Second Look: Frasier Season 1, Episode 17 – “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream”

Frasier A Mid-Winter Night's Dream

Frasier Season 1, Episode 17 “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream”
Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by David Lee
Aired February 10, 1994 on NBC

Conceptually, “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” is a perfect opportunity for Frasier to expound upon the tightly-wound mystery that is Niles Crane – and more specifically, his marriage to Maris, the most delicate, seemingly unpleasant woman to ever grace the earth. Through 16 episodes, Niles has mostly fawned over Daphne and disagreed with Frasier; beyond that, his presence is unexpectedly sparse in these early hours, something this episode distinctly works to resolve as it brings definition to Niles’ feelings about the two women in his life.

Unfortunately, “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” doesn’t entirely fulfill the promise of its premise; while it works a bit in offering Niles a few more interesting shades to explore, its ultimate resolution is a bit of a head-scratcher, putting its weakest elements front and center, rather than allowing it to focus on its few, but very tactile strengths (and wasting some of the best pure cinematography the series would ever offer, to boot).

Frasier A Mid-Winter Night's Dream

Over coffee with Frasier, Niles notes his marriage to Maris has become a bit ‘bland’ – which initially appears an attempt for Frasier to therapize his brother (for once), shifting the focus onto Niles to examine what’s gone wrong in a world and life we do not see (and honestly, never would, given Maris would never appear on screen). Rather than use this as a moment to explore who Niles was and became (something direly missing in his character to this point; he just went from meek child to notable psychiatrist, with nothing in between), “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” just wants to tease the audience with theoretical versions of Niles he could become; a passionate romantic, a celebrated pianist… and someone willing to cheat on his own beloved Maris?

Niles immediately getting jealous over Daphne flirting with the cafe’s barista certainly doesn’t kick things off well; but when a storm strands a post-breakup Daphne and a disillusioned Niles alone in the Gothic mansion he shares with Maris, “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” briefly becomes a beautifully staged two-character piece, in what mostly feels like a cheeky attempt to test out a Daphne/Niles pairing with the audience. It is a festival of costuming and set design rarely offered in the static settings of Frasier’s apartment, coffee shop, and radio booth; by the time the episode hits its halfway point, Frasier is lit like a Barry Lyndon knockoff, with its (potential) romantic pairing dressed in appropriately dramatic clothing. I mean just look how fucking gorgeous this shot is?

Frasier A Mid-Winter Night's Dream

How beautiful “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” is, however, undersells the content of its big dramatic arc. The problem is it just isn’t all that convincing, particularly in how the episode brings the two together – Daphne recovering from a short-lived romance with a barista, and Niles lamenting a lack of passion in his marriage with Maris. As Daphne comments to Niles that she doesn’t understand why she’s so broken up over him, Frasier kind of points out its premise doesn’t really make a lot of sense – which makes its decision to paint Niles’ moral quandary as something romantic and exciting even more nonsensical. Though writers Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano clearly want this episode to feel like a Renaissance-era stage play existing outside of reality, it consistently undercuts that point, whether cutting away to Frasier and Marty arguing the entire way from Frasier’s apartments to Niles and Maris’ house, or interjecting double entendres as moments to alleviate the sexual tension.

But there is no real sexual tension, given how oblivious Daphne is to everything; and that just makes Niles seem more pathetic than he is, someone fawning and fantasizing of a life with a woman he has nothing in common with, projecting the life he wants impulsively onto his father’s caretaker, rather than addressing the issues developing between him and the woman he (seemingly implausibly) loves deeply. When Niles talks about Maris is perhaps the only time the episode feels heartfelt; there’s a sense of a man trying to remember the spark of a woman he’s loved for years, his crush on Daphne more a melancholy reflection of his resistance to accept the changes within himself. But even there, nothing really suggests to us why Niles really, really loves Maris – even him expressing his love because of a moment of fate and “electricity,” the one moment he abandoned his cautious life philosophies.

Also, to briefly air my gripe with the character of Maris (and her as an adaptation of Cheers‘ Vera, for instance) is that they Frasier tries to have it both ways; give Niles this story of romance, while still trying to make him a person who cares about his wife he increasingly grows weary with. And it makes for conflicted scenes like their moments in front of the fireplace, which either require the audience to assume Daphne is a complete idiot (she doesn’t realize the situation she’s putting Niles in?), or that Niles is a little sleazier than his pocket square suggests.

Frasier A Mid-Winter Night's Dream

Also, the farther “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream” moves from the premise of Niles trying to spice up his marriage to Maris towards a story of Niles pursuing Daphne, the more it wastes its potential to build out a more rounded, detailed portrait of all three characters (we could’ve had a whole subplot of Daphne dealing with American 90’s men, which would’ve been hilarious to revisit in 2023).

What it leaves us with is a particularly unfunny episode about Niles almost cheating on his wife, hardly the kind of thing Frasier often turned into poignant stories. And its few few intriguing moments are mostly played against the episode’s primary objective: making Niles squirm in Daphne’s presence, teasing their romance – but never justifying it, given the episode ends without any sense of Daphne returning the affection for Niles. Even ignoring the ultimate resolution of this plot (seven fucking seasons later – my god, do they drag this out), the darker undertones of this episode are clearly not something the series is really interested in pursuing, and that undercuts what it’s trying to accomplish by bringing depth to Niles as a human being.

At least we’ll have the fantastic lighting and staging of “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream”; though it doesn’t follow through on its promise of building out Niles – or building up Niles/Daphne – in a truly meaningful way, it’s brief foray into Niles’ baroque fantasies of wooing Daphne at least offers the series to show off some incredible imagery (real shout out to episode director Daniel Lee, whose credits include producing The Jeffersons and Cheers, a few of the more visually dynamic multi-camera sitcom of the 20th century). But it’s still a real disappointment to see Frasier starting down what I still contend is an unsatisfying, illogical conclusion for two characters I’m quite fond of; after all, Niles/Daphne is the romantic centerpiece of the entire series (unless you count Marty and Ronee, which…. c’mon). My feelings on the events of seasons 7-10 of Frasier are better left for another day; they certainly don’t cloud my feelings for “A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream”, which is a great looking, thoroughly unconvincing episode of television.

Grade: C-

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Would Niles really put an eye patch on his junk? Of the many out-of-character details in this episode, that one sticks out like a sore thumb.
  • This episode needed a good Roz runner – matter of fact, most recent episodes have suffered from NER – Not Enough Roz.
  • Daphne loves the Kenyan blend: “I like something that holds its body against my tongue.”
  • What does Roz do when the romance is over in a relationship? “I get dressed and go home!”
  • Niles recounts the tale of when he met Maris, which was right after she bought a “rare bell jar owned by Sylvia Plath.” *rolls eyes slowly*
  • There’s a Pirates of the Caribbean joke in this episode, though obviously not in reference to the movie that wouldn’t come out for another nine years.
  • Niles also can’t cry??? What a weird episode.
  • “I want enough foam to be aesthetically pleasing, but not enough to leave a mustache.”
  • The only funny scene in this episode is when Frasier and Marty start arguing about driving routes and tires on the ride to Niles’ house, and Eddie intently listening to Niles leave Frasier a voice mail, of course.
  • Daphne did not understand Niles’ speech: “He was just talking about her excruciating small face, and how they laugh at white people.” What the hell happened to her brain in this episode?

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