[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 02/06/2002]
“Stop trying to take the fun out of my day.” – Ainsley
Characters and their worlds must coexist. The two factors need to blend together if the viewer is to be fully immersed in the story. Too many shows (particularly in the case of multi-cam sitcoms) fail to grasp this: Characters talk, they joke, they fight, they make up… but they do it all on a set that serves as nothing more than background fodder, just a room to put the scene in a vague context while the actors compete for the camera’s attention. Oftentimes, the set doesn’t even feel like a tangible part of the show’s world – and that’s just the sort of thing that pulls you out of said show’s reality.
The West Wing is filmed with lavish sets that, for the better part, serve as an accurate representation of the real White House interior. And yet there are times when the White House on the show feels like just another background set. We’ve all made note of the lengthy hallways through which characters navigate during their lengthy “walk and talks”… but scenes like those are typically used for expository purposes, and not for stepping back and admiring the labyrinthine halls of the White House itself.
The teaser sequence of “Night Five” seems to be trying to remedy the fact that the building our characters work in is treated as little more than a series of roomy sets and interconnecting hallways. As Josh leads Dr. Keyworth from the lobby to the President’s private quarters, he conducts an impromptu tour of the building, pointing out not just significant facts about its various rooms, but even filling in some details on how it was first built. Leo even joins in, pointing out the soot stains that still remain on the North Portico when the building was torched during the War of 1812.
We all laughed during that scene in the “Pilot” [1×01] when Sam gave a factually erroneous description of the Roosevelt Room. But “Night Five” sets down some real facts, and not simply to educate us. By the time Josh’s tour is finished, the White House no longer feels merely like a set in which to house our many characters – it’s a living, functioning place, complete with its own history and its own battle scars.
“Night Five” itself takes place almost entirely inside the White House, as the inky darkness and fierce rainfall outdoors keeps actions bottled up indoors. It also takes place in the period of a few hours, allowing us to hone in our sense of time as well as space. The pacing of the episode is slow and deliberate – this episode is not particularly “fun”, but nothing on the side of the tin says it’s meant to be.
In fact, it almost feels as though the episode is trying to keep our characters cooped up in the building. Most of them are working late – except for Charlie, who’s out playing basketball until he eventually is driven inside, having injured himself during the supposedly fun game. (The White House interior allows no fun and games in this episode, Charlie.) The only scene occurring outside Fifth Avenue is one featuring Donna at a bar, being pressed by an Internet reporter who has a job offer; indeed, the moment one of our characters steps outside the White House, someone tries convincing her to stay out.
This building is not the buoyant place it was when we first dropped in two-and-a-half seasons ago. The last few months – the grueling process of the MS scandal, climaxing in the President’s censure – have left the staffers on incredibly thin ice, and even their lightest attempts at fun meet with trouble. Consider this as Sam makes a playful remark about Ainsley’s freshened-up looks, and is promptly chewed out by a temp; he then spends much of the night fretting over whether or not he’s a sexist. It’s only Ainsley herself who finally puts his fears to rest – she’s not quite as affected as the other staffers by the MS scandal, and thus still feels pride in understanding that fun can simply be… well, fun.
To the opposite extreme, most of the staffers have begun taking their work very seriously – perhaps to a dangerous degree. Toby, who in “The Two Bartlets” [3×12] lobbied hard to convince the President to take a stand against a Republican opponent, still maintains the boldest mindset in the White House, refusing to buckle even to his own ex-wife when debating a potentially confrontational speech dealing with foreign policy. Toby believes that they should vocally address the issues, no matter the storm those issues may brew – and at a time when the White House at large is looking rather weak and timid in the public eye, his reasoning has a disturbing logic to it.
With things this grim, we normally rely on CJ to be the show’s brightest beacon – and although she remains idealistically firm, the circumstances this episode embroils her in are nothing if not painful. When an irritating reporter from her Press Room goes missing on a self-appointed investigation in the Congo, CJ doesn’t even entertain the idea of ignoring his need for help. Given the antagonistic light the White House has recently been cast in, it’s not too surprising that both the reporter’s boss and his wife go out of their way to ask that she and her associates forgive and forget. And when the reporter himself turns up dead, it’s an emotionally raw moment for all involved… including CJ, who bears the full brunt by delivering the tragic news to his wife.
There’s little joy felt in the White House this night, but plenty of atmosphere. And that atmosphere extends out from the heart of the building – the President’s private study. As with “Noel” [2×10], “Night Five” centers itself around a one-on-one session between a White House member and Dr. Stanley Keyworth. Unlike “Noel” [2×10], though, in which the root of Josh’s trauma was shrouded in secrecy until the final act, it’s pretty obvious where Bartlet’s insomnia is coming from. (As if the end of “The Two Bartlets” [3×12] wasn’t a big enough clue, the “Previously On…” segment for this episode consists entirely of Bartlet’s conversation with Toby about his father.)
So “Night Five” takes advantage of its built-in predictability, as we watch Bartlet’s cool, measured demeanor slowly strip itself away. He was the one who requested Keyworth’s help, but he doesn’t treat the session with the respect a dive into his psyche probably deserves. Instead, Bartlet views the appointment as a $375 sleep therapy session, unwilling to engage in the psychological aspects of the treatment Keyworth encourages.
“I’ll be the only person in the world, other than your family, who doesn’t care that you’re the President,” Keyworth tells Bartlet candidly. That’s essentially what Bartlet needs – someone with the means of getting past his political barriers, and the candor to tell him what he finds. If only Bartlet himself would find an outward channel or his own emotions, he and Keyworth could have a genuine heart-to-heart.
When we leave Bartlet at the end of this episode, though, he doesn’t seem especially keen on having a heart-to-heart with anyone. Against Keyworth’s earlier wishes, he lights up a cigarette, and stares out the window at the thundering winter rain. In the confinement of the White House, everything is warm and dry. Yet somehow, even on this stormiest of nights, it still feels more troubling indoors than out.
“Night Five” is very much a transitional episode between the relatively stronger heights of “The Two Bartlets” [3×12] and “Hartsfield’s Landing” [3×14], and as a result, it comes off as fairly low-key. But nothing about the episode’s general structure suggests it could be any other way. It’s a dark period for the White House, underscored by the slow pace and disquieting ambiance that typify the episode. “Night Five” manages to be rich, engrossing, and effective – and it does it all without needing to be particularly fun.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Leo getting annoyed at Toby for pacing.
+ Leo getting annoyed at Toby for standing still.
+ CJ teasing Toby about Andy.
+ Charlie and Celia sharing an awkward wave across the room.