Despite my complaints, of which there are have been many, I just can’t quit The Newsroom. But it’s for episodes like this one that I’m glad I stick around. The simply titled “News Night with Will McAvoy” was easily the best episode of this second season, a self-contained masterpiece that juggled what seemed like dozens of storylines with ease. It was also the least message-driven show Sorkin has done in a while. He wisely resisted the temptation to preach about the need for laws against the “revenge porn” that Sloane suffered from, and his criticism of the gay teen who wanted to come out on the air was surprising and unpopular, but it also felt correct and consistent with the show’s values.
But overall, this episode stands as an example of how good The Newsroom can be when Sorkin descends from his high horse. As always, I’m going to start with Jim and Maggie. Sorkin has mercifully downplayed the Jim-Maggie relationship in recent weeks, and while he revives it for a key scene here, there is a crucial improvement: their emotional drama is actually connected to their work, raising the stakes of their non-romance considerably. Jim is afraid that Maggie has suffered more emotional trauma in Africa than she is willing to let on, but he knows that he has forfeited any right to inquire about her personal life. It makes for a very awkward conversation that feels just about right for these characters. At this point, I can’t see the two of them ever quite getting over the weirdness between them – which will make it all the more disappointing when Sorkin inevitably throws them back together at the end of the season.
But even beyond Jim and Maggie, it felt like Sorkin was deeply in control throughout this episode. There were so many wonderful one-on-one scenes: Charlie and his old friend dancing around the truth, the devastated look on Will’s face when he tells Mac about his father, and the floor-level comfort Don provides to Sloane. Sloane and Don will clearly be getting together at some point this season, too, and I’ll be glad when they do. But Sorkin has learned his lesson from the Jim-Maggie debacle: he is letting them develop a meaningful friendship first, instead of rushing into a Ross-Rachel flirtation.
It helps that I’m pretty enamored with both of them. Olivia Munn may not be a great actress, but she gets the comic timing in Sorkin’s dialogue as well as anyone on the show. In this episode, she has to really let her guard down for the first time, and she did a pretty damn good job of it. It’s a minimalist performance, but it worked for the character, who is generally guarded. Because we are not used to seeing her walls down, the silence and stillness before her line reading of: “I want to die.”…it just slayed me.
Meanwhile, Don is as close to a Josh Lyman of The Newsroom as the show is ever going to have. He’s strong and arrogant yet unabashedly vulnerable. He stood up for Troy Davis, and he got down on the ground for Sloane. When Sloane’s ex-boyfriend got in his face when trying to follow her out of the building, Don’s response – a quick “no, no” – was also irrepressibly cool.
It’s easy and important to talk about the big things that worked in this episode, but it was also just chock full of wonderfully understated moments that showed how Sorkin and his team have really grown to understand this world and what we like about it. Maggie’s silent mea culpa to Charlie and Mac about her screw-up on the Zimmerman tape. The lightning-quick clasping of hands between Charlie and Sloane, as they pass each other in the newsroom. Sloane stifling her laughter at Don’s greeting, “Hello, Mr. Munch?” And, of course: “Bababooey, motherfuckers.”
When a show gets the little moments right, the bigger ones naturally fall into place. There’s a pretty simple message here: The Newsroom can still be a great show.