26 December 2014
When an Aaron Sorkin TV show reaches the end of its first season, an episode titled “What Kind of Day Has it Been” signals the end, for now. Shots rang out over the President’s rope line in Rosslyn, Virginia, Isaac Jaffe rejoined his Sports Night team after recovering from a stroke, and whatever happened at the end of Studio 60 happened- that’s what kind of day it was. But Will McAvoy, he got into a car and drove melancholically into the night to end an episode titled “The Greater Fool”. It was a signature; Aaron Sorkin has many of those, but this was one removed from habit and style and taste, one just for people who loved him enough to be able to spot a trend as innocuous as a recurring episode title, across three series, two of which almost nobody watched.
And then The Newsroom, a show so covered over with extreme reaction that it’s nearly impossible to really see it. If the characters were heroes, the writer was preachy; if the characters fell off their pedestals, Sorkin’s own character was dragged down too. If it had been me, I would have dropped every signature I could think of; I would have hid. I would have gone on media blackout and submitted my scripts and just hid. So he didn’t call his first season finale “What Kind of Day Has it Been”. But he went back out and played the second inning, so what if he got knocked around a little in the first? He went back to the narrative structure where he’d had the most success (depositions and flashbacks), hired ace guest stars, played down the unpopular characters (Maggie and Jim) and brought up ones he was just getting to know (Sloan and Don); he toned down his grand speeches and abandoned his musical theatre references and cut the rom-com tone he’d held close in season one. And they eased up on him, the internet editorialists and vocal tweeters. They came down hard again a few weeks ago because of a storyline the intention of which I think most people misunderstood, but, frankly, I’m tired of talking about The Newsroom in the context of Emily Nussbaum’s twitter feed. I feel like that’s all I’ve been doing for three years, reacting to the reaction to The Newsroom instead of just getting to watch The Newsroom (for the record, I’ve stopped following Emily Nussbaum, I just couldn’t handle the haterade anymore). I’ve had to defend the show and, more dramatically, its creator at every turn for every flaw and every perceived flaw in a show that just never belonged on HBO in a world filled with angry internet editorials. I don’t know a single person who watches my favourite currently airing show, Shameless. It never makes headlines; Emily Nussbaum never tweets about it. I’m not quite sure how it keeps getting renewed under those circumstances but, beyond feeling sorry for everyone who’s missing out on some of TV’s best writing and definitely its best performances, I selfishly love that no one tweets about Shameless. Because I get to watch Shameless and react to Shameless and feel that show hit me with a clean shot. I can love it, I can hate it, I can laugh about it, I can cry about it, and I don’t have to care whether you were offended by Lip’s point of view on that one thing that one time. All this to say that I wish I’d been able to watch The Newsroom. To see it and feel it and write about it honestly without living permanently on the defensive.
Sorkin finally titled an episode of The Newsroom “What Kind of Day Has it Been”. It was the last one. And, in a strange, sad, somehow fitting way, it felt like he returned to himself for that one last hour, the last thing he will likely ever write for the medium where he did much of his greatest work (would you go back after the way he was attacked? So-called “TV fans” chased Sorkin away from TV and the rest of us just get to live with that). In the end, The Newsroom had grand speeches and a singalong and romance and Don Quixote and optimism. It had all the things Sorkin loves that the internet wouldn’t let him have, except maybe pratfalls (he will have to learn to live without pratfalls). The finale moved forward by looking back (as, I think, all the best finales do) and, while it wasn’t perfect, it felt like Sorkin. And it was The Newsroom. Even beyond my unshakeable loyalty to the second greatest writer I’ve ever read, I loved The Newsroom. It could never have been written by someone else but let’s pretend for a moment that it was written by someone else- I still loved The Newsroom. I loved the pilot and the cheesy-great episodes dotted throughout that first season and “Bullies”, my first real favourite, and the superb second season and the series-best episode “Red Team III” and the final couple episodes even after the superb main part of the second season was over and I loved even the overdramatic third season that I thought was the series low-point but everyone else seemed to like okay and I loved the penultimate episode, the one that everyone else despised with the fire of a thousand suns, and I loved the series finale, even the singalong that was honestly pretty dumb, and the too-neat bow tie of the pregnancy storyline, and all the little nods to the series’ critics- from Mac’s line “like it’s every little girl’s dream to make a man better at his job” (for you, Amy Schumer) to the score-free, unromantic realism of the show’s final few moments. I loved The Newsroom, and I’m going to miss it, and I wish I had never let your opinion on either of those things matter to me. So I’m going to write the rest of this series wrap up and, for the first time since the pilot recap, it’s going to be all about what was there on the screen. It’s not about you, it’s not about twitter, it’s not about Sorkin or Sony or The West Wing or Steve Jobs, and it’s definitely not about Emily Nussbaum. From now on, just until the end of this one last recap, it’s about The Newsrooom.
