The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 6–Bullies

SPOILER WARNING – THIS IS FROM SUNDAY’S US BROADCAST, AND MAJOR PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED. DON’T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE 6 YET.

“I know what you think of this. But I really urge you to spend an hour a week faking it.”

NewsroomCharlieSloan

Give me some balance, I said in last week’s Newsroom review, and lo and behold, this week I got some. And from a most unexpected source – who’d have thought the most dignified speech in the episode would come from a committed former aide to Rick Santorum?

But we’ll come back to that. The theme this week, as less than subtly alluded to in the episode title, was bullying – and how even the most sympathetic of people have it in themselves to be bullies, as we see this week from the unlikely examples of a fuming Charlie and an overcompensating Sloan. It could be argued that Charlie at least is a bit out of character, given his previous ‘channelling-James-Stewart’ folksy adorability, but it actually made him more plausible for me. He’s a high ranking journalist in charge of a major TV news operation. You don’t get to that position just by being nice.

Of course the biggest (and least surprising) bully is Will McAvoy himself. It’s unsurprising because the character has been portrayed as crassly insensitive, along with impassioned and idealistic, from the start. Here, Will gets to put the story in perspective himself by means of that hoary old dramatic standby, the therapy session that functions as a framing narrative. I mean really, this was pretty old as a dramatic device even when being used by the mighty Sopranos, which at least subverted and abandoned it fairly early on. The tropes of the scenario were present and correct – the awkwardness, the ‘comic’ dialogue about dusty old waiting room magazines, the Freudian slips that the super-attentive therapist pounced on to reveal deeply-hidden aspects of his patient’s personality. Oh, and the bodyguard.

Yes, that last is more unusual. Turned out that Will’s been having a stressful time, hence his sudden desire to visit a therapist he’s been paying but not actually seeing for four years (hence his failure to notice that said therapist has actually died and been replaced by his son in the mean time). Will’s not sleeping, as we discover in an opening broadcast where he’s suddenly incapable of reading the autocue (“thanks for washing us”). My credulity was somewhat strained by that as a clue to Will’s mental state – isn’t he meant to be a consummate professional no matter what the stresses? Reading an autocue, even with insomnia, shouldn’t be too onerous a task.

Be that as it may, the episode was spent examining (primarily) the reasons for Will’s stress. Turns out he’s received a death threat on the internet for having the temerity to debunk criticism of the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’ (actually a community centre) then following that up with a montage of all the nasty things done in the name of Christianity. Hence the bodyguard, a former football-playing giant named Lonnie. Terry Crews was a lot of fun as Lonnie, trading acid barbs with his unwilling client (ACN’s insurance company had forced him on Will). Sloan even popped in to check out his remarkably firm pecs.

Ah, yes, Sloan. It’s fair to say that in the show’s ensemble cast, there are some characters that could reasonably be called ‘secondary’, but Aaron Sorkin is determined to expand them with their own little subplots. Last week it was Dev Patel’s Neal, and this week the spotlight was firmly on Olivia Munn as Sloan Sabbith, a character whose ridiculously alliterative name actually rings all too true in the US news media. I didn’t know this about Olivia Munn (though I guess Sorkin did), but she’s fluent in Japanese, making her a handy candidate to explore this week’s big retroactive news story – the crumbling infrastructure of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

At this point, Tokyo power company TEPCO was still trying to downplay the severity of the crisis, but it turned out that Sloan had a friend who worked as a spokesman for the company. Off the record, she got him to admit that the problem was far worse than currently being stated.

Then, to her surprise, Don asked her to fill in for Elliot in the 10 0’clock slot (as fourth, or maybe sixth, choice). A bit daunted, she asked Will for advice on probing journalism, receiving his opinion that she didn’t challenge her interviewees’ obvious falsehoods enough.

Unfortunately, her brief stint as a main anchor saw her veer in completely the opposite direction, while interviewing her friend in Tokyo, coming across less as a truth seeker than a simple bully. Confronting him on air with his own off the record remarks was bad enough for a professional journalist, but anyone knowledgeable enough about Japanese culture to speak the language should have known what a massive loss of face it would be for a Japanese professional to be accused of lying on international TV. Obvious result – her friend felt honour-bound to resign from his job. Clearly she had Gone Too Far.

