Today, I want to draw some attention to the tragic character assassination of Toby Ziegler, speechwriter to President Bartlet on The West Wing, a show that ran from 1999 to 2006. Toby was played by Richard Schiff.
If you haven’t seen The West Wing start to finish, I recommend you do that first. There will be SPOILERS for the entire show in this blog post. Also, it’s my favorite TV show ever and if you haven’t seen it you’re missing out.
So, let’s begin by looking at the character traits of Toby in the beginning of the series. In season one, Toby is introduced as an intelligent, sharp, sarcastic man. He is Communications Director and Senior Domestic Policy Advisor to President Bartlet. His grumpiness is off-putting to strangers but endearing to his colleagues, who are also his close friends. I think Toby is a largely misunderstood character, because his outer shell, the mask he wears when facing the outside world, is so tough. Toby can be harsh, impolite, and condescending. He’s arrogant in the way people always are, when they have been smarter than all those around them since the day they were born.
Deep down, Toby is a good guy, intelligent and serious and loyal. His behavior throughout the first seasons of the show proves the strength of his character again and again. After a brief moment of anger, he takes the news of the President’s illness remarkably well and offers support to his friends in trying times. He tries to be a good partner to his ex-wife Andy, even though she’s unwilling to give their relationship another chance.
Andy: “You’re just too sad for me, Toby…. You’re just sad. You bring the sadness home with you and you’re — sad.”
Toby: “I’m not sad.”
Andy: “You are. I don’t know if anything can change that but I can’t.”
Toby: “I’m not sad.” Toby laughs at the idea. “I take things seriously.”
All scripts from The West Wing are from this website.
Toby is always an incredible friend to Sam Seaborn, Josh Lyman and CJ Cregg. He is respectful of his superiors, Leo McGarry and President Bartlet, to the point of personal inconvenience. He was the first to lead and support the Bartlet campaign, and he’s often unwilling to compromise on political issues and more idealistic than his colleagues, in spite of his cynical behavior.
Toby: “We’re a group. We’re a team. From the President and Leo on through, we’re a team. We win together, we lose together. We celebrate and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories sweeter because we did them together. You’re my guys and I’m yours, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”
Toby stole my heart in season one’s episode In Excelsis Deo. During this episode, Toby is contacted because a homeless man has frozen to death wearing a coat with his business card in it. As it turns out, Toby donated the coat to goodwill. However, it was not warm enough to keep the man alive. Toby respects people, and this man, who is a veteran, especially. So he tracks down the man’s next of kin and pulls some political strings to arrange a military funeral for him. How humanitarian is that?
According to the website tvtropes.org, character assassination or character derailment occurs:
“When an established character becomes largely different, exhibiting behavior contrary to what has been previously shown. This is not a matter of organic growth. Rather than gradually changing in response to events and experiences, a derailed character will exhibit shockingly unusual behavior that implies malfeasance or incompetence on the part of the writers.”
Read the full article here.
Unfortunately, scriptwriting genius Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing after season four. From there on out, I’m sad to say that Toby started slipping out of character. Most noticeably, he leaked classified information to the press in season seven.
This uncharacteristic behavior was explained as a kind of Edward Snowden-like bid for freedom of speech. Furthermore, Toby was said to be unbalanced by the recent death of his brother. Schiff disliked the storyline.
[Richard Schiff] felt let down by the scriptwriters.
“I was sad for the show,” he says. “I hated my storyline. Toby would never in 10 million years have betrayed the president in that fashion [in the seventh series, Toby is indicted for leaking classified information]. Even if he had, there would have been seven episodes’ worth of fights before he did it… In the end, the only way I could make sense of my story was to come up with my own story – that Toby was covering for someone else. That, at least, made sense to me.”
So, who was Toby covering for? “I don’t think I should ever reveal that.”
The President and other staffers of the White House, most noticeably Toby’s close friend and potential love-interest CJ, were let down by Toby’s betrayal. They were disappointed in him. I agree with Schiff. Toby would never have betrayed the Bartlet administration in such a way. The only way he would have confessed to leaking the information would be when covering for someone else.
Toby may have been secretive about it, even bashful, but he was an idealist. He would never take justice into his own hands like some arrogant government vigilante. Toby believed in the system. He gave many valuable years of his life to make the world a better place. In return, those he was always loyal to condemned him for treachery.