From the top-
I’m sentimental about theme songs and the series finale rendition of a great one is always emotional. The Newsroom is no different, even though the opening sequence changed dramatically between the first two seasons. What a great tune by Thomas Newman this was, rousing but modern, even in its toned-down piano version for season two.
And there’s “Created by Aaron Sorkin”, oomph. Forgive me if I cry, I honestly do believe this is the last TV will ever see of one of its greatest artists (and he’s not exactly prolific when it comes to film work).
“What Kind of Day Has It Been” title card (followed by “written by Aaron Sorkin”, and there are those tears again) and right into the organ music signalling that we’re starting with the funeral of Charlie Skinner, who died at the end of the previous episode from a heart attack during a fight with Don and Sloan about the new News Night policies implemented by BJ Novak to destroy journalism (Charlie, it appeared, had given in and was enforcing them; Don and Sloan were having none of it). I’ve never been a Charlie fan and felt for a long time that he was the under-criticized heart of a lot the show’s biggest flaws (too blustery, too oldschool, and Sam Waterston could never deliver a Sorkin speech with anything resembling naturalism). I always suspected that Sorkin had an alcoholism storyline ready to play with Charlie that he never got to (especially in season one, he was a champion day drinker and it was never addressed) and the old man became a symbol and a plot device more than anything else. His one great feature was an intriguing relationship with the series’ best character Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) that kicked off in “Bullies” and emerged rarely but gloriously throughout the show (the high point might be their fantasy football riff in the second season premiere, though I will never get over the greatness of “don’t call me girl, sir”). As a Charlie critic, I thought killing him was a strong move, though it would have worked better if this were not the final season. Charlie’s death rearranges the job titles at ACN in ways that would have given the show new territory in season four and it wouldn’t have felt quite so cheesy without all the themes of “ending” that come with setting a finale around a funeral (recall The West Wing‘s genius “Two Cathedrals” funeral episode which is as much about beginning as it is ending). Knowing, of course, that Sorkin wouldn’t kill off Charlie without using Waterston in flashbacks the next episode, his death never meant any less of him in the series. But I liked the concept either way and like to believe that he would have died at the end of season three even if the show went ten seasons.
We see the mourners, starting with Joanna Gleason guest starring as the heretofore unseen Nancy Skinner (Charlie’s wife, building on a homelife that has been mentioned with some frequency but never seen). Remembering Gleason’s wonderful turn as an unexpected Leo McGarry love interest back in the day (and knowing as we all do that Charlie has always been a poor man’s Leo), the casting is an easter egg-y delight.
Continuing through the crowd, we see Maggie and Jim sitting together. Remember the duo (who have been will-they/won’t-they-ing since the pilot) finally kissed with a “let’s finally do this” tone last episode while chasing Edward Snowden. Though it seems out of the blue considering their potential romantic interest hasn’t really been mentioned since season one, there’s something admirably defiant in Sorkin’s decision to put them together in the finale. Superficially it seems strange but the Sorkin TV universe shares more with the Kaling TV universe than it does with almost any other auteur show (Mindy tweeted “I want to hear more about this girl from college” in response to a Newsroom exchange between characters played by her off-screen bestie BJ Novak and her on-screen boyfriend Chris Messina and the world exploded). The two writers’ mutual respect (Mindy asked for Aaron’s notes on her pilot), affinity for quick-fire dialogue, and taste in actors aside, their two shows share a romanticism that’s largely absent elsewhere on TV. Aaron romanticizes the news, Mindy romanticizes romance. With Jim and Maggie throughout season one (less so in later seasons), Aaron joined Mindy in this latter pursuit, setting up a meet-cute, slow-burn, end-game pair of young soul-mates as the series’ central subplot. Unfortunately Aaron doesn’t have Mindy’s deft hand when it comes to writing romance (it’s never been his strong suit, his best love stories always ending unfulfilled) and the Jim/Maggie rom-com side of the show quickly was swept aside because it just wasn’t working. After two seasons of sending them down other paths, Jim and Maggie were ultimately restored to the roles they were created to play- the young lovers (Claudio & Hero to Will & Mac’s Benedick & Beatrice, if you will). The third season darkened nice-guy Jim while clumsy Maggie finally got her feet under her but it all just led them back to each other where, if you look back at the pilot, they always made the most sense (and were the most fun). Aaron Sorkin wrote The Newsroom with a rom-com tone clearly woven into its fabric. That element was forced out in the middle but, in the end, he returned to the show he wanted to make and you can’t knock him for that.
Beside Jim and Maggie are Don and Sloan, the first people in the crowd not singing. These are my two favourite characters on the show by a mile and I like them together. They’re not particularly interesting together, but I don’t need them to be, I just like that they’re together and can carry on their individual storylines without their relationship monopolizing them. Here the lack of singing is an attempt to remind the audience that they were having a loud, public fight with Charlie when he had his heart attack. (Note: it’s possible Don actually is singing and it’s just hard to see because he’s not doing it enthusiastically and Thomas Sadoski is what we call a low-key performer; Sloan is definitely not singing).
