West Wing 3×13: Night Five

[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.


[Score]

A-

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13 thoughts on “West Wing 3×13: Night Five”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on October 20, 2015.]

    Let’s talk about the two reasons why this episode sucks.

    1) Toby and Andy talking about radical Islam. Yuck yuck yuck!!! Somehow, Andy unironically yelling “You’re going to start World War Three” is not the awful overwrought prelude to a relatively normal policy debate, but rather the awful overwrought prelude to the miserable overwrought hell-pit that is post-9/11 policy debates. The only way this subplot could have been worse is if Toby had said “not all Germans” instead of “not all Italians.”

    2) The Sam/Ainsley plot. Most of the time Ainsley Hayes is talking to Sam, their dialogue could be replaced with this exchange:

    SAM: Ainsley, isn’t sexism bad?
    AINSLEY: Of course not, Sam. I think feminism is bad, because I, Aaro– I mean Ainsley Hayes, am a woman who went to Harvard and as such I am very smart on top of being a woman, and I like letting men walk all over me.

    More to the point, it’s such a stupidly contrived situation in every regard. Not just in the sense that “why is this random intern who never shows up again suddenly calling Sam out on his sexism two hours after the fact,” but Sam’s awkward sexism in the first place. Can you imagine Sam telling CJ that she could make a good dog break his leash? Even if that wasn’t a weirdly rapey thing to say– why would Sam say that and not, uh, “Ainsley, you look really hot in that dress?” But no, then Ainsley couldn’t say “It’s an inadvertent show of respect that I’m on the team and I don’t mind it when it gets sexual. And you know why? I like sex.” Which is a statement that makes me wonder if Aaron Sorkin has ever talked to a woman in… ever.

    So yeah, two major misfires that weigh down what would otherwise be a good (but not especially good) episode. I’d give this, like, a 70? At least the next two episodes are obvious “A”s.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on October 20, 2015.]

    I’d respond to those points directly, but… eh, every West Wing fan and their uncle have already criticized those two “Night Five” subplots to death. In my review, I tried to focus less on the broadness of those plots and more on the fact that they do manage to fit into the episode pretty well.

    I will say, though, that I don’t find Sam’s actions here to be out of character at all – he’s never been very good with women (even CJ – whose relationship with Sam is radically different than Ainsley’s, I might add – had that weird exchange with him earlier in the season about her “doing” Carol), and his relationship with Ainsley has oscillated between friendly and awkward since Day One. (Incidentally, this entire subplot was directly inspired by an actual incident between Aaron Sorkin and a female Internet commenter, which may explain why it’s more overt in its talks about sexism than most other episodes.)

    Also, “Night Five” does not “suck”. There are only eight West Wing episodes which “suck”, and I haven’t even gotten to seven of them.

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  3. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on October 20, 2015.]

    Well, everyone’s criticized those two subplots for their shrillness and awkwardness because they are shrill and awkward. And coming between two episodes that are remarkable in their thematic cohesion really makes them look worse by comparison.

    Wait– there are seven episodes worse than “The Women of Qumar”??? How is that even possible?

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  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on October 20, 2015.]

    I find “Night Five” to be nearly as thematically cohesive as “The Two Bartlets” and “Hartsfield’s Lading”, and even more effectively atmospheric than the former.

    Plotwise, it’s not perfect, but too many people ignore the genuine strengths of the episode in order to focus more on the weaknesses. (Which seems to be a problem with much of Season Three, actually.)

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  5. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on October 20, 2015.]

    The bad spots here make up two-fifths of the episode. 60% is a failing grade.

    I will say that I’m giving this season a bit of a bad rap because it fails to live up to S2’s highs. But come on– just inviting Stanley Keyworth to help Bartlet out here causes involuntary flashbacks to “Noel,” and the episode can’t help but pale in comparison.

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  6. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on October 20, 2015.]

    Again, you’re implying that the two subplots completely fail. Which, like I said in my review, they don’t. Even if their setups are problematic, they add to the themes and atmosphere of the episode, and I don’t think it’s fair to fully discount them.

    Oh, and everyone gives S3 a bad rap because it doesn’t live up to S2. But you know what? Hardly any TV ever made lives up to The West Wing S2.

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  7. [Note: Joe W posted this comment on October 28, 2015.]

