West Wing 3×00: Isaac and Ishmael

[Review by Jeremy Grayson]

[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Christopher Misiano | Aired: 10/03/2001]

“That was unlike me.” – Leo

There is perhaps no single episode in my (admittedly brief) tenure as a television critic as difficult for me to review as “Isaac and Ishmael”. In writing these reviews, I’m required to be even-handed and understanding of any extenuating circumstances surrounding the production of the series, and penalize episodes only so far as to sound comfortably justified. And “Isaac and Ishmael” simply had me crawling the walls in weighing what is and isn’t “justified” in critiquing the episode.

Taken at a surface level: “Isaac and Ishmael” is not a particularly exciting or stimulating episode of The West Wing, nor is it at all an integral one. It’s poorly paced, it’s banally structured, and – as so very many critics have pointed out in the past – it has all the subtlety of an anvil chorus.

That last attribute is, ironically enough, the episode’s potential safety net. It makes its messages clear right from the start, with a cold opening in which the show’s castmembers directly address the viewers, explaining that this episode does not share the continuity of the rest of the series. It’s an anomaly, free from the confines of the show’s larger arc to tell its own story and deliver its own message. Those who find the episode ineffectual on first viewing can simply strike it from their minds, and gloss over the episode on rewatch.

But we won’t be glossing over “Isaac and Ishmael” today – by all technical standards, it is a part of the series, and thus falls under my pledge to review every single episode. But more importantly, we’ll be discussing this episode because it puts several important things in context – both about The West Wing in general and about the time this episode first aired.

Let me get personal for a moment. I’ve spent my life in New York City, with a childhood situated firmly around the turn of the millennium. On the day of September 11th, I was just a kid, barely old enough to comprehend the larger, world-changing nature of the events occurring just a short drive away. I didn’t personally know anyone lost in the attacks. At that age, I didn’t watch the news. I heard other, older people discussing it, without giving it much thought myself.

And yet… even with my natural obliviousness, I knew something was different. I wasn’t privy to watching Congressional hearings about Afghanistan bombings and the Patriot Act. But even in my own isolated little corner of the city, I could sense that people were now behaving differently. Something had changed, even if it would take a year or two for me to fully comprehend it.

Even as a child, I was in some way affected by the events of that day. So it was all too easy to accept how the world at large had been affected – from the residents of the US government to my own adult neighbors… to the writers and directors of Hollywood.

No real-world event has ever influenced television more than September 11th. Yet in the immediate aftermath, the influence was not by way of darker, more politically-minded TV. (This would come later in shows such as the revamped Battlestar Galactica.) Rather, it came by way of a sudden reaction to avoid any and all associations with the attacks. The Simpsons episode where Homer visits the World Trade Center? Banned from syndication. The Seinfeld episode with the poisoned envelopes, now viewed in the wake of the anthrax scare? Also banned. Friends and The Sopranos cut the Twin Towers from their opening themes. Even Futurama edited that moment in the opening credits when the Planet Express ship crashes into a tower-supported television.

It all became about avoiding unintentional subtext, or even fleeting reminders of the tragic events. Strangely, no one acknowledged that viewers could just flip the channel over to CNN and watch the planes hit the towers over and over – that, apparently, was an intentional commentary on the devastating state 9/11 had left the world in.

Which brings us to “Isaac and Ishmael”.

Let’s clarify one thing: Not only was The West Wing not the television series most affected by the events of 9/11, it wasn’t even the most affected series within the minute scope of its own production company. Third Watch, John Wells’ series about the lives of policemen and firefighters in New York City, premiered right around the same time as The West Wing did and spent much of its third season writing the aftereffects of 9/11 into its plotlines. But there lies the difference – from Day One, Third Watch was a slice-of-life look at reality; The West Wing was always envisioned as a fantasy.

Yet… how many of us look at it as an absolute fantasy? Sure, in real life, a man named Jed Bartlet was never elected President, and many of the events that transpired on the series were completely fabricated. But those fabrications are all built on the pretense that yes, the world of The West Wing shares some striking similarities with our world – and perhaps, if things went right, it could be our world.

So the series will continue on for another five seasons, never writing the collapse of the Twin Towers into the story even as it crafted a few haunting real-life parallels in its own world. But Aaron Sorkin recognized how closely his show was tied in to the political values of many of its nonfictional viewers. So he chose to take a moment and craft an episode built solely around events of the cold, concrete literal world.

Is the result preachy? Yes. Is it didactic? Of course. Are its messages blindingly obvious to any viewer who’s managed to keep up with the last two seasons? I certainly hope so. But for all its self-importance, “Isaac and Ishmael” represents exactly what The West Wing does so well on a political basis – it stands up and says something, something which most of the television-writing world of the time were too uneasy to say. It hasn’t aged very well. But time capsules rarely do.