Next up we catch a glimpse of Jane Fonda as Leona Lansing (notably no Reese; sorry, Chris Messina, no farewell scene for you) with BJ Novak blank-eyed and song-less behind her, reminding us that Leona is one of the spirited good guys (not so much the case in season one but it’s been retconned in) while Lucas Pruit is an unfeeling, new media-loving problem (Lucas, you will remember, bought ACN from Leona so that she could raise the funds to save her larger corporation AWM from hostile takeover at the hands of Kat Dennings, who we sadly never saw again after her glorious debut as Blair Lansing).
and finally Will (because last is most important and this show is still convinced that Will is the most important). A boy later revealed to be Charlie’s teenaged grandson is in the foreground as Will sings mournfully along with the hymn, a conspicuous Mac-shaped empty space beside him.
Cut to: Mac (that mystery didn’t last long). She’s on the phone. My initial thought is job opportunity but then Emily Mortimer overplays the emotion and it’s clear she’s most definitely pregnant. Mac sneaks back into the funeral (hymn still going, by the way), completely conspicuous, and tells her husband (that’s Will, in case you missed their city hall ceremony) that she’s pregnant by reminding him of all the crazy sex they had “the night before [he] went to prison” (oh yeah, Will went to prison- remember that? That was nuts. He had a conversation with his dead dad but we didn’t know it was his dead dad until the very last second; we thought he was some random uneducated bigot). Off Will’s stunned (delighted?) face, we cut to:
“Three Years Earlier”
and we’re brought back to the action of the pilot episode (beginning with Will shouting “Ellen” trying to get his assistant Maggie’s attention), but from slightly different angles with slightly different perspectives and a whole lot of hindsight. Time for more retconning!
Things we’re reminded of:
– Wow, Maggie’s wardrobe has come a long way
– Maggie’s confidence and competence too, I suppose, has come a long way
The flashback fills in what you should have realized a long time ago, that the antagonistic Don we saw in the pilot who was really concerned with ratings was made that way by having to have conversations like the one we see now from when he was Will’s EP. He wants to cover real news (Moscow, specifically), Will wants to cover a storm. Will, we’re reminded, was in his long period of Jay Leno-like “likeability” leading to the events at Northwestern which kick off the pilot.
Still in flashback, we get our first glimpse of Neal in what feels like a lifetime. Dev Patel (the wonderful Dev Patel, the Dev Patel who should be a huge star and have his own show and star in every movie, specifically rom-coms because he’s the most charming person ever) must have been off shooting a movie (the Exotic Marigold sequel perhaps?) because I really wanted more from him this season and got next to nothing. I thought this was Neal’s big season (like season two for Sloan, when he would finally step out from the third-tier cast member shadows) but Sorkin sent him to Venezuela to toss his big, emotional, principled arc onto the shoulders of Will (of course). This over-dramatic way of dealing with Neal’s big story, by handing it to Our Hero instead of the complicated kid it belonged to, is the central problem with the show’s lackluster third season. It was therefore a pleasure to see Neal come back in the final episode. Here he reminds us why he’s the best by boldly arguing with Will about placing a poll on the website. Remember this is a flashback so Will has 1) no idea who Neal is or fondness for him whatsoever and 2) a strong disdain for online media. Neal is The Newsroom‘s online spokesperson (somehow he is solely responsible for the ACN website, which you’d think would be too big a thing to be run mostly by just one guy). His existence on this show is the antidote to Sorkin’s own old-media preferences. Here he essentially states his mission statement and represents the positive side of new media (in contrast to the Lucas Pruit model of citizen journalism). Mostly he Neals really hard and gives old-Will a chance to say “it’s a website, it doesn’t have integrity” to show how far he’s come in the three years since he apparently said that.
Will’s show starts, his headlines include the aforementioned storm, a few stabbings, and an interview with Kiefer Sutherland about the last season of 24 (if you’re having trouble following, that means we’re in 2010). Everyone looks miserable and disappointed (specifically Don and Charlie). Will lights a cigarette (old Will was So Bad, says The Newsroom). I am mildly annoyed that Kiefer Sutherland takes such a beating as the stupid “non-news” story of the day because he was a revelation as Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick in A Few Good Men and, for that, I think Sorkin owes him a tad more consideration than he’s shown here. It was 2010, surely Snooki was doing something stupid that could have been mocked instead.
