The Newsroom: Season 1, Episode 10–The Greater Fool

“The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego, to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools.”


Now that’s how to do a season finale. In a day when I’ve seen two such beasts, it was reassuring to know that, despite my equivocal feelings on the True Blood one, The Newsroom came up trumps with a stirring finale that seemed to encapsulate all the strengths (and, yes, weaknesses) of the show so far. Plots were resolved, character arcs completed, and a sense of closure achieved, even while leaving avenues open for the story to continue.

Of course, this is probably because The Newsroom finale, unlike True Blood, was written before it was known whether the show would be renewed. That closure was needed in case this was the last we ever saw of Will, Mack and the gang. Aaron Sorkin has presumable learned from bitter experience that a TV showrunner doesn’t always manage to finish those ambitious multi-season arcs, and the result is an ending that the viewer can feel satisfied with that doesn’t preclude further stories.

How much you enjoyed this depended (like the series as a whole, in fact) on your tolerance of two things. Firstly, Aaron Sorkin using the drama as a platform for grandstanding his own political views. That one I have no problem with. Secondly, the fact that the storytelling, characters and direction are unashamedly old-fashioned. Will and Mack are basically Tracy and Hepburn. Charlie Skinner is every wise old mentor in every news drama. Leona is every grasping corporate executive with a hidden heart of gold. And every problem can be solved at the last minute by the basic common decency of the people involved, who all pull together and make it right.

That kind of storytelling can often rankle with me, particularly because of its heartstring-tugging sentiment. In my early reviews of The Newsroom, it was a style I did find somewhat objectionable, but it’s a measure of how much I’ve come to like the show that while I still see those flaws, they matter less to me now.

Which was fortunate, because that need for character closure meant that this finale was lighter on the actual news stories than most episodes. After all, we had to deal with all the soap opera. Can Will and Mack overcome their past and get together, as they’re plainly meant to be? Can Maggie and Jim? And in a shock reveal this week, can (gasp) Don and Sloan?

The ‘rom com’ aspects of the characters have always been the biggest stumbling block for me – it’s a recurring Sorkin trope that various major characters must behave as though they’re constantly in a Richard Curtis movie. But by this point, I’ve come to care about the characters enough to genuinely want to see how it all plays out.

Not that it doesn’t still make me gnash my teeth with frustration every time that Jim and Maggie just miss out on getting together. This week, they came closer than ever before, due to a Freudian slip in a restaurant and a surprisingly vitriolic diatribe against Sex and the City.

So Maggie ‘accidentally’ let slip to Lisa how hard it was to see her with Jim, meaning she’s not only admitted her feelings to Lisa, but more importantly, to herself. Which was where Sex and the City came in. Having been soaked by a passing tour bus for that show’s NYC locations, Maggie totally went off on one about what it’s really like to be a single girl in New York: “Not all of our jobs revolve around shoes and gallery openings!” I’m guessing Aaron Sorkin’s not a big fan of Sarah Jessica Parker and the girls…

Unfortunately, Maggie’s rant included her feelings about her best friend’s boyfriend, who she now knows came to see her that fateful night in the last episode. I say ‘unfortunately’ because in a genuinely funny (if hugely contrived) moment of high romantic comedy, said boyfriend was actually atop that same tour bus, trying desperately to cram up on Lisa’s favourite TV show.

Yes, it was very much the stuff of traditional rom coms as Maggie realised and tried frantically to backpedal on her declaration. But I still laughed! And to cut a long story short, they kissed, dear reader. I mean, thank God! At last! They’ve finally worked out who they want to be with!

But oh no, Jim knows that the commitment Maggie finds lacking in Don is just round the corner, as he’s going to ask her (for all the wrong reasons) to move in with him. And so, her mind is changed back. Again. Just as Sloan has, quite unexpectedly, revealed not only an insight into Don’s personality (he thinks he’s a bad guy and tries to hard to be ‘good’) but also that she wants to go out with him herself! Just when you thought it was all resolved, the Don/Maggie/Jim/Lisa quadrangle is now a pentangle.

Ah well, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this is obviously going to run and run – at least as long as the show does. Arguably more important is the relationship between Will and Mack, as the de facto leads of the ensemble, and slightly more progress was made there. In a script full of shout outs to the opening episode (I love a good circular narrative), Will revealed that the whole Don Quixote-like quest for his own integrity started with that ‘hallucination’ of Mack at the University seminar. And wouldn’t you just know it, Mack happened to be carrying the exact same pad she was that day, with her prompts to him still written on it.

