[Writer: Peter Noah | Director: Alex Graves | Aired: 10/23/2005]
“Is it possible to be astonished and at the same time not surprised?” – Bartlet
“Here Today” has had an unusual journey among West Wing fans – a journey which, as I’m writing this, is perhaps not yet complete. When it first aired in 2005, it was roundly hated by the show’s fans. A few critics praised it, but most of the show’s publicity had dried up by then.
Over fifteen years later, “Here Today” still isn’t one of the show’s most beloved episodes, and hardly comes up in discussions of the show’s best hours. But it is earning more respect from many West Wing fans (including many who, like myself, came to the series years after it concluded).
And that’s encouraging news. I’ve mentioned it a few times in the past, and I’ll reiterate: I love “Here Today.” I think it’s one of the most fascinating and audacious episodes of television the series has ever produced, either under Aaron Sorkin or Team Wells. I’ve watched it multiple times and continue to be engrossed by it on nearly every level. And now, after several years of waiting, I can finally dive in and explain why.
Now before we begin, let’s clear the air: I’ve been writing for this website for nearly a decade at this point, and across hundreds of reviews and thinkpieces, I’ve learned that people’s adherence to their opinions and preferences can be as rigid as their dedication to cold facts. And for all the nights I’ve spent tossing and turning, trying to convince myself that I’ve not gone crazy, that there is merit to this episode… I know that my chances of convincing others to improve their opinion of this episode are about as likely as convincing a Star Wars fan that the Millennium Falcon would lose a race to the USS Enterprise.
Still, this is hardly the first time I’ve posed an unpopular TWW opinion (see my less-than-glowing reviews of “Game On” and “The Long Goodbye”), and the incremental improvement in public opinion of this episode gives me a modicum of hope. With that in mind, here’s my case for why “Here Today” deserves more respect than it gets.
Start with the aesthetics. The West Wing has always been a brisk and kinetic show, bursting with witty banter and walk-and-talk energy. Sorkin’s mile-long scripts were filled with crackling dialogue, which the actors rocketed through as weaved their ways up one hall and down another. Things weren’t quite the same when Wells took the keys, but the show maintained a signature level of Steadicam energy.
“Here Today” is a different beast. Much of the episode is shot in slow, deliberate fashion, with many long, unbroken stills and close-ups. Rather than the typical shot/reverse-shot that defines standard TV exchanges, many of the characters are offscreen even when they’re delivering important dialogue. The camera often trains on people in mirror reflections or CCTV screens, depicting them as blurry and out of focus.
Absent, too, is the avalanche of dialogue. “Here Today” is filled with long pauses, breaking for silence after nearly each line. For the average show, this could feel like a hiccup; for a show as dialogue-prone as The West Wing, each pause feels like an eternity. And the silence is underscored by a lack of instrumental accompaniment – the entire episode features a grand total of three musical cues, all varying levels of low and dissonant.
It could easily feel like The West Wing is trying too hard to be artful, using new techniques that would be out of place in a typical episode. But that’s the point – “Here Today” is not a typical episode. It centers on a very atypical night in the White House, and a melancholy turn of events that stand as a far cry from the show’s usual buoyancy. It feels distant, almost dreamlike, with technical aspects that all feed into its unsettling, uncomfortable vision.
These are the atmospheric touches that feed the story. But what of the story itself? “Here Today” functions not merely in isolation; it works as a key character piece to the larger show. It is the long-due sequel – and twisted mirror image – of Season Two’s “17 People.”
“17 People” was one of the show’s all-time greatest episodes, an extraordinary stage play triangulating the drama between Bartlet, Toby, and a mitigating Leo. This episode features similar dramatic poles, swapping out Leo for CJ and reversing the focus of its two leads. This time, it’s Toby we follow for much of the episode, as he turns from respected official to disgraced pariah in the span of forty-three minutes.
The common criticism of this episode – leveled by everyone from longtime fans to Richard Schiff himself – is that Toby’s actions are out of character, that he has always been a loyal acolyte who would never betray the Bartlet administration. In the interest of full disclosure, I have my problems with the shuttle-leak storyline, particularly (as I’ve stated in previous episodes) the long and drawn-out attempt by the writers to make us believe CJ is the guilty party. Had the story been more subtle about its reveal – or, more intriguingly, if it had clued the audience to Toby’s culpability from the start – the build-up would have felt more substantial, and the payoff less polarizing.