    This ongoing interchange between Jeremy and Boscalyn has been fascinating and well argued on both sides. In this episode, I think I have to side with Boscalyn…Aaron Sorkin is a wonderful, joyful writer, but when he goes off-kilter it’s almost always in his creation of women characters. (Sometimes it seems like his men all have such distinctive voices, while his women all talk alike.) And his eagerness to have Ainsley deliver “opposing POV” talking points is frequently so blatant that it’s a little painful.

    Do you remember the context of this season from when it was first on? I do. Not only post-9/11, but a moment when George Bush was at the pinnacle of his popularity and it was all about patriotism. I think Sorkin was treading a line that he hadn’t had to walk before, and stumbling. Even he has said that he and the other writers just couldn’t make this season work nearly as well as they’d hoped.

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  8. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on October 28, 2015.]

    Ainsley is a particularly glaring example of Sorkin’s weaknesses because not only is she supposed to be an additional female character, she’s also supposed be the “good” Republican character at the same time, and she fails on both fronts. When she’s not being a mouthpiece for Sorkin’s half-assed feminism, she’s being used as a half-assed hand of friendship towards conservative viewers that fails to convince anyone.

    Overall, I think she might be the most ineptly handled character in the whole series, even moreso than Mandy.

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  9. [Note: Joe W posted this comment on October 28, 2015.]

    Yes, exactly. Which is a shame, because Emily Procter is a talented actress who could have delivered a much more nuanced “invading Republican” if she’d been given better material.

    (Another example: “17 People” is in my top-five all-time episodes. I think that the Toby-Bartlet confrontations; Toby and Leo; Josh and Donna are all brilliantly written. And then you have Ainsley talking about…what was it? The wage gap this time? In such a paint-by-numbers way.)

    I always found it interesting to look for the show’s political “advisors” were in the credits. I remember seeing names like Marlin Fitzwater and Peggy Noonan in Season Three. I always thought that Ainsley was delivering their POV, or what Aaron Sorkin thought their POV would be.

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  10. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on October 28, 2015.]

    I don’t think you or Boscalyn are wrong – Sorkin definitely does have troubles when it comes to writing women, and is particularly egregious in regards to feminist messages.

    But that’s not how I prefer to judge this episode.

    With something like “The Women of Qumar”, in which the entire backbone of the episode is made up of wrongheaded feminist messages, the story fails on both a plot and a thematic level. But with “Night Five”, the Sam/Ainsley story only takes up a few minutes of screentime, and it’s thematically consistent with the episode in general. I can deduct a few points for lack of plot subtlety, but there’s not nearly enough to harm the episode at large.

    As for Ainsley herself: She’s a problematic character at times, an enjoyable one at others. My brother, who is a staunch Republican, actually liked her character a fair deal, if only because of the balance to the series she provides. (How many Republican characters on American TV get treated as positively as Ainsley? Very few, I’d wager.)

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  11. [Note: Joe W posted this comment on October 28, 2015.]

    Jeremy, I fall somewhere between you and Boscalyn on this episode…I liked the interaction with the therapist, because I love the therapist’s character. (A non-fast-talking one!)

    I think it’s less about Ainsley being a positively portrayed Republican–which could be very interesting on this show–and more about how ham-handed the portrayal is. I mean, she often focuses on issues where I (no expert!) could coherently argue the “liberal” side (the wage gap between men and women, the sexism in this episode)…but because she’s the “brilliant mouthpiece for conservative causes”, Sam is left just gazing at her, unable to find any counter-argument. That makes him look stupider than the show wants him to be, while simultaneously being condescending to Ainsley. (“Look! She’s female! She’s blonde! AND she’s smart!!!”) Neither of them is well served by making her such a screed-machine.

    I’m wondering if the original goal was to deepen her character, maybe through a Carville/Matalin-style romance between her and Sam…but then she got offered a lead on CSI (?) and was gone.

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  12. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on October 28, 2015.]

    Sorkin once said that not signing Emily Procter to a lead role was his biggest regret of the series. Had she not left to CSI: Miami, I could easily imagine her growing into a deeper character, and one defined by much more than her political views. As it stands, I don’t think she works especially well as a supporting character in her relationship with Sam, but then again, I don’t think Sam was usually a very well-written character either.

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  13. [Note: Joe W posted this comment on October 28, 2015.]

    Agree about Sam! Given that Rob Lowe was originally “the star,” it often seems the writers don’t have a great fix on his character.

    Given how good Emily Procter is, I would have liked to see how her character developed. Ah, well.

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