[Writer: John Sacret Young | Director: Rod Holcomb | Aired: 3/16/2005]
“I’m gonna remember this…” – Leo
The rules of fictional writing (be it in television, film, or literature) dictate that there are two types of bad stories – those that fail in concept, and those which fail in execution. The West Wing, despite its many triumphs, has produced multiple episodes in both categories. The “fail in concept” basket includes “Slow News Day,” which is ineptly plotted but at least features some glimmers of character competence, while the latter category slots in “Constituency of One,” which starts with a promising series of storylines and then bungles every last one of them.
And then once in a while, we get an episode that fails in both concept and execution. An episode like “Ninety Miles Away.”
Here is an episode that misses so many marks that I find myself seriously pondering how it even made it past the conceptual stage at all, much less get produced and aired during Season Six’s rejuvenating second half. While episodes like “King Corn” and “Drought Conditions” showcase the series at its strongest, “Ninety Miles Away” drags it back to the lowest dregs of Season Five.
I believe that, if given the choice, I’d prefer “Access” over “Ninety Miles Away.” Boring and useless as the former episode may be, it at least fails be virtue of consolidation – the entire episode is set under the blanket of the Frontline-style documentary, and thus every aspect of it is discolored by virtue of context. “Ninety Miles Away,” on the other hand, features a standard episodic format and multiple ideas which fail, both individually and as a whole.
Let’s begin with the concept. Early in the episode, we learn that Bartlet and Leo have been engaging in secret talks with Fidel Castro. (Yes, that one.) As rumors resurface that Castro is on the verge of death, Bartlet wants to seize an opportunity to fix the Cuban immigrant crisis.
First question: Why is Fidel Castro in this episode? The West Wing has long succeeded by providing some separation from reality, allowing us to view politics through a slightly (and sometimes radically) distorted prism. Real-life politics are only incorporated in order to reflect real-life systems – the politicians themselves are show-exclusive. This allows us to connect to the stories on a more personal level than we would if the show centered on real politicians and events. Moreover, keeping things fictional compels the writers to craft characters with their own foibles, interests, and connections, rather than forcing the audience to rely on cable news for context.
So the moment when Leo steps into the Hemingway House and meets with the actual then-President of Cuba, all our perceptions about the West Wing’s world fly straight out the window. No longer are we watching a fictional TV series – the show has now morphed into a docudrama, drawing directly from real-life context. This is at once a betrayal of the series’ ethos and a bucket of ice-cold water in the face of the audience.
Moreover, “Ninety Miles Away” never once says anything interesting about the American/Cuban conflict. How could it? Even moreso than “The Birnam Wood,” the writers’ hands are tied by reality – Castro can’t play a major part in the episode, nor can he influence any ongoing storylines, nor (despite all the blather about it in the episode) can he die. The only insight the episode can give us is that “Castro is bad,” which is a shocking revelation to any viewer without eyes, ears, or a working prefrontal cortex.
But even if we can overlook this bizarre development, “Ninety Miles Away” still falls to pieces. Taken on its own merits, this is a dull, drab, unexciting episode. And much of that can be attributed to the characters it chooses to focus on.
Start with Leo. Back in the Sorkin days, Leo served an important thematic purpose to the series: he was the pragmatist, the voice of reason who kept Bartlet and the staffers from losing themselves in flights of political fancy. But once Wells stepped up, the entire series took on more pragmatic overtones, and Leo lost his most vital function. From this point, the series saw fit to instead use him for redundant character development (“An Khe”) or cheap melodrama (“The Birnam Wood”). Season Seven will try to give him a more substantive role (and we’ll discuss the pros and cons of it when we get there), but the first two Wells years struggled to hold him above water.
And nowhere is Leo’s anonymity more pronounced than in “Ninety Miles Away,” an episode that tells us even less about him than “An Khe” did. The story pretends to give him in a proactive role, but nothing about the plot (his secret meetings with Castro threaten to go public, and Bartlet addresses it) gives John Spencer anything to work with. Maybe if the episode gave the plot even a modicum of substance, it would provide a better vehicle for Leo, but the episode can’t even manage that.
