I came away from this week’s excellent episode of The Newsroom with one overriding message: journalism is a tough racket. For weeks, the News Night team has been tracking down evidence in support of the Operation Genoa story. They found the retired general and the two soldiers who participated in the attack. They stumbled upon Charlie’s source at DOD and the retired captain who first leaked the story to Jerry all the way back in episode 1. They did their due diligence and debated the story endlessly, even considering whether the potential fallout from the story was worth it. They made sure they had an airtight case before taking the story to air, and in last night’s episode, titled “Red Team III” we saw each piece of evidence systematically destroyed in 48 hours. It’s the moment that the entire season has been building towards, and Sorkin nailed it.
When Will, Mac, and Charlie tell Leona that they are resigning because they have lost the public’s trust, I felt the show had finally arrived at its most truthful and complex moment. I wanted them to resign not because it would mean the end of the show – although, man, that would be a bold way to end the series – but because they deserved it. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think they did their jobs poorly. The case was as close to air tight as it could get. Rather, they did everything right and still ended up failing the public. In other words, journalism is a tough racket.
Which is why I was particularly disappointed when Jane Fonda showed up and started screaming that she would not accept their resignations. In a monstrously scene-chewing five minutes, Fonda delivered a monologue strange for both its repeated, unfunny references to actor Daniel Craig and her about-face on News Night. Last year, she hated them so much she was begging for a reason to fire them, and now she loves them all of a sudden? It makes no sense in the continuity of the show, but continuity has never been Sorkin’s strong suit, has it? He was looking for someone to forgive the team for their failures, and Leona was basically the only character in position to do so.
But in the spirit of forgiveness that Leona so graciously bestowed upon us, I can forgive Sorkin for this misstep because the rest of “Red Team III” was so damn good. It would be easy to say that this episode’s success was a direct result of the lack of relationship drama – the Don/Jim/Maggie triangle was barely alluded to – but I’d rather say that this episode was focused entirely on their work, and that’s where The Newsroom thrives.
Sorkin has had a lot of failures with narrative tension in this show. As I’ve mentioned many times before, my overriding problem with the show’s mix of fact and fiction is that we already know how the real-life news stories end, so it’s hard to get engaged in their outcome. The “Jim on the Romney campaign” story was a perfect example; there was value in doing a post mortem on the Romney campaign, but I’m not sure a narrative television show, requiring weekly engagement, is the best place for it. Operation Genoa, however, was a small step in the right direction. We have known all along that the story was false – Sorkin told us in this season’s first episode – but we didn’t know how it would go wrong. Given the piles of evidence that were stacking up, it became hard to see how it couldn’t be true. See this clip from last week’s episode and tell me you’re not convinced:
Granted, it would have been more compelling had we genuinely not known whether Genoa was true or not, but Sorkin has succeeeded in spite of himself. Letting each shoe drop during this week’s episode was a graduate class in narrative tension. I had predicted that the basketball game in the interview with General Stomtonovich would prove crucial. But Sgt. Sweeney’s traumatic brain injury came as a shock to me, and the scene in which Charlie’s source reveals his true intentions was one of the best in the series. Waterston is one of the few actors who can get slapped, realize that he deserves it, and then still retain his dignity. It’s pretty clear that Waterston is the MVP of this series, bringing an earned wisdom to the show that it otherwise lacks.
And yet. After 17 episodes, it’s easy to see what The Newsroom is good at (taking the news seriously) and what it isn’t (character work). The show has been on such a roll these last few episodes (even last week’s propaganda was strangely satisfying), it’s enough to make me think that Sorkin has really learned his lessons and turned this thing around. Of course, if Jim and Maggie fall back into each other’s arms at the end of this season, I’ll start my rants all over again.