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27 August 2012

Season Wrap Up: The Newsroom

By // TV

I can finally exhale. The Newsroom season finale is everything I wanted it to be. Or at least it’s almost everything I wanted it to be and knowing as I do that Aaron Sorkin is but a human being I will take “almost everything” any day. The episode wraps up stories that needed to be wrapped up and leaves unresolved stories that would inevitably be left unresolved; it comes full circle on the pilot and spins forward into next season. But, most impressively and importantly, “The Greater Fool” takes on The Newsroom‘s greater foolishness and either learns to embrace it or put it to bed once and for all.

Let’s go through story by story and make sense of how all the threads work together.

*Superfluous warning: there be spoilers ahead*

The Charlie/Reese/Leona/Solomon Subplot: Blah, boring, who cares? This whole thing wraps up in the finale exactly as it plays out earlier in the season- dramatically but neatly and without much consequence. I see why this story is necessary- for all the viewers who can’t stand the relationship stories and want more “plot”- but it’s just so damn trivial for a subplot seemingly full of stakes. I love me some Chris Messina, and Jane Fonda certainly lends the show some extra cred, but it would be just fine with me if all four of the characters involved here moved to the UK to further investigate the global ramifications of phone hacking. And stayed there.

The New York Magazine Article: Loved it. Amazing. One of the best stories they’ve done all year. Okay, let me explain. Plot (and character)-wise, this story accomplishes a ton. Thematically, it accomplishes even more. Let’s start with plot: Mack’s ex Brian, with whom she cheated on Will, is brought in, by Will, to write a cover story about him and News Night 2.0. That’s 2 episodes worth of conflict right there (“The Blackout Parts 1 & 2”).The article comes out, it’s “a hack job”, Will drives himself crazy over it, he ups his anti-depressants, winds up in the hospital, and wants to quit the show. There’s another 3 episodes at least of plot in there but it all plays out in the finale. On a very basic level, this whole thing just gives Sorkin’s characters something to do. That sounds stupid, but for a dialogue writer plot is Hard; it’s long been Sorkin’s downfall and is the root of So Many of The Newsroom‘s problems. This story is a Story and not a thesis, hence helpful. Now, character: Why would Will agree to a cover story now after avoiding them for years? Why the hell would he choose Brian to write it? How right is Brian when he slams Will both to Mack’s face and in the article? Why does Will take it so hard? What can rally him after the article knocks him down? In tackling those questions through this storyline, Sorkin reveals who these characters really are, who they believe themselves to be, and what they really think of each other.

The biggest character point here is Will’s decision to bring in Brian. It’s masochistic and childish and just generally all sorts of screwy. It opens up a conversation (using the utterly helpful addition of Will’s therapist) about why Will can’t forgive Mack, why he feels the need to punish her, why he’s so sensitive to betrayal, and why he’s so generally fragile/closed off/punishing. The story also puts Mack in the most uncomfortable personal position imaginable so we can see her handle it with impressive if imperfect grace. We also see how deeply she believes in her idealization of Will (both the founded and unfounded parts of it). And, ultimately, the story shows us how thin-skinned and self-conscious Will actually is; his desperation to be loved as much as possible by as many people as possible (his Jay Leno side, if you will).

Now, in the character of Brian we see someone who dislikes Will for lots of personal reasons, but also for all the reasons that a lot of the critics don’t like Will. This is where it gets thematically interesting. Brian brings up almost every criticism of Aaron Sorkin and The Newsroom and presents them as being about Will McAvoy and News Night. General opinion has been that Sorkin is, with The Newsroom, trying to make the points that Will, with News Night, is making. My guesstimate would be that that’s about 75% true (the other 25% is the good-fiction part of it, the same writerly instinct that ignored who Mark Zuckerberg really is in favour of telling the best Social Network story possible). But by having Brian point the flaws out as part of The Newsroom, Sorkin lets us know that he knows those flaws are there in News Night and its production, he put them there on purpose. There’s the sanctimony, the self-importance, the condescension- Brian points to all of that in his article- but the most interesting thing is how he attacks the quixotic ground the 2.0 revolution stands on (and has Will questioning its validity as a strategy). As noble and inspiring as Don Quixote may be, in the end he really is just tilting at windmills. Bravado doesn’t actually vanquish demons, and that’s a truth Will McAvoy (and, in a lot of ways, Aaron Sorkin) had been avoiding until the finale. Will reading that magazine with the wind knocked completely out of his sails feels like Sorkin’s way of saying “hey, I can hear you, and I promise it hurts” when he’s told that The Newsroom is full of it (as Brian claims News Night is). The fact that he finds something to raise Will up again (in this case the tale of a 96-year-old woman unable to vote because of new voter ID laws) says that Sorkin would rather say something and be hated than be belovedly silent.

