Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Newsroom 1.06: "Bullies"

“Populists have names too. William Jennings Bryan. Will Rogers. Me.”

While Sorkin will always be Sorkin, and his inevitable Sorkinisms will inevitable grate a bit, I’m still rather thoroughly enjoying watching “The Newsroom.” Really the only aspect of the show that is grating enough to at all diminish my enjoyment is the inherent balance of moral power between Will and Mackenzie. That Will is supposed to be this paragon of virtue while Mackenzie is the whore who needs to grovel and beg his forgiveness to have a chance at being worthy of him again makes their relationship way too simplistic, even beyond the inherent misogyny. Less, the overall structure of this episode was pretty much ganked in its entirety from that episode of “The West Wing” where Josh has to talk to a therapist about his post-assassination attempt PTSD, but I think it worked. The therapy framework let us delve a little deeper into the character of Will, and I think we needed that by this point in the series. Up to this point, we had seen a lot of how he operates, but very little on why he operates that way. Will’s realization that despite building his life around being an anti-bullying crusader, he was actually a bully himself too, really tied the whole episode together nicely.

The episode opens with Will royally screwing up the end of a broadcast. He mixes up words and even his own name. Mackenzie gives him a post-show talking-to, only calming down when Will says he’s going to see his old therapist, Dr. Habib. When Will and his bodyguard (more on that in a moment) arrive at Dr. Habib’s office, Will discovers, much to his chagrin, that he will actually be seeing the son of his former therapist. The original Dr. Habib died two years ago. Will is grumbly about this because he was hoping to get some sleeping pills, no questions asked. But Dr. Habib the younger most definitely wants to ask questions. He calls Will out when Will claims that he’s had no extra stress at work lately, pointing out that Will was recently the subject of a serious online death threat. For most of the episode, we’ll go back in time a couple weeks to see how the death threat came about and its immediate aftermath.

Will explains to Dr. Habib that the chain of events leading to the death threat started when he changed the commenting rules for News Night’s website. We get a flashback of Will having to read rather stupid reader comments on the air from the likes of “lollipop lollipop” and “surrender dorothy.” Never mind the fact that most online commenters probably won’t use those particular cultural references for their online handles – that’s just Aaron Sorkin’s internet phobia/lack of understanding cropping up. It’s the content of the comments, basically accusing Will of being too harsh on a recent guest, that upsets him. Will tells Neal that from now on, he wants every commenter to provide their name, age, occupation, and level of education, and he wants that all to be verified. I think the real catalyst for the death threat, however, wasn’t the new commenting rules. It was an interview Will did with a woman who was campaigning against the Ground Zero “mosque” (aka really a community cultural center). Will, despite claiming to be a Republican, gleefully calls the woman on her hypocrisy.

Sloan’s giving the News Night crew a briefing about the recent earthquake and Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. This is another one of those big news events used by Sorkin that was made more powerful by my own memories of the incident. I very clearly remember sitting in an office at a federal agency waiting for an internship interview, watching the Fukushima disaster play out on television. That interview, although I didn’t get the job, pretty powerfully affected my career trajectory, so it was a memorable day on multiple accounts. Anyway, Will gets pulled out of the briefing, and he is informed that there’s been a credible death threat against him on the News Night website. The reason it’s credible is that, according to Neal, the author had to expend a lot of effort to get past the new commenting system. The threat itself is from someone who was very upset that Will seemed sympathetic to Islam in his Ground Zero “mosque” report. To make things go from bad to worse, Will is told that there’s going to be yet another tabloid story about him. This one is about an HR complaint a producer filed on Maggie’s behalf before Mackenzie arrived. Mackenzie is tired of these stories taking everyone by surprise, so she tells Maggie and Jim to do opposition research on Will. She wants to be prepared for any other stories that could be dug up.

