By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist August 19, 2013 at 11:21AM
Yes, I know — I missed an episode last week. A dual combo of screeners not arriving in time and a brief vacation keeping me away from the television led to that one getting missed out on, but really, not much happened in season two's fifth episode "Will McAvoy's News Night." Oddly enough, for such a condensed season already (only nine episodes), it was something of placeholder. You've probably already caught up but in case you missed that one: Will's Dad died; Maggie has developed a drinking problem since Uganda, and it might be affecting her work; Sloan had some intimate photos uploaded to the web by a shitty ex-boyfriend, who she later kicked in the balls; Jim outsmarts a prank caller; and Charlie got his hands on a helo manifest which seems to indicate chemicals weapons of some kind were indeed brought along during Operation Genoa. Oh yeah, Aaron Sorkin got to talk about Trayvon Martin too, though by now, it's all the criticisms of the case you've already heard along with a riff on NBC's gaffe when the 911 tape was released. So, let's jump to last night...
...and certainly the wheels of the plot got turning in a big way again. Not just in terms of the big story that has been driving the narrative all season, but also in small character details and even the Romney campaign that Jim thought he left behind comes roaring back into view. However, it's all through Sorkin's aggravating story devices, out-of-nowhere villainous twists and more. So let's dive right in...
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels)
A couple weeks back Will said he's been having a "crisis of confidence," and it's something we've seen all season long, including last week when he became obsessed over an innocuous, negative tweet. And as we see this week, likeability continues to weigh on his mind. After commissioning a focus group report with his own money, without telling Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) or Charlie (Sam Waterston), Will isn't happy with the numbers. And this insecurity overall seems to be fuelled by his new girlfriend, the gossip columnist Nina Howard (Hope Davis). She knows all about reporting for ratings, and she suggests Will go on a PR offensive, including a stop on an ACN morning show....and it goes over disastrously. With a helmet placed on his head, and given footballs to throw through a suspended tire (he was a former athlete), the segment ends with Will knocking over an array of lights with an errant throw.
Naturally, he's mortified that his usual resolve has fallen this far. Immediately after his appearance, he blows up at Nina for not telling him not to care about the numbers — something Mackenzie and Charlie would've said (though Nina had previously planted the idea that they are using Charlie for their own ends). How Will's decision to go on the the morning show is Nina's fault is beyond us, but he breaks up with her, and then Sorkin decides to let Sloan — the only one who knows about the focus group — to explain to Will (who she suddenly has a sister/brother type relationship with), exactly why his feelings continue to be uneasy about "News Night." It's a jarring bit of spoon-feeding, and the kind of stuff decent character work should have developed on its own. But essentially, it's combination of mixed feelings about Mackenzie, pride for his job, and worry about his audience which we thought was already established in season one.
Meanwhile, in terms of the issues that Will tackles this week in the standard speech-ifying moments: he rails against an inactive, ineffective Congress and devout politicians who try to use their faith to drive policy.
Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill)
Oh, so Jim and Hallie (Grace Gummer) are suddenly long distance dating, and Skype lovers now. It seems their initially testy relationship on the Romney campaign has blossomed into a fully formed romance, and with a small window of free time, Hallie is making her way to New York. While Jim's romantic instincts in the past have been terrible, particularly when it came to Lisa, here he's already made dinner reservations, and booked a hotel room for what is playfully referred to as "discretionary time." But there's one problem: Grace is bringing along a single pal, Aubrey Lerner, a reporter for MTVU, in order to set her up with Neal (Dev Patel). But she won't be the only addition to the dinner party...
...meeting Hallie just after she finishes covering a swanky dinner, Jim runs into former foe Taylor (Constance Zimmer), the Romney press rep, who elbows her way into the evening plans as well, and this merry bunch goes off to eat. Given the company, it isn't long until talk turns to politics, and when Jim rants about the ways Romney should be running his campaign — standing by his business record, embracing his religion and reaching out beyond his own audience — Taylor reveals that while it has been suggested, she's since been fired from his team. Meanwhile, Aubrey turns out to be a Ron Paul supporter, arguing (drunkenly) for the destruction of all regulatory and federal departments. Neal counters with the eloquent, "What the fuck did you just say?" while dressing down Paul as nothing but a former racist whose position on legalizing weed doesn't let him off the hook for past bigotry.