News Night Stories: Aside from the aforementioned voter registration thing, the point of the finale’s news stories is less what they are and more that they are being reported and how. There’s a whole montage of getting down to business that’s accompanied by the great and rhythmically appropriate (but possibly ill-placed?) tune “Teenage Wasteland”. The team gathers impressive research to refute the idea that the founding fathers wanted the USA to be “a Christian nation” and they once again touch on repeated lies like Obama hurting the economy and failing to create jobs (the great, overlooked staffers really shine here as Tess diligently combs through a bible for useful quotes and Gary contrasts Mt. Kilimanjaro and his flat abs while dissecting a graph showing economic growth and job stability). The conclusion of all this researching and montaging is Will’s Big Statement of the finale, that the Tea Party is akin to The American Taliban. This bothers me for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that Will’s whole shtick is supposed to be about the end of unhelpful hyperbole and the rise of informed, fair debate. In my experience, no matter who you are talking about, when you start to sound like Glenn Beck you’ve lost sight of your point. My god, man! Yes, many of the tea party-ers are misguided, uninformed, under-qualified, intense and, in some cases, power-hungry enough to do the wrong thing in service of themselves. But comparing them to the Taliban is beyond insulting- both to the tea party (most of whom, no matter how crazy, are not pro-massacre!) and to the civilians who’ve lived (or worse, lost their lives) under an actual Taliban regime. I know the Tea Party is scary and extreme, but we’re North Americans, we barely even know what “scary” and “extreme” mean.

The Neal Story: I wish this got more play in the finale since it takes a very backseat. In fact, it takes such a backseat that a very real threat against Will has now multiplied but feels more like hijinks than A Hundred Death Threats. At least Terry Crews is taking it seriously, and he’s a pretty intense body guard. But I wanted Neal to get into some real trouble, or for there to be consequences to his dragging Sloan into it. I just wanted something that upped the intensity on the players in the actual story and not just Will. That said, this story is still incomplete so, depending on when in recent or near-future history Sorkin decides to set the season two premiere, there may be more to it.

Sloan and Don: I kind of like it. I mean, if I were to go back and watch season one, would I see it hidden beneath their interactions that she’s got a thing for him/interested somehow/maybe in actual love with him? Probably not. But I still like it in theory. I think Sloan Would like the guy no one really gets, and the many scenes of him spilling his heart to her would be so much more interesting (read: heartbreaking) if informed by later revelations. It makes me feel a little better knowing that someone does love Don, even if it’s not Maggie. And I think if someone like Sloan were to reveal herself too soon then get stuck still having to see the guy she Would impose the crazy sanctions she does near the end of the finale. I’m intrigued to see how this plays out, even if it does feel a little thrown-in. But Sloan’s feelings aside, what I loved about this interaction was her speech when she thinks she won’t have to see him again. In a bout of unwelcome honesty, Sloan tells Don that “somewhere along the way, someone told you you’re a bad guy” and that he’s trying too hard to be a good guy in response to that and that’s why he wants to commit to Maggie, to feel like a good guy. It’s the most fascinating glimpse into Don’s psyche as we’ve gotten and feels like a massive payoff for those of us who’ve been loving Don for awhile (and an interesting insight from a character who famously doesn’t have much personal insight. The one person Sloan sees through is the one she likes- perfect). I loved that line about being told he’s a bad guy; Don is called a bad guy all the time, and the audience are the ones doing it. He’s always saying the wrong thing and taking the wrong side and standing between the meant-for-each-other lovebirds everyone’s at least trying to root for (I don’t know many girls who think Maggie deserves Jim, but that’s a matter for another time). But Don’s a good guy, that’s always been fairly easy to see, actually, even before his breakout “it’s a person- a doctor declares her dead, not the news” moment. You just had to stop wishing he would go away long enough to actually listen to him. Anyway, I’m getting off topic because I over-associate with Don (what? I can relate to a “hotshot EP out of Columbia J-school” with a perfect Tony-winning rival, you don’t know me!) but my point is that I think Sloan nails him with that comment (though I really do like it better if his love for Maggie is at least a little more real than it’s seeming lately) and it’s the first time in the show anyone’s seen through to anything beyond Don’s flannel shirt. It’s incredibly revealing and satisfying and, just, Poo on You if you were one of the many anti-Dons before this episode- you lose.

