It’s never easy to make a great sitcom episode, but making a great Christmas episode adds extra layers of difficulty. That has a lot to do with history and tradition. Just about every great sitcom has delivered a memorable Christmas episode or two, the best of them mixing laughs with a more ambitious than usual attempt to say something meaningful. Done wrong, Christmastime ambition can get the better of a show, making it descend into soppiness. But done right, a Christmas episode can crystalize everything that makes a comedy great.
“Carol of the Bells” does it right, and it does right in an inconspicuous, almost sneaky way. It doesn’t feel like it’s going to end in a big moment, say one in which much of the cast shares a sing-along in a picturesque snowy street. Yet, when that moment arrives, it feels not just right but inevitable. It’s a sweet, funny episode that explores the central Ted Lasso theme of what it means to be a good, generous person without making anyone behave out of character or getting cute about it. Three Christmas ghosts don’t visit Jamie. A crisis doesn’t make Higgins dream about what the world would be like if he’d never lived.
That doesn’t mean everyone’s having an easy time at the holidays, however, even if the episode opens with the AFC Richmond locker room in high spirits thanks to the swapping of Secret Santa gifts. This mostly means an exchange of booze — which makes supplying a last-minute bottle for Jamie, who didn’t really understand what the tradition was all about, pretty easy — but Colin (Billy Harris) gets a beautiful homemade scarf from Moe Bumbercatch (Mohammed Hashim) and seems deeply moved by it. (Ted Lasso’s been pretty good about giving supporting players on the team moments in the spotlight all along, but this episode is particularly generous.)
Nearby, the Diamond Dogs, joined by Keeley and Rebecca, trade their gifts and share their Christmas plans. With a little money in his pocket for the first time, Nate is determined to buy his demanding father a present he won’t hate. Rebecca’s off to Elton John’s holiday party and, hopefully, a puppet show put on by Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. Higgins is hosting the players who can’t get home for the holidays. Keeley has made arrangements for a sophisticated, Rat Pack–inspired “Sexy Christmas” at home with Roy, and Coach Beard is keeping his date to attend a pagan Christmas at Stonehenge with Jane despite their recent, latest breakup. Ted’s set, too. He’s going to enjoy a full afternoon FaceTiming with his son and watching him enjoy the expensive drone Ted bought him partially out of guilt.
We don’t see what becomes of Nate and Beard (let’s hope the latter makes it back okay), but no one else’s day goes quite according to plan. For starters, the Higgins’ house becomes host not to the handful of lonely players who usually show up but a flood of footballers with nowhere else to go. Even so, they seem perfectly happy to enjoy the Higgins family hospitality and spend time with each.
It goes uncommented upon, but this change has everything to do with Ted. Where a few players might have previously treated Christmas with Higgins, a seemingly glum presence in the pre-Ted days, as a celebration of last resort, the party now looks like an extension of the locker room bonhomie witnessed in the opening scene. These people like each other and look upon each other as an extended family, down to engaging in video-game soccer and a dramatic round of Nerf warfare.
The scenes at the Higgins’ house are full of fun touches, from one of the five Higgins boys’ fascination with the beautiful woman Richard (Stephen Manas) brings along as a date to the way the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the Higgins’ Christmas feast in its entirety, culminating in a shot of Dani and Julie Higgins (Mary Roscoe) bonding over their shared love of tequila. The episode even allows room for a little bit of skepticism about the holiday. When Higgins asks Sam what Christmas makes him think of back home, he cheerily replies, “Colonization,” but any awkwardness quickly passes. (That Sam brought a traditional Nigerian dish but substituted chicken for goat meat helps.)
Elsewhere, Sexy Christmas doesn’t quite work out for Keeley and Roy. Though Keeley dresses the part and has everything from the soundtrack to a chocolate fountain to martini olives with the pimentos removed in place, she misses Roy’s text and is surprised when he arrives with Phoebe in tow. It’s an unhappy Phoebe, too. It’s not so much that her mother unexpectedly has to work on Christmas that bothers her as the teasing of Bernard, a classmate whose Secret Santa gift is inspired by her stinky breath. Thinking Bernard must be exaggerating, both Keeley and Roy go in for a whiff and are unprepared for what greets them. (Who has the better reaction shot: Temple or Goldstein? I’d give Temple a slight edge, but Goldstein’s delivery of “I think you might be dying” really sells Roy’s disgust.)
The solution: find a dentist willing to take a look even though it’s Christmas. This means going door-to-door in Roy’s neighborhood until they can find one, a journey that leaves behind many confused neighbors (including a kid who can now take comfort in knowing that even football heroes poop their pants). Their quest culminates at a home where one Christmas celebrant asks for a picture with Keeley, a “seminal figure” (gross) of his teenage years. Keeley’s compromise that everyone joins in the picture leads to the episode’s best line reading as Roy adds “by the tree” through clenched teeth. To cap off the night’s success, Roy, Keeley, and Phoebe pay Bernard a visit, chiding him for insulting Phoebe while paying homage to Love Actually. What worked (sort of) for Andrew Lincoln works for them. Chastened, and a little scared, Bernard asks for forgiveness.
Ted, however, seems destined to have a much lonelier Christmas. His FaceTime plans fall apart in part because his son’s so excited about the drone he’s sent him. After exchanging some cordial words with his ex, Ted decides to mix whiskey with It’s a Wonderful Life, a dangerous combination for a man left alone for the holidays. Then, her arrival perfectly timed to Clarence the angel interrupting George Bailey’s darkest moment, Rebecca shows up to whisk Ted away to help her deliver presents to those in need.
She must have realized that if anyone was well-suited to play one of Santa’s helpers, it’s Ted, who helps sell the story of the presents’ late arrival by spinning a yarn about getting sidetracked and the long journey their presents have had to make. “That’s the Himalayas right there,” he says, smelling the bag, to which one recipient replies, “Am I getting notes of Beijing?” He was born to do this, and, what’s more, it cheers him up and makes Rebecca feel good in ways that Elton John’s party never could, even with a Weisz–Craig puppet show. (“All I really want to see those two do together is fuck,” she admits, and Ted can do little but nod in agreement.)
Rebecca also understands what a bummer it is to be alone at Christmas after a divorce. The episode captures the lovely friendship the two have developed. Are there any romantic sparks there? Not really. This isn’t to say there couldn’t be some down the line, but, in an example of Ted Lasso not following an expected course, their bond has seemingly nothing to do with sexual tension, be it in the fractious Sam–Diane mold or the Jim–Pam yearning-from-a-distance variety. They’re friends, and that’s meaningful in its own way.
They make pretty good duet partners, too, even if anyone’s bound to sound a little shabby singing next to Hannah Waddingham. In the episode’s final scene, Ted, Rebecca, and the buskers they admired earlier gather outside the Higgins’ house. Everyone joins in as Higgins rushes to grab the upright bass we learned he loved playing during his time away from the team last season. Even Santa makes an appearance, capping a Christmas that feels destined to show up on best Christmas episode lists for years to come. What else is there to say but Merry Christmas, everybody!
• Oh, wait. It’s August, isn’t it? While it’s nice not to have to wait any longer for new Ted Lasso episodes, it does feel a bit strange watching this during summer, doesn’t it?
• Pause the scene in Ted’s office and you’ll see the Greyhounds’ record is now 4 W’s, 4 L’s, and 14 D’s (to which the word “Nutz” has been added).
• You can’t celebrate “Pagan Christmas” at Stonehenge, but you can mark the winter solstice there, Pagan style.
• “I love Once so much I saw it twice.”
• The special Claymation-esque credits sequence is a nice touch, though Keeley looks a little off-model.