This was a frustrating episode that I was prepared to mostly slam, but it ended with a beautiful sequence set to Coldplay’s ever-emotional “Fix You” that was everything the show is meant to be and I ended the hour bouncing with potential (mostly because of Don, but we’ll get to that).
Let’s take this thread by thread.
TMI: Mack actually had very little to do with this episode aside from being there to remind the audience why Will is so emotionally broken and to overreact to things like the reveal that Will let the company put a no-competition clause in his contract when he renegotiated to be able to fire Mack at any time. We learned how serious she is with her boyfriend and that’s about it for her this week. The A-plot belonged to Will alone as he navigated his dating life/”mission to civilize” and how he keeps showing up in the tabloids. The reason this is important to the greater scheme of the show is that 1) Sloane is “helping” him so we’re getting to know her a little bit and 2) it’s revealed that the tabloid spinning is happening because Jane Fonda is following through on last week’s threat to build an excuse to fire Will (she owns “TMI”, the foremost tabloid in the story, as well as ACN, where Will and co. do “News Night”)- that’s how Charlie fits into the story (he didn’t tell Will about last week’s meeting).
On the surface this is a pretty silly storyline that keeps Mack and Will in bitter-hurt and therefore immature-unprofessional territory, which is really very unhelpful. But as I watched Will have drink after drink thrown in his face by women he’s alienated, I realized that the story wasn’t about the sort-of-fake Fonda threat that’s supposed to be looming or the frivolity Will’s chastising his dates for investing in (namely, “guilty pleasures” like The Real Housewives and celebrity gossip*), the story was about the devastating loneliness of the self righteous. Personal Story Time: when I was in elementary school, the cool girl’s name was Krystin; she was the sort of cool girl who was very middle of the road, not particularly good or bad at anything (apart from doing her hair with the perfect zig-zag part, she was particularly good at that). I, on the other hand, have always been and will always be in possession of the sort of self-assured outsider attitude that got me through the trauma of not fitting in with my elementary school class because I was pretty sure (whether it was true or not) that I was smarter than most of them, definitely Krystin. So of course she and her two sidekicks (because it-girls always come in threes) would be talking about god-knows-what-silliness and I, being the over-snarky grade 6 that I was, would roll my eyes, to which Krystin would invariably respond with “you know, no one likes it when you roll your eyes”. Now, the only at all respectable response to such a comment would be another eyeroll, so I was stuck with the knowledge that the very critical reactions that assured me of my supposed superiority were also the things enforcing the circumstances that required that defensive attitude. My point is that this is what I think Sorkin’s presenting with Will: he knows he’s dating down and that none of these women will every be Mack, so he’s condescending to them, criticizing them, and in doing so he makes them not like him, reinforcing in his mind that he’s not all that likable or worthy and lost the only woman he ever held in high regard (Mack, of course). It’s a really revealing story for the few of us who’ve bought into the idea that Will is supposed to be a self righteous blowhard (this is cable people, why do you think HBO would greenlight a hero?). In fact, especially as written by a TV fiction writer (a medium Will would most certainly look down on) , the incredible arrogance in Will’s mission for civility is fascinating to me because it means putting down almost everyone and everything apart from- apparently- baseball, well-presented news stories, and all things musical theatre. He’s determined to be that person, knowing that it’s why people don’t like him. But then he does it again the next day.
Triangles: The Maggie-Jim story this week really bugged me. I think we’ve passed through the fascinating early-Jim-Pam pining territory and solidly into the part where she’s emotionally cheating on Don, and all three of them know it. Basically, Don insisted that they set Jim up with Maggie’s roommate Lisa, they slept together, Jim lied to Maggie about it, Maggie completely lost her mind and did the Mack-move of bringing her personal life so inappropriately into the office that Jim had to actually scold her (he is her boss, remember that?), they ended the episode by having another one of their awkward ‘be honest with yourself’ conversations. She definitely knows she loves Jim (especially because last week we learned that she talks about him with Lisa); if she doesn’t know, then she’s the least self-aware person in the history of television and she’s not good enough for world’s-best-Jim. I think she knows, that’s why she’s protesting so much when it comes time for Lisa’s date, meaning that she’s actually being really a) cowardly, though we already know that’s a thing with her, and b) cruel by not breaking it off with Don. I don’t want her with Jim yet, I was enjoying the dance, but they’ve crossed the line where the dance was understandable and now they’re just stalling. However, I do like that Jim did actually sleep with Lisa, even if he then lied about it because he’s clearly in love with Maggie and didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Jim’s been a little too perfect so far so I liked that Sorkin let him be a boy (and before you say something like “hey, that’s not fair, not all boys would sleep with the random girl they dont love”, remember my male best friend’s theory: “all men are sleazy until the right girl knocks it out of them”, this from one of the more standup guys there is. It’s a true thing, Jim was acting like a person, not the perfection robot he’s been so far, and was more interesting for it).
Don: Meanwhile, Don had his best episode yet. It’s no secret that I’ve been rooting for Don to be awesome since the very first glimmers of self-deprecating, rational, fundamental goodness he showed in the pilot. Until now we’ve had the occasional, ignorable moment from him that supported my theory of his secret amazingness, but this week I literally raised my arms and cheered for him when he stood up to Smarmy McRatings who wanted to declare Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords dead just as FOX, CNN and MSNBC had (the episode is set on January 8, 2011- the day Giffords was shot while addressing constituents). When pushed, Don let out his first Big Pronouncement of the series, leading to Will’s “Don, you’re a fucking newsman and if I ever tell you otherwise you hit me in the face”, which is what a compliment sounds like from the mouth of Will McAvoy. In pushing Jim towards Lisa you can see Don’s desperation to hold on to Maggie and his self-awareness in recognizing the threat (especially from someone who took awhile to earn his respect). Thomas Sadosky is really great in the role and I can see Sorkin slowly humanizing Don into who I always hoped he might be. The issue is, with the timing on Don’s increasingly interesting existence, we’re starting to like him just as Maggie’s falling in love with someone else. As unlikely as it is, I’m finding myself feeling protective of the guy who might be standing in the way of Perfect-Man-Jim’s happiness, and it’s entirely more interesting this way.
Neal: Dev Patel’s wonderful nerd-with-game blogger wasn’t important this week in any way but a metaphorical one as he made the repeated case that bigfoot exists. It was funny and charming and paid off in the end when Will asked to see his research, saying he needed more information on what was real and what wasn’t (the news-rant throughline was about talking heads who lie to the American public).
The episode had some great points to make but the show is still struggling with the balance of romantic storylines in a professional setting. More and more it’s turning into a romantic comedy more along the lines of Sports Night than The West Wing, which is fine, as long as it knows that’s what it is.
*For those of you who believe Sorkin believes everything he has Will say: he wrote this story about hating frivolity while in a serious relations with an actress from Sex and the City.