And here’s Charlie’s first scene since he died. We’re planting information about Bo the “musical savant” grandson and being reminded that Will plays guitar and, as he likes to say, “does some newscasting on the side”. We’re talking about country music and finding great meaning in “That’s How I Got to Memphis” (Bo says that “Memphis is a stand-in for wherever you are right now, that it really means That’s How I Got Here”). Bo is smart and songs are meaningful- who thinks we’re going to come back to these two points before the episode’s end? But the country music detour is, of course, just precursor to Charlie’s “I’m disappointed in you” speech. We’re going to have to go to a bar to hear the speech, of course (because Charlie would have been an alcoholic if this show went a few more seasons, I’m sure of it! It’s one of Sorkin’s foremost thematic interests, addiction, and it’s unlikely Charlie would have died if the series went longer, even if I wanted him to). For some reason Charlie gives Will a chance to make some funny and interesting points about the idea of having kids (remember, flashback) even though that’s totally off topic (Will has to get in his final “I had a bad dad, what if I’m a bad dad?!” fears somehow), then gets to chastising him for being obsessed with being popular. All of this is to set up the big Northwestern speech we heard three years ago but is, in this flashback, technically in the immediate future.
And we’re back, present day. The hymn finally ends as Will’s blank face becomes an unequivocal look of utter delight. As the crowd exits the church, we’re treated to a fairly silly scene (that will become a recurring gag) of him jumping into overprotective daddy mode. The key thing to note here is that Mac makes a careless joke that “there’s a 5 in 9 chance that it’s yours” and Will (heretofore tortured by Mac’s history of infidelity) doesn’t bat an eye before responding with “if there’s no chance it’s mine, it’s mine now”. This is growth.
Leona interrupts and we get our first mention of the fact that Will was supposed to do the eulogy but didn’t. Take note, this is not subtle foreshadowing; it’ll come up a lot more before we’re done with it.
Leona makes Mac ride with her in Lucas (that’s BJ Novak)’s limo because she’s going to make him promote her, but we’re not supposed to know that yet. We’re going to get about 17 more “why am I here for this?!” moments before the Big Reveal of Mac’s super obvious promotion. But, for now, we cut away to Maggie and Jim in another limo, holding hands because that’s what people do after their big rom-com ending. Trouble is, their “ending” came an episode before the end of the series. This is actually good news because we get a complicated little “after-happily-ever-after” story that feels perfectly in line with these characters who were clearly designed for each other but have been dancing around and accidentally hurting each other for years now. In this scene we learn that Maggie is up for her dream job in Washington (Maggie is growing, remember?) and it turns out that Jim recommended her. We’re not sure whether we should feel like Jim is trying to get rid of Maggie or that he honestly just thinks she’s the best producer for the job and recommended her because he was asked who was the best producer for the job. It’s Obviously the latter because a) Maggie has been established as a great producer this season, b) Jim clearly is very proud of her and loves her in large part because of the great producer she’s grown into, c) he’d be a complete douche if he didn’t recommend her because he selfishly wanted her to stay in town and date him, thereby robbing her of a career opportunity and taking the power to choose out of her hands, d) John Gallagher Jr. delivers the scene with a smitten look of absolute pride and zero guilt or sneakiness. That said, I totally buy that Maggie would wonder if none of these things were true and maybe he’s just trying to get out of this thing they’ve started. She’s crazy, but we’ve long ago established that Maggie is crazy (and wildly insecure); this makes perfect sense.
Now, here’s where Sorkin gets serious with his detractors. He sets Lucas up in a car with Leona Lansing (who, while annoying at times, has been a consistently fantastically written strong female character from the moment he created her and who also happens to be played by one of Hollywood’s toughest feminists) and he has her smack him down harder than anyone’s ever smacked anybody on this show, specifically on the topic of pay-equality and general treatment of women. You see, Lucas has “a woman problem” and it’s turned into a PR nightmare. Hmmm does that sound familiar to anyone? Sorkin totally has a woman problem but I’ve always maintained that it has a lot more to do with his inability to really understand women than his disregard for them. He’s always excelled with confident women in blazes of glory (like Leona) but it’s their insecurities, weaknesses and inner lives he’s rarely conveyed without inspiring ire. Essentially, his writing missteps have been taken as indicators that he’s a bad guy and so, in the end of The Newsroom, he’s planted many a mea culpa that are admirable but mostly make me sad. Here he is Lucas, an established “bad guy” prime for the punching, hoping, I imagine, that the more Leona beats Lucas up for crimes Sorkin himself has been acused of (though wrongly), the less guilty the public will believe Sorkin to be. The reason I’ve long felt that Don is the key character to The Newsroom (at least until Sloan pulled up her game to match him) is that he taps into this less-established side of Sorkin. General opinion has always been that Will is the mouthpiece of the author here and, in some ways, he is (let’s face it, Sorkin has always been on a Mission to Civilize). But he also isn’t. Though I think Will is purposefully written as a highly flawed, self-righteous blowhard as much as he’s written as a hero, he seems to me to be a symbol of West Wing-era Sorkin- confident but looking to be loved, talented but haunted, often uncompromising, largely indestructible, regarded with awe. Don, at least in my view, is Newsroom-era Sorkin. On a fundamental level he believes in what Will believes in, but he’s striving to be practical, responsible, good. He’s more eloquent than an outsider but he’ll never quite have the words that Will does. He rarely gets a thought out before it’s misinterpreted. He’s darker and sadder but maybe a little bit smarter. He’s good, but he’s been hated and, as the one woman in the world who truly understands him points out at the end of the first season, he lives every day of his life trying to prove wrong whoever it was that told him he was a bad guy. Beating up Lucas Pruit and giving Neal his speech about the sanctity of the internet, these are Sorkin’s version of Don committing to Maggie (“a nice midwestern girl you like but maybe don’t love”). This scene didn’t even have Don in it (that’s next, actually) but it was a scene about Don or, rather, about Aaron Sorkin. I don’t believe he ever deliberately writes himself a proxy character (and, if he does, it’s definitely not Lucas Pruit) but here Sorkin takes a criticism he’s heard over and over again and offers himself up for punishment. Say what you want about Will’s speechifying and swagger, that right there is something only a Don would do.
