Occupy Wall Street! Operation Genoa! Uganda! Mitt Romney! Troy Davis! Netflix splitting into two companies! (Yep, a passing reference was made to that quickly aborted blunder). “The Newsroom” has had a lot going on across the first two episodes, so much so that Aaron Sorkin felt compelled to rewrite and reshoot large portions of them as he got started on work for the third episode. In many ways, “Willie Pete” does feel like a very conscious pivot point episode, one where the focus shifts primarily to the character relationships and ditches covering a breaking news story, a least for the moment. The result? Probably the weakest episode of the new season thus far, and one that strains to reshuffle the deck only to leave everything exactly where it was when it started.
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels)/Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer)/Nina Howard (Hope Davis)/Reese Lansing (Chris Messina)
Okay, so this week’s episode doesn’t completely go by without a hot button issue. We open on Will McAvoy in full speechifying mode, rightfully excoriating the Republican presidential nominees, when not a single one of them step forward to defend gay soldier Stephen Hill, who is roundly booed by the audience when he inquires about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the debates in Orlando, Florida in September 2011. It’s the kind of perfectly worded response nearly two years of reflection can provide but in terms of moving narrative forward, it really doesn’t do anything at all. So, score points for putting Republicans in their place a couple of years later (extra points for Jim mentioning whoever defended Hill might’ve won the election) but was it really need in this episode? Probably not.
In terms of actual story, gossip columnist and perpetual thorn in Will’s side Nina Howard (the always great Hope Davis) once again emerges, this time with intel that he really wasn’t sick on 9/11, but was benched by the higher ups at ACN. Hoping to get Nina to drop the story, Will romances her with a private breakfast, mimosas and a dude playing a piano all in some swanky restaurant he’s reserved just for them. Yep, Aaron Sorkin really knows women. Will is (mostly) truthful about the real reason why he didn’t do the 9/11 coverage, and Nina agrees to ditch the story. But also, because it turns out she likes Will and vice versa, turning the entire breakfast negotiation into a pretty contrived meet cute.
While Will is happy to have swiped away a potential controversy, he’s privately fuming that someone leaked the story and is convinced that someone on the staff is responsible. While he pushes Mackenzie to find out who it was, she in turn is pestering Will to tell her the rest of the voicemail message he left on her machine during his pot induced haze last season. He claims not to know, but someone else does: Nina Howard. As you might recall, she had been tapping the phones of key members of ACN staff during the whole scandal last season, and before deleting it pretty, much memorized Will’s entire confession that he still loves Mackenzie. (It’s sooo romantic, Nina couldn’t help but play it on repeat). However, as much as she likes Will, she sees his feelings for Mackenzie as a potential roadblock, though he insists he was just high and that his relationship with Mackenzie really and truly is over.
Meanwhile, the hunt for the leak continues and it emerges from an unlikely source: Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn). It turns out that in order to convince a wedding date that she really was doing the 9/11 broadcast, she might’ve slipped out that Will was being sidelined. Oh, women! And it turns out that date was actually Nina Howard’s book editor! But, Sloan never said who was taking him off the broadcast, so how would Nina have known Will told her the truth in the first place? The real culprit of the leak? The slimy Reese Lansing. Why did he do it? He just plain doesn’t like Will or Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and has no problem throwing them under the bus even if it bruises the network. When Will and Charlie try to confront Reese with their recording of his admission of tapping phones, Charlie accidentally deletes it because he’s old and technology is too complicated or something.
Lastly, this entire, tedious Will/Mackenzie/Nina arc ends with Mackenzie calling Nina to thank her for dropping the story, and then asking the gossip maven is she remembers the message Will left. Nina gives her a half truth, revealing Will said she did a great job on the night of the Osama Bin Laden killing, but leaves out all that love stuff. We find out why Nina leaves out that crucial bit of info when she hangs up the phone — Will is over at her house. At this point, it’s fully understandable if you want to throw your TV out the window.
So what did this entire storyline prove? Women are bribed by clichés of romance, will give up key company information if it means impressing a random wedding date and will wilfully lie in order to chase a story and/or bed a man. It would be nice if this show had at least one woman who wasn’t in love with Will, frightened by him or at least fully in command of their job. The leverage Will and Charlie had over Reese is literally erased and it doesn’t matter because he’ll do whatever he wants anyway.
Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.)
Jim continues to schlep it on the Romney campaign, and the entire one hour episode is dedicated to Sorkin pointing out — over and over and over — that the media hardly ever asks tough questions of the candidates and simply reports PR memos. The always solid Constance Zimmer pops up but is under-utilized in a role as a Romney staffer who becomes a target of Jim’s incessant, thoughtful questions and is forced to answer around them. Meanwhile, Jim’s needling of the Romney camp earns him the ire of his fellow colleagues. Why? As the perma-frowning Hallie Shea (Grace Gummer) points out, not only is he wasting time, he’s pretty much slumming it when he was a real job as an executive producer back home.
But Jim can’t be defeated, and when he learns of Hallie’s real reason she’s on the Romney bus — she wants to ask about women’s reproductive rights — it inspires him further to try and start a Spartacus like revolution with the reporters on the bus. He demands that he gets real answers to his questions — and even the cynical Hallie finally opens up to ask about Romney’s switcheroo with regards to his stand on abortion — but it’s all for naught as they get thrown off the bus. Point taken, Sorkin.
Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater)/Neal Sampat (Dev Patel)
The investigation into Operation Genoa continues, with Jerry and Mackenzie meeting face-to-face with their source, a soldier was part of the op, who tells them a harrowing story about an operation in which white phosphorus and/or sarin was used, which would constitute a war crime by the United States. Jerry is convinced, but both Mackenzie and Charlie want to keep verifying, so with a rough date and time of the operation, he rounds up a team to try and get first hand accounts from Twitter postings by those in North Waziristan at the time of the incident. It’s a laborious process, one that requires getting tweets translated by someone via fax (they couldn’t find a discreet translator in New York City, who reads Pashto, to do some translating?) if only to heighten dramatic tension. By the end, just as the whole story is about to get shut down, a fax comes through confirming the use of Willie Pete (aka white phosphorous).
Meanwhile, Neal keeps pushing the Occupy Wall Street story, while Mackenzie refuses to go on air as the message the activists are promoting is simply to broad. But, if he can find someone to speak on their behalf, she’ll give them five minutes of airtime opposite Will McAvoy.
Overall, “Willie Pete” merely nudged everything forward an inch. Operation Genoa is still being investigated and it turns out it’s looking to be true though the tension of that story is already gone, since we know that ACN retracts it. (Though we suppose we’re yet to find out the reason why they had to pull the story). Occupy Wall Street, Sorkin continues to insist, failed due to lack of a clear message, which we sorta figured out two years ago. And women continue to be underserved by stories that find them being reactive instead of proactive for the most part. And even Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), who fights to go to Uganda, gets undermined by a brutally unfunny comic segment that finds her overreacting to the possible side effects of the anti-viral drugs she’s taking. Oh, girls! At least there were no classic rock references this week… [C-]