Anyway, once the meal is over, Jim and and Hallie make their way to their hotel room and who should in the bar on the main floor? Maggie, of course. Once again she's drowning her sorrows in drinks, avoiding Lisa and hoping to not sleep alone. Jim is naturally concerned, but Maggie asserts that she's fine and even turns down a dude who is buying her a round....only to wind up going home with the bartender himself.... As for Jim, he gets cockblocked when Hallie is called suddenly to go to the airport as a new stop has been added on the campaign, and she needs to fly out immediately. It has not been a good night for Jim.
Okay, this only took up a small portion of the show, but undoubtedly this likely got a lot of people talking. Yes, Aaron Sorkin took some time on "The Newsroom" to talk about last year's Disney bomb, "John Carter." And his take on the whole matter (as told via Sloan)? Everyone should just chill because the entertainment industry is like, the greatest, because it employs people from seventeen different unions, is a massive export and provides a product that people want to buy. Also, it's not like Disney is asking for a bailout and their stock is still a smart buy.
It's rather fascinating that Sorkin entirely misses any other narrative around the Disney flop: the awful marketing campaign, trying to franchise something that doesn't necessarily have an audience for it (as also seen this summer with Disney's other flop, "The Lone Ranger") and how about that simple fact while Disney stock still may be something good to own, it does nothing for shareholders when executives invest hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars into a project that they have to write off? Or how about discussing Hollywood's blockbuster chase in general, which is essentially the kind of big money, high risk gambling that if banks were doing it, people would rightfully be freaking out? All it will take is for one studio to make a string of bombs, and suddenly, everyone is those seventeen unions will be getting less work. (Something that folks like Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have already been warning about).
There is a nuanced, intelligent discussion to be had around "John Carter" and the industry in general, but Sorkin's reflexive, defensive take is almost hilariously off base.
Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater)
Back to Operation Genoa...this week finds the Red Team finally assembled, and getting ready to vet the story in full. And now the seemingly slam dunk piece of evidence is in their hands. Mackenzie and Charlie take an initially wacky trip out to the suburbs to meet Gen. Stanislaus Stomtonovich (Stephen Root), on the pretext of talking about a different story, but with the plan to ask him about chemical weapons. When they finally find his house (Mackenzie runs over his garbage cans, women be driving!), the general doesn't remember making the appointment with them the day before, but with the confusion out of the way, they go inside to talk.
But already, there is something a bit off about the General. It's not just that he's obsessed with March Madness basketball (he can barely tear himself away from the TV to talk to Mackenzie and Charlie), but his advocacy for the use of chemical weapons in particular situations, makes him a somewhat biased witness. But nonetheless, he agrees to talk about Operation Genoa on camera (albeit in shadow, with his voice altered). The next day Jerry arrives to conduct the interview, but when asked directly with sarin was used in Operation Genoa, the General dodges the question, and instead offers up how it would be utilized, if that was the case. But that won't stop Jerry.
In a pretty unsubstantiated about face for the character, Sorkin suddenly turns Jerry into a sleazy, do-anything-for-a-story producer and has him doctor the video and audio of the interview, to make it look like the General was indeed confirming the use of sarin during Operation Genoa. Positioned a solid, stand-in bureau chief from Washington, we suppose the reveal of Jerry as a driven, by-all-means necessary journalist is supposed to underscore the fact trust is a rare commodity. And this emphasized by a scene in which Mackenzie actually asks Don if he trusts Jerry. (Though, why is this question is only being asked now, and not at the start of the investigation when his source already seemed unreliable?)
And while one could sort of forgive this sort of cheap maneuver in the interest of pushing the narrative forward, when Jerry hectors the rest of the "News Night" staff and Charlie for wanting to keep verifying the story, claiming they're afraid to report it because they love Obama too much, all believability goes out the window. Why on Earth would anyone of "News Night" be pushed around by this part-time employee from another city? Wouldn't Charlie and Mackenzie tell someone like that to back off their turf? That it's their call to make and theirs alone?
A concluding scene has Charlie telling lawyer Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden) that ultimately they went with the report because other networks would have rolled ahead with it on even less evidence, and that it was too big a story to ignore. He didn't want "News Night" to be involved in covering up what was a war crime. But of course, none of it was true.
To be fair, this might have been the most compelling episode of "The Newsroom" all season, but an intensely flawed one nonetheless. There is no doubt the core idea of this season's premise is fantastic, but on every step of the way, much of it has felt inorganic and inauthentic, and has resulted in a show that can curiously be entertaining and unsatisfying at the same time. [B-]