Which brings me to the next scene between Don, Sloan and Will. It’s essentially a recap of the episode that came before this one and, specifically, the argument that immediately preceded Charlie’s heart attack. It’s fairly useless except that it’s one big long Olivia Munn monologue and, man, am I going to miss those. It also ends with the most perfect line-reading of the episode, from Thomas Sadoski (of course): just “okay”.
And we’re back in the past.
Mac is, quite inexplicably, bowling and Charlie is tracking her down to offer her the job she takes to kick off The Newsroom. There’s a quick reference to the fact that Mac and Jim are close, which I always appreciate because they had my favourite relationship in the pilot and then shared almost no scenes at all until this finale. Mac is a little bit PTSD-esque and definitely lost in her post-Fallujah mindset but, don’t worry, Charlie is here to give her a good pitch for why she should go Executive Produce her ex-boyfriend’s nightly news show. She says “hater’s gonna hate” at one point, which is just about the best thing Mac’s ever said.
We’re cutting away just as Charlie tables the job offer and heading to the newsroom where we’re going to pretend that Sloan really was interested in Don from the moment she met him as opposed to that being a chemistry discovery from mid-season one. This scene is cute enough, I guess, (I’ll always take any Don/Sloan scene over no Don/Sloan scene) but it’s covering the same ground that many other scenes have already (old-Will isn’t covering the news that matters!) and pretending a relationship we saw start actually started long before we saw it start just annoys me. That said, it’s thowaway lines like Don’s “you did that without notes” that make these two awesome, both together and apart. I also really appreciate Don calling Sloan on financial analysts’ inability to clearly explain the banking crimes that led to the 2008 meltdown because that is so true.
And we’re back with Charlie and Mac. She’s explaining her past relationship with Will and why it means she can’t take the job. Charlie is explaining that that’s why she would be great at the job (um…). Emily Mortimer, who has been one of the performance weakpoints all series (I honestly believe a stronger performance would have erased many of the critics’ problems with how Mac is written; moment of appreciation for Felicity Huffman and Alison Janney), is particularly annoying when attempting to walk the line of drunk but not so drunk that Charlie seems irresponsible in handing her one of the biggest journalism jobs in the world. Within this annoying scene, however, Sorkin hands his worst actor what might be the entire series’ mission statement: “There was a time when journalism wasn’t a career, it was a calling”. Seconds after uttering this gem, however, Mac announces that she’s taken a job on a daytime talk show called Lunch. She describes what is supposed to sound terrible but I think might have made a pretty decent show in the unfairly maligned vein of The Talk. We get the aforementioned “like it’s every little girl’s dream to make a man better at his job” line (see a few paragraphs back where I talked about Sorkin and the mea culpa) followed by some actual wisdom from Charlie using, of all things, a Formula One analogy (“even the biggest Michael Schumacher fan would agree that [his winning streak] was because he was driving the fastest car”). The pitch is that Will may have been at his best when Mac was his EP but she was also at her best when he was her anchor. We already know Charlie wins this argument so I’m not sure why we’re spending so much time on it, though I am glad to hear the name Elliot Hirsch mentioned at least once before the end of the series, the 10pm anchor having been entirely absent almost all season.
Now we see Mac outside the event at Northwestern. Behind her we hear “sorority girl” (whom we now know to be Jennifer Johnson, highly competent intern) picking up her tickets. The two women meet and Mac asks Jen if she’s going to ask a question. We learn that Jen knows her question (the fateful “what makes America the greatest country in the world?”) is stupid but we are supposed to believe that she’s asking it because she needs inspiration “coming out of school” into such terrible circumstances (apparently we’re meant to forget that she’s a sophomore?). Mac claims to know the trick to being first in line at the microphone (um…) and Emily Mortimer does what I’m sure is supposed to be her foreshadowing face. Those following the timeline note that this is when, theoretically, she buys a pad of paper so she can hold up a sign to Will that says “It Isn’t. But it could be”.
Back to present day and the funeral.
