The Newsroom: Meltdown

The Newsroom S01E06: "Bullies"

Will McAvoy's righteousness is the engine that drives The Newsroom. His righteousness in browbeating that ignorant college student in the opening moments of the series' very first episode is what sparked off this whole crazy endeavor. While he may have been initially reluctant to dive headfirst into that righteousness following his outburst, the last few weeks have essentially featured Will in redline mode, slamming the gas pedal on his own need for truth and justice and journalism to the floor and refusing to let up. While that can be entertaining, I'd argue that the Will McAvoy we saw in Episode 2, the more vulnerable, unsure-of-himself Will, who flounders when he finds himself in a situation where he's not in complete control of his faculties, is far more interesting. "Bullies" solidified that feeling for me.

"Bullies" was another haywire episode. Everything that could go wrong pretty much did, and in those moments of near self-destruction, Aaron Sorkin shows us more about his characters than we often get in entire episodes when everything's going pretty much right. I say "pretty much" because there's always something going wrong on the set of News Night, but usually it has something to do with men in suits trying to stifle the forces of journalism because money. This week, there was hardly a suit in sight, save for the particularly bulky one worn by series newcomer Terry Crews.

I'll get to him momentarily, but first, the news. As "Bullies" opened, we found Will trying to finish off a seemingly run-of-the-mill broadcast, yet strangely unable to finish a sentence without stumbling over his words. Understandably concerned, MacKenzie pressed him on the situation, and he revealed that he hadn't been sleeping much lately. Mac remembered that Will used to see a therapist, and suggested he go back to talk out whatever might be bothering him—or, at the very least, get some sleeping pills.

It turned out that Will's longtime therapist—who he hadn't seen in four years, despite continuing to pay him weekly—died two years ago, and was replaced by his son (David Krumholtz). Will, unsurprisingly, was unsure of having a 29-year-old therapist, but reluctantly he agreed to come inside and answer a few questions, if only to get those pills.

Doubly unsurprisingly, Will stuck around much longer than he'd initially intended, delving into several possible causes for his insomnia. One, perhaps, might have to do with a recent death threat via the internet. Much of "Bullies" took place in flashback, and that first flashback started on another newscast, in which a visibly frustrated Will disapprovingly read comments from the show's blog. Will left the set incensed by the anonymity that he believes gives his commenters carte blanche to just say whatever horrible things pop into their mind. Neal suggested a new system that makes people register with real names and other personal information. A short time later, Will aired a show in which he laid particularly hard into an anti-Muslim activist, and suddenly a rather pointed death threat (from a hacked account) appeared on the website. Will chalked it up to typical internet rabble-rousing, but the rest of the staff took it more seriously. Suddenly, Will had a personal bodyguard.

Will hates this, because of course he does. Will McAvoy need not have any sort of protection, lest it make him seek weak or frightened. But he got it anyway, and it just so happens that said bodyguard is President Camacho himself, Terry Crews. When I first read that Crews was joining the cast, I had some mixed feelings. I love the man dearly in just about everything he's done (up to and including those Old Spice ads), but I wasn't sure how he was going to fit into the scope of this show. I am no longer worried. From the moment he showed up, Crews established himself as a welcome, delightfully funny presence. Sorkin gave him plenty of good material to work with, and he made the most of it. I laughed more at his dialogue with Will than I think I did anything else this week.

But the death threat and related consequences were actually just a small part of what troubles Will's righteous mind. More salient was an issue with Sloan, who found herself in the awkward position of having to host Eliot's 10pm show as a fill-in. This fill-in just happened to come around the time of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan, and Sloan just happens to speak fluent Japanese, so having her talk to the representatives from the power plant seemed like a perfectly sound idea. Except, there's a catch. While talking to the PR rep for Fukushima—who Sloan apparently knows from some years back—she got him to admit off the record that the accident rating for the reactor wasn't necessarily a 5 (3 Mile Island), as was being reported by the company flacks, but more likely a 7. The INES rating scale doesn't go higher than 7, in case you were wondering.

