If you’re watching the third and final season of “The Newsroom,” you’re either already an unabashed fan of the show, or despite its many (many) flaws, you still find something compelling about the work and lives of those inside the ACN newsroom. It’s in the latter category where I fall. For all of Aaron Sorkin‘s blistering dialogue, and the pace that never lets up for a moment, it can’t gloss over the poorly drawn relationships in the series, and the less than encouraging depiction of women in the show. These were issues that marred both the first and second seasons, and yet through that, the drama between the talent in the studio and executives in upper management was usually terrific, and Sorkin’s barbed look at the media through the mouthpiece of Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), while overly earnest at times, could also be razor sharp. And so, here we are with six more episodes before we say goodbye. And how does it look so far? Promising.
The shortened season means that Sorkin has decided to take less time to focus on character development, and this is the rare case where that’s a good thing. “The Newsroom” has always been at its best when chasing down a breaking story, but before “Boston” gets to that, it does clear a couple things out of the way. Yes, Will and MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) are getting married, which means we have to endure an opening conversation about wedding plans that is neither interesting or funny. But wisely, the episode shifts gears quickly with the Boston Marathon bombing galvanizing the newsroom into action. Everyone is soon on the phone to try and confirm the details of what’s already playing out on television. Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) pleads with with a source, proclaiming that they’re “the only reliable breaking news network…except for that one time.” And just like that, the Operation Genoa scandal is in the past. Meanwhile, it’s all hands on deck for the Boston story, including Hallie Shea (Grace Gummer), Jim’s former rival turned girlfriend, who now works at ACN. But as usual, Sorkin has something else he wants to address via a big breaking story, so what is this episode about? Media accuracy.
At first glance, the nobility of “getting it right” seems like ground “The Newsroom” has already covered, but even though it has only been just over a year since the events in Boston, it’s easy to forgot how massively bungled the media and internet reporting on it was. From Reddit trying to solve the terrorist act themselves, and winding up targeting the wrong person in the process, to CNN incorrectly announcing the arrest of a suspect, to the NY Post’s incendiary and completely wrong picture of two other men they named as potential culprits, the rush to get something in print and on air arguably put innocent people in danger, while forcing authorities to waste time addressing these speculations. And as Will rightly notes in a great grace note penned by Sorkin at the end of the episode, what was overlooked in Boston was how the authorities at the city and federal level found “two needles in a haystack” within days. It was a remarkable achievement by law enforcement, who often found the media getting in the way of their work.
However, for ACN, that goal of making sure they have all the facts comes at a cost — the beleaguered network is the last one to go to air with a report. But there’s more problems. Reese Lansing (Chris Messina) informs financial reporter Sloan Sabbath (Olivia Munn) that Atlantic World Media is going to miss their earnings projections in their next report, and he wants her to massage the message when it goes to air. And adding to his stress, he’s hosting his step-brother and step-sister Randy and Blair, in town to celebrate their 25th birthdays, upon which they’ll become stockholders. And while Reese has long been a one-dimensional villain, Sorkin adds some nice shades to him now. “I know everyone on this floor thinks I’m an asshole, but I run a good company, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Run a good company, that creates good products,” Reese tells Sloan. But for now, Sloan puts Reese’s problem to the side, as she starts investigating a mysterious deal brewing involving Goldman Sachs and Merrill-Lynch.
Meanwhile, Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) gets embroiled in his own little mystery. He receives an encrypted message which tells him to get an air gapped computer — one that has never been connected to the internet — at which point a USB key will be left for Neal in the toilet at a restaurant containing vital information. As expected, there is a collective eye roll, but after Neal pitches the story at the rundown meeting, Will pulls him aside, gives him a credit card, and tells him to go buy the computer. And at this point, you can just fast-forward to the final fifteen minutes of “Boston,” which are terrific, and where the hope for the rest of the third season lies.
Will and Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) run into Reese — who sincerely congratulates them on their work on the Boston story — out on the balcony of the ACN building, where the executive informs them they are now ranked fourth, falling two spots from second place. And Will is livid, and it’s not just about his popularity. It’s particularly disheartening for Will to try and do the right thing only to see no reward, but it’s Reese who paints an even bleaker future. “I didn’t come out here to berate you about numbers, those days are over,” he says. “I want you to do the news well. But your power comes from your ratings, and the autonomy of the news division comes from your power. You’re not going to be able to do the stories you want, you’re not going to be able to say what you want, and frankly, you’re not going to be able to stay on the air, because my mother and I can only protect you from the board if you’re making money.” Will has had it and announces his intention to quit. But it isn’t long before another story and a turn of events grabs his attention.
Neal has followed his lead, and has come back with 27,000 stolen, classified documents. Essentially, they reveal that a PR firm that works for SOCOM planted false stories to protect American interests in the face of a growing pro-democracy movement in Kundu, which directly led to riots that killed 38 people including three Americans. And as Neal recounts the story first to Will and Charlie, at least twice, and then again to MacKenzie, a crucial detail comes out — he asked his source to procure some documents to validate the authenticity of the rest. And in doing so, he induced his source to commit a felony.
As everyone is processing this, Sloan comes out to the balcony to talk to Reese because her look at the numbers — aided with her fancy new Bloomberg financial monitoring system — has made her come to a startling realization: AWN is in the middle of a hostile takeover, happening right under their nose. And it will have be fixed before Reese’s step-siblings turn 25.
In a jab at himself, two previous times in the episode, Aaron Sorkin penned a pair of inspirational moments for Will, that the news anchor flubs entirely. He can’t get the sentiment right, and his message is a muddle. Perhaps this is Sorkin’s critique of his own show? At any rate, Will gets it right this time, in a great about face from his flirtation with retirement, he refuses to surrender to “citizen journalists,” promises Reese to deliver a good show and have his back, demands that MacKenzie get Neal a lawyer, and races out to get on the air to cover the capture of the Boston Marathon bombers. But he has one more thing to say to MacKenzie before he goes: “You were wrong. We’re not in the middle of the third act, we just got to the end of the first.” SMASH CUT TO CREDITS.
We don’t know what’s in Sorkin’s coffee this season, but let’s hope he doesn’t run out. “Boston” is a solid piece of entertainment, with Sorkin focused on plot, and working those mechanics like a pro. But he does get one character moment pitch perfect, and it might be the finest the show has seen. With producers on vacation and sick, Elliott Hirsch (David Harbour) needs someone to go with him to Boston to cover the events on the ground, and Jim proposes that Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) gets called up. Everyone is skeptical, given the harrowing events she experienced and near breakdown she had last season, but Maggie gets a shot. And when Elliott can’t go on the air after his mouth swells up after accidentally eating a walnut to which he’s allergic (one of the most weirdly contrived moments on the show), Maggie steps in front of the camera and delivers a beautiful little piece of reporting. Everyone back at ACN is thrilled, but it’s director Anthony Hemingway‘s slow hold on Jim choking back tears (a nice piece of acting by Gallagher Jr.) that says it all. Maggie’s troubles were sort of his too, and the moment is just as big for Maggie as it is for Jim. It’s touching stuff.
“Boston” finds Sorkin and co. seemingly not wasting the space they’ve been given to tell one last story. If you had given up on “The Newsroom,” you might want to go give it another shot. [B]