In September of 2001, The West Wing
was gearing up to start its third season. Then came September 11th. Aaron Sorkin's response to that day is mentioned on this page
At the time of the attack, Aaron was in the middle of writing the 6th episode of the season. A Halloween ep. He immediately stopped writing and tossed the script. He said that it didn't feel right to write. That all of a sudden what artists and writers did seemed "despicably silly."
After 2 days, he and his staff "dug in" to learn the history of terrorism. this happened over that weekend, and come monday he pitched the script idea to tommy schlamme and john wells and he wrote it in roughly 2-3 days, and then rewrote, and rewrote and rewrote ... he rewrote it quite a bit.
What he came up with was 'Isaac and Ishmael'. The episode aired on October 3rd, 2001, after a ten-day production schedule (compared to the usual six weeks). Media reaction was ... mixed
, to say the least.
The episode, as introductory speeches by the actors (not the characters) makes clear, sits outside the normal chronology of The West Wing
. There's no real point trying to work out where it fits into the series timeline, because it doesn't really fit anywhere. For that reason, it's never aired in this country; and for that
reason, I'd never seen it before tonight, when I watched the DVD copy I'd borrowed from Su. The title comes, of course, from the Bible; in the episode, the story is related in this way:
STUDENT: How did all this start?
ABBEY: How did what all start?
STUDENT: Well... this...
ABBEY: Sarah... God said to Abraham, "Look toward the heaven and number the stars and so shall your descendants be." But Abraham's wife, Sarah, wasn't getting any younger, and God wasn't coming through on His promise... I was very young when I had my kids. I was very, very, very, very young. I was barely even born yet when I had my oldest daughter, Elizabeth.
... Anyway, Sarah was getting older, and she was getting nervous because she didn't have any children. So he sent Abraham to the bed of her maid, Hagar, and Abraham and Hagar had Ishmael. And not long after they did, God kept His promise to Sarah, as He'd always intended to, and Abraham and Sarah had Isaac. And Sarah said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of the slave woman will not be heir with my son Isaac." And so it began: the Jews, the sons of Isaac. The Arabs, the sons of Ishmael. But what most people find important to remember is that, in the end, the two sons came together to bury their father.
JOSH: I think most people also find it important to remember that the whole thing took place about 73 million years ago.
As part of the introduction to the episode, Bradley Whitford describes 'Isaac and Ishmael' as a play. As the above quote may suggest, that's not entirely accurate. More than a play, it's a lesson.The West Wing
is not above being didactic when the mood takes it, but in 'Isaac and Ishmael' that tendency is ramped up to eleven. The scenario is this: in the wake of some unspecified terroist attack, the White House is experiencing security alerts on at least a weekly basis. When this happens, the whole building is 'crashed'; nobody is allowed to enter or leave (there's a faint siege mentality about the whole situation; everything seems subtly darker than the normal West Wing
universe; and if that is an alternate of ours, then what we see here is an alternate of theirs).
During this particular crash, a group of high-school students are visiting the White House, and Josh was assigned to meet them and answer any questions they may have. Inevitably, the discussion turns to terrorism; the causes of it, and possible solutions. One by one the other characters--Toby, Sam, CJ, Bartlet, Abbey, Charlie--happen by the room and offer their opinions. Josh starts out by inviting the students to fill in the blank: 'Islamic extremist is to Islamic as "blank" is to Christianity.' The students first guess 'fundamentalist', but what Josh has in mind is the KKK. "It's the Klan, gone medieval and global."
When Toby turns up, he makes his own analogy, borrowed by Sorkin from a Salon article
of the time:
TOBY: [looks at the visual aid, reads] "Islamic Extremists is to Islamic as KKK is to Christianity." That's... that's about right. That's a good religious analogy. What's the political analogy? What's an analogy using governments?
BOY 1: They don't have a government.
BOY 2: They have the Taliban. They have the government of Afghanistan.
TOBY: The Taliban is not the recognized government of Afghanistan. The Taliban took over the recognized government of Afghanistan. And there's your political analogy.
BOY 2: What do you mean?
TOBY: When you think of Afghanistan, think of Poland. When you think of the Taliban, think of the Nazis. When you think of the citizens of Afghanistan, think of the Jews in concentration camps.
In parallel to all this, we see the investigation into the reason for the crash. A known terrorist detained crossing the Canadian/US border named several coconspirators, one of whom was 'Raqim Ali'. It turns out there are three Raqim Alis: one is a software designer in Spokane, one is a caterer in LA, and the third works at the White House.
Leo is present at the interview--interrogation, really--of that Ali. He doesn't come out of it well, seeming paranoid and bigoted and too eager to believe that the man is guilty. Seeming, in short, not like himself; and indeed, that's what he says at the end of the episode, when Ali is found innocent. He apologises, and says they've been under a 'greater than usual' amount of stress.
It's not an episode that works as drama, not really. There's no real debate, no real conflict; the arguments of Josh and Sam and Toby are never really tested, and Josh's summing up at the end is falsely heartwarming:
JOSH: But listen, don't worry about all this right now. We've got you covered. Worry about school. Worry about what you're gonna tell your parents when you break curfew. [...] Learn things. Be good to each other. Read the newspapers, go the movies, go to a party. Read a book. In the meantime, remember pluralism. You want to get these people? I mean, you really want to reach in and kill them where they live? Keep accepting more than one idea. Makes 'em absolutely crazy.
It's too much, and it's not the only rough edge in the piece. But that said, overall it's still a fascinating piece of television. The longer-term effects of September 11th on The West Wing
play out through the third season, and the fourth; there's a greater emphasis on foreign policy rather than domestic, and more than one discussion about how America should use its power. 'Isaac and Ishmael' is a snapshot; and as depressing as it is to realise that the real White House seems nowhere near this well-informed or tolerant, it's equally heartening to realise that this sort of statement could be made, less than a month after the attacks. Not something to watch if you're unfamiliar with The West Wing
, probably; but for fans, I think it's essential.