Sloan was torn. She wanted to report the truth, but she was unsure of how to get the information out of her source. She asked Will for advice, and Will being Will, he told her to go for the throat, to dig in and not to let someone lie during her airtime. Sloan did exactly this, and the resulting broadcast was perhaps one of the most uncomfortable pieces of television I've had the pleasure of watching in a while. Between Sloan alternating between English and Japanese, the PR rep and his translator's deeply confused reactions, and Don's near-meltdown in the control room, this five minutes of The Newsroom may have been one of the best five-minute periods of The Newsroom to date.

While I am still feeling a bit awkward about the way Sorkin tends to insert his female characters into these insane, histrionic-laden cock-ups, Olivia Munn did a great job of making this scene work while maintaining at least some degree of dignity for her character. I'd been waiting for Sorkin to give Sloan some significant screen time, and Munn didn't waste it. Her back-and-forth with a deeply enraged Charlie was easily the best acting work I've ever seen her do. She's been endearing herself more and more as the season has progressed, and now, quite frankly, I want to see more Sloan-centric episodes. Definitely did not expect that going into this season.

But as I said at the top of this piece, for me, this episode was about seeing Will fail, too. Will's underlings and subordinates are known for screwing things up, but Will really, truly screwing up isn't something we see a lot of. This week, we got that, as we finally arrived at the root of his unease. That root involved an interview with a gay, African-American adviser to then-prospective presidential candidate Rick Santorum. This man came to the show to discuss Santorum's policies, but Will was more interested in why a gay, African-American man would work for someone who seemingly works continually against his interests. Will ran down the list of quotes regarding Santorum's stance on gay marriage, homosexuality as a sin, etc. etc. The rep, who was clearly uncomfortable with the line of questioning, continued to try to pivot back to his prepared stances, but finally blew up in Will's face. He resented Will for marginalizing him as just being a gay black man, as if to say those are the only qualities that define him as a person. He may disagree with Santorum vehemently regarding Santorum's policies on gay rights, but he also vehemently agrees with him on other stances (the key example being abortion).

While I personally have a hard time believing that someone like this would, in fact, work for someone like Rick Santorum, the point was no less well made. Will's tendency to browbeat those who seemingly don't fall in line with his view of how the world should be finally came back to bit him in a very, very public way. And for once, Will realized it. He saw in that man's face the result of his own narrow viewpoints, his own self-righteousness carried too far. It was another terrific scene in an episode that had several of them.

In the end, Will got his prescription, but he had to give up a great deal of his own anonymity to get it. He had to reveal to his new therapist (and, by proxy, to us, the audience) more about himself before he could finally move on to the next story. He found himself forced to declare a mea culpa regarding both his handling of Santorum's aide and his bad advice to Sloan. No longer does Will McAvoy seem bulletproof, and the show was much better for it.

Additional Thoughts:

– I didn't really talk about this week's romantic subplotting because really, it was all pretty frivolous and unnecessary. Don interrupting his dressing-down of Sloan to ask her if Maggie really likes Jim? Ugh. Will preemptively buying Mac a fake engagement ring just so he could prove a point? Double ugh.

– Maggie mixing up Georgia the state and Georgia the country was only slightly less offensively stupid than Sloan going gaga over her potential new Gucci wardrobe. Please, Mr. Sorkin, can you get someone to help you with the female characters a bit?

– That being said, more Emily Mortimer doing Groucho, please.

– While I have no desire to see this show turn into the first few seasons of The Sopranos, I wouldn't mind seeing one or two visits from David Krumholtz each season. He's a good way to push Will's character forward, and he did some great work this week.

– Speaking of Will, between last week's $250,000 ransom payment, his weekly payments to his non-therapist, and his willingness to go buy a giant diamond engagement ring just to prove a point, I have to believe that Will is either going to be completely broke by the end of this season, or we're going to find out that he's the heir to some kind of massive diamond-mining fortune in Sierra Leone.

– Angry Charlie is my favorite Charlie. Indignant Sam Waterston is my spirit animal.

– I don't care if the death threat subplot gets resolved this season, I never want Terry Crews to leave this show. Then again, I want Terry Crews on every show, always and forever. He's the best.

What did you think of this week's episode?

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