Given Will’s advice (which he admitted to his therapist was not well-put), Sloan’s sudden ferocity was reasonably convincing, as was (for reasons I mentioned earlier) Charlie’s furious tirade at her. Nevertheless, he too came over as excessively harsh, and it was left to the unlikely figure of Don to play peacemaker. As the season progresses, Don seems to be gradually evolving into a human being as he gains sensitivity; this week, he finally spotted the glaring neon signs of the chemistry between his girlfriend and Jim Harper. Shame he chose to ask Sloan about it – he’s not sensitive enough yet to work out that she has little concept of emotional empathy.

Biggest empathy vacuum this week (as every week) was, of course, Will. But the script went further than usual in examining this, and for the first time portrayed him in a genuinely unpleasant light. Up till now, he’s been shown as an asshole to work with, but a humanitarian of idealistic principle for all his (moderate) conservative politics.

This week, all that changed with his on-air bullying of a former aide to Rick Santorum. The aide was still a Santorum supporter, but Will, like an attack dog, kept aggressively pressing his point – how could he be, as a black gay man, when Santorum had described gay marriage as “a threat to marriage everywhere”, and equated it with bestiality and incest in a Congressional speech?

Tired of being ever more aggressively attacked, the aide came back with his own fierce, impassioned speech that served to make Will take a step back and look at his behaviour. “How dare you define me by my blackness or my gayness?”, he fumed, at one stroke piercing the often-patronising liberal agenda of reducing people to uncomplicated cyphers that need protecting. Turned out he still supported Santorum (even though disagreeing with him about gay rights), because he saw Santorum as the best spokesman against abortion, a position he strongly agreed with.

Sorkin didn’t use this moment to make any point about his views on abortion – it really wasn’t the point of this exchange. The point was that the liberal media can so easily simplify people into single issues, then patronise them by suggesting they are incapable of standing up for themselves. It was a very necessary moment of balance in a show that has been preachily canonising its own liberal heroes up till now – and nice to see that same preaching flung back at them from someone who doesn’t share their viewpoint.

And even in the face of that, Will couldn’t let it lie, finally just about reducing the man to tears with his last, quiet question – “Does Santorum think you’re fit to be a teacher?” Of course, he doesn’t. But by this point, winning the debate seems less of a moral victory than an unnecessary beating.

All this comes out via the medium of that framing narrative in the therapist’s office, at which point we learn something new about Will himself. His father was a violent, abusive drunk, and when Will was in the fifth grade, he had to be violent back just to protect his mother and brother. Now, in the classical style, he’s followed in his father’s footsteps and become a bully himself; he just uses words and intellectual points rather than fists. It’s not a very original dramatic observation, but unfortunately it’s a cliche because it’s too often true in reality; the bullied become bullies themselves.

To an extent, the suddenness with which we see these more unpleasant aspects of characters who have, till now, been so likeable, is a little jarring. It might have worked better if Sorkin had at least hinted previously that these ‘nice’ people could turn with such sudden ferocity. That had at least been the case with Will, but Sloan and Charlie came across as much more of a surprise, and perhaps not an entirely convincing one, as a result.

Nonetheless, it was good to see that balance I’d been wanting, even if it felt like the show had perhaps swung too far and too suddenly in the opposite direction. It continues to be a dramatic platform for Aaron Sorkin to espouse his own political views via his characters, but this episode was a good reminder that not everything is as black and white as it often seems in his ‘liberals=good, conservatives=bad’ universe.

2 thoughts on “The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 6–Bullies”

  1. “the often-patronising liberal agenda of reducing people to uncomplicated cyphers that need protecting”

    Just for clarity, I think that you’re generally using “liberal” in the American sense which equate to a sort of mild social democracy in British terms. But it’s a bit more blurred here.

    British Liberalism, has some of its earliest roots in religious tolerance, which in a way *is* about seeing people as groups in need of protection from bullying. But it’s also about the freedom to choose your own identity and not having to conform to stereotypes if you don’t want to.

    So I’d say that sticking people in categories that way was a (possibly well-intentioned) failure of Liberalism rather than a liberal agenda per se.

    (And I’ll avoid making the obvious partisan point about which Party does that most in this country.)

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  2. Absolutely right Richard – I was indeed using (small ‘l’) liberal in its American context. I have a general policy that when reviewing American shows, I use the parlance of the nation that produced them – hence referring to this and True Blood as ‘Season’ rather than ‘Series’. Similarly, I describe The Newsroom’s Don as an ‘asshole’ rather than ‘arsehole’ as I might if it was a British show 🙂

    Point taken about British identity politics, though I think I’ve seen examples of it from all three major parties over the years…

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