If last week’s premiere was the small pebble, rolling down the mountain of the second season of “The Newsroom,” you can start seeing the eventual massive snowball forming with the second episode. This new approach from Aaron Sorkin, with one large news story anchoring the narrative, is an interesting touch, but it doesn’t get in the way of his usual combination of lefty liberal political posturing, speech-ifying, genuine drama and truly shameful emotional manipulation. And this week’s “The Genoa Tip” has it in spades with a finale that nearly tips over into offensive bad taste.
The Operation Genoa story, which we already know will land the entire ACN news team in legal hot water, continues to brew with Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) chasing down the story, meanwhile Occupy Wall Street comes to full head of steam, and the Jim/Pam/Don/Sloan quadrangle continues to unfold. As per our own new format, we’re going to be diving into this character by character so as to not lose our minds trying to recap the twisty episode in linear form below, and hopefully this will give you clearer sense of what’s going on.
Will Mcavoy (Jeff Daniels)/Neal Sampat (Dev Patel)/Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski)
“I’m not who I used to be right now,” Will tells Sloan and Elliott (David Harbour), when he informs them that they will be taking over his 9/11 broadcast. And he’s not joking. With one of the biggest nights of broadcasting taken away from him, it seems some fire has been diminished in Will, and his usual attitude that’s ready to fight for injustice and expose hypocrisy is quieted. When news comes in that Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen but al-Qaeda recruiter, was killed by a drone strike in Yemen, the staff are shocked when Will defends the government for essentially killing an American without the due process his birthright affords. (He argues the minute al-Awlaki switched allegiances, he gave up those protections). But there’s even more.
It’s revealed that Don has been following the sad story of Troy Davis, the man convicted of killing a police officer, for years, and is now deeply invested as the man’s last options are clemency before facing execution are coming up. Don wants Will to do a story on the appeal, and pushes harder when he finds out intel that a lobbyist may have spoken to the panel of judges making a decision on Davis, that leaned toward denying his appeal. Even more, Don wants Will to use his legal knowledge (yes, Will used to be a lawyer) to offer his interpretation of what’s going on. But Will weakly argues that his job isn’t about advocacy and that he can’t get on the air to make the case for Troy.
It’s not just Will being removed from the 9/11 broadcast that has crushed his spirit, but also because what 9/11 meant to him in his career. In a rather strained contrivance, some no-name tech nerds decide to watch Will’s broadcast on that fateful day of 2001. And we learn that at the time, Will was merely the legal analyst for the network, but he wound up filling in for the regular anchors who couldn’t make it New York City, and the other usual go to replacements who following the tragedy, were unable to get to Manhattan. Will was on the air for the sixteen hours straight, and it earned him the attention of Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) who urged Will to look into his past, when he protected his siblings from an abusive father, and use that empathy to protect a nation still shocked, scared and disoriented. And Will does just that, promising to stay with viewers through the night as the reporting continued, and admitting he was still learning what was happening, just as they were.
But Will’s complacency doesn’t last long, especially when maltreatment and transgression affects one of his staff. When Neal goes to meet Shelly Wexler (Aya Cash) to get more details on the Occupy Wall Street movement, not only is he surprised to see a sudden crush of protestors (particularly after a recent Anonymous promise of thousands of activists in Zuccotti Park resulted in only a few hundred), but his attempts to cover it as a journalist, finds him getting arrested instead. Will goes down personally to bail him out, and the unfortunate cop on duty is subject to a mini-Will breakdown, as he pleads for just one moment of humanity and understanding. It’s cornball/powerful stuff, and he winds up getting Neal released, though we’ll have to wait until next week to what more comes of the Occupy Wall Street thread.
Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill)/Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.)
The shit well and truly hits the fan for Maggie, whose breakup from Don — thanks to the viral video of her tearful confession on the street to to Jim — is continuing to earn hits on YouTube. She’s moved out her apartment and back in with Lisa, but the video is still online and she wants to make sure it’s gone before either Jim or his still girlfriend Lisa (Kelen Coleman) see it. Takedown notification requests through YouTube’s normal channels take five days, but doing a bit more digging, Maggie finds out not only who posted the video, but where she is via Foursquare (remember that?), and along with Sloan — who has become a bit of a mother hen, probably partially out of guilt for her own feelings for Don — goes with her to confront the blogger.