Because, yeah… let’s talk about Kate Harper. By this point, Kate has been a part of the show for a full season, and her personality can be best described as “the blonde who isn’t Kristin Chenoweth.” Granted, she served some plot-related purposes at the end of Season Five, but… why is she still here? Why was she promoted to a series regular? What is her personality, or her arc in the series? So far, Kate has received even less character development thus far than Mandy did in Season One.
But wait, we think. “Ninety Miles Away” is the episode that will change that. Throughout the episode, characters keep talking about Kate’s mysterious past. What is her mysterious connection to Leo? Who is Andy, the man she meets surreptitiously in a DC bar? What was her undercover mission in Cuba in 1995, which put her in a fake brown wig and gave her a real black eye? Halfway through the episode, we begin to figure that “Ninety Miles Away” has a surprise in store – something which finally reveals Kate Harper’s true purpose in the show.
And you can figure all you want, well after the episode ends. Kate’s mission to Cuba is treated as a footnote; we never learn who Andy is; the only “connection” she had to Leo was driving him home once when he was blackout drunk. Unless the writers were planning an Alias-style spinoff to focus on a young Kate travelling the world, adopting various disguises, and stopping dangerous criminals, this episode has been an entirely pointless excursion.
Is there anything else worth discussing about “Ninety Miles Away”? Well, there’s an unfunny subplot about termites in the White House (I suddenly miss Capitol Critters) that goes nowhere and is forgotten halfway through the episode. It mainly serves to give Charlie something to do, but Charlie ceased to be relevant somewhere around the Jean-Paul era, so watching him talk to entomologists and try to pronounce “rhinotermitidae” is just sad.
Ironically, there probably was an interesting version of this episode: one which focused on the campaign side of the aisle. With the Florida primaries coming up, Cuban immigration has become a hot-button issue, and candidates like Santos and Russell would have to find ways to address it. But Josh and Donna are scarcely in the episode, and Santos doesn’t even make a cameo. Instead, we’re left with the weakest aspects of the show’s Bartlet side, in an episode that amounts to nothing and signifies even less.
It’s rather surprising that this episode was written by John Sacret Young, cocreator of China Beach. That Young could go from producing one of the greatest TV dramas of the 20th century to making… this… is unreal. Though for all I know, Young was unhappy with Wells’ China Beach work back in the day, and wrote this episode as a means of revenge.
In any case, I’ve exhausted enough words and energy in discussing this episode. Nothing adds up, nothing makes sense, and nothing sticks beyond the closing credits. Stay at least ninety miles away from it at all times.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ I don’t typically inject personal politics into these reviews. But I’d just like to say how thrilled I was when the real Fidel Castro finally died. It was the second-best thing to happen to America in November 2016.
+ Bartlet’s JFK story (which is echoed in the final scene).
+ Senator Framhagen getting annoyed at Cliff for the “repeating dialogue.” Boy, imagine if he had been here for the Sorkin years.
+ The callback to Margaret being able to forge Bartlet’s signature (as established in “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Part II)”).
+ Incidentally, the first-best thing to happen to America in November 2016 was, of course, the premiere of Doctor Strange. (What did you expect?)
– Why is so much of this episode shot in darkness? Just makes everything look dull and unfocused. Kind of like the episode itself.
– The Castro body double. No. No, no, no, no, no.
– Senator Framhagen referring to a female intern as “a sashaying piece of pulchritude.” Don’t be weird, Senator.
– The scene with Charlie and the entomologists is profoundly unfunny.
– Oh good, they used the “Jump off a cliff” line again. Sigh.
– The continuity of this episode doesn’t add up. Leo mentions in “Take Out the Trash Day” that he’s been sober “for six and a half years,” which would put the start of his rehab in 1993. But the flashback shows that he was still getting habitually drunk in 1995. (True, he also got briefly drunk during the 1998 flashbacks in “Bartlet for America,” but that episode explained why that relapse was kept secret. There’s no such context given here.)