Will & Grace Season 1, Episode 7
“A Gay Olde Christmas”
Posted by Sarah
Readers, let me be honest with you: I have the biggest soft spot for the Will & Grace holiday episodes. Halloween isn’t truly Halloween without Shu Shu Fontana and Glen 125th. Every Thanksgiving needs to be four separate Thanksgivings AND four two-minute redos. And Christmas? If Jack’s not praying to Santa, if Will’s not reciting “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as the Count from Sesame Street, and if Karen’s not telling Grace that baby Jesus was “Up in that tower letting his hair down so that the three wise men could climb up and spin the dreidel and see if there’s six more weeks of Winter,” the holiday feels a little less jolly. When we started learning more about the plans for this revival, I was thrilled to see that there would be an addition to the already killer batch of festive episodes to the series’ name. Little did I know that this year wouldn’t be like the others. Because this year, they decided to turn back tiooooommmmeeee (to be read like Jack singing Cher, because I had to) and present Christmas in 1912 New York, featuring the Fab Four’s old-school counterparts. One of the infinite things I love about this show is its ability to recognize a risk as an opportunity and go all in. This episode could have gone horribly, horribly wrong. Like, off-the-rails, what-the-actual-hell-were-they-thinking wrong. Instead, with risk comes reward; we got a Christmas installment that was just plain fun to watch, and I cannot wait to travel back in time with you.
So let’s have ourselves a gay olde Christmas, shall we?
It’s Christmas Eve, and the gang is trying to get a table for their traditional holiday dinner. Unfortunately, the wait is going to be a lot longer than they had anticipated—ahem, “Lows in the Mid-Eighties,” anyone?—and while Grace is set on making this happen to avoid family obligations, Will is done trying to pretend like he has even an ounce of Christmas spirit; the state of the world is making it harder for him to celebrate the season, and harder to feel thankful for what he has (whereas personally, the state of the world made me throw myself into the festivities a hell of a lot earlier than I usually do, to distract myself from the dumpster fire that is 2017, but I digress). When the maître d’ tacks on a few extra minutes to the wait, it’s the final straw, and the gang heads out into the New York City night in search of an alternative. Thanks to Grace needing to make an emergency pee stop, they wind up at the Immigrant Historical Society, where tour guide Pete (oh hey, Brian Posehn) informs them that Grace can’t use the bathroom unless they pay for a tour. Will gives in—because why the hell not?—and occupies his time with a book about old New York while Grace uses the facilities. As he looks through the photos, he can’t help but yearn for the Christmases of yore, and muses about how wonderful the city must have been this time of year:
Will: You’d walk down the street and say, “Merry Christmas, sir!” And he’d say, “Same to you! I like the shape of your mustache.” And I’d say, “I like yours, too!”
Jack: Wow, you didn’t even have gay game a hundred years ago.
Hey, I’m all for feeling nostalgic about time periods you weren’t a part of; one look at my non-W&G posts here, and you’ll see that’s kind of my thing. But fixating on old-timey Christmases filled with carolers and carriage rides is a prime example of how nostalgia can blind you to the way things actually were during just about any time period you happen to be nostalgic for. And Pete is ready to give Will, Grace, Jack and Karen a healthy dose of reality, opening the door to a fully preserved tenement that once housed Karolyn O’Sullivan, a widowed Irish immigrant bearing a strong resemblance to Karen, trying to make ends meet for her and her seven children.
Welcome to 1912, kids.
With six of her kids crammed around a tiny table awaiting their mother, Karolyn emerges from her bedroom with her newborn in her arms and asks her eldest daughter to hold Baby, who will get a proper name “if she survives the winter. Don’t want to get too attached,” while she fetches their meal of Christmas onions (although, come on, this is Karen’s counterpart…it totally would have been normal for her to just call the baby Baby the same way Karen calls the cook Cook or the gardener Gardener). They’re making the best of what they have, and Karolyn’s got Smitty to pour her a drink and tell her the devastating story about Old Man Flannery that makes her laugh her ass off. (SHE HAS A SMITTY, YOU GUYS. I know it’s impossible because math, but part of me wants that to be Karen’s Smitty’s origin story so bad.) One knock on her door, however, and their peaceful Christmas is halted for fear of the landlord coming to collect the rent money Karolyn doesn’t have. She tells the children to go hide in the closet underneath the stairs so the landlord won’t find them and force them to work in his sweatshop. When she opens the door, however, a strange (familiar) face greets her.
