Sunday, December 13, 2009

In Excelsis Deo

Ten years ago, I became a fan of The West Wing. I still admire the show, even though it has been off the air for more than three years.

From the series' debut in September 1999, it was clear to me that the writing and acting were head and shoulders above just about anything else on network TV. That impression was permanently reinforced 10 years ago Tuesday, when "In Excelsis Deo" aired.

It was the first program with a Christmas theme on The West Wing, and the story was deceptively simple, but it delivered a potent punch at the end. Toby, the communications director, was summoned to a park where a homeless man had died on an unusually cold night. The man was wearing a coat Toby had given to charity, and one of his business cards was found in the pocket.

Toby saw a Marine Corps tattoo on the man's arm and realized he served in the Korean War. He set out to find the man's next of kin (the only relative he could locate was a brother, also homeless) and arranged for a funeral and an honor guard, using the influence of the president's office.

When he found out, the president could only manage mild exasperation, confirming that "We're still in NATO, right?" and Toby went ahead with the funeral, accompanied by the man's brother and the president's secretary, Mrs. Landingham.

Earlier in the episode, Mrs. Landingham revealed that the holidays always brought her down because her twin sons had been killed in Vietnam on Christmas Eve 1970. And she lamented the fact that she hadn't been there for her sons when they were dying.

Anyway, try as she might to feign her disapproval, it was clear that she was glad Toby had done what he did. That's why she insisted on joining him. And so the two went to the funeral for a man they never met.

You can see the conclusion of the episode in the attached clip, and I sincerely hope you will take the time to watch it. It was a powerful episode, involving many stories at once, all of which had their unique connections to the Christmas season, but the story of the homeless man was clearly the centerpiece.

It seems that every series in the history of television has had at least one Christmas episode, and there were others in The West Wing's seven–year run, but "In Excelsis Deo" was a standout.

I guess if I was going to quibble over technicalities, I would point out that it appears that a 21–gun salute is fired in the homeless veteran's honor, but 21–gun salutes traditionally are reserved for presidents, former presidents and other heads of state.

That's a minor point, though, one that can be dismissed as poetic license. If you don't have the DVD of that first season, rent it and watch the episode. It is a reminder of what is truly important at this time of year.