Here we are at the penultimate episode of “The Newsroom,” and the theme that comes right to the fore, and has been an undercurrent all season long, is resistance. And everyone at the ACN team, now answering to the demands of Lucas Pruit (BJ Novak), are beginning to chafe at what he calls journalism. And while Aaron Sorkin couldn’t have known the media landscape in which this episode would arrive, “Oh Shenandoah,” as imperfect as it is, resonates particularly in the wake of Chris Hughes‘ gutting of The New Republic, and Rolling Stone magazine’s awful mishandling of the University of Virginia rape story, for which they had to issue an apology for their coverage.
Leaping ahead, the fifth episode of the third season finds Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) behind bars now for fifty-two days (and in what is probably the most unconvincing and cheapest looking prison set we’ve seen in some time). He’s mostly been housed in a cell by himself, to avoid being partnered with anyone he might’ve prosecuted during his Brooklyn law days, but he does wind up with a fellow cellmate (Kevin Rankin) for reasons unexplained, and mostly to allow Sorkin to indulge in a debate between the pair about the differences and attitudes between East coast elites and blue collar types. He sort of stacks the deck by making the cellmate a misogynist doing time for domestic violence, but if you like Sorkin’s digressions, then perhaps you’ll find this thread satisfying.
Update: I definitely missed the reveal, but it turns out Will was talking to his father, which he conjured up out of his imagination. Sheesh. So, Will has been trying to be a better man than his father all along (or something). Either way, the twist doesn’t make these scenes any more successful.
More germane to the plot, it emerges that the source Lilly Hart, has committed suicide on the steps of the Justice Department by shooting herself in the mouth. The FBI is investigating the incident, and soon enough the pieces will be put together that she was the leaker. So, theoretically, this means Will can be set free, but curiously enough, government prosecutor Barry Lasenthal (Brian Howe) still wants an admission (or denial) that Lilly Hart was the source. “No, sir” is Will’s reply, standing stoically to his ideals, and he returns to his cell. But Barry already realizes that Will won’t budge, and the coercive time he’s spending in jail clearly isn’t working. When Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden) makes a motion to have Will released, Barry says he agrees and won’t fight it.
But before he gets out, there is no shortage of drama at ACN. The direction the company is taking can be summed up in the new TV spot which makes the mission statement clear: “You aren’t a consumer, you’re a citizen. You aren’t an audience, you’re an activist. You aren’t a viewer, you’re ACN. #uracn.” It may be skin crawling, and transparently pandering, but it seems to be working. Charlie (Sam Waterston) is beleaguered by this new direction, and very evidently worn out, but as he tells the less-than-enthused MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) and Don (Thomas Sadoski), they’ve climbed into third place, and their demographic has dropped in age by three years. But both producers will only go so far with the demands that are placed on them.
First — likely inspired by the shocking news that emerged last year that 1 in 6 female Princeton students stated they were sexually assaulted; statistics from a 2008 survey that the school kept covered up — Don is tasked with putting on air a Princeton student and rape victim, with one of the people she accused in the attack, named on a website she started so women can (anonymously or not) identify the perpetrators of sexual assaults. It has “bad idea” written all over it, and Don doesn’t want to do the story, but he dutifully heads to Princeton to meet with Mary (Sarah Sutherland) to talk about appearing on ACN, and what follows is an engaging back and forth, certainly made more relevant given the aforementioned recent media stories. Mary shares her account of being raped, and Don is more than sympathetic but admits that he’s staunchly in the camp of “innocent until proven guilty,” even as much as he essentially believes Mary. But his concern is more with Mary’s site which he thinks will inevitably ruin someone’s life when it’s used as a vehicle for vengeance against an innocent party. However, Mary believes that in a culture where women are routinely not believed, and in her own experience, when after reporting it nothing happened, the cost benefit is worth it if it helps another woman from being victimized. There are a lot of ways this entire sequence could’ve gone wrong, but Sorkin manages to be sympathetic, tough, pragmatic and emotional all at once; this is a sensitive, complex issue that, given how heavy-handed “The Newsroom” can be, is handled with a restraint that is admirable.
Ultimately, Don tries to encourage Mary to say no to ACN, so he was a reason to spike the spot, telling the young student that on live TV she will not have the due process afforded by a courtroom, and that she will be slut shamed in front of the nation. But Mary sees no other options, since legal avenues have been closed to her, and even when Don shares with her the attacker’s incendiary version of events, she can’t be swayed. Don leaves, telling Mary he will be in touch…
Meanwhile, a battle is ensuing between the old guard and the new young, digitally-minded crew at ACN. An app called ACNgage allows users to share their celebrity sightings, making it easy for stars to be tracked and followed. It’s morally and ethically dubious at best, but it drives traffic, makes money, Lucas loves it so any attempts to have tech head and creator of the app Bree (Joe Bass) disable it have failed. But Sloan (Olivia Munn) has a different idea — she invites Bree to come on air for an interview to explain the app. And you’ll be able to guess where this is headed…
The guest spot for Bree is a trojan horse that allows Sloan to rip the app apart, live on air. She takes down Bree in a blaze of glory, tearing up his “it’s the price of fame” argument piece by piece, and removing some of his dignity at the same time too. It’s fantastic stuff that’s also a bit of retribution for MacKenzie who has been suffering under Charlie pushing Lucas’ agenda hard, with no questions asked. But needless to say, the fallout is brutal.
Following the broadcast, Charlie comes storming onto the floor of the newsroom, screaming with fury at what he sees is a “mutiny” among his staff who should know better. MacKenzie calls it an “intervention.” He’s further incensed when Don lies, and claims he wasn’t able to get in touch with Mary. And soon Lucas is on the floor, calling for the heads of MacKenzie and Sloan, but Charlie notes that Lucas can’t fire anyone — only he can. Charlie urges for calm and asks Lucas to step aside and talk with him…but the brief moment of quiet doesn’t last long. Charlie collapses and dies from a heart attack.
It’s a cheap move on the part of the writing staff on “The Newsroom,” one that also seems wholly unnecessary and a piece of audience manipulation that is as transparent as the godawful montage music of “Oh Shenandoah” (good lord, does this show need a decent music supervisor). Particularly with one episode to go, it feels like an unearned move, not rooted in any kind of narrative consequences, except that Charlie was old and stressed out, so why not have him go out defending the people he loved working with. It’s ineffective and the character and Waterston deserved better.
And oh, we nearly forgot about Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie (Alison Pill). They’ve been sent to the Moscow airport to get on the flight to Cuba that the on-the-run Edward Snowden is expected to take. And basically this is a long drawn out subplot which finds them on the Snowden-less flight, where Jim declares his feelings, they kiss and are finally together again. Yawn.
Thus, another wobbly episode for “The Newsroom” which lays it all down next weekend for the final episode. Can good journalism survive the facile whims of new media? But more importantly, can the newly freed Will and his team at ACN ever be the same again? Guess we’ll find out. [C]