of circumstance, too. Well, actually, more the victor. Of all the people that Bermuda resident could have spoken to, he just so happened to talk to the one person with the connections and drive to make this a huge story. The one guy who’s been absent long enough where he probably doesn’t care if there’s blowback in his direction. The one guy with a direct line to CJ, and that’s not a sexual reference.
Now the word is spreading throughout the White House. CJ corners Josh and expresses her certainty that, yes, that’s what happened. Josh, however, is the opposite of Toby, in that he’s able to see things beyond black and white. Not that Toby’s that harsh of a guy or anything, it’s just his gut, which he often has to check. Josh is the kind of person who’d cut Leo off and say, “You’ll tell me when you need to.” God forbid Toby were to find out, and God forbid he find out by being asked to write a speech expressing what happened.
Stuck in the middle of the storm, themselves victims of their own circumstances, are Will and Zoey. The former is getting used to his new job despite the bike protest happening in his office and his inability to feel like he actually belongs in a room with the president. The latter is working up the courage to ask if her new boyfriend Jean-Paul—French royalty—can join her family on their upcoming vacation, and she has to get through Charlie to boot. Both are, in their own way, outsiders in this episode, pushing their own agenda and trying hard not to get in the way of what’s already happening. And since The West Wing is composed of this tightly knit group of misfits, the show’s not often kind to those types of people. Both Will and Zoey are given essentially the same treatment: Get on board with what’s already happening, or don’t bother (though Bartlet relents eventually because it’s his freakin’ daughter). I mean, just look at how protective Josh becomes of Donna when she asks to leave on a trip with her new boyfriend Jack, plus how surprised he is that Leo would let her go without consulting Josh. He tries to hide it, but his disappointment is written all over his face.
“Holy Night” is a celebration of happenstance, things that come our way every day. The people who work at The White House, or are at least loosely affiliated, are smart and foolhardy enough to capitalize on whatever comes their way, be it an airport-closing snowstorm or a weird story from a Bermuda cricket player. It sounds like Aaron Sorkin is saying that the world is full of opportunities, but success and failure is determined by how brilliantly a person can insert themselves into the middle of ’em.