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'The Newsroom' Episode 9 Review and Recap: 'The Blackout Part 2' -- Whither the Mock Debate?

by Beth Hanna
August 20, 2012 3:57 AM
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Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider in "The Newsroom"
HBO Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider in "The Newsroom"

Sunday's all-new episode of "The Newsroom" was a moderate letdown from last week's strong episode, with promises of a mock debate barely materializing. But Sloan, the best thing about the Sorkin-scripted show, did get in a great one-liner: "Me? FUCK you."

What happened:

Power returns to the newsroom, but not before Mackenzie gets her hopes up that the blackout might be a divine intervention of the "News Night" coverage of Casey Anthony.

But with the lights, the show must go on too, including the pre-tape interview with sexter Sandy "Wit-less."

Last week's episode signaled a tentative return of Mackenzie's mind and authority, a return that was tested this week by lots of flailing and shouting. She's making baby steps toward becoming a halfway-admirable female character, but "baby" is the key word -- even when delivering an impassioned monologue, Mack's entire demeanor is infantile. The jumping, arm wringing and stomping all recall toddler behavior, and undercut whatever message she's trying to get across.

After the show, Mack and Brian Brenner chat over drinks at Hang Chew's. Brian speculates that Will's phase of ratings whoring had to do with loneliness, and that "the audience makes him feel less lonely." A valid observation.

It's revealed that Lisa, Maggie's roommate, went to high school with Casey Anthony. Maggie and Jim visit Lisa at the high-end boutique where she works, and persuade her to be interviewed by Will for the next installment of "News Night." Lisa begrudgingly agrees for Maggie's sake, because "Will and Mackenzie are counting on her."

Meanwhile, Will is back at therapy with Dr. Jacobi. Will has thought about Jacobi's statement from the previous day, that he must learn to forgive Mackenzie. Why can't he forgive her? Because, unlike Brian who was rejected by Mackenzie, Will was betrayed.

I wrote last week about Aaron Sorkin's fetishizing of books, which was conspicuous again this week. Will admires Jacobi's Encyclopedia Britannica, which gleams behind him in the frame, and talks about his fondness for something one can browse through. Of course one can also "browse" the internet, which is exactly what Will has been doing, checking out the "Help Me Rhonda" website for relationship advice. The fact that Will does this late at night, and confesses it only to his therapist, suggests ingrained embarrassment about a) his feelings, and b) new media. It would be interesting if these two aspects were somehow linked -- for example, there's an immediacy to the internet that makes Will uncomfortable, perhaps because he keeps his own emotions at arm's length. 

Ever a proponent of the internet, Neal is posing as a pervy troll on an econ web forum, writing about Sloan's breasts and "slutty body movements," as a means of getting initiated into trolls' inner circles.

Maggie Lisa Newsroom
At the behest of Mackenzie, Maggie gives Lisa some notes to study before going on air. During the interview, Lisa follows the notes and brings up statistics on missing children, and the racism at play in cases that are selected for national/tabloid attention. She then goes off-script and makes a haphazard and misguided argument for abortion. This results in a brick through the window of her boutique, and red spray paint screaming "BABY KILLER."

RNC reps Adam Roth and Tate Brady arrive the next day to discuss the possibility of primary debates on "News Night." Will stresses the need for a more serious approach to the debate format, and unveils the mock debate everyone has been preparing. In a bizarrely choppy montage, Will slings tough questions at the "candidates." Tate gets pissed, thinking Will is using the opportunity to grandstand, and nixes the possibility of debates for "News Night."

Both Tate and Brian observe that Will is letting hubris dictate his treatment of the mock debates, which is true. His questions are tough, and so they should be, but they seem to derail the debate entirely, and render his staffers, who have prepared answers for months, slack-jawed and stuttering. This scene was strangely edited, as it only showed the questions Will was asking, and very little of the staffers' responses -- an odd way to cap off a two-part episode that focuses so frequently on their preparations for the debate. Also, for an episode titled "Mock Debate," the mock debating was scarce, with the entire sequence only occupying about three minutes of screen time.

"The Newsroom" tends to have hero worship of Will McAvoy, to the point that it undermines some potentially interesting aspects of the series. The possibility of Will being a show-off -- who spoils his show's chances of airing something they've worked hard for -- is only allowed to hang in the air for just so long. Mackenzie defends Will's priorities, and then:

Will realizes the futility of bending to Leona Lansing's orders, and lets Sloan have two segments of debt ceiling coverage in that evening's episode. What a noble thing for Will to do!

On another note: I like Sloan. She stands up for issues she cares about, and has enough confidence in her reputation as an economist that she doesn't mind (too much) letting Neal fake-bash her online, especially because she knows he's pushing hard for his first story. She also delivers a particularly satisfying "fuck you" to Tate when he offers her the primary debates. As usual, I wasn't thrilled with the portrayal of women on tonight's episode, young women particularly so. There's slutty-vapid Sandy, there's the self-absorbed, Tony-bound model in Lisa's boutique, and then Lisa herself, who suffers from woeful foot-in-mouth syndrome. They're all so incompetent, so incapable of handling anything outside of outfit selection. And Maggie, while not vapid, bumbles her way through each episode. All this to say that I wish the women in "The Newsroom" would follow in Sloan's footsteps more often, and wouldn't be reduced to caricatures for the sake of culture skewering or plot points.

