Mark Watches ‘The West Wing’: S03E00 – Isaac and Ishmael

In “Isaac and Ishmael,” everything is kind of weird and awkward. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch The West Wing.

Seriously, that was weird.

  • I get it. This episode was most likely made after September 11, 2001, as a response to the terrorist attack, and all signs point to it being made very quickly. I mean, most of this episode takes place in a single room. WHICH I ENJOYED VERY MUCH.
  • The story gets away from itself a few times, and a few of the characters say things that feel less like their character should be saying that thing, and more like they are just there to make a point. I mean, I’ll get to C.J.’s defense of the CIA, but for now, are you serious.
  • Ultimately, this isn’t about a singular plot, and the bulk of “Isaac and Ishmael” feels like a group of people trying to figure out what to do in a frightening time. And when this episode hits that mark, it’s really good.
  • I’m glad that I’m not really supposed to view this episode as anything that’s canon for a few reasons. First of all, did 9/11 happen in this fictional world? Because there’s not a single mention of it here, and I imagine there won’t be in the upcoming season, either. So the impetus for the discussion that the White House staff has with the Presidential Classroom students makes absolutely no sense. Again, I get that it’s not supposed to.
  • I am also glad this isn’t considered canon because sweet mother of all that is holy, Leo McGarry is a goddamn racist in this episode. I’m fine with nuanced portrayals of the flaws that these characters have, but what Leo says to Rakim in “Isaac and Ishmael” is so vile that I would be distracted for the rest of the show knowing that this is what he really thought of people of Arab descent. Yes, he apologizes. (Poorly, I might add.) The show clearly makes his actions out to be wrong. That doesn’t make me feel any better about it, y’all. So I’ll be happy to go back to a fictional world where Leo didn’t say that.
  • Leo’s not the only guilty party, but I found that for nearly every offensive or degrading statement made, there was another character to offer up the proper scorn or a scathing rebuttal. (I AM SO HERE FOR CHARLIE.) Through this, we really do get the sense that these students are using the opportunity they’ve been dealt to work through the confusing and frightening things that they’re feeling. Initially, it’s Josh who is the filter for them, but he’s soon joined by Donna, Toby, Sam, C.J., and the Bartlets. I loved that Josh took the horribly generalized questions that the students asked and created an analogy to explain why it was wrong to say that the “Arabs” or the “Islamic” people hated us. Plus, he said that stating they just “hated us” didn’t make sense either. Why? Why were people willing to bomb American soldiers or kill people from an opposing religion? And understanding that sort of context or reasoning doesn’t excuse a person’s actions, but it can help lead to some sort of solution.
  • There are no solutions offered here, which I’m thankful for. This issue of global terrorism – the many ways it manifests – cannot fit into thirty-nine minutes. It simply can’t! And I do think that this episode makes a good effort to try and sort out such a complicated, nuanced issue, but it’ll always fall short. The West Wing could spend twenty-two full episodes devoted to terrorism, and it still wouldn’t be enough.
  • That’s why, at times, some of the character points made fall a bit short. I wanted to hear more from Toby, for example, and I don’t think Sam contributes all that much to the conversation. When it comes to C.J., her defense of the CIA is downright eerie. First of all, I had to sit there and divorce what she was saying from recent events in the United States regarding surveillance in the name of safety. BECAUSE ISN’T IT FRIGHTENINGLY APPLICABLE NOW? On top of that, I don’t want to claim to be an expert on the issue of espionage as a method of securing the safety of the American populace. I’m not going to comment on that. But the CIA’s history of tormenting and destroying the lives of people involved in left wing/radical groups, especially in the 60s, is enough for me to never trust them ever. COINTELPRO. Google it.
  • However, I was thankful for Charlie’s role in the conversation. He very casually reminds the group that while conversations like these tend to demonize others and cast the “third world” as some sort of ground zero for the worst impoverishment and suffering, the very same patterns are manifested in our own country. And what happens there? People lash out with violence in a desperate attempt to secure their own safety and capital. Granted, Charlie’s point isn’t given much screen time, but it needed to be said.
  • I felt weird about the Isaac and Ishmael story? Because I always saw that less as the start of this centuries-long conflict, and more about how incredibly fucked up all parties are. Abraham for sending Hagar and Ishmael away and giving nothing to Ishmael upon his own death, Sarah for beating Hagar out of jealousy, and God’s petty “test” of Abraham using his own son.
  • But that is a separate issue, mostly because I spent the bulk of my time in catechism constantly questioning how fucked up the Old Testament was.
  • Anyway, now I’m off-topic. Let’s just talk about Rakim Ali and Ajay Naidu’s brilliant performance. I understood that Sorkin was trying to show us that under duress, Leo went too far. I get that. But I think it’s disingenuous to blame such behavior on being in the heat of a moment. It implies that only with anger does racism come out. Nah, I don’t accept that. It has to be there already. A person’s brain has to have already made that connection. And everything about this situation speaks to a horrible prejudice that already exists. How many people over the years have been stuck on No Fly lists just because their name matches someone else? How many of those names are historically attached to white people?
  • Here’s what’s ultimately grating aside from Leo’s racism: This is all done in the name of safety. People will defend this sort of racist profiling as necessary to keep everyone safe. But guess who will never feel safe again? Rakim. He is never going to feel like the people in his government, at his job, or those he passes in the street will ever fully accept him. Rakim had his entire life thrown back at him as a sign of his criminality. That’s terrifying, and I know that from experience. As someone who’s been the victim of violent racial profiling by police, I know that the fear never goes away. It doesn’t. I had to justify things in my life that had no relevance at all to what happened to me, but it doesn’t matter. I know this is a personal issue for me, but it’s hard to see this play out on the show. I don’t distrust cops because I think they’re all awful people; I distrust them because I already know I can never win against them. The odds are stacked against me in an awful way that I can’t do anything about.
  • And there is a deliberate refusal from a lot of folks in this country to acknowledge the fact that terrorism is constantly carried out by folks who are not Arab at all, but in fact white and American. We don’t treat all white men as possible terrorists, and they sure as hell have pulled some heinous shit over the years. So why do we treat people like Rakim as if they’re the sole source of racism?
  • I wonder why that is.
  • All in all, this is an odd episode, but I don’t think it could have been anything else but that. It was always going to be weird, no matter how Sorkin pulled it off. I appreciated it a lot more than I thought I would once I figured out what was going on. And now, I am quite eager to get to the proper third season. HELL YES.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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