The Love Square: Ah, the conundrum. See, I love Don, I Love Don. He’s the best character by miles and even if I actually knew him and it wasn’t just a “you are more interesting to watch than everyone else” thing, I would still at least really like Don. But I literally rewound the episode to watch the big Jim-Maggie scene a second time. Don brings out my intellectual, human understanding, fundamental goodness-appreciating side, but Jim makes me smile really big and hope no one’s looking at my face in case I’m blushing even though I don’t really blush but it still worries me because vulnerability is the enemy! You know that feeling? Ugh. I’ve been struggling with this phenomenon from the beginning because Jim feels to me like one big Oz speech. In case you’re the one person who doesn’t know their Buffy, here’s that story: when Joss Whedon wrote the character of Oz in season two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he wanted to write someone everyone would love (they’d see that Oz is so cool that he can actually see how cool Willow is). Trouble was, by the time he introduced Oz, all the fans really wanted Willow to be with Xander so they automatically hated Oz because he was threatening that. Seeing the unexpected reaction, Whedon wrote him a speech- the speech from “Innocence”- about a minute of screentime carefully designed to make the specific female audience fall madly in love with Seth Green of all people. And it worked, because Whedon’s always had an amazing sense of what makes his audience tick. Sorkin’s not usually known for that ability (in fact, a complete misread of how the audience will react to Mack is what got him in a lot of his critical trouble early in the season when he had her slip on the proverbial banana peel too early). But this is how I feel about Jim. It’s like good ole Aaron woke up one day and said “you know what, I think I’ll write Kelly a boy today”, so he created this guy. This fiercely loyal, way-too-smart, snarky sarcastic nerd guy who keeps calm in a crisis, anticipates the needs of others, has the perfect give-and-take chemistry with his mentor, makes badly timed jokes about Batman, sings, and leaves in the middle of a party to check the score of the Mets-Phillies game. Then someone decided to cast a Tony winner with brown hair and a sweet smile and, hey, why not, let’s put him in sweaters and ties and lord knows one of these days I’m sure he’s going to reveal secret cello talent. All this is to say that Jim is way too perfect so my brain’s been fighting my love of him from very early on. It was helped along when were robbed of the Jim-Mack dynamic for most of the season, and then when he started sleeping with Lisa even though he didn’t like her that much. But that stuff then made me think that he wasn’t too perfect anymore and maybe was starting to resemble a real human instead of a “make Kelly giddy” construction. Long story not-so-short, I’ve had a hard time reconciling the Jim vs. Don  fight in my head and that’s affected how I feel about the whole Maggie issue, even though it shouldn’t be coming down to who I like more. In a nutshell, I think it’s Maggie’s responsibility to have broken up with Don already because, no matter who the audience likes better (which is, in almost all cases, Jim) she clearly knows she’s in love with Jim and not Don. Who’s the better man is not actually a question that’s on the table because if there’s a boy who makes your heart go “whizbang flipflop heaven for a minute”* You Go With That Boy. At least if we’re comparing EPs vs. Senior Producers and not Heart Surgeons vs. Drug Dealers. I liked the dance for awhile there, especially when Jim and Maggie were still in “does he/she like me as much as I like him/her?” territory. But that’s dispensed with so quickly that there’s just too much Maggie leading Don on/pushing Jim away because she’s an epic coward for me to deal with. I get the impulse, I’m fine with the impulse, but it’s been a year and a half so it’s past the point of mean/pathetic (mean to Don, pathetic on the Jim front). That said, I’ve been enjoying watching the Jim/Lisa weirdness and her conflicted perspective has kept me interested. Until the finale, where the whole thing comes to a head in the most predictable of ways. It’s a lovely scene, really, wherein Maggie yells at a bus full of tourists on the Sex and The City tour (a funny nod to Sorkin’s girlfriend Kristin Davis) and finally admits out loud that she’s “fallen for a guy who’s dating [her] friend”. Of course Jim is on the bus (a contrivance planted earlier about him wanting to invest in Lisa’s interests) and ends up chasing her down the street. There’s the kiss we’ve been waiting for since the pilot (is it weird that I’m Extremely Glad JGJ is a good screen kisser? It just would have been horrible if he wasn’t) then the stupid conversation in which they both go back to their people because Jim knows that Don’s asking Maggie to move in with him and he’s Such An Unrealistically Good Guy All The Time that he has to let her go. It’s Sorkin’s way of dragging out a love story that was rushed early on and now needs to be slowed, but it’s just frustrating. Lisa’s the only one in the love square who ever tells the truth to the other corners about anything, and we’re well past the point where that’s not a huge flaw in the other three. That said, I could watch that run-and-kiss scene over and over again and never tire of it, so again my head and my heart are duking it out over that stupid Jim kid and the girl Mack told him to like.