Neal attempts to shake his "small-time troll" status and gets into an online conversation with another troll, "Charizma." Charizma brags that he/she is the one who leveled death threats at Will.

Bits and pieces:

  • Don receives flowers from another woman at the office, and explains to Will in private that he's been seeing women in between his and Maggie's multiple breakups.
  • Lisa and Jim are tallying about as many breakups as Maggie and Don. Mackenzie tells Jim to "gather ye rosebuds," i.e. to tell Maggie how he feels about her. He tries, but instead gets back together with Lisa. Meanwhile, Don and Maggie break up. I'd say these characters get an "F" in the Gathering Rosebuds department.
  • Charlie is running a background check on Solomon, his NSA contact, which is returning some questionable information.


  • Anne Thompson | August 24, 2012 12:45 AMReply

    The show is written by a man and I get the sense that men are identifying with the male characters. OK: they're not perfect but they are smart and do their jobs well, which goes without saying. My sense is that women are not identifying with the women on the show, who are nothing if not emotional, fragile, unprofessional much of the time, and the issue of whether they do their jobs well is definitely on the table.

  • Incremental Jones | August 24, 2012 7:02 PM

    Maybe I missed it but I don't recall feminists having a problem with the character Felicity Huffman played on Sports Night, or with Allison Janney or Janel Moloney on West Wing, or Amanda Peet or Sarah Paulson on Studio 60, but there was a huge reaction to the way heartless gold diggers were portrayed as heartless gold diggers in The Social Network and ever since then it seems the circle is gunning for Sorkin as a misogynist . Thank Geebus it was Will who kept mixing up up Osama and Obama because had it been Mac it might have been taken as a sign that she can't do her job well. Didn't Will also not check his messages and miss the go-ahead from Joe Biden on the Osama story which would have given News Night a 20 minute lead over all the other news outlets? Seems unprofessional. Didn't Will buy a ring to fool Mac into believing he was ready to commit to her? Didn't he give up a million dollars on his contract just so he could fire her? And isn't he the one seeing a shrink? Seems emotionally fragile. Maybe it's just the way he acts like he's in control when he's doing all of these things. Perhaps it is a matter of the actresses' performances and not the writing, but then we'd have to blame two women and we can't do that. Sigh. I think I'm just going to go back to enjoying the smartest show on TV.

  • Beth Hanna | August 24, 2012 2:06 PM

    @Anne Thompson -- Right. A common argument for the show is that both the men and women are shown messing up, that they tally the same number of pratfalls, bumbling moments, etc, and that this means men and women are portrayed in an equal light throughout the series. But when you look at the male characters' relationship to the workplace (they tend to be confident, wise, heroic, even prescient) vs. the female characters' relationship to the workplace (they hesitate to be authority figures, get distracted by jealousy and, as you say, are often emotional, fragile and unprofessional), that's where the show is problematic.

  • cadavra | August 23, 2012 8:04 PMReply

    NONE of the characters (except possibly Charlie) is perfect! That's the whole damn point! These flawed characters come together as a whole to make something outstanding happen. Have we learned nothing from RIO BRAVO?

  • Willmac | August 21, 2012 10:45 AMReply

    Neal has as many awkward "fumbling" moments as Maggie. Maybe you should go watch the Notebook or something.

  • Crystal | August 20, 2012 9:43 PMReply

    I think it's a fabulous show, with interesting, complex and very humanly fallible characters.

  • David Lean Fan | August 20, 2012 1:39 PMReply

    Bless your heart Ms. Thompson for your patience with this show. I gave up after the second episode. I tried the third but quickly abandoned ship ten minutes in. These characters are nothing but vessels for Sorkin's ideologies. It's like sitting in a church and watching Sorkin sermonise from a poulpit. Non, merci! Whatever happened to creating complex, engaging and authentic characters? After his one-sided portrayal of Zuckerberg in The Social Network I should have known Sorkin was sliding into the politicising territory.

  • Incremental Jones | August 20, 2012 6:49 AMReply

    I am so tired of the sexist portrayal of men on The Newsroom! This episode we have Will McAvoy, the hero of the show, portrayed as so inept that he can't put on a pair of pants and stumbles out into the middle of the newsroom in his underwear and pratfalls to the floor. Don, of course, is cheating on his girlfriend, because you know, that's the way men are. Neal does his first story on trolling and of course it involves reducing Sloan to sexual terms, because you know, that's the way men are, until Sloan sets him right that his approach should be a death threat against Will. Meanwhile Jim endangers Lisa's job by barging into her place of work and making a fool of himself as he selfishly tries to coerce Lisa into doing something she absolutely does not want to do but does because, you know, that's how nice women are. Then we have the whistle blower character who it turns out stalks his wife and solicits prostitutes because, you know...

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