What To Do When You’re Trapped In A Room


Television has been around for quite some time now, and it looks like it’s here to stay.  Once you’ve watched enough TV, you can begin to classify certain episodes by type.  One type that’s a bit of a dying breed these days is the Bottle Episode, usually bred out of necessity for a show with a tight budget, where the entire episode takes place on the main set as a cost-saving measure.  A subtype of the Bottle Episode is the Trapped In A Room episode, where due to some external event, the characters are separated and cut off from each other for an episode.

There usually isn’t a whole lot of plot.  The thrust of the episode is usually “restoring the status quo,” that is, undoing the event which trapped everyone.  However, what makes these episodes so fascinating is what you can do with the characters.  Take two characters who have unresolved issues, and apply heat and pressure in the form of being forced to spend time together.

It’s not all fun and games.  A Trapped In A Room Episode has to walk a fine line.  You usually have three or more separate “rooms” where characters are trapped, and you have to weave those threads into an overarching narrative while still leaving room for the individual interactions in each room.  Not an insignificant task.

Below are a handful of Trapped In A Room episodes that walked that line with aplomb.


The West Wing – “No Exit”

Ah, the much-maligned 5th season of The West Wing.  After Sorkin’s departure, the show went reeling and took a long time to find its feet again.  However, in a lackluster 5th season, there were some gems.  “No Exit” is one such gem and a classic “Trapped In A Room” episode.  The hook that sets the episode in motion is a biological agent alert in a detection system in the White House.  For a show that vary rarely puts its characters in physical danger, a possible anthrax attack on the White House comes across as even more disturbing and threatening.

But that’s really just the backdrop.  The anthrax scare initiates a lockdown, and everyone has to stay in the room they’re in, making it a quite literal “trapped in a room” scenario.  The most fraught, interesting duo that finds themselves together is Will and Toby.  It’s a moment of transition in the series.  As Will gears up the VP for a run at the Presidency, the stalwarts of the President’s team are feeling the weight of being six years in – it’s not over yet, but sundown is coming.  Toby sees Will’s actions as a betrayal of the President, and will contends that someone has to look to the future.  It’s a very tense, very fraught debate because it’s so personal.  Will isn’t just abandoning the team, he’s abandoning Toby.  Toby, for all his gruffness, feels an undeniable kinship for the few, the very few people who “get it” like he does.  And that goes double for fellow writers, like Sam and Will.

I wish I could find the next half of this scene, where Will brings him the 500 words and Toby talks about not being able to write.  The incredibly understated vulnerability in that scene… it’s like Superman confessing to Batman that he’s losing his powers or something.

And all of that kinship gets betrayed, in Toby’s mind, when Will quits to work for the Vice President.  To have them trapped in a room hashing it out is an incredible piece of acting and drama.


Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Disaster”

Must be nice to write sci-fi.  Need an excuse to have the ship break down and trap everyone in a room?  Oh look, the ship ran into a “quantum filament.”  Boom, done.  For a show that usually favors plot over character, this is a welcome break. Each separate “room” has its own merits, and they’re all connected with the goal of trying to get the Enterprise running again.  Worf having to deliver Keiko’s baby is definitely one of the show’s comedic highlights.

“Now, you must push with each contraction.  And I must urge you – gently, but firmly – to push harder.”  Ranks right up there with DS9’s baseball episode for great Worf one-liners.  And Worf delivering a baby just isn’t going to happen without the framework of a Trapped In A Room episode.

Another great “room” from “Disaster” is Troi finally getting a taste of The Big Chair.  With Troi left as the highest-ranking person on the bridge when disaster strikes, she has to make life or death calls, but more importantly assert some authority.  It’s a fairly short, quiet moment, all things considered, but for a character who seems to be all about negotiation and the soft sell, seeing her assert herself is pretty cool.


House – “Lockdown”

The frame story for this one is pretty weak – a baby goes missing, and the hospital gets locked down until it’s found, but again, the real meat is in the character interactions.  The notable thing here is that House is an incredibly formulaic show, and when it breaks out of that formula, it’s almost always good.  Case in point – Foreman and Taub getting stoned together is something you won’t see on any other episode.  Wilson and Thirteen interact one-on-one in an amusing game of Truth or Dare, and just that interaction – the two of them together, talking – is something I can’t remember ever happening on that show.

The icing on the cake is that this was Hugh Laurie’s directorial debut.  Watching how the sausage gets made is even more fascinating than the episode itself.

  • I’m always impressed by films that do the trapped in a room thing. A film that can be interesting for an hour and a half with just two or more people on one set talking is an amazing thing to carry off when you think about it. Aragami and The Man From Earth come to mind.

    • Indy Z

      Never heard of Aragami – worth checking out?

      • There’s actually a really cool story about it. It was part of a contest between two Japanese directors where they each agreed to make a low-budget film with only two significant cast members that took place on the same set shot in only a week. 2LDK is the other film. I’m still conflicted about who won since I enjoyed both films very much.

        Whether or not they’re worth checking out depends on how into Asian and indie cinema you are. Aragami is one of my least favorite Kitamura films, but seeing that he’s one of my favorite directors, that’s like saying one of my least favorite Tarantino flicks. It’s still pretty damn cool. 2LDK is probably the one I’d recommend to somebody less experienced with Asian films since the plot is simpler, less Japanese, and it’s positively dripping with black humor.

  • Alec

    Breaking Bad’s “The Fly”!!!

    • Indy Z

      Good call!

  • Andy

    12 Angry Men was a great film that was entirely trapped in a room. I’m sure most of you know about it and/or have seen it by now, but if not, it’s worth a go.

    Also, obviously the bottle episode of Community, but that goes without saying.

    • Indy Z

      Yeah, “Cooperative Calligraphy” is one of my favorite episodes of television ever.

  • Benjamin Shidler

    The form seems to be pretty standard in horror/suspense films. It’s a way of upping the tension by limiting options. Some that are maybe not as well known but I thought it was most effective, were Sleuth, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Armoured, and Phone Booth – which a lot of people didn’t like but I thought was effective for what it was.

    In terms of TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer did an episode “Older and Far Away”, where no one can leave the house because of a spell. They also did “Conversations with Dead People”, I’m not sure if that counts but all the characters stay in their respective scenes for the entire episode. It was tense and crazy-making because it wasn’t the standard Scooby Gang episode and you just want everyone to get together again, and laugh over things and break the tension, which didn’t happen.

    Also there was “Midnight” from Doctor Who with David Tennant.