’Tis the season of mortifyingly tacky and overly dramatic holiday episodes, and while “Last Christmas” definitely lays on the drama, it does so in a rather composed manner. At first, it actually seems like it will be a somewhat anti-climactic Pearson Christmas, with everyone tending to their own business. It makes sense: The idea of putting on happy faces and pretending all is jolly and right with the family is exhausting. But once they come to realize that Christmas doesn’t have to be about putting on an act, that the union of friends and family is often enough to remind us of everything that is right with the world, they settle in for a cozy evening at Randall’s, complete with a delicious spread, fun and games, and several unexpected visitors.
With Helen Hunt in the director’s seat, “Last Christmas” follows a different structure from what we’ve become used to, in that it gives each character his or her own, separate story before finally bringing them together for the Christmas celebration. By teaming some of the characters with outsiders, the narrative is looser, and allows us to see the characters and their stories from new perspectives. Opening on past festivities, cut short by Kate being rushed into hospital with appendicitis, the setting provides the perfect opportunity to reintroduce Dr. K into the Pearsons’ lives.
Jack and Rebecca decide to keep Dr. K—who’s dealing with his own, potentially life-threatening medical issues—company as they wait for Kate to come out of surgery. And as much as Jack attempts to wax poetic about the circle of life, Dr. K is quick to let them know that he’s not afraid of death, just curious to see what’s on the other side. I immediately suspected that, if anyone was going to keel over and die during this episode, it would be Dr. K. Fortunately, his operation was a success, and by the looks of it, he’ll live to tell the tale of how a burst appendix brought the Pearsons into his life for the second time.
In the present, Randall is disappointed when everyone cancels on the Christmas dinner he’s hosting at his house. Kevin joins Sloane with her family and agrees to pretend to be her boyfriend to make up for the fact that Olivia quit the play because of him; Kate and Rebecca share an honest moment after a consultation with a gastric bypass specialist; and William runs into an old friend. Randall, who’s working hard at hiding his depression from everyone but his wife, is starting to feel his spirits sink. It’s not like it’s the most joyous of occasions for him, either—his relationship with Rebecca is still strained, and the little time he has left with his father is a constant concern. But as he finds himself at his office party, literally talking his colleague Andy (Jimmi Simpson) off the ledge, he realizes it’s more important than ever for his family to celebrate together. Because as long as you can love and forgive one another, nothing bad will ever happen on Christmas, right?
Every Christmas carol speaks of comfort and joy, every advertisement exposes us to ridiculously happy families, every movie has us believe that Christmas is nothing short of magical—the pressure to abide by the laws of Christmas are mounting, and if you’re simply not feeling the magic, the holiday can take its toll. William is thankful for the NA meetings that got him through many a tough holiday period in the past, and makes a point of sharing his gratitude. At first, it seems he’s addressing the entire group, but he’s actually speaking to one man in particular: Jesse (Denis O’Hare). William and Jesse found strength and love in each other when they needed it the most. After being diagnosed with cancer, however, William could not face embarking on his final journey with Jesse at his side and simply disappeared, leaving Jesse heartbroken. Jesse was distraught and quickly returned to his old habits, but now that he’s back on the straight and narrow, he’s found forgiveness in his heart and wants nothing more than to spend William’s remaining days with him.
For the first time, we get to see Kate and Rebecca spending some alone time together, and the setting is rather surprising. Considering their history, it seems strange Kate would have asked her mother to accompany her to her consultation, especially since Rebecca is still skeptical about her decision and worries about the risks involved in gastric bypass surgery. Kate’s irritability over her mother’s invasive questions and Rebecca’s quiet guilt could be felt throughout their entire act, bringing more volume to the respective characters. It very much felt like the relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter; the eye-rolls and regular sighs were spot on. I was also pleased to see that their little breakthrough in the car was not laid on thick, but felt entirely natural—unlike Toby showing up at Randall’s house for a surprise visit.
I’m always going to be happy to see Toby on the show, but as much as I like his grand gestures, this one seemed a little too out of the blue. Sure, the twinkling lights and jingling Christmas atmosphere at Randall’s house probably worked some of its magic, but for Kate to give in so easily seemed somewhat out of character. This prevented me from really feeling their rebuilding romance—and so, admittedly, Toby’s heart attack at the end of the episode didn’t hit me quite as hard as it would have had their storyline felt a little more organic. It was shocking and dramatic, but without a stronger connection to Kate and her relationship with Toby, it wasn’t as emotional as one might expect. On the other hand, the family dinner, not to mention the games, stories, and karaoke, felt down-to-earth and unforced, which was a nice break from all the other shows milking the Christmas cheese.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.