“Isaac And Ishmael” (season 3, episode 1; originally aired October 3, 2001)
After a terrorist attack, the gang lectures high school students, and Leo is racist for some reason.
West Wing episodes normally feel like they’ve crammed an hour and a half’s worth of material into 42ish minutes. The pacing; the franticness. “Isaac And Ishmael,” airing less than a month after 9/11, is like 20 minutes worth of dialogue stretched paper-thin. It has the consistency of molasses, and the subtlety of a New York Post headline. But from what I’ve heard about the episode, I was expecting a lot worse. The episode wasn’t great, but it was a noble experiment, and despite itself, made some pretty salient points.
“Isaac And Ishmael” took roughly two weeks to write, rehearse and film. That’s an insanely quick turnaround in television land, even for network, and the episode does everything it can to set itself apart from the rest of the forthcoming, more carefully crafted season. The cast introduces the episode out of character, explaining that the episode wouldn’t adhere to continuity. The show would be getting back to the third season the next week (and teases it with juicy tidbits like…Donna gets a boyfriend—WEST WING YOU KNOW WHAT I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR!), but this was going to be something different. A play.
There isn’t much plot to speak of in “Isaac And Ishmael,” which is probably because the show was doing the episode on a budget and time crunch, and couldn’t use too many shooting locations. (In that way it almost functions as a bottle episode.) Basically, Josh and Donna are speaking to a group of high school students when the White House is put on lockdown. While they wait for the all-clear, the class heads to the cafeteria, where they ask Josh very leading questions that demonstrate they are angry at Arabs, but also weirdly logical and calculated in exposing the double standards of Josh and members of the White House staff. Oh yeah, everyone comes down to talk to them, because they don’t have much else to do and they’re all about the apples and peanut butter stockpiled in back. Meanwhile, another White House employee named Rakim Ali is taken in for questioning; someone named Yaarun Nabi is responsible for the attacks, and Rakim Ali is one of his known aliases. Leo, oddly hot-headed, helps with the interrogation.
A lot of you in the comments last week mentioned that “Isaac And Ishmael” not only abandoned the storyline of The West Wing, but also the believability of the characters the show had been building for two years. I watched “Isaac And Ishmael” wanting very much not to believe it, but it begins from moment one. Josh is approached by Donna, and told about the high school class he’s supposed to be speaking to. Josh balks at the idea. But doesn’t Josh love the idea of hamming it up, especially in front of impressionable youth? I know it’s not a big deal, but a lot of time is spent with Donna roping Josh into talking to these guys, and for the sake of just getting to the scene, it would have made the most sense to just use what the show’s already built, and make Josh excited about it.
This brings me to the idea of “a play” as demonstrated in “Isaac And Ishmael.” Most plays appear to be one-sided, in that they have a script and actors to deliver those lines; as an audience member, what you hear is what you’re getting. But of course, great plays require that the audience invest in what’s happening on stage. The play pulls you in, either with dramatic irony (you recognize something about a character that the character fails to recognize about themselves), or by giving the audience enough background on these characters where they can truly empathize with what’s happening to them. “Isaac And Ishmael” introduces Josh, Toby, Sam, and CJ into discussion, but there’s no subtlety in the way they present their arguments. CJ advocates for wire-tapping and spy training, taking a very unreasoned, very reactionary approach to the whole matter. (Basically, “It’s okay to be sneaky and dishonest about the whole thing, if it makes me feel less scared.”) It’s totally out of character, mind you, given how much she advocates for America as the champion for international levelheadedness. But regardless, no reason is given for why she feels that way. She just does. And thus the majority of “Isaac And Ishmael” feels less like a play, and more like a lecture.
Leo is the only character to offer up anything resembling an explanation. He sits in on the questioning of Ali, and it’s clear he had an agenda even before he walked in to meet the guy. He refuses to give in to any point raised, offering up uncharacteristically conservative views on each of Ali’s points. He’s a downright jackass to Ali, treating him like less of a man. And why? “That’s the price you pay,” Leo offers. Dick. Later he apologizes, explaining that it’s obviously been a taxing day, and emotions were running hot—Leo himself points out that he was acting out of character. He adds that it’s nice to see Ali back at his desk. Why Ali didn’t quit the White House then and there is beyond me.
“Isaac And Ishmael” talks about terrorism the way a Lifetime Original Movie might discuss a kidnapping-of-professional-violinists-turned-single-moms epidemic. Basically: “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?!? [shakes fist in air, followed by clutching of heart]” One of the reasons why I can’t really hate on the episode too much is that it actually raises a few salient points. I liked Josh’s SAT-like analogy of “Extremist Muslims are to Muslims, as the KKK is to Christians,” and the point that terrorism is 100 percent ineffective, since it only strengthens the thing they were hoping to weaken. Sure, it was sloppy and, at times, needlessly emotional (Josh’s tangential story about his mom), but by the time Mrs. Bartlet was telling her story, I was satisfied I’d gotten all I could out of “Isaac And Ishmael.” Then, Josh summed it up: “Pluralism.” The West Wing trusts my intelligence so much; I wish it trusted our intelligence at all in this episode.
I guess at the time, no one was really in a place where they could think about things intelligently, or rationally. We were all very scared; some probably found themselves thinking horrible, disturbing thoughts they never realized were part of them. “Isaac And Ishmael” was an opportunity to directly address those people, and the mere fact that it exists is testament to The West Wing’s legacy as a forward-thinking show. If a similar event (God, or whatever you believe in, forbid) were to occur today, I’m not sure what show would take up such an ambitious endeavor. Parks & Recreation is the only show I can think of that takes place in a government setting, but it would seem wildly out of character to stray from the comedy. The Daily Show is a given, as is Saturday Night Live; both proved themselves nearly 10 years ago. A good friend of mine pointed out that perhaps HBO would give some money to Sorkin and have him write something for quick turnaround again. But an existing primetime network drama? Who knows. The West Wing is truly one-of-a-kind, and the way I feel about “Isaac And Ishmael” is the way I feel about Glee and Treme: I don’t get a ton of enjoyment out of them, but I’m really happy they exist.