What We Learned From A Magnificent, Heartfelt Episode Of ‘The Newsroom’

How could you not love, at the very least, this episode of Newsroom, if not the entire series? How could anyone watch this episode and not appreciate not only what Aaron Sorkin was trying to do with it, but how he did it? There are times I understand the criticism with The Newsroom, but when Aaron Sorkin tempers the smugness, when he uses that self-righteousness for the right causes, and when he sets up an episode and then knocks it down with all the right callbacks, the right emotional beats, the perfect song, as he did in “Operation Genoa,” I don’t understand even the compulsion, the desire to tear down. Last night’s episode was magnificent, a perfect example of why I love the show, and if the best you can come up with in your hate watch is that “I Hate Will McAvoy” is a lame title for blog, then maybe the trees are blinding you to the forest.

Troy Davis was executed on September 21st, 2011. I remember the case, and I remember some of the news coverage, but most of that was because of the circles I traffic in (my wife is a legal aid attorney). I remember people being upset about Davis’ execution, but most of that was filtered through the media, a media with Twitter crawls, and talking heads, and ass-bag pundits yelling over each other. It took an episode of a critically derided HBO show to give that case the consideration it deserves, the consideration CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC didn’t afford it. It doesn’t appear that even The Daily Show covered it, either, and why would they? There’s not a lot of humor you can extract out of that situation, only pity for a guy who essentially was saddled with a terrible lawyer and paid for it with his life (guilty or not, I think anyone will agree that, with a better lawyer, he could’ve avoided execution). Seriously, read the Wikipedia page. This was not an instance where Sorkin presented a particularly one-sided case; in fact, Will McAvoy’s argument re-trying, on air, a case that a jury already settled was a strong one, and in a way, gave the finale to last night’s episode an even stronger, more emotionally resonant closing. Sorkin let the facts of the story speak for itself — and used those facts to illustrate the difference between covering a story and advocating for one — and that story provided for one of the most emotionally powerful moments of the series.

Indeed, the choice of Willie Nelson’s “You’re Always on My Mind” compared to that Coldplay song in last year’s best episode makes a strong case for how far Sorkin has come already in season two, eschewing the over-the-top emotional manipulation in favor of something more nuanced, better argued, and less smug. The Coldplay song in the fourth episode of last season worked despite itself, though it felt like Sorkin reaching for relevancy with a pop song already three years past its expiration date. The last five minutes in “Operation Genoa,” on the other hand, worked not because of a well-placed quip, or because of a self-righteous lecture, but because he provided a real-world scenario and depicted believable characters reacting realistically to a heartbreaking moment in our nation’s legal system. Willie Nelson sealed it.

McAvoy is still gun-shy in light of the backlash against him for calling the Tea Party the American Taliban, as we saw in hix exchange with Charlie.

“You think it’s going to make our lives easier if I appear to be defending a leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula?” .

“Who cares about our lives being easier?”

“I do and you do, too!”

It took Mackenzie to pull him out of his funk.

It was a strong episode, one of the best of the series. Save for the scene when Will McAvoy bailed Neil out of jail (an effective one for Sorkin fans), “Operation Genoa” lacked much of the Sorkinese we typically associate with Newsroom. Again, much of that has to do with the position the characters are in. McAvoy’s decision to not fight against Charlie Skinner’s decision to pull him for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11 coverage was the right choice, but that context — finding out that McAvoy essentially made a name for himself by promising the viewers “to be with you all night” on 9/11 — provided poignancy without smugness. (McAvoy in that moment on 9/11, in fact, reminded me of Aaron Brown, a brilliant, thoughtful CNN anchor pushed aside by the network several years ago because he wasn’t a sexy or polarized newsman).

Sorkin is also smartly not getting too into the politics of the presidential campaign so far. Jim Harper’s time on the campaign bus has not yet been used to make any political statements about Romney or the Republicans, but instead it’s used as a device to keep Jim and Maggie apart a little longer, and perhaps create a love triangle with the new character (Grace Gummer). (I do hope, however, that Jim is still traveling when Romney when that Mother Jones’ obtained video breaks.)

Sorkin is also illustrating a strong(er) grasp of technology, especially in the way that Maggie tracked down the YouTube poster through Foursquare, and in the way that Sloan traded a Twitter shout-out for a favor. I wonder if it’s true, what Charlie said, about an 18 percent increase in audience retention with a captive Twitter audience? (As someone who uses and is engaged with Twitter, I still loathe the Twitter crawl. Twitter at least allows us to choose who to follow; those goddamn Twitter crawls open up a part of the Twitterverse that I often wish I didn’t know existed). In either case, Sorkin effectively used modern technology in a not too hamfisted way (and certainly in a less hamfisted way than most of the Hollywood films I see that merely namecheck social networks and expect laughs) to arrive at the point in which Lisa discovered the video and dumped Jim. Of course, now that Jim and Maggie are single, Jim’s on a bus while Maggie is headed to Kampala, in Africa, and into a situation that will lead to her decision to get a terrible haircut.

If there’s anything that people still legitimately have a beef with this season, it’s the Maggie storyline. I think it brings some goofy levity to the series and presenting her in such a way will likely make the traumatic incident in Kampala more emotional. I do hope Sorkin straightens out the Maggie character, however, because it’s giving the hate watchers a too easy target.

By the way, the laundromat scene, the Sex and the City stuff, and the reference to Charlotte may or may not have been an apologetic(?) note to Kristen Davis, Aaron Sorkin’s ex-girlfriend and the actress who played Charlotte.

Finally, and what the episode title referred to, Operation Genoa, we find out that the tip that Cyrus West has sounds legit: Apparently, the United States used nerve gas on civilians during a military extraction, and the tip is purportedly a first-hand witness. That is going to be big trouble, but in light of the drone strike on one of our own citizens, I can certainly understand why they’d initially be willing to believe it.

Random Thoughts

— I like that they brought up, though briefly, Netflix’s decision to spin off the DVD service, a decision that would destroy the company’s stock for a while, anyway.

— Women and closets? Men and showers? Is that a thing?

— At one point, when Charlie suggests that Don reveal where the lobbyist’s kids go to school, I’m pretty sure he was alluding to something that Nikki Finke threatened.

— McAvoy is right; no one does “You’re Always On My Mind” like Willie.

— It seems like McAvoy is actually showing his Republican side more in this episode.

— Well, I’ll never think about voice mail in the same way again.