They find the young woman at a laundromat (women be cleaning clothes!) and Sorkin has some great fun mocking bloggers in general, and their desire to be near celebrity — any kind of celebrity. A negotiation is struck whereby Sloan will tweet a link to the woman’s “Sex & The City” fan fiction page in exchange for taking down the video. But the blogger goes back on her deal, writing about meeting Maggie and Sloan instead and the video winds up being viewed by Lisa. Naturally, she is livid that Maggie lied to her about her feelings for Jim, and their friendship is torpedoed. Lisa then emails the video to Jim on the road, and it will undoubtedly bomb their relationship as well.
And thus, Jim’s attempts to get away from Maggie keep coming back to him in unexpected ways, but he may have a friend to help him along. A fellow journalist, played by Grace Gummer (“Frances Ha“), takes half professional/half personal interest in him, while preventing Jim from getting any closer by maintaining they’re “competitors.” But his wet, sad dog demeanour is endearing Jim to her a little bit and it’s clear something will blossom between the two…or she’ll use to him to steal a scoop. And she nearly does, pretending to be on her headphones when Don tells Jim what his source has been saying about the Troy Davis case.
Meanwhile, Maggie is hatching her own escape to Kampala, convincing Mackenzie with her thorough research and conviction, that she can deliver a story about the region that pertains to America’s battle on the war on terror. After she gets the thumbs up from Mackenzie to start traveling, reports come in that five are dead and one hundred fifty are injured in Kampala following a protest. But doesn’t deter Maggie or Gary (Chris Chalk), who will be going with her, and they decide to hide that report from Mackenzie.
Before I get into the conclusion of this week’s episode, here’s a caveat: I actually liked the finale of the fourth episode of season one, that unabashedly used “Fix You” by Coldplay to round things up in a final montage. I thought it worked and was highly effective, but trying the same approach on “The Genoa Tip” is a near embarrassing bungle that finds Sorkin at this worst. The scene starts in the bar the ACN staff frequent with Mackenzie confronting Will, and telling him he needs to say something about government strikes on Americans abroad. But before he answers her, he pauses, pointing out Willie Nelson‘s cover of “You Were Always On My Mind” playing over the stereo (can a week go by without Will hearing a classic, FM dial song?)…and that song slowly rides the fader up into the mix. Will reveals he has prepared copy demanding to see the government’s memo authorizing drone strikes, and he shares an intense stare with Mackenzie because she was always on his mind.
We then cut to Elliot’s broadcast where the breaking news of Troy Davis’ death comes in, and that sombre moment also gets Willie Nelson-ed, even though the power of his execution — which stings especially in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case — is enough on its own. You see, Davis was always on Don’s mind (and the nation’s too we suppose), but the saturation of the song over the moment effectively kills it. Who needs a saccharine pop tune (no matter how good it is) when Troy Davis’ final words are as powerful as this?
Well, first of all I’d like to address the MacPhail family. I’d like to let you all know, despite the situation — I know all of you are still convinced that I’m the person that killed your father, your son and your brother, but I am innocent. The incident that happened that night was not my fault. I did not have a gun that night. I did not shoot your family member. But I am so sorry for your loss. I really am — sincerely. All I can ask is that each of you look deeper into this case, so that you really will finally see the truth. I ask my family and friends that you all continue to pray, that you all continue to forgive. Continue to fight this fight. For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls. God bless you all.
At least Troy Davis got to have a final moment before his life was unjustly taken, where Trayvon Martin didn’t and while Sorkin can’t be blamed for not predicting the future, it doesn’t diminish the fact that his need to sex up that moment, belies an uncertainty and lack of confidence to let the material speak for itself. Meanwhile, the big reveal — Mackenzie and Jerry speaking to a source who was actually involved in Operation Genoa and is willing to talk to the press — is crammed in at the end like an afterthought. And no, the Willie Nelson tune has little reason to be played over that scene at all.
Surprise, surprise “The Newsroom” is again all over the place, but this time the blunders make it harder to justify watching, even as compelling as the subject matter is. [C]