By John Keegan and Edmund Boys
Leading up to the latest “Newsroom”, a couple of factors had conspired to lead me to the conclusion I should give the show a bit of a break. Aaron Sorkin went on NPR’s Fresh Air and openly admitted it was a fantasy, an “aspirational” show about how he wished the news was presented. Then, during our podcast discussion, I was reminded of something I’d commented on in the pilot. We’re watching this story from its raw beginnings, with a group of deeply flawed characters who will (presumably) grow into the surreal, hyper-intelligent competence we expect in a Sorkin cast. So, I was prepared to ease up on my kvetching about unreal office politics and give the characters some time and space to develop.
Instead, the show delivers an episode that requires almost no suspension of my critical faculties. The on-air and off-air action is much better balanced. Several characters gain much-needed depth, notably Neal and Don. Even the relationship sagas, while still over-the-top, felt better written. The villains do tend to be one-dimensional and the “Rudy” moment is hokey and self-congratulatory, but this was the most thought-provoking, entertaining and thoroughly Sorkin-esque episode yet.
The action opens during Egypt’s section of the Arab Spring. Elliott, the anchor of Don’s 10-o’clock show, is in Cairo, but stuck in his hotel room nursing a bad Skype connection. (A circumstance many podcasters can sympathize with.) Elliott attempts to get the story in Tahrir Square, but suffers a beatdown instead. Don starts off as his usual unmitigated jerk, but his guilt at pushing Elliott into the square pushes him in ways that pop his one dimension into three. For the first time, we get why Maggie is still with him.
Neal’s internet contacts lead them to a local blogger, Khaled, who uses the pseudonym Amen, which explains the title of the episode. I was relieved that title didn’t herald Sorkin’s latest swipe at the religious right. It was a bigger relief to see Dev Patel put the Bigfoot shenanigans behind him, and get some hefty backstory as one of the survivors of the 7/7 bombings in London. Khaled agrees to be their local stringer. In the interests of ethics, they convince him not to report anonymously, a decision you know will end badly.
The trailer for this episode had hinted at dire consequences in the Egypt section. However, unlike in recent episodes of, say, “Burn Notice,” the threats were entirely credible and germane to the situation. Things like this did happen, sometimes in far more horrific fashion. If anything, they pulled punches by having Khalid held for ransom, and not killed. The punch not pulled, Neal’s attempt to demolish Rush Limbaugh via monitor, was as visceral and satisfying a commentary on the state of journalism as any to come, even Will’s.
When the 44th floor refuses to pay Khalid’s ransom, Don’s shoulder-dislocating attempt to storm Reese’s office is physically ineffective, but a potent reminder of his conflicts. He is the flip-side of the NewsNight coin, still stuck on the ratings treadmill. His new-found courage to take one for the team may foreshadow his returning to the fold, either directly or by bringing Elliott’s 10-o’clock show into the fledgling palace coup.
That is all prelude to answering the burning question: why was half a staff meeting spent explaining the jersey scene from “Rudy”? Answer: to wring extra emotion from the closing scene when the staff all chip in after Will pays the ransom out of his own (sizable) pocket. The irony is the over-wrought setup was utterly unnecessary. The scene would have still brought a lump to my throat, with only a passing reference to “Rudy” earlier. But, as I said, I’m willing to let a few things pass, and Aaron Sorkin wielding his metaphorical sledgehammer is one of them.
There were a few more linguistic cudgels deployed, especially in the ongoing tabloid war. TMI has targeted MacKenzie now, charging her with booking boyfriend Wade on NewsNight to bolster his political ambitions. Addressing this gives all three head honchoes a chance to shine. MacKenzie confirms the worst, then dumps Wade with the classic: “In this order: Leave. Lose the election. Go to hell.” Charlie Skinner turns into the nastiest earworm this side of Ceti Alpha V when one of the morning show anchors starts airing out TMI’s dirty laundry. This is the most telling case of something I might have scoffed at for its unreality, before I accepted this show’s existence in the Sorkin-verse.
But, naturally, the biggest hammer blow belongs to Will. The show has made a point of denouncing false equivalences, where one side must be balanced by its converse, regardless of truth or merit. When Will is told that TMI can be bought off, he meets with Nina Howard in a back room that would be smoky, if New York City still allowed smoking in bars. He’s willing to take the heat himself, but mess with his exes and he’s reaching for his checkbook. Then Nina returns to her New Year’s Eve point that they’re both journalists. The checkbook snaps shut, and Will delivers another signature screed. His evisceration of this equivalence, detailing the extraordinary sacrifices of his staff, is stunning and rather wonderful. Hope Davis has been so good with what little she’s had to work with so far that I hope Nina takes some of this to heart. It would be a great twist and conflict if she pops up later with some news they can use, perhaps about Leona, for instance.
Not all the sacrifices are quite so serious. The running gag of Maggie whacking Jim with the glass door heralds the B-story, the Wisconsin protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s dismantling of collective bargaining. (And yes, Jim, it’s a glass door. Which means you, too, can see her coming with blinkers on!) While it fit the timeline, this seemed to exist only to keep the Koch Brothers subplot percolating with the implications of union-busting post-Citizens United. But, having grown up in a union household, I did enjoy the irony of Jim having to break union rules to edit the story.
Meanwhile, MacKensie asks Sloan for cram sessions on economics. Some have criticized her knowledge gap (and subtracting with her fingers), but I find it credible. I have known more than a few very intelligent people who never overcome an aversion to, or outright fear of, math. Even if their sessions are an excuse for Mac to vent about Will, with some very emotive sobbing, the MacKensie-Sloan friendship continues to feel very authentic.
Last and least, given all the other events, it ends on Valentine’s Day, leading to more love quadrilateral hijinks. Maggie’s insistence on setting Jim’s V-day date with Lisa was over the top, but rang truer than prior episodes. It finally felt like she senses all the undercurrents, and is manically trying to maintain the status quo. Again, Don’s character makeover helped sell her resisting any feelings for Jim in his favor. Unfortunately, Lisa still gets the short end of the stick, both with Jim and in the script. She’s still stuck at desperate, rather than developing into a credible alternative, as they’ve done with Don.
The staff’s checkbook tribute is revealed as MacKensie-inspired, her Valentine’s Day gift to Will. Their coming together, amidst a re-energized newsroom, is a fitting ending to an episode that signals the end of the show’s growing pains. If the critic’s screeners had stretched to five episodes, instead of four, I suspect the reception would have been much less divided. This was certainly the episode that won me over.John Keegan is Editor-in-Chief for Critical Myth, a partner site of SciFi Vision. Edmund Boys is Critical Myth's reviewer for The Newsroom.