Very big things happened on Breaking Bad last night. Huge things. Facebook newsfeed-shattering, Twitter-exploding things. And I didn’t give a flying hoot. I watch Breaking Bad; I’ve seen every episode. But ask me to care an inch about any character in its entire universe and I’m afraid I’ll have to laugh in your face (unless the character in question is Jesse, because that kid is a bit of a masterpiece). But ask me about The Newsroom and I can honestly tell you that I care about Gary Cooper and Tess and Elliot and Reese goddamned Lansing! (Note to the uninitiated: these are characters who’ve collectively spoken about 10 lines this season and/or are supposed to be jerkwads). The Newsroom has none of Breaking Bad‘s filmmaking finesse. It doesn’t care about sound editing and has never doused the entire nation of Mexico with a yellow wash. But it presents the viewer with characters worth rooting for, people you wish you knew, even when they’re annoying as hell. It aims to rouse something within its audience beyond revulsion or despair. My very complex game of 4-suit Spider Solitaire was more emotionally engaging than my experience watching Breaking Bad‘s Massive Episode last night (though I acknowledged its technical excellence). But I was excited for The Newsroom, and sad when it was over, and glad that it happened. And it wasn’t even all that great of a season finale. Confirmation on a possible third season is still elusive (the holdup is on Sorkin’s end- he seems to be panicking about his rate of productivity) but even if this pretty darn mediocre episode is the last we ever get from ACN (though I wouldn’t bet on it), season two proved what The Newsroom was here to prove: that heroes can survive on cable, that the age of idealism isn’t completely dead, that there’s room for comedy and romance and banter in a world where serious dramas are all laconic, intricately sound-edited and tonally colour-washed. And that all of those things can be respected again. So here’s to you, Newsroom cast and crew and controversial writer’s room- you did good, and well.
All that said, after the masterpiece that was the Genoa climax, the final two episodes of the season’s too-short 9-episode order were fairly blah. The first of the two parts (which aired last week) was the better one- a little less romantic wrap-up, a little more of the zippy smart kid dialogue that so makes my heart sing- though they were very much two parts of the same whole, taking place over a single night as the ACN team did live election coverage. Let’s break it down in pro and con columns, just because we can.
- The return of Taylor Warren (the great Constance Zimmer) as a funny devil’s advocate from the Romney campaign. Back in full force to join News Night‘s excellent election night panel (a great device throughout both episodes), show a great sense of perspective (in her desire to hire Jim for a new consulting firm), deliver necessary exposition (“wait, I heard you were all resigning!”, paraphrased) and generally humanize herself.
- Grace Gummer as Hallie! Little Meryl is adorable and gives Hallie all the warmth and smarts she needs to put up with Jim (this year in far more realistic, imperfect form). Their relationship is well-balanced and jovial (“you’re not smart enough to make me feel stupid”- that’a girl, Hal!) and Hallie herself has shown really interesting layers in her insights and concern for Maggie. I love her; can we keep her?
- Will and Mack resolution. I think we’re finally done talking about her cheating! Hopefully the developments of the finale will compel these two to just get along and stop being so melodramatic on a personal level.
- Sloan is a lunatic about a tiny detail. Maybe it works better on Sloan because Olivia Munn is the superior actress to Emily Mortimer, or maybe because Sloan is generally a lighter-hearted character than Mack and thus can get away with more silly subplots, or maybe because her search for the person who paid $1000 at an auction to buy a signed copy of her book (so that she can replace it with a real signed copy after Gary forged her signature) was actually less silly and more relatable than Mack’s Wikipedia silliness.
- Elliot! Anytime, anywhere- more Elliot, please!
- Don and weird lawyer lady get their banter on. Is Don’s perspective on the legal system that’s currently making his life hell both informative and timely? Yes. Do I care that he’s being personally sued by Dantana? Not really. Do I like how well Marcia Gay Harden plays off of Thom Sadoski’s unique comic rhythms? Love it.
- The humanization of Reese Lansing. The great Chris Messina doesn’t sit as comfortably in the irky role of Lansing as he does in his perfect-fit role of Danny Castellano on The Mindy Project but I was still glad to see him get plenty of material this year. First he is the only person on the sensible side of the argument when it comes to accepting the resignations of the Genoa screwups, then he gets his righteous moment in the Sorkin sun when he comes round and does the “right” thing (a scene fantastically undercut to avoid aggrandizing!).
- Some seriouly good Jane Fonda stuff.
- The return of Lisa. I’ve always thought she was a really interesting character (and I loved the “I’m smart enough to know I’m not smart enough for you” insecurity she felt with Jim) and maybe she can be the one to get Maggie over herself.