Lucas Pruit is scrambling to explain how he’s going to get out of his “women problem” and Jane Fonda offers up the truly excellent “there’s something you’re not understanding- you have a PR problem because you have an actual problem” as she cooly exits the limo and Mac delivers yet another “I still don’t know why I’m here” (you never seem to, Mackenzie).
Over in the other limo, it’s now Don’s turn to recap last week’s events and how they may have led to Charlie’s death. But his version is shorter than Sloan’s, mostly coming down to the wonderfully constructed line “Charlie knew I was lying, he knew why I was lying, and I knew he knew I was lying. It was a showdown, and he lost”.
Cut to Maggie who is at Charlie’s funeral but is obviously sad not because Charlie is dead but because she thinks Jim doesn’t love her (again, character appropriate, feels very real, smart girls do stupid stuff like this all the time, but it’s infuriating. Absolutely infuriating). She talks it over with the far-smarter Sloan who frankly says “no, you shouldn’t care [that Jim put her up for a job that will take her out of town]”. Sloan is so great, guys. This scene, not so great.
Flashing back again but this time to the immediate aftermath of the Northwestern incident and Charlie is making sure we remember said incident by watching it on youtube. This is an amusingly odd device used only by shows about public figures but it’s incredibly effective here, reminding us where we came from like all great finales do but doing so using actual footage from the pilot in a non-flashback way (he’s also watching it out of order, which is kind of fun).
Now we see Will hiding out on vacation post-Northwestern, dumping exposition on a silent bartender who he observes is “not as helpful as your movie counterparts”. He gets a phone call from Leona who further retcons her season one self into a good guy by asking “who’s stopping you?” when Will says he wants to do the real news.
Mac calls and accepts the job from Charlie, obviously.
Sloan charges into Don’s office (which he’s leaving because he’s no longer the EP of News Night, because we’re still in flashback) to explain the banking crisis. Chemistry abounds but, again, it’s only hindsight chemistry. She then contemplates asking him out, until she sees him with Maggie. This is the point in the episode where fans who’ve been watching the show in order as it airs go “woah, remember when Don was with Maggie? Crazy” because the Don we know now is so far beyond the Don who dated Maggie.
Hey! It’s Jim! I think this is only his second scene in the episode (time count: 37 minutes in) but, watching this scene, I’m reminded how very little we’ve seen of Jim in the last few seasons. Here he’s sitting in an empty apartment doing some obnoxious, probably metaphorically important thing where he ignores his “how to play guitar” video in favour of fancy licks he clearly already knows how to play (note that we’re bringing back Jim’s guitar that he’s only played once before on the show- do you think it will come back before the end of the episode?). John Gallagher Jr. is rocking a very flattering (and a-typical for Jim) dishevelled look and bantering cleverly but sweetly with Mac while gracefully divulging the important (because they will come into play later, obviously) details of his recent breakup with someone named Audrey who took a job 45 minutes away and he used the long-distance angle as an excuse to pull away. In addition to setting up the contrast for his relationship with Maggie, this scene’s principal function is to complete the origin story of how the band got together in the scenes we didn’t see during the action of the pilot episode. This is my favourite scene in the Newsroom series finale, despite the fact that it features my second least favourite character (Mac) and has nothing to do with either Don or Sloan. In this scene, Sorkin appears to rediscover Jim, a character who was once the series’ strongest but who seemed to lose his voice partway through season one. The Jim/Mac dynamic was, I think, one of the biggest mishandlings over the course of the series, its abandonment robbing two easily misunderstood characters of their sounding boards and weakening their sense of career history. I love these two together; their shorthand, their bluntness, their foxhole comrade devotion- all things that went tragically unexplored. This scene is one of very very few they’ve shared since the pilot and it brought out the best in both of them, reminding me why I loved Jim in the first place (really, it’s like Sorkin lost his Jim rhythms for awhile and rediscovered him here). In the end, Mac tosses Jim a copy of Don Quixote that Charlie had sent to her; done deal.
We return to present day and Charlie’s home, the post-funeral reception. We get a completely useless scene where Will talks to those extra characters who’ve been in the show from the beginning to fill out the newsroom scenes but who are not interesting or important at all (Tess, Tamara, Martin, Kendra- you know, all those people, except Gary; Gary’s a little more important because he went to Africa in season two).
Back to Jim and Maggie because Sloan told Jim what Maggie was worried about. Jim is bewildered and a little bit hurt (the way JGJ says “it’s a promotion, Maggie” oy!) but Thank God Sloan told him because these two are so terrified of each other that they never would have talked about it otherwise. “Things are not as complicated as you make them” Thanks, Sloan; a small win for maturity, finally. The maturity is short-lived, of course, because Maggie (again, realistic, but UGH) interprets Jim’s “I don’t want this to get out-of-hand” comment (that she interrupted before letting him finish, by the way) as “this isn’t a real relationship”. She monologues at him, dropping some weird sex exposition we really didn’t need to know, then walks away after using the phrase “I’m not delusional” while informing Jim that she doesn’t think this relationship is that big a deal either (lying, of course). Because she kind of is delusional, she somehow doesn’t realize that Of Course this relationship is a big deal. Jim just stands there, because he is also kind of a doof, but at least he does so with a heartbroken, dumbstruck look (JGJ!).
