We continue our countdown of my favorite 1970s Christmas TV episodes with 1976’s “The Draft Dodger” from All in the Family.
This one is pretty tricky, because on the one hand, it is one of the best episodes of All in the Family, one of the best TV sitcoms of all-time, while on the other hand, it is also a brilliant examination of the bleakness at the heart of a bigot’s soul and, well, that doesn’t sound particularly Christmas-y, right? And yet, it ALSO celebrates the beauty of the brotherhood of man, and an embrace of peace and love, and that DOES sound pretty Christmas-y, right?
So where do I place it? It’s likely the best episode OVERALL of the episodes on this list (#1 does give it a run for its money, though), but it’s JUST dark enough for me to have it here at #3, which is still obviously quite high overall.
In any event, the drama of the episode is tied in with its title, as a childhood friend of Michael (Rob Reiner), David (Renny Temple), is in town from Canada for the holidays. What Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) doesn’t know, though, is that David was in Canada because he dodged the draft (this is 1976, the Vietnam War was only over for the United States for three years at this point, and just a year since it officially ended with North Vietnam taking over the entire country). Well, Archie’s friend, Pinky Peterson (Eugene Roche, who, coincidentally was part of this month’s Month of Back Door Blues, as well, in a backdoor pilot for his Luther Gillis character on Magnum, p.i.) is over for Christmas dinner, as well, though, and Pinky’s son DIED in Vietnam, so, well, that’s a natural conflict right then and there.
What’s great about the use of Pinky Peterson is that he was not introduced for just this episode, like a lot of other shows would do (including this show itself, actually). Roche had appeared previously in Season 7 as Pinky, and would appear in Season 9, as well. So this was a REAL character here, for dramatic purposes.
So anyhow, the truth comes out, and Archie, naturally, is irate. This leads to the iconic sequence as follows:
Michael: Look, Arch, what David did took a lot of guts!
Archie: What do you mean, a lot of guts?
David: My own father couldn’t understand, why should he?
Michael: When the hell are you going to admit that the war was wrong?
Archie: I ain’t talkin’ about that war!Goddammit I don’t want to talk about that Goddamn war no more! I’m talkin’ about somethin’ else! And what he done was wrong! Sayin’ he won’t go! Whaddya think, the old people of this country can say whether or not they wanna go to war? You couldn’t get a decent war off the ground that way! All the young people would say no – sure they would! Cause they don’t wanna get killed! And that’s why we leave it to the Congress, cause them old quacks ain’t gonna get killed! And they’re gonna do the right thing, and get behind the president and vote yes!
Pinky: Arch, if my opinion is of any importance…
Archie: Certainly your opinion is important! Gold Star Father. Your opinion is more important than anyone else in this room. And I wanna hear that opinion – I want these young people here to hear that opinion! Now you tell ’em, Pinky, you tell ’em.
Pinky: I understand how you feel, Arch. My kid hated the war, too. But he did what he thought he had to do. And David here did what he thought he had to do. But David’s alive to share Christmas dinner with us. And if Steve were here he would want to sit down with him. And that’s what I want to do.
[offering his hand to David]
Pinky: Merry Christmas, David.
David: Merry Christmas, sir.
I mean, holy crap, right? What a scene. WHAT A SCENE.
And it just BREAKS Archie. O’Connor is fantastic as a man so filled with what he feels to be righteous hate, only now he can’t feel that he IS being righteous, and it WRECKS him. The one thing Archie could always cling to was that he knew he was right, and now, he doesn’t know that, and he doesn’t know what to do next. It’s so affecting. And the episode ending on the Christmas wreath with “Peace” on it? Amazing.
Here is the whole episode…