In the fifth episode of the seventh season of The West Wing, I’m a disaster of conflicted emotions. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.
It’s not hard for me to imagine that this was a deeply polarizing episode of the show, particularly since it’s made me feel like I’m fighting myself. I am torn between the technical brilliance of how “Here Today” unfolded and furious with the treatment of a character who, frankly speaking, deserved so much better than he got. I don’t know how I feel. I DON’T KNOW WHO I AM.
Okay, hyperbole aside, I try to immerse myself in a fictional world when I write about it. Occasionally, I talk about the mechanics of writing, and my critical analysis is deeply rooted in meta-narratives and technique. I’m aware of this, and I find that when I immerse myself in the world to talk about the story or character motivations or development, I appreciate the work a whole lot more, even if have issues with certain things. I tried doing that with this episode, and I was haunted by a particularly notion that I don’t often experience: Do the writers dislike Toby? Did they dislike Richard Schiff? Was there something happening behind the scenes to explain such a rapid change in tone surrounding how Toby Ziegler was portrayed?
I don’t often make claims that writing is out of character becauseâ€¦ shit happens. I know that I don’t have the complete picture before me, so I try to do my best to acknowledge that ignorance when I write about sudden changes. Truthfully, I can’t remember myself having this sort of reaction since the fourth season of Angel, when Cordelia Chase (MY ETERNAL QUEEN) was utterly ruined by Whedon and company. But I can’t escape this. Who thought Toby Ziegler would act this way? Who thought he’d suddenly become the least loyal character while simultaneously demonstrating his loyalty to his team? (I’ll explain that in a bit, I promise.) Who thought he would act like a sarcastic asshole when facing years in federal prison? WHO THOUGHT IT WAS OKAY TO MAKE HIS EXIT FROM THE SHOW SO UNANIMOUSLY BRUTAL? I don’t get it, and that’s why I’m wondering if there’s something I’m missing. Was this planned? Did the showrunners want to get rid of Richard Schiff? Why on earth would you do this?
But like I said, this episode is strangely brilliant, and it’s made me a mess. In an episode about the furor surrounding a leak of classified information, it is deliberately quiet. While Josh is firing one of Santos’s most dedicated staffers, there is no dramatic swell of music in the background. As Kate deals with the possible political disaster brewing between Russia and China, there aren’t any sounds or beats to heighten the drama. “Here Today” features numerous shots of security cameras, of television screens without any audio, and the lens by which we view events are often skewed and reverse. Hell, this is one of the most visual episodes of the entire series, particularly when you consider how much information is passed along to us without a single word of dialogue. How many characters are introduced or framed off-screen? How many times do we understand the full weight of what Toby has done solely by visual glimpses? And for a show that is built on heavy dialogue, this is an achievement, one that I couldn’t ignore. Alex Graves knocked this one out of the park, y’all.
Which is why it disturbs me so much that it’s this episode that features some of the best camera work and sound in the entire series. I spent most of this episode staring in horror as Toby’s downfall shown to me in great detail. The bulk of “Here Today” was devoted to Toby, and the title promised my deepest fear: that Toby would be gone by the end of it. So, as I watched Toby openly confirm that he was the sole source of the leak, that his fellow co-workers and friends had nothing to do with what he had done, I began to feel perplexed. Clearly, Toby was loyal, and that was demonstrated by his willingness to speak to Oliver Babish so openly. He wanted to make sure that his actions didn’t affect others as much as they could. It is an obvious sign of his loyalty to his friends.
So why the hell would he betray them? Why on earth would he betray President Bartlet, knowing that it would devastate the man??? You can’t have a character do something deeply disloyal for his own gain, and then act utterly and completely dedicated to the very people he betrayed. This might make sense if we had seen how hypocritical Toby could be, if he had been consistently inconsistent over the course of the show. This might make more sense if Bartlet’s claim that Toby was always headed for a “crash and burn” was AT ALL SUPPORTED BY CANON. I don’t think Bartlet’s statement that Toby felt morally superior is necessarily off the mark, but the way in which Bartlet says it makes it sound like he always knew that Toby thought he was better than the President. And granted, it’s a rough area. It’s possible that Bartlet was so brutal out of anger. I concede that this is possible!
But Toby Ziegler, who has spent six seasons on this show, is cast off in a way that’s so sad and so bitter that I can’t help but feel nothing but awfulness. I feel nothing good about this aside from my excitement that Will Bailey is going to be back in the main cast. Toby is escorted off the premises without a goodbye from the people he’s spent years getting to know. He is gone without any celebration of what made his character so memorable and iconic. With the election plot and the story with Kate and Ellie’s pregnancy/wedding (!!!!!!!), I really don’t think the writers are going to spend a lot of time with Toby’s trial or his time in federal prison. This feels like the end, and I hate it. (Of course, Toby is at Bartlet’s library three years after this, soâ€¦ what??? What?)
I don’t think I’ve ever been so interested in seeing how y’all feel, because I just spent forty minutes with tears in my eyes, watching a beloved character get torn apart. I don’t like this at all, AND I AM REALLY SAD.
The video for “Here Today” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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