West Wing 5×20: No Exit


[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Carol Flint, Debora Cahn, Mark Goffman | Director: Julie Hébert | Aired: 4/28/2004 ]

“On a need-to-know basis, who needs to know this much.” – Bartlet

“No Exit” deserved better.

Coming near the end of The West Wing’s most troubled season, it is designed as an antidote to the year’s earlier missteps. It clearly wants to take the show in a fresh new direction. And it wants to tell a compelling story at the same time.

That it even succeeds at a broad level would be, for some, a triumph. “No Exit” is certainly better than the average Season Five episode, and when it succeeds, the results are worth applauding.

But so many of its successes are undermined by the fact so much of the drama which built up to it felt hollow. So many of the character arcs which now come to a head were never compelling enough for us to root for their outcomes. View “No Exit” as an awakening for the series, and it’s quite good. View it as a natural outgrowth of the season which preceded it, and it’s this season’s version of “Process Stories” – a competent addition to an incompetent arc.

Like “17 People,” “No Exit” is a bottle episode – but it’s hinged on a contrived plot which forces its characters into self-contained rooms. With little music or visual distinction to speak of, the success of “No Exit” rests with its character interactions. And some of these interactions, inevitably, are more successful than others.

There’s little to the Josh/Kate scenes, for example, since Kate was only introduced one episode prior and has barely been given enough personality for Josh to play off. Will and Toby fare better, if only because they share a history, and because this episode does what it can to redeem Will from this season’s wrongheaded revamp. And the Leo/Abbey material provides some key commentary on the stress of the Presidency (some nice foreshadowing toward Season Six), even if Abbey’s voluntary medical work is forgotten following this episode.

And the Bartlet scenes, while entertaining (Lily Tomlin gets some of her best work in the series), fizzle once it’s revealed that the entire “virus scare” was merely a drill, and that the President was aware of the façade the whole time. What’s meant to be a surprising twist simply diffuses any tension, and turns “No Exit” into yet another standalone story.

But some of the dramatic diffusion is compensated by one other thread, and how it reflects in particular on Donna Moss. Over the last five seasons, Donna has slowly and smoothly grown from a political outsider into one of the most prominent members of the Bartlet administration, and her arc has been a joy to watch. Still, her character has been inextricably tethered to Josh, and there’s only so much space she has to maneuver.

The most crucial development of “No Exit” lies in the way it instigates the severance of Donna’s relationship with Josh. Fans complain constantly about the infighting that afflicts the characters in Season Five, and many of these criticisms are justified. But Donna’s growing disdain for Josh is handled with care and assurance. Her arc had begun to slow during Season Four – another Republican boyfriend! More will-they-or-won’t-they tension! – but Team Wells has quietly revitalized her character. Across the fifth season, she rarely even traded barbs with Josh – he generally saved his most biting comments for Ryan. At a certain point, we must wonder, why does she stick around? Donna’s arc in the final two seasons will be hit-and-miss (the writers will simultaneously try to liberate her from Josh and romantically bring them together), but “No Exit” starts the ball rolling quite smoothly.

It’s not the only success of “No Exit,” an episode which, by and large, features more honest character interaction than the entire midsection of this season. But it’s the one thread that reminds us that The West Wing has not lost track of its characters – and that it’s still able to take them to new places in believable ways.

This component of change will become a major factor as we move towards Season Six, and Team Wells searches for ways to revitalize a show that has lately begun to grow repetitious. The results will feature a few errors and a number of weak storylines, but will ultimately prove worth the effort. Kind of like “No Exit.”

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ This show rarely makes modern-pop culture references, so the quick mention of Finding Nemo is jarring. But I’ll allow it, because Finding Nemo rules.
+ Donna: “He didn’t press hold.”
+ Kate pirouetting from Josh’s questions to talk about ballet. (Ha! Like what I did there?)

– The moment where the Secret Service agent knocks Toby to the ground feels really out of place with the rest of this episode.


Abbey’s concerns about Jed and Leo’s physical well-being will be recognized early in Season Six, when both men suffer serious health problems.

Score: B

2 thoughts on “West Wing 5×20: No Exit”

    1. Aargh! Reddit! My old nemesis!

      The final conversation between Bartlet and Butterfield told me it was a drill, albeit one that was connected to an actual, impending threat. I sort of wonder if the writers intended to follow through by making the virus into an actual attack, but decided to pull back when finalizing the script.


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