We’ve been pretty hard on “The Newsroom” this season, to the dismay of some readers, but it’s simply because the show hasn’t lived up to expectations. If the first season was rocky, there was lots of promise, much of which has evaporated over the course of the last six episodes, with Aaron Sorkin‘s work, at its worst, delivering screechingly pointed screenplays, one dimensional characters and some truly egregious plotting. It has been reported that after the first two episodes of the second season were written and shot, Sorkin went back and redid them, and unfortunately, you can tell. So much of this season has been spent putting pieces into position, in a manner that in hindsight, seems both haphazard and particularly drawn out. Well, the good news is for all the flaws “The Newsroom” has show this summer, last night it delivered the best episode the show has had since the first season.
As the title suggests, this episode dives deep and hard into what happened with the final vetting process for the Operation Genoa story, with everyone brought together to dissect the investigation, including those who are hearing it for the first time — such as Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). Once again utilizing flashback, with various “News Night” staff coming in to tell their side of the story to the network’s lawyer Rebecca (Marcia Gay-Harden), it emerges that the reason for the lawsuit comes from one person: Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater). After being fired for editing the interview with Gen. Stanislaus Stomtonovich (Stephen Root), he’s suing for wrongful dismissal. Don (Thomas Sadoski) rightfully exclaims, this is “insane,” but as Rebecca unveils with her questioning the suggestion that the desire to land this story may have led to what Will later calls “institutional failure.”
The decision to go with the reporting initially wasn’t agreed to by everyone. Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) voiced his concern that he doubted these sorts of embedded soldiers would undertake this kind of action that would lead civilians dead, and from a gut level, the story didn’t “feel right.” Don backs up Jim, adding his thoughts that such a report could put lives in danger both home and abroad for those in the armed services. However, Jerry counters everyone by proclaiming their lack of desire to believe something like this could happen under the Obama administration, while pointing to atrocities like Abu Ghraib as evidence that the American military has shown little discretion when it comes to human rights. But the final decision rests with Will. He’s heard everything, sat through the Red Team meeting silently, watching the debate happen around the boardroom table and he ultimately decides to go ahead. Why? He trusts Charlie (Sam Waterston) and Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) and more importantly — he has a source that told him the same story.
The story runs on a Sunday night as a special report, and ratings are beyond anyone’s expectation reaching, as Will quips, ” ‘I Love Lucy‘ numbers!” But there’s a problem, the expected denial or response from military officials hasn’t arrived. By Monday morning, there is still no response…and then it happens. “We are considering any and all legal remedies available to us, including under the Espionage Act” the statement from the military reads, with a promise to declassify documents to prove there was no wrongdoing. And is just the first pebble in what soon becomes a snowball of issues that are found in the story.
A followup interview with one of the key witnesses, Eric Sweeney, live on Elliot’s (David Harbour) show, finds himself revealing that he suffered a brain injury during combat. One of the side effects? Memory loss. Maggie (Alison Pill) reveals for the first time that she wasn’t actually in the room when the interview with Stomtonovich took place, and reading through the transcript with another witness, Mackenzie has not only notices she may have asked leading questions — this second person added little to the story except to back up Sweeney. And even more, the helo manifest is revealed to be a fake, manufactured by Charlie’s source as a “fuck you,” blaming the executive for the death of drug addicted his son, who interned at “News Night” and was fired by Neal. It’s a perfect storm of every element of Operation Genoa story falling apart on nearly every level.
What follows is the best scene of the season with Mackenzie, and the absolute worst. Let’s start with he latter, which is a painfully tedious sequence that has Will explain to Mackenzie how the shot clock works in basketball. And then how the clock works in football, and how it works in hockey….of course, this is all knowledge Mackenzie will need later to notice in the raw file of the Stomtonovich interview, the jump cuts from Jerry’s editing that are visible thanks to the basketball game on the TV behind the general in the footage. But it doesn’t end there, later in the episode, Mackenzie is presented with countdown clock to put in the studio, so Will can see how much time is left before a segment ends from his anchor desk. Then Mackenzie stares at it……before the lightbulb finally goes off to check the Stomtonovich interview, and more importantly, the game clock on the NCAA game that was on during the chat. This is a foul bit of spoon-feeding both to Mackenzie (women don’t know sports, duh!) and the audience. One scene of noticing the shot clock jump around in time, would’ve told anyone — even a sports neophyte — that something was cooked with the tape.
However, it all pays off in a thoroughly wrenching scene. After confronting Jerry about what he did — he tries to defend himself lamely by saying, he would’ve never done it for any other story — and firing him, Mackenzie interrupts a meeting between Will and the staff to announce that they have to retract the Operation Genoa story. It’s the rare time when Sorkin doesn’t overheat the moment. He lets Mortimer sell just a simple couple of sentences with everything else happening on her face. She’s mortified and humiliated that they were wrong and deeply hurt that, as she tells Jerry, “no one will ever trust us again.” It’s perhaps the deepest wound that can cut the kind of trailblazing journalist Mackenzie is, and the scene is rendered perfectly and is truly touching stuff.
“News Night” is now somewhat castrated. Their reporting is now playing it safe, with the Benghazi incident blamed on the furor surrounding the cheapie, incendiary film, “The Innocence Of Muslims” (even though everyone the staff knew it was a planned and coordinated terrorist attack). And two months on, trust continues to be such an issue, the Operation Genoa story hanging so heavily over the show, that Charlie, Will and Mackenzie take drastic action: they’re going to resign. And thus, they meet Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) late one night, as she drunkenly returns from the premiere of “Skyfall,” upset that she didn’t meet Daniel Craig who was delayed thanks to Hurricane Sandy. She’s a bit (hilariously) tipsy, but fired up, and not letting her staff go without a fight.
“You don’t make me a nickel, and you cause headaches for the divisions that do, but you make me so proud,” Leona says, refusing to accept resignations. “Guy comes in here, cooks an interview, and this ends up with [a lawsuit] because he’s unemployable? He gets a $5 million dollar settlement, and the three of you leave? I don’t think so.” And when Charlie again insists the public trust is eroded, Leona only has one emphatic answer: “Get it back!”
It’s a helluva closer to an episode that finally sees all the plot threads come together in one narratively and emotionally charged outing. Sure, there are a couple of things that strain credulity (ie. Leona’s sudden love for “News Night,” when she’s been aching to find a reason to put them under her thumb — but Jane Fonda sells it really well) but the execution is so sharp, you’re willing to roll with it. This is the kind of electricity the entire season has been missing, but hopefully this is a sign that the ride to the finale will be a good one. [B]