This feature is part of our Politics and Entertainment week, looking at the points where art and issues overlap.
Getting angry about a TV show is silly. I know that. I’ve written that, here, more than once, usually in mocking tones directed at the more passionate end of the viewing audience of Lost, who I really enjoy needling for some reason that I’ve yet to fully grasp. It’s one thing to feel disappointed, or even misled, but in general, it seems like a waste of energy to let yourself get so wrapped up in the plot of a show that a creative decision causes you to become really, physically upset. If history has taught us anything, though, it’s that I am a shameless hypocrite, and that brings me to my point: Every time I think about what The West Wing did to Toby, I get so furious that I could spit on the floor.
A quick primer: Season six, the show’s second after the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin, featured a plot about astronauts stranded in space and running out of oxygen. There was no way to get a civilian aircraft out there in time to save them, but there were rumors floating around that there was a highly classified military space shuttle that could potentially do the job. The problem was that using the ship to save the astronauts would effectively de-classify it and let the world know America had it. The decision was taken out of the President’s hands, however, when someone leaked the existence of the secret shuttle to a reporter. With the whole thing now public knowledge, there was no point in not using it anymore, so bing bang boom, up it went, astronauts saved, etc. etc. etc.
An investigation into the leak followed and bled into season seven. It was a big deal. And eventually Toby Ziegler, the longtime White House Communications Director, who had heard about the existence of the shuttle from a coworker and his recently deceased astronaut brother (it’s dawning on me just now how ridiculous this all sounds when you condense it to two paragraphs), confessed that he had been the source. Toby was fired by the President, disgraced in public, and sentenced to a jail term (he later received a pardon), and whoops, I’m livid again.
(Full disclosure: I love Toby. He was the best, and he was easily my favorite character on the show, followed immediately by Leo and Charlie and Donna, and then an ever-changing mish-mosh of a list that always ends with Josh Lyman, whom I hate with the burning passion of 11,000 hells, also for reasons I have yet to fully grasp. So that’s the lens I’m viewing all of this through. I never claimed to be impartial.)
It’s just… it didn’t feel right. At all. Toby was a passionate and fiercely idealistic character, so I guess the theory was that leaving astronauts out there to die would trigger his self-destructive Right vs. Wrong mechanism, especially while he was grieving his brother’s passing. But doing this meant betraying the President, to whom he had been loyal for the run of the show, even when they had serious disagreements. I don’t think Toby would have done that. And having him do it — even in a way that allowed him to be virtuous by taking the jail time instead of revealing where he got the information from, which could have tarnished his brother’s legacy and put his friends and coworkers, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, in the crosshairs, too, due to conversations they had about the shuttle — had the effect of making him a traitor.
(There is also a school of thought that C.J. was the real source of the leak and Toby was taking the fall to protect her. If you want to learn more about this theory, please click on literally any link on the West Wing subreddit, where you will find it elaborated upon in great detail. Personally, I’ve never bought into it. The way the plot played out was a kind of okie-doke, making you think C.J. did it and then revealing it was Toby, and I think this theory is mostly just an attempt to parachute in and save Toby from both his fate and a sloppily constructed story. And it wouldn’t solve my problem even if it were true, because then I’d end up angry at the show for allowing C.J. to let Toby go to prison for her without stepping up.)
But the bigger problem I have with the whole thing is that none of it had to happen, you know? By doing it, the show took Toby — to that point a gruff, cynical, entirely lovable crank, who served as a kind of Greek chorus for the more liberal wing of the show’s audience — and more or less threw him in the trash in the middle of the final season. Why would they do that? They didn’t have to. They could have just as easily, like, not done it. Or they could have kept most of the plot, but sent Josh Lyman up to fix it on a tiny rocket and then left him out there to die alone in the cosmos. That would have been fine, too. But not Toby. They didn’t have to do that to Toby.
I don’t know. It’s easy to try to justify the characters’ actions once you put them in a situation, but my point is that they could have also not created this particular situation at all. The show did a lot of this type of thing after Sorkin left. Suddenly there were more terrorists and White House lockdowns and yes, space disasters. It all started getting a little 24. At one point they half blew up Donna, which was strange. And while the result of most of those decisions was a hokey episode and/or Donna wheeling herself around the White House for a few weeks before fully recovering, the result of this one was an extremely unsatisfying, out-of-left field end for a fan-favorite character, who had no real time or opportunity to fully redeem himself.
And it’s not just me and the yahoos on Reddit who have strong feelings about this. The actor who played Toby, Richard Schiff, did an interview in 2012, seven years after the show ended, in which he revealed that the whole thing still sticks in his craw, too.
I think he would more likely have become a mass-murdering terrorist than to do what they had him do. I think somebody had what they thought was a really good idea and didn’t ask me. Aaron would have asked me. Aaron Sorkin would’ve talked it over to see how it bounced off of the character I was creating with him, but these people didn’t consider that important. I don’t blame them at all; I’m not angry at them.
Not angry at them? Well, I guess, that makes one of us.