Will, Mack and TMI: Okay, not much to tell you here, I promise. Apparently Will left a message on Mack’s answering machine when he was high (“the night they got Bin Laden”-I wish they’d come up with a way to say that that didn’t sound so duck-hunting-esque). It’s the key evidence in the stupid phone-hacking story (TMI heard it on Mack’s phone and deleted it before she could hear it) and brings Nina Howard back into the story as she warns Mack that she knows Will was high and just needs a second source. Basically all you need to know from this is the obvious: Will still loves Mack, he briefly got up the nerve to tell her, she never heard the message, he refuses to tell her what it said. We’re essentially where we’ve always been, except that Will can stop fighting for his job and Mack finally has an inkling that she might be able to win her way back in with Will. (Some amusing hospital scenes and some touching “do you want to end up like us?!” stuff moves their relationship along nicely in the finale, which is a nice break from them simply yelling at each other).

The Intern: The final piece to the finale puzzle comes at the very end, with the reveal that the “sorority girl” from the show’s very first scene is applying for an internship. It’s a little tidy but it’s got great thematic value so the tradeoff’s worth it. Whenever I watch that first big rant with a friend my age they often get really angry and don’t want to give the show a real try. There are lots of reasons for that (though I don’t fully understand most of them) but the big one is the statement “you are part of the Worst. Generation. Ever.”. My view is that every generation thinks the ones after them are The Worst, but apparently people in my generation are just sick and tired of being called that. Because Charlie’s one of the main proponents of the oldschool-is-better attitude, the generational issue is not one that’s been explained very well. The further you get into The Newsroom, the more you learn about Will and the subjectivity of his Big Opinions. Charlie, on the other hand, isn’t a subjective person yet. Sure, he’s wrong a lot, but the show still treats him like the moral centre and guiding voice a lot of the time, which makes it difficult to argue that his views are not the show’s. When it comes to looking down on younger generations, modern technology, and contemporary attitudes, Charlie gets the show in a little trouble. So in the finale Sorkin brings back “sorority girl” (with fascinating echoes of the “internet girl” debacle) to let Will amend his speech. He said when the show began that “America’s not the greatest country in the world. But it used to be”. At the end of the first season, he says that it could be, and the reason it could be is because of the young girl who took the worst of his abuse, found the truth underneath it, and went to work to make the country a little better however she could. “She’s the girl at the end of Camelot“, going out and telling the world that it’s possible. That big problem, the one that made my friends the most mad when listening to that big speech (the one that went viral before the premiere on that new young person thing, the internet, and did more for The Newsroom’s marketing than anything else), it gets fixed in the end by simply changing Will’s answer to “What makes America the greatest country in the world?”. By the time Will’s grown through the year and a half of season one, the answer becomes “you do”.

Read all my Episode Recaps/Reviews for the entire season HERE

Season Grade: B+
Finale Grade: A-

*Yes, that was a Thoroughly Modern Millie quote. No, I’m not embarassed; incessant musical theatre references are very “Newsroom“. Another Millie quote? “Jimmy, oh Jimmy, silly boy. Gee, what a real swell guy!” Ahhhhh. 

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