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Two Questions About “The West Wing,” 3×01, “Isaac and Ismael”

Season three of The West Wing was set to debut in the fall of 2001, with the President Bartlet ready to run for reelection and educate the nation on MS. But it was the fall of 2001. I was living in Indianapolis in September of 2001. The world was upside down, and even pop culture was influenced by the events of September 11. This stand alone episode of The West Wing originally aired on October 3, 2001.

The episode opens with an intelligence agency flagging a person of interest, and the White House going on lock down. There’s a group of high school honor students stuck in the mess hall with the senior staff when the lock down happens.

We then have two settings for most of the episode –Leo interrogating the person of interest who works at the White House, and the senior staff giving the students lessons in world history and world cultures.

The episode was clearly written on the fly, and is a collection of every conversation that was happening in America in the fall of 2001. In many ways (like so much of the West Wing), these conversations are still happening today.

Selena: In a scene where the senior staff is talking about terrorists to the student group, Sam compares Al Qaeda to the KKK. Do you think this is an apt metaphor? Why or why not?

Sally: I think it’s apt in that it’s one group hating another for fundamental reasons, reasons that the group who’s the target can’t change. The KKK hates based on race, al Qaeda hates based on culture. The metaphor doesn’t line up perfectly, but it was a way to describe the level of extremism. In 2001, not every American was aware of al Qaeda.

Selena: In the intro to this episode, Bradley Whitford explains that it doesn’t fall within the timeline of the series, but should be viewed as a stand-alone episode. Keeping this in mind, do you think the characters all behaved in ways we would expect them to behave, considering the first two seasons?

Sally: Heh. You’re reading my mind. I’m leaving you Leo. As for everyone else – hm. I think that every character in the episode was a bit calmer and cooler than they may have really reacted. At the time, given that the episode was written and filmed within four weeks of September 11, 2001, I can see why the episode was written the way it was.  The country needed calm rocking, and The West Wing gave us that while also sending the message of “live and let live.”

Sally: When we were talking about this episode, you mentioned that it “didn’t age well.” What did you mean by that?

Selena: Without the raw emotions of the moment in time when it originally aired, it seems trite, and preachy. It gave the impression that the people in charge knew exactly what to do, and we should trust the smart people in government to get us through the tragedy. With hindsight, it’s clear that nobody knew exactly what to do.

I think this episode should have been left out of the DVD/syndication/streaming format, because it was so of-the-moment. We’re not still watching the first Daily Show Jon Stewart did after 9/11, because it only made sense in that moment.

Sally: We see a side Leo that struck me differently as I watched it this time around. How did you react to his words and actions during this episode?

Selena: WHO IS THIS LEO? THIS IS NOT MY LEO. I get they needed someone to fill the role of cautionary tale, but why Leo? They couldn’t bring in a second-stringer to be the racist? Everything we know about the man up to this point indicates he’s smart and thoughtful. He can be an asshole, he’s probably a little sexist, and he’s more willing to solve problems with military force than Bartlet, but there’s no indication before this episode he’d be the guy who assumes all Muslims are terrorists. Sure, we all know ignorant people who hold these ideas, even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but outside of this one episode, Leo has never given any hint that he’s that guy.


3 replies on “Two Questions About “The West Wing,” 3×01, “Isaac and Ismael””

I haven’t seen the episode since it aired, but it was just so awkward and weird. We skipped over it when we started rewatching the series last year, but then my husband was only a few blocks away on 9/11 and had just stepped outside when the first tower came down and had to run like hell, so we pretty much avoid anything having to do with that day. (I was uptown and found out that the judge who had sentenced the bombers from the first WTC attack lived a few doors down, so I got the hell out of my apartment and went over to his place until things calmed down.)

I totally disagree that it should have been taken out of the DVD collection – it’s really interesting and worth watching precisely because it’s of its time.

I also think it’s fairly in-character that the senior staff would have been so calm – certainly viewed later, a lock-down isn’t necessarily because of a catastrophic event. I did feel the lack of Muslim and/or Middle Eastern students in the group though… I know there were people of colour in the group, but it still felt a little implausibly white-bread to me.

I was disappointed in Leo, but the thing about the aftermath of 9/11 is that people did start acting ridiculous and frankly racist. All of these latent things bubbling below the surface that generally good people consciously work around came spewing forth, and otherwise reasonable people like Leo turned into massive assholes. I feel like that’s the most emotionally realistic portrayal, to Sally’s point about the episode feeling more even-keeled than people actually were.

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