Granted, even for what it was, and even taking all of the above into context, the episode could have been better. The entire subplot with Leo and the Arabic White House employee is uncomfortable to watch, and not in the right way. Remember that even as the episode exists to immortalize the scarred and angered feelings and sensibilities in those last few weeks of September 2001, it is still a West Wing episode, and nothing about the buildup within the story justifies Leo’s angry reactions to it. The “classroom” scenes, for the most part, serve their purpose in getting forth numerous messages and at least allow several different characters to reflect on terrorism in their own personal ways. They’re watchable, albeit unmemorable.

Again, I say, “Isaac and Ishmael” is not a terribly compelling West Wing episode, especially not when viewed all these years later. But the spur-of-the-moment nature surrounding its development makes it as crucial to understanding The West Wing as a television series as any of the show’s best offerings. Dislike it for what it is… but appreciate it for what it exemplifies.

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)

+ I’m not sure that this episode is the kind that should be picked apart for specific moments that were funny/inventive/successful (nor for those that weren’t). But I will say that I liked the use of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” over the end credits.



11 thoughts on “West Wing 3×00: Isaac and Ishmael”

  1. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on July 6, 2015.]

    Oooooh yeah. I was waiting for this one.

    Do you think this episode would have worked better if 9/11 did happen in the West Wing universe, even if only for one episode?


  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on July 6, 2015.]

    I don’t think it would have made much of a difference if it were just in this specific episode, although it would have made Leo’s attitude more understandable. I am, however, quite glad they didn’t take the Third Watch route and directly write 9/11 into the series, since it would have likely felt forced and overly politicized in addition to being tonally dissonant.

    (Some fans complain that The West Wing became unwatchable after 9/11, but ironically, the third season was the show’s most-watched season at the time of airing.)


  3. [Note: Alex C. posted this comment on July 16, 2015.]

    I have to quibble with your assertion that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the tendency to avoid any and all associations with the attacks was quite so across-the-board. Just to take examples from two shows that are frequently discussed on this site, there is no shortage of subtext concerned with those events in season 4 of The Sopranos. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that The Wire tackled the subject far more directly and with far better effect than Aaron Sorkin ever managed.

    Still, there’s no denying that making an episode like this was a gutsy and in many ways commendable decision. Unfortunately, my opinion of the result is even less generous than yours.


  4. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on July 16, 2015.]

    True, but that’s not the context I was referring to.

    The Sopranos S4 premiered in September 2002, over a year after the attacks. By that point, it was becoming quite common to insert a post-9/11 mood and subtext into ongoing TV shows. (The Wire premiered a few months earlier, but it was still not in the immediate period of 9/11. It contains occasional subtext in its first two seasons, but doesn’t really draw direct parallels between its themes and the War on Terror until its third season, which aired in late 2004, around the same time that tailor-made post-9/11 dramas were emerging – see also Battlestar Galactica and Rescue Me.)

    But in the fall of 2001, incorporating the mood of the country into a TV series was pretty much taboo. Although a few series made references to the attacks (such as NYPD Blue and the aforementioned Third Watch), most series instead opted for – if anything – an uplifting sense of patriotism. For about six months after the attacks, most TV networks and producers did as little as possible to invoke them.

    So while “Isaac and Ishmael” is preachy and poorly done, I don’t feel comfortable getting excessively critical of one of the few series which, at the time, decided to stand up and say something.


  5. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on September 4, 2015.]

    Problem with this episode– why is Leo suddenly a super-racist?

    Big problem with this episode– what the hell is CJ doing arguing against civil liberties? The Bartlet administration was livid when they learned that the wasp they’d intended to put on the Supreme Court didn’t believe in private property; why is CJ saying this a thing they’re willing to go along with?


    GIRL: Can I go back to what you were saying at the beginning? About it being 100% ineffective.
    SAM: Yeah.
    GIRL: They’re still doing it anyway?.
    SAM: Yeah.
    GIRL: They’re not frustrated by the failure?
    SAM: No.

    Okay, maybe I’m reading too much into this exchange, but doesn’t it sound an awful lot like the folks in this scenario are running into walls at full speed?


  6. [Note: unkinhead posted this comment on January 13, 2016.]

    I think this episode is the result of Jed Bartlet still hallucinating like he was in Two Cathedrals, and in his dream he terribly mischaracterized C.J. and Leo. Yeah I’m sticking by my theory. 🙂


  7. [Note: Boscalyn posted this comment on April 28, 2016.]

    Actually, reading Shooting the President per Jeremy’s suggestion has given me a new appreciation for the episode’s structure– it’s actually quite clever that both the Leo scenes and the classroom scenes are both based around question-and-answer sessions, but with the power dynamics between questioner and answerer reversed between the two.


  8. I didn’t find the Leo part of this episode quite as bad, but found the kids part of the episode considerably worse than you did, Jeremy.

    I think Leo was operating from the assumption that this was the guy they were after and being tough on him to try and make him crack. It was quite a coincidence that there’s only three people with that particular name in America and one of them works in the White House.


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