Meanwhile, Sloan and the rest of the team are diligently working on the Fukushima story. Sloan is speaking (in fluent Japanese) to a good friend who also happens to be the spokesperson for TEPCO, the power company that owns the Fukushima nuclear plant. He is telling Sloan that the status of the reactors are a 5 on a scale of 1-7, with 7 being the most severe. Sloan thinks he is significantly understating the severity of the situation. She orders the rest of the team out of the conference room so that she and her friend can speak more candidly. Once they are speaking off the record, the spokesperson tells Sloan that the disaster may actually rate a seven. Sloan is still trying to process this when Don ambushes her and says he needs her to anchor the 10:00 show. Everyone else who can do the job is on vacation. Sloan goes to Will for advice, and he scares her by saying that she’s too passive on her own 4:00 show. He warns her against letting any untruths be spoken on the air. Sloan makes a mess of the opportunity when she realizes that the “translator” (aka company shill) isn’t translating anything accurately. Her friend is trying to deny what he told her earlier, and Sloan makes two huge mistakes. She speaks with her friend at length in Japanese, and she announces what he had told her off the record. Charlie blows a complete gasket after all this goes down, and he suspends Sloan pending an investigation.

Jim and Maggie have been diving into their opposition research, and they really have more funny/embarrassing information about each other than they do about Will. Don sees them having a bit too much fun working together. When Mackenzie asks for a report, the only remotely useful bit of information Jim and Maggie have turned up is that Will was offered a talk show with Fox News in 2006 that got as far as a deal memo before it fell apart. The most important aspect to Mackenzie is that this happened when she and Will were still together, and she thinks this means he wasn’t as serious about the relationship as he’s been claiming (it would have involved him moving to Los Angeles). Mackenzie confronts Will about this, and he turns the argument on its head by pulling out a Tiffany’s engagement ring he claims he was about to give to Mackenzie before he discovered her cheating. Dr. Habib thinks it’s pretty cruel when Will reveals he bought the ring when he heard the occupation research was happening just to mess with Mackenzie. And I have to agree. I’m kind of tired of Will being the poor, put-upon martyr.

Sloan translates an online Japanese news report and learns that her friend was forced to resign his job with TEPCO over the News Night incident. She’s devastated by the news, and she desperately wants to make things right. While telling this story to Dr. Habib, Will makes a verbal slip that leads him to connect Sloan’s predicament to the interview that generated the “lollipop lollipop” an “surrender dorothy” comments. Will was interviewing a gay, African American professor from Philadelphia who also happens to be heavily involved in Rick Santorum’s burgeoning Presidential campaign. The rather simplistic reasoning that this professor supported Santorum simply because he’s anti-choice to the extreme didn’t quite fly with me, and it didn’t really fly with Will, either. Will peppered the professor with both anti-Black and anti-gay quotes from Santorum until the professor just couldn’t take it anymore. The professor basically tells Will that he doesn’t need Will’s protection. He’s perfectly capable of making his own decisions about who to support politically.

Don sees Sloan packing up her office, and he pauses to try to offer some comfort platitudes. This quickly turns into Don asking Sloan if she thinks he’s losing Maggie to Jim. I like that the women of “The Newsroom” don’t have the monopoly on talking about their relationships at inappropriate times. Sloan says she doesn’t think Don is in danger of losing Maggie, but she also admits that she’s not good at judging that sort of thing. I guess this is hinting at a potential Sloan/Don relationship in the future once Jim and Maggie inevitably get together. Anyway, Sloan gets called downstairs by Charlie, who along with Will, has a strategy to get both the TEPCO guy and Sloan their jobs back. Sloan is supposed to say that because the Japanese numbers for four and seven are similar, she misunderstood what her friend was telling her. In exchange, he will say the conversation was on the record, and that TEPCO has now upgraded the situation to a seven. Sloan is a little upset that she’s going to have to pretend her Japanese isn’t good, but she eventually realizes it’s the best thing to do. Will tells her it’s the right call, mostly because it’s the chance to make things right that he didn’t have. After hearing all of this, Dr. Habib tells Will that he should keep coming to therapy. Also, Will’s insomnia is due to egg and bacon sandwiches he eats before bed. Holy heartburn, Batman.

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