John Patrick McGee is a sailor on shore leave, hoping that Karolyn will let him rent a room from her now that he’s on land. While he can’t offer her any money, he can offer a sunny disposition despite whatever darkness the world offers. Or, as he puts it, “No matter how bleak and depressing life can be, I’m always happy and gay.” Karolyn takes a shine to him immediately, responding really well to the fact that “You do seem surprisingly gay” (if you didn’t think this show was going to take advantage of double meanings and take advantage of them often, I’d like to refer you back to the title of this episode), and tells him that he can stay. She instantly flies into good hostess mode, noticing the stain on John Patrick’s coat and taking it from him so she can wash it. Of course, good feelings can’t last for long; there’s another knock on the door, and this time, Karolyn’s fear comes true.
Enter Karolyn’s landlord and one of the wealthiest men in the city, Billem van Billiams (what even is that name, I can’t), complete with the sinister top hat and handlebar mustache that makes him look like he’s two seconds away from tying somebody to the train tracks…just in case you didn’t realize he was the bad guy of this scenario (honestly, though, I love that they went all in on that old-timey villain aesthetic). Fueled with anger that he has be pulled away from his wife to venture into this part of the city on Christmas, he is merciless with Karolyn, telling her that she must give him the rent she owes by sundown, or she’ll be evicted. But there’s a certain…something about Billem, something that goes deeper than run-of-the-mill cold-heartedness. As Karolyn tells John Patrick before she answers the door, Billem’s heart is “as black as coal, and no one knows why.” Once Billem catches a glimpse of John Patrick’s ripped, tattooed arms, however, it becomes pretty clear why.
On edge from his disrupted Christmas plans (and John Patrick’s arms), Billem returns home to his wife, and real talk, I am living for Fanny van Billiams. Although she converted to Christianity, she refuses to ignore her Jewish roots, she’s cracking jokes left and right and encourages humor in a woman, and she’s not about to have her dream of starting a business as an “inside-of-homes decorator” crushed by the misogyny that runs rampant in her husband and the climate of 1912. Not to mention, the woman can appreciate a good cookie (she really is Grace’s counterpart, after all. Also, thanks to a swift Google search, I confirmed that Oreos—wait, I’m sorry, Oh-Ray-Ohs—were, in fact, invented in 1912. Good looking out, show). She also tries to be Billem’s moral compass, even though he clearly isn’t the easiest man to get through to; as much as she tries to remind him of the Christmas spirit, he’s still set on evicting Karolyn…although, he does show his concern for that strapping boarder of hers (careful with that walking stick, Mr. van Billiams)…
Back at the tenement, a distraught Karolyn realizes she won’t be able to make rent; even after selling Smitty’s wooden leg, she’s still ten dollars shy of what she owes. Fearful that she’ll have to resort to giving her body to Billem, John Patrick swoops in with some big news he picked up when he was at the docks (calm down, there’s no money involved, quit getting your hopes up, Mary). No, Billem wouldn’t enjoy Karolyn’s intimate company; he would, however enjoy intimate company from the likes of, oh, say John Patrick McGee? And John Patrick is more than ready to do a solid for his new landlady. Of course, Karolyn doesn’t want him doing anything that would make him uncomfortable, but John Patrick isn’t fazed: “When you spend your life at sea without women, you learn to drop your line over the other side of the railin’.”
When Billem returns for the rent with Fanny in tow, however, it seems like their plans are instantly derailed. It’s up to Karolyn to improvise a new plan, and with her baby crying in the closet and Fanny calling out Billem’s heartless attempts to evict Karolyn when she has a family to take care of, it couldn’t have been easy. But when Billem goes on another one of his evil-doer rants to cover up his true self, complete with stomping on the floor in a tantrum, Karolyn realizes she has her opening. She refuses to let Billem leave before her honor is defended, because that tantrum stomp on an Irish woman’s floor just happens to be grossly offensive now (just go with it), and Billem must settle this with John Patrick outside, away from female eyes and wives who don’t really see the whole picture.
Once John Patrick and Billem take it to the hallway, Karolyn and Fanny are free to chat, Fanny talking about how she tried to have kids but Billem was less than willing, Karolyn taking a jab at Fanny’s outfit like you knew she would: “1888 called. They’d like their drapes back.” Fanny doesn’t take offense, though; she praises Karolyn’s humor before taking a more serious route, recognizing the ways in which the world makes it harder for both Karolyn and her. Being Irish, being Jewish, being women. The pieces of you that you can’t help having seem to be the pieces that inexplicably garner so much hate. But Fanny is hopeful: “This country is built on lettin’ more people enjoy its great freedoms, not keepin’ people down.” (ONE MORE TIME FOR THE GOP MEMBERS IN THE BACK, PLEASE.) We could debate Fanny’s word choice when she tells Karolyn that “we always get it right eventually”—and frankly, “always” strikes me as a bit of an oversimplification—but in an episode like this, and in a political climate where those currently in charge seem to forget the country’s basic principles more often than they remember them, the reminder of what America should be is definitely a welcome one…even if it’s completely lost on Karolyn, since she’s finally starting to feel the effects of that opium she took earlier. My dear, your Karen Walker is showing again, and I love it. Karolyn and Fanny’s heart-to-heart gets interrupted further by a series of loud bangs and Billem’s repeated cries of “Ohmygodohmygod” before the men re-enter, lit cigarettes in hand and Billem’s top hat placed curiously on John Patrick’s head. Billem changes his mind about evicting Karolyn and her children, and while Fanny is completely oblivious to his reasoning, Karolyn and John Patrick know what’s up.
