This might have been the last episode ever of The Newsroom (reports are murky on whether it is being picked up for a third season), and if so, it’s a solid ending that surprised me with how much I was affected by it. “Election Night: Part II” took the elements of the show I’ve always found the least interesting – the romantic entanglements between (deep breath) Will, Mac, Jim, Maggie, Don, Sloane, and Lisa – and made them work. With the election of Barack Obama a foregone conclusion, this episode was barely about the news; it was about love, and it made me think that if maybe Sorkin had just focused on one or the other (instead of awkwardly trying to squeeze them both together, a task he never quite achieved), The Newsroom would have been a better show.
It’s an odd way to end the season because, as a whole, season two was most successful when it pushed these romantic subplots to the side, at one point literally putting an ocean between Jim and Maggie. Operation Genoa was the main story this year, and it was riveting drama. And then it was mostly absent tonight. Yes, there was a significant subplot about whether Reese would accept the resignations of Charlie, Will, and Mac, but I never took it seriously. Sorkin put himself in the best position possible to do that several episodes ago when they offered their resignations, but he refused to let them go then. Why would he do it now?
Instead, we are left with some satisfying romantic pairings. First, there is Don and Sloane. Sorkin has built their relationship slowly through acts of friendship (this season’s fifth episode remains the standout here), which is why it’s unfortunate how unearned tonight’s kiss felt. It was certainly a well-staged moment – and Don’s response was priceless – but it just felt rushed, and it didn’t really register as an ending. If there is in fact a third season of The Newsroom, watching this relationship develop will likely be one of my favorite parts of it.
When it comes to Jim and Maggie, Sorkin did the one thing he’d never been able to accomplish before: demonstrate an actual human connection between these two. The final scene between them was moving, and, although there was still no romantic or sexual chemistry, it showed why they liked each other in the first place, a fact he could have reminded us of more over the course of the series. It was a case of too little, too late, and that goes double for the extended, momentum-killing scene between Jim and Lisa at the party.
And then there’s Will and Mac, and let me just say that we should all take a moment and consider how damn good Jeff Daniels has been in this series. The proposal scene was miraculous. It shouldn’t have worked. The Will/Mac storyline has garnered only a handful of scenes over the course of this season, and the proposal was clearly an effort by Sorkin to wrap up the storyline just in case the show doesn’t return. There was no real motivation for Daniels to change his mind about Mac, and his “epiphany” during the conversation with Charlie was laughable. And yet I found myself grinning widely at Will’s bumbling proposal and – maybe, possibly – even tearing up as he introduced Mac to the news team as his fiancée. It made no sense. At all. But it succeeded on the back of a terrific performance by Daniels, somehow making me believe that this stammering, stuttering romantic yutz was the same egotistical asshole we’ve grown used to.
Overall, Daniels has given a better performance than the show deserved. On paper, Will could come off as a fearless leader with a few bullying tendencies, but Daniels crafted something more complex and human. His McAvoy is truly a man in flux, caught between the ambition to be great and the self-doubt of a man who is painfully aware of his flaws. It is a raw, tender, and understated portrait of middle age, and to whatever extent The Newsroom worked, Daniels deserves the credit. And so I am glad to see his character find happiness at the end of the road, even if I’m not sure the show earned it.
That’s the best I can say about The Newsroom: it succeeds in spite of itself. The first season had a few spectacular episodes, perhaps none better than the pilot, but critics howled at the revisionist news angle that made Sorkin come off as a smartypants. It’s easy to get the news right in a fictionalized show produced two years later, critics said. So Sorkin listened and responded, and it was out with Deepwater Horizon and the Gabby Gifford shooting, and in with Operation Genoa.
As I mentioned above, the Operation Genoa storyline really worked for me (despite its propagandistic underpinnings), but I still feel disappointed. Last season, the show burned with a sense of purpose. Yes, it was cloying, manipulative, and sentimental, but at least it was trying to do and say something positive. Now, it seems as if Sorkin doesn’t have anything to say at all. What are his big political takeaways this season? The Occupy Wall Street movement was lame? The Romney campaign didn’t have strong positions on stuff? Yawn. The closest thing to an incisive political point in this season finale was when Will defended/criticized the Republican party on the air, but I felt like I’d heard that speech several times already in this series.
And so The Newsroom will now fade slowly into the night, remembered as a show that inspired strong feelings on both sides. Those who loved it defended it fiercely for its hopeless romanticism, considering it a necessary counterpoint to antihero-driven dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men (this might be the “terminal irony” that Charlie spoke of). Its detractors will remember the sanctimony, the political preaching, and the poorly-written female characters. As for me, I can’t divorce those two perspectives from each other. I feel them both at once, and I will likely remember the show as one beautiful missed opportunity with a few unforgettable moments. In other words: except for what they did wrong, they did everything right.