Jane Fonda gets a little further towards her endgame with BJ Novak by explaining that he needs a news director who will argue with him. Mac, still clueless.
I lied, this is my favourite scene in the finale. Here we have Bree, the nitwit Sloan took down last episode/the guy who runs the ACN website in Neal’s long absence (Neal, by the way, mentioned briefly a few scenes back with a simple “Neal’s plane has landed”, leading me to believe that he was wrapped for the series, Elliott-style). Bree’s sitting around with his cohorts brainstorming the “Nine Most Overrated Movies Of All-Time”, making it clear that ACN Digital has been transformed into a real click-bait hell, like Buzzfeed but less fun. Other than maybe The Hurt Locker (which is a great film, though maybe not Best Picture great) and The Descendants, I’m a little annoyed that Sorkin picked actually grossly overrated movies for Bree to put on his list; I really don’t like agreeing with Bree (well, I guess he also put The Matrix on the list, which is definitely not true). But then his computer crashes, all their computers crash, and, as a viewer, your heart leaps because you totally know what’s up. The camera scans casually over to reveal a young man sitting on a nearby desk, his back to the viewers. He looks up, waves his smartphone in the air and says in that delectable accent of his: “I shut it down from my phone”. NEAL!!!!!! I knew I missed him, but I didn’t realize how much until he’s here in full suave mode to take down the click-bait clowns. Neal helpfully points out that the oldest film on Bree’s list is from 1999 and that “All-Time and 14 Years are two different units of measurement” and wonders why overrated is more fun than underrated before concluding with a classically Sorkin, beautifully scored, perfectly delivered (that’a boy, Dev) speech about what he built with ACN Digital and how hard he had to fight to be taken seriously by the old-media crowd at News Night, beginning and ending with an understatedly delivered, relentlessly harsh “you embarrass me”. Slow Clap. But perhaps the most intriguing thing about this scene is its conclusion. Your standard antagonist walks away vowing revenge or is squarely defeated (as we’ll see momentarily with Lucas Pruit) but Bree, who has served no purpose on The Newsroom but to be a symbol of what’s wrong with the internet and a punching bag for our heroes, he sits and he takes the berating from a man who just returned from hiding in Venezuela to avoid treason charges. He looks at Neal with a kind of respect once unfathomable for the character who believes in Big Foot and Twitter journalism and, when Neal announces that they’re taking a week to build the website up from scratch (tearing down all Bree’s work), Bree simply responds with “I’m sorry about Charlie Skinner” and quietly gets to work sitting at Neal’s side. Aaron Sorkin, you see, believes in heroes. He believes in aspirational characters and relentlessly writes to the good in people. Even in Bree the clown there is something of merit. It’s not a grand speech or a musical interlude but show me anything more Sorkin-esque than that.
And from there, we’re back with Will who continues to ponder the idea of being a father. Mac encourages him to say something about Charlie despite Will’s fears that anything he says will be reductive.
Now is the time for Joanna Gleason. She’s talking to Don who, for some reason, feels the need to confess that he was fighting with her husband before his heart attack. Joanna Gleason tells us everything we already knew about how Charlie felt about working for Pruit (he hadn’t given up, he wanted his people to fight with him). She tells Don that Charlie loved him (I’m unconvinced of this, but I’m glad she said it) and gives him one of Charlie’s bow ties, which makes Thomas Sadoski’s face do all the heartbreaking things (wow is my TV ever going to miss that guy).
Will talks to Charlie’s little grandson mostly to get directions to his big grandson so he can interact with young people (he’s going to be a father, you know!) and start a singalong with “musical prodigy” Bo who is standing, for some reason, in the garage plucking randomly at a double bass. Will segues awkwardly into the very predictable “That’s How I Got to Memphis” singalong and Jim wanders in (remember, we were reminded of his guitar proficiency earlier in the episode. JGJ has a Tony; never forget that JGJ has a Tony!) then everyone else wanders in and it’s all merry and fun, if random. Will offers to play music and/or talk with Bo if he ever needs it (he’s going to be a father, remember?!).
Gary’s finale curtain call comes in the form of a strange, comic speech about terrible parenting while BJ Novak and Will have a silent far-more-important conversation (about the fact that Mac has been promoted, without her knowledge). This is a weird detail but I like strange curtain calls for seemingly random characters (the Gunther bit is my favourite part of the Friends finale; read into that what you will).
