I remember this feeling from “The West Wing.” A great episode of that show – and of any Sorkin show – was so tightly crafted. Current events blend seamlessly into character arcs. Seemingly random conversations from early in the episode find their way into the denouement. I find myself feeling real joy as the show concludes – not because of any particular moment or because a character experiences something emotional. Instead, I find myself marveling at how immaculately Sorkin has crafted the episode and how well the actors have served the story. I marvel that a television show can still move me.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I love “The Newsroom.” Following last week’s fantastic episode, which only grew greater in the context of subsequent events, is no easy task, but “Amen” proved up to the challenge. Instead of following the formula of this season’s most successful episodes – fifty minutes of inter-office squabbling broken up by a sudden major news event – tonight’s episode effortlessly wove together major moments in democracy in Egypt and Wisconsin with important new developments in the relationship between Will and MacKenzie.
While Will finally got his break-out episode last week, MacKenzie has not had her moment yet. I’m not sure that it came tonight, but we certainly gained a lot of sympathy for her. After dealing with some truly vicious feelings stemming from their break-up years earlier, Will and Mac seem to have forgiven each other and have settled into some nice, Sorkinesque witty banter. But their relationship becomes more poignant when MacKenzie learns that her boyfriend Wade, played by eminently likeable journeyman actor Jon Tenney, has hidden his intentions to seek elected office from her, a fact she only learns when gossip tabloid TMI runs a story that questions her ethics for giving him an unusually large amount of air time. MacKenzie puts two and two together: Wade was never really interested in her and was only using her to further his political ambitions.
Considering that she was really only using him to show that she had moved past her feelings for Will, it is not a situation that should garner her very much sympathy. But Will, for once, has no interest in kicking her when she’s down. Instead, his first instinct is kindness and compassion, so we follow suit. Mortimer also gives a wonderfully funny and touching performance here. As an actress, she is most in her element when she exudes vulnerability (think “Match Point”). For most of the season so far, MacKenzie has kept her guard up, but tonight she was too broken to care. Her vulnerability shines through, and it makes us like her a lot more.
MacKenzie is not the only one who gets broken in tonight’s episode. Eliot, covering the Arab Spring in Cairo, gets beaten up and hospitalized. Jim gets cracked in the head not once but twice by a flustered Maggie in a hectic newsroom. Don sprains his shoulder breaking open a door. And Neal (Dev Patel) breaks a few fingers punching a computer screen. These incidents of violence are meant to support a rather uninspired point: that these people care about their jobs and are willing to suffer for them. Still, Neal’s injury matters the most. Up until now, he has been the most polite and respectful member of the News Night team, so when his emotions boil over – after losing contact with an Egyptian reporter that he encouraged his bosses to hire – it has a greater emotional payoff. As I mentioned last week, you can always count on Sorkin to give each of his lead actors a chance to shine eventually. Tonight, Patel took that chance and ran with it.
Not that tonight’s episode didn’t have a few problems. First, there was that artless bit of education about the Glass-Steagall Act. MacKenzie, scheduled to appear on a panel about the economy (a subject she knows literally nothing about), convinces Sloan to teach her – and us – about the financial collapse. This scene typifies the criticism many have of Sorkin – that his writing is overly didactic. I’ve often defended his inclinations to teach as he entertains, but this scene is one of the few times that the criticism rings true; it had no dramatic impact and MacKenzie’s panel appearance was never referenced again. At his best, Sorkin can weave a lessons effortlessly into his plots. But not this time.
Then there is the issue of Jim and Maggie. Their storyline has been a problem since the pilot episode, but I’m beginning to think it’s not going to be fixed anytime soon. On the surface, their relationship is much like the relationship between Will and MacKenzie. We know both couples are destined to be together, but they are kept apart by hurt feelings and things left unspoken. A major difference, however, is that Will and Mackenzie have years of history, making each of their exchanges richly layered. Jim and Maggie, on the other hand, just seem to have proximity crushes on each other, and there is nothing in their relationship that is unique to their characters. Until Sorkin gives their relationship some specificity, it will continue to bring the show down a peg.
But who cares about a couple of weak links when you have a hero like Will McAvoy to root for? This is a man who would not pay a pittance to a gossip journalist to keep his name out of the tabloids but offers up a quarter of a million of his own dollars to a foreign army to get one of his employees out of harm’s way. This is a leader, the kind of man who inspires others to be their best, as we see in the final scene. When Sorkin spent a good three minutes explaining the plot of “Rudy” in beginning of the episode, I knew it would pay off down the line. Even though I saw it coming, I was still moved – not by the actions of the “News Night” team, who stood in line to offer up their hard-earned salaries to free their colleague, but by Sorkin himself, who respects his audience enough to make sure that the hour we spend with him each week is well worth our time. Now that you mention it, he sounds a little like Will McAvoy.