- The bed thread. I’m not actually 100% sure this was on purpose, but I’m giving Sorkin the benefit of the doubt because he did such a wonderful job of assembling seemingly random puzzle pieces across the season to form a bigger picture. One of the best and most important Maggie details from season one was a conversation she had with Jim where she told a story about hiding under the bed in an old hookup’s dorm while he reunited with his ex. Jim’s strongly worded retort of “I literally know no one who would have hidden under the bed” lingered over and did a lot to explain every move Maggie made since the pilot. It was interesting, then, to notice that this episode’s story about her wanting to be brave had a recall of the image of someone hiding under a bed. Only this time it was Maggie who was pulling them out. I’m not sure I totally like the arc (she’s not an interesting enough character to sell the transformation beyond Jim just telling us that it happened) but I definitely like the parallel images and the callback to one of the character’s most interesting moments.
- Absolutely everything involved in the early calling of the Michigan 1st (the hilariously dry numbers lady, the MI vs MISS debacle, anytime Jim gets something wrong). Comic subplot gold that tied beautifully in with the arc of the season.
- The incredible awkwardness of any and all interactions between Maggie and either Don or Jim (all season but especially bad in this set of two episodes). Her weird hatred of Jim that feels incredibly unfair (“I hate Jim”, Sloan: “no you don’t”. You go, Sloan!) or her painful attempts to lightheartedly tease Don (“didn’t you used to shower with his chief of staff?” ouch)- which is worse? It’s hard to choose.
- The weird jump that was made a few episodes back in which we skipped the part where Jim and Hallie officially started dating. They were kicked off the Romney bus and then… she’s back on the bus and he’s back in New York and they’re now a couple? Did I miss something?
- Will and Mack nonsense. Aren’t we done talking about her cheating yet?
- The lack of great chemistry between Will and Mack. We’ve heard so much about how great they were together but when it actually comes down to the moment of lip-to-lip truth? It just looked weird. A perfect fit these two are not (Don and Sloan fared better but I’m still hoping for a heat upgrade for season 3). Will and Nina Howard sizzled a lot more convincingly.
- Speaking of Nina Howard, what happened to Nina Howard? I was beginning to really like her. And I kind of really liked the perspective she brought to Will’s life. And I really like Hope Davis. Poor woman’s getting her heart broken in a scene we don’t get to see right about now. That doesn’t feel good.
- Mack is a lunatic about a tiny detail. Again. This time it was correcting her Wikipedia page. I always appreciate a funny subplot for Neal but surely we could come up with something to highlight him and showcase Mack’s control freak nature without making her look trivial.
- The resolution to Sloan’s silly signed book subplot is perhaps the most obvious thing possible, almost to the point of being pedestrian it’s so predictable. The second the story was introduced last week, I said (out loud, with witnesses) “clearly Don bought the book, because he loves her and this is how we’ll prove it”. And guess what- Don bought the book, because he loves her and this is how we proved it. I love me some Don-Sloan and I love that things are left not all that resolved between them, but surely Sorkin knew that this wasn’t subtle. I Have to believe that he knew this wasn’t subtle.
- No more Jerry Dantana. With the possibility of a delay on season 3 (which might take the timeline past the Genoa court case, I would imagine) and Don’s counter-suit looming (which easily frames the ex-producer as a straight-laced villain), it’s not likely that we’ll get to see all that much more of Hamish Linklater on The Newsroom. But that’s too bad. 1) because I love Linklater and think he should be on my TV screen always and 2) because I think Sorkin did a great job of giving him a strong perspective. His speech about Obama in “One Step Too Many” and his final plea of “I wouldn’t have done it on any other story and I wouldn’t have done it unless I was sure” made me want to hear him explain himself.
- The strange undercutting of Sloan on-air throughout the last two episodes. I like Sloan to come off as a genius on-air and an ineloquent weirdo off-air, it helps with her credibility.
- Sam Waterston. I’ve never liked how he sounds on Sorkin’s dialogue and now that Charlie’s finally finding his footing as a character it’s getting more and more annoying how many of his lines get swallowed by Waterston’s enunciation problems. If anyone could discern what it is he yells after finding out about Petraeus in Part I, could you please let me know?
- Maggie. Still the show’s weakest character by far, the season ended on a Maggie-centric note that points towards her maybe getting better in the future (if there is a future. There will be a future, right? Aaron?). But this season involved a lot of Maggie moping and self-sabotaging and being generally “dark” when the explanation of what made her that way didn’t have nearly a strong enough effect on the audience (or on her travel companion Gary, which felt very odd).
These last two episodes were flawed but still fun and rousing in that Sorkin-y way that no one else can replicate. If season two is any indication of what The Newsroom can be when we give the writer a little latitude and the time to do his thing, I’m more than willing to wait as long as he needs for the possibility of a season three.
Finale Grade: B
Season Grade: A+