“’Twas The Night Before Christmas… Or ’Twas It” isn’t the most apt title, because there’s never any doubt about that. ’Twas. What there is doubt about is everything else that happened that night, because the adults got stupid drunk and destroyed the house, or to be more specific, all the consumerist holiday trappings. The episode opens to “Let It Snow” in this trainwreck tracking shot surveying the damage: the burning Christmas tree in the pool, Kate snuggling with a nutcracker, Pete in half a Santa costume, Jackie face-down in the sink, Diane on the floor with a dog-coyote-wolf. This being a “Pineapple Incident”/Hangover episode, there isn’t a big story so much as a combination of little ones. And the details add up to a spectacular episode.
It’s impressive to consider how many little mysteries there are to solve. There’s the alcoholic daze, which has two components, the absinthe and someone to spike the drinks. Jackie wakes up with the eyebrow equivalents of a Hitler mustache. Diane has a pet dog, maybe. Pete’s in a Santa suit. And a follow-up: There’s a disrobed dead woman in the bathtub (she’s not dead). One of the best sight gags reveals there are three plastic Virgin Marys at the breakfast table, praying over their jalapeño poppers. All the presents are gone, if there were any to begin with. The tree is still burning but mostly in the pool for some reason. And now that you mention it, how did the jalapeño poppers get here? The writers certainly did not skimp on the set-up. “’Twas The Night Before Christmas… Or ’Twas It” is so crammed with details that I wondered if Kate’s apparent alcohol immunity was part of the mystery.
Where to begin listing the great vignettes? The first rendition of “The Sign” would have been present enough—just seeing Diane get loose, seeing Pete get down, seeing the whole group point at Meg and ask, “But where do you belong?”—but then there’s yet another rendition for the tag that really highlights Pete’s goofiness (dorkiness). With Pete so exhausted and Diane so uptight all the time, the spiked glögg is more than a silly plot point. It helps reveal more of the characters. Like Kate trying to incorporate some Swedish traditions into Pete’s usual Christmas celebration.
Bradley Whitford absolutely shines, especially in the scene where Pete and Jackie retreat to his office. Pete starts venting about the soullessness of his job, forcing him to de facto deny climate change in a particular lawsuit. So he shreds the files (his only copy?) and Jackie eggs him on. I couldn’t stop laughing at the not one, not two, but three voice-mail messages to Pete’s boss, him getting hyper, her barely holding herself upright, culminating in a quick, loud, “DOUG!” and smash cut back to the present of the next morning.
Pete’s job actually does contribute to a larger spine for the episode. Throughout, the kids are shocked about the lack of presents and the apparent rager their parents threw while they were sleeping in their soundproof bunkers. Hillary says, “It’s fine, you guys. We’ll just go on Instagram and look at pictures of our friends’ presents.” The adults keep banging the anti-consumerist drum. Christmas is about family, not gifts. After all, that’s why Kate invited the wives in the first place. Hard to argue with a burning Christmas tree. But then Trophy Wife gets all trophy wife on us. Oh no, did Pete really quit? The punchline: The show concludes its anti-consumerist episode—and I mean episode—with the happy ending, nay, the Christmas miracle of Pete having to work on Christmas at his high-paying sell-out job. Take that, every Christmas special in history.
In a way, it is a miracle. The biggest gag in “’Twas The Night Before Christmas…Or ’Twas It” is that people keep sinking themselves. Diane is adamant that she never fell; cut to her falling. Jackie volunteers to have her eyebrows plucked so she can play an elf. Okay, Jackie’s candles set everything on fire and Diane’s “dog” bites Meg and Pete ruined the kids’ gifts—there’s a lot of wanton destruction in this episode—but the point is the adults are the ones who brought this on the family. What’s more, Kate’s the least culpable even though everyone blames her out of prejudice. Diane actually gets in an excellent dig to that effect when Pete’s flabbergasted that Kate didn’t know they had a shredder: “And I say again, what does she do all day?” So the fact that Pete somehow manages to hang onto his job really is the surprise happy ending to the Christmas special, the one thing that didn’t burn down.
And there is a certain Christmas-special energy to the episode. Look who stopped by—the next-door neighbor! Mrs. Steinberg, I didn’t know you were here! And who’s that at the door? It’s Meg! There’s caroling and obnoxious lawn displays and fake snow. Diane builds a gingerbread house that’s based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design, structurally sound, and gluten-free. Santa Claus even stops by for two magical scenes: First, when Pete clomps by Bert’s window bellowing, “Ho ho ho!” and later when Pete’s Santa crams presents down the chimney as the camera climbs the house in another refreshing long shot and swirls around him against the night sky. Trophy Wife hasn’t been particularly visually remarkable so far, but this episode is a precision-timed beauty, give or take some network CGI. Consider the use of wide spaces (the desolation of the living room, the adults stumbling onto the winter wonderland), the apocalyptic glow of the neighbors’ lights, the narrow focus on Jackie’s new face as she takes a breath and says, “They’re gorgeous!” I couldn’t have said it better mys-elf.
- Thanks to Joshua Alston for his emergency fill-in for me last week. Great episode, great review. I give it five Bert winks.
- Speaking of Bert, he only gets a handful of lines (and the commission of the inciting incident), but what a closer. He asks where Kate learned to twirl her bottle of wine. “I went to school for it. The Van Nuys Institute Of Mixology.” “That’s where I want to go!”
- Jackie, naturally: “I’m celebrating every holiday this season so Bert’s less confused.” Bert: “This week is about Jesus’ birthday, eight days of oil, the attainment of nirvana, and black people being awesome.”
- Another great Pete moment: “Glögg.” “Glurg.” “Glögg.” “What are we doing?”