Merry Christmas to all Jack/Will shippers, and to all Jack/Will shippers a good night.
Back in 2017, the gang has a different perspective on their lives and the world around them. Will’s done complaining about how crappy Christmas seems to be this year, everyone has a new appreciation for how hard it must have been to be gay, or a woman, or an immigrant (“Or a hot sailor”) one hundred years ago. Even Karen’s starting to reevaluate her stances, and that’s a damn Christmas miracle. But hey, at least our 1912 gang made out well in the end. Right, Pete?
Pete: Oh, no, that was just Christmas. Karolyn eventually served four years in debtor’s prison. John Patrick died at sea. Billem was convicted of sodomy and died penniless and alone. Fanny was the first woman to vote in New York…and the first woman killed for voting in New York.
Oh…yikes…well…let’s just be grateful for the progress we’ve made thus far and continue to work towards a brighter future, shall we? But, um…maybe work towards a brighter future somewhere far away from this building; Grace used an antique toilet that’s not connected to any plumbing, and we really don’t need to see the consequences of that.
Once outside, another small Christmas miracle happens; despite the fact that it was sixty-five degrees when they started their night, snow is starting to fall, and Jack is more than eager to start catching flakes on his tongue. As the nearby church bells chime midnight, the gang wishes each other a merry Christmas and embraces before everyone’s favorite tone-deaf chanteuse decides to mark the occasion, paving the way for a little behind-the-scenes montage of the making of this episode. That end tag immediately stole my heart, because it captured so much of what the essence of Will & Grace is to me, under the guise of a blooper reel. I know, I know, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” might have been a bit on the nose because there tends to be a lot of sentimentality that comes along with that song, but you know what? It worked. I was into it. Seeing the cast laughing together, seeing them make the audience laugh as they flub lines and try to make it through with those accents, was the personification of pure joy. You could just feel the friendship and love emanating from every single person on that set, the same friendship and love that I always feel watching this show. The sentimentality of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” simply amplified what was already so present for me for so many years. It felt like the perfect way to end a delightfully out-of-the-box episode brought on by the fact that Grace really had to pee. Who would have guessed?
…Actually, now that I think about it, that makes a crazy amount of sense.
Honey…What’s This? What’s Happening? What’s Going On?
- The ornaments hanging from the Will & Grace logo during the opening credits were fun as hell, and why didn’t they do that before?
- Look, the costume department has been crushing it with Karen’s wardrobe thus far (and let’s be real, they’ve never not been on point in the history of this show), but her coat in this episode is the shiny red cherry on top of the sundae of first half of the season.
- “I think we have very different interpretations of the word ‘snow.’”
- Did you catch the portrait of Debbie Reynolds hanging in Billem and Fanny’s home? It was a really endearing touch to the décor, and since the place essentially had the layout of Will and Grace’s apartment, it’s only right to have the 1912 version of the picture of Bobbi on the bookcase.
- Good to know that we can credit Fanny van Billiams with perfecting the classic milk and cookies combo.
- Did these people find out how fire I think the show’s innuendo game is this season? Because John Patrick just kept GOING AND GOING when he was telling Karolyn that Billem’s gay, and I was so here for it. It felt like a gift. Merry Christmas, Sarah.
- Related to my previous point: the bit of Jack McFarland that crept through during John Patrick’s exasperated “He’s a homo” was such a brilliant choice. Sean Hayes, why are you so wonderful?
- Why, Beverley Leslie, back so soon? Okay, so the 1912 version of you is really Charlie the very old paperboy, but that’s neither here nor there (Also, I lost it at “Newspaper Sales Associate Benji,” sue me).
- “Oh, I just remembered, we have to be somewhere before she finishes.” Bless you, Karen Walker.
- Am I at all surprised that Will used “I like your mustache” as a legitimate line at the end of the episode? No. But god, I love full circles so much.
Where do you think “A Gay Olde Christmas” ranks among the Will & Grace holiday episodes? Let’s chat in the comments. Our Fab Four makes their triumphant return on January 4, so that’s it for 2017. Until then, let there be peace on earth and good Will & Grace. See you in the new year, kids!