But even as delivered, Toby’s arc doesn’t feel out of place. Since the beginning of the show – and certainly since “17 People” – he has always seen himself as an intellectual among intellectuals, the key speechwriter who puts words in the President’s mouth and (by extension) serves as his most instrumental voice. In the early going, this was played for laughs, with his emotional stoicism making him a good straight man for the likes of Josh, Sam, and Will.
But as the seasons piled up, Toby’s stories became more serious, his place in the administration less assured. He lost a chance to reconcile with his ex-wife, he lost his brother, and – following a reshuffle of the White House staff that saw nearly everyone sans Bartlet assuming new positions – he lost his foothold. Yet through it all, he remained committed to his own place as a key voice of reason, even as emotion began to slowly cloud his logic.
Throughout “Here Today,” Toby keeps his emotions in check. From the moment he reveals his culpability to CJ, he knows this will be his last night in the White House. He is wry and candid with Babish, and almost openly hostile to his own legal counsel, Alana Waterman, only reining it in when she calls him out on his self-destructive egoism. Toby forever views himself as cold and detached in his philosophy, and only an outsider’s criticisms convince him when he’s stepped too far.
His final exchange with Bartlet is even more impactful. Bartlet is no stranger when it comes to keeping secrets from his administration, but over seven years, he has embraced his paterfamilias role to a loyal political team. His acidic comments to Toby sting because of the truth behind them, truth that’s existed even in the show’s early days. “You’ve always been headed for this sort of crash-and-burn,” Bartlet says. “That self-righteous superiority; not that you were smarter than everyone, that you were purer, morally superior.”
“Due respect, sir,” Toby replies with measured intonation, “I don’t think I’m morally superior to everyone.”
“No,” Bartlet immediately shoots back. “Just to me.”
It’s a complete turning of Season Two’s tables. This time, Toby is the one facing moral culpability, with Bartlet the one pressuring him to own up to it. But Toby, ever self-righteous, does not believe he did wrong. Whereas Bartlet did not have any public support in concealing his MS, Toby will leave the White House with a cross-section of Americans hailing him as a hero.
But there is nothing objectively heroic about the episode’s presentation of Toby, particularly not the final shots of him being led out of the White House and toward a waiting car. The building’s halls, so typically bright and teeming with life, are now darkened and almost empty. There is no grand swelling of music, either; just a steady drumbeat as one of the White House’s most respected staffers is escorted out in shame.
But is it shame? Or impassive self-righteousness? At the outset, it remains unclear. Toby’s face is a blank slate as he is led out, a testament to Richard Schiff’s commanding performance. Few TWW episodes, in fact, have been as much about acting as this one. Schiff, Allison Janney, Martin Sheen, Oliver Platt – tremendous actors all, selling every scene, no matter how much or little of them is requested.
“Here Today” is not quite at the caliber of its Season Two counterpoint – it features a Khazakstan subplot that would have been better off trimmed. (The campaign thread, featured in this episode where Josh fires Ned from the campaign, is similarly superfluous to the main plot, but it at least works as a somewhat lighter complement to the main story.) That the episode is incidental to the larger driving arc of the season – the Santos/Vinick battle – is similarly unfortunate.
But despite these flaws – and I must emphasize how minor they are – “Here Today” ranks among the most immersive and affecting achievements that John Wells and his team have ever crafted. It may not be standard procedure for the series, but it is still strong, artful, and quietly moving television. Perhaps, given a little more time, this episode will finally achieve the appreciation and respect it has long deserved.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Special shout-out to Alex Graves, whose direction and camerawork guide the episode from first frame to last.
+ Santos critiquing the PC world of racial sensitivity.
+ Josh mocking Lou’s use of the word “spry.”
+ Abbey makes one of her few appearances in the final season (Stockard Channing was busy with the short-lived Out of Practice on CBS). Could always use more Abbey.
+ Helen watching a Rob Zombie film. One of the show’s more unusual pop-culture references, but still worth a chuckle in context.
- Bartlet’s comment about Toby’s resignation letter – “What is that, your third one?” – doesn’t click with continuity. Toby has previously handed one resignation letter to Bartlet, in “Slow News Day.” (There was also the fake resignation prank he – along with Josh and Bartlet – pulled on CJ in “Liftoff,” but I don’t think this episode is referring to that.)