As the funeral reception winds down, Will addresses the crowd with what promises to be the final Grand Speech of Aaron Sorkin’s storied television tenure. It’s not his greatest speech (that likely belongs to President Bartlett, or perhaps Dan Rydell, though I’ll always be partial to This One) but it will serve, highlighted by the line “his religion was decency and he spent a lifetime fighting its enemies” and ending with “you were a man, Charlie; you were a great big man”. Lines like this final one, where Sorkin prioritizes the rhythmic conciseness of “man” to mean “human being” over a politically correct alternative that would land him in less hot water but just sound less beautiful, are why I loved this finale. In his final hour of TV, Sorkin takes his moments to metaphorically apologize for his many perceived failings (he gives Neal the episode’s best speech in defence of what makes the internet great; he promotes almost all of his female characters and lets Leona take Pruit down hard) but he includes romance and music and monologues and, when there’s a moment to choose between being his best (writing a line that feels right) and pleasing the crowd (writing something clunkier so that no one calls him out on using the word “man” in an aspirational sense), he does what his characters have been trying to do for three seasons and chooses the former.
The series returns to its home base, the newsroom, as Mac (whom Jane Fonda has finally bullied BJ Novak into hiring as his News Director) obviously promotes Jim to her old position as EP of News Night (Don conveniently wants to stay at ten with Elliott) and the following exchange proves everything I wrote about Mac and Jim earlier-
Jim: I won’t let you down
Mac: You never have
These two! So much unexplored potential.
Jim’s barely been promoted 30 seconds before he runs to Maggie and offers her his old senior producer job so she can stay in New York. What happens next is the big “look how far Maggie has come!” moment we’ve been waiting for forever. Maggie says she’s flattered but she’s still going to interview for the job in DC because “I want to be a field producer, it’s DC, I’ll be in line for the White House”. She repeats this a few times because it is the truth, no matter where things stand with Jim, and by God she’s going to follow her dreams to the White House Press Room boy or no boy because she is a Strong Female Character (I see what you did there, Aaron. Strong effort, if nothing else. You’re still not great at writing women but I think it’s abundantly clear, now if not before, that you Want To write great women). Because poor Jim has been informed (by Maggie, because Maggie is crazy) that his supporting the advancement of her career has made her feel like he doesn’t love her, he takes this opportunity to explain that their 3-day relationship is “more than it is” and that it doesn’t make him delusional to think so. It’s at this moment that these two characters who’ve been running around in circles for Three Years finally get on the same page in admitting how they feel about each other. No more pretending you’re not in it because you’re afraid the other person isn’t; it’s about damn time. But she’s still going to DC, because that’s where she wants to be (and, as we’ve established, Maggie is a Strong Female Character now). But, wait, didn’t Jim break up with a girl when she moved 45 minutes away? We just saw a flashback that told us as much and we’re reminded of that when he admits to having had lots of long distance relationships and that none of them worked. Jim begins to walk away as he admits this fact, having already agreed to fly out to see Maggie every single weekend and sometimes meet in the middle. And, somehow, the rom-com couple who caused this show so much grief by being annoyingly dramatic, go out on the perfect, nonchalant note as Maggie asks Jim why he thinks they can make it when none of his past long-distance relationships have and he replies- back turned as he moves on to other matters- “I wasn’t in love with them”. Of course, the audience has known that Jim is in love with Maggie since the moment he fell, long before he knew himself. But Maggie, even when she might have suspected, even when she was told by third parties, even after they became a couple, could never quite convince herself that Jim was in love with her. But the way he said it- unembellished, unprovoked, unencumbered- that’s the sort of straight fact a journalist has no choice but to believe.
Our final Sloan/Don scene is an altogether different affair. This couple has no need to talk about the fact that they’re a couple. In fact, their final scene has nothing at all to do with them in the “them” sense (they never even touch, which I kind of love; these two have chemistry coming out their eyeballs). He tells her why he decided to stay at 10pm (“it’s finally getting good”) and she talks about missing Charlie (the rarely shown but excellently constructed Sloan/Charlie dynamic being Charlie’s most redeeming feature, I’m glad it’s her who speaks of him last). Don’s final move is to give the bow tie given to him by Charlie’s wife to Sloan, pretending that it had always been meant for her. The tears in your eyes are brought to you by the tears in Olivia Munn’s eyes. Exit MVPs, stage left.
And then we are, as we always seem to be, back with Will McAvoy. He prepares for the night’s broadcast by bantering with poor intern Jennifer Johnson (aka “sorority girl”) about fatherhood prep and gives Mac a pep talk about not caring how she got the new job (at least she knows it was Leona using Pruit’s PR debacle against him). She grabs his hand and they walk out into the newsroom.
One final Charlie flashback, but we’ve seen this one before: “We did the news well. You know how? We just decided to”. That was it, our full-circle moment, The Newsroom‘s call to action and final statement.
And then the newsroom just runs. For 2 minutes and 12 seconds (a startlingly long run of TV time) we just watch as the characters of The Newsroom go about their lives, doing the news. We see everyone (even Joey the graphics guy gets his moment) preparing for the show in the final few seconds before air.
Mac cues the News Night theme music and Will begins:
Cut to Black.
And that’s what kind of day it was.