So Will now knows that Mack was really there, and cares for him as much as she believes in him. Not sure that justifies such overwhelmingly sickly dialogue as “I bet your heart’s melting just now, isn’t it?”, but it turned out to be germane to the wider plot as Will made Mack aware of the message that he’d left her while stoned on the night of Bin Laden’s death. A message, it turned out, that Mack hadn’t received but bitchy gossip columnist Nina had. There could be only one explanation – Mack’s phone had been hacked and the message deleted.

That was a typical last-minute save after Charlie’s NSA source had been shown as lacking credibility, then actually killed himself apparently in desperation at the uncaring attitude of his own children. That’s more of that old-fashioned storytelling, right there – spend most of the episode dashing Charlie’s (and our) hopes of getting the upper hand over Leona Lansing, then pull out the save at the last minute.

And ‘hand’ really is the correct term here – the final showdown with Leona and Reese turned out to be as good a poker bluff as I’ve ever seen. The envelope full of ‘evidence’ Charlie brought along turned out to be Hancock’s recipe for beef stew. But by the time Leona found that out, Reese had already admitted to having ordered the hacking (after some James Murdoch-like slippery equivocation about “maximising profit”).

Given that this makes Leona effectively the Rupert Murdoch figure here, the script wrongfooted me by actually giving her more of a conscience than the genuine article. She was appalled at Reese’s methods (I notice the list of hackees involved some very emotive ones like relatives of Somali kidnap victims). And she finally succumbed to Charlie’s appeal to her integrity by letting the News Night crew just get on with it, but only with the stern warning that Will shouldn’t miss the target. Good advice from Jane Fonda, whose unfeasibly fit body had been the subject of Will’s opening remarks at the meeting – a nice sly reference to all those ‘Jane Fonda Workout’ videos so prevalent in the 80s.

And that target, as it has been throughout, was the Tea Party. The actual tangible news story the criticism was hooked to was the increasing use of a photo ID requirement to disenfranchise poorer voters in Republican states – not coincidentally, those voters least likely to vote Republican. This despite the fact that a Bush-era survey taken over several years revealed a mere 86 instances of voter fraud in a country of 314 million people.

Like so many of the issues the show addresses, this is still absolutely relevant, especially with the 2012 Presidential elections mere weeks away. As Will pointed out, some 33 Republican controlled states have instituted similar measures which make their poorer citizens less likely to be allowed to vote. It is, and should be, an absolute scandal – voter manipulation to ensure a doctored result. Jon Stewart has been rightly focusing heavily on it on The Daily Show, pointing out the same absurdities that Will McAvoy has; the motives seem very clear when you realise how little voter fraud actually happens. It is, plain and simple, to stop those who would vote against Republicans from voting at all. As an amusing side issue, there’s now a theory that Mitt Romney himself may actually be one of that tiny minority of actual electoral fraudsters, and that’s why he refuses to release his tax records from the period concerned…

Still, it’s really just the tip of an iceberg that is the Tea Party’s seizure of the Republicans. This final episode served to let Sorkin really let rip as to his opinions of that – Mitch McConnell’s asinine outbursts came in for scathing criticism, as did the repeated Tea Party insistence that the USA was founded as a “Christian nation” – despite evidence to the contrary from the Founding Fathers, and not least from the US Constitution itself. Sorkin’s indignation was neatly summed up at the end by Will on air, speaking the show creator’s words:

”Ideological purity. Compromise as weakness. A fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism. Denying science. Unmoved by facts. Undeterred by new information. A hostile fear of progress. A demonization of education. A need to control women’s bodies. Severe xenophobia. Tribal mentality. Intolerance of dissent, and a pathological hatred of the US government. They can call themselves the Tea Party. They can call themselves conservatives. And they can even call themselves Republicans – though Republicans certainly shouldn’t. But we should call them what they are – the American Taliban. And the American Taliban cannot survive if Dorothy Cooper is allowed to vote.”

Yes, the shots of everyone watching (including Leona) looking tearfully moved were cheesy in an Airplane-style that’s easy to mock. But it was stirring. And in a week which has seen the Republicans settle on the most reactionary political platform in their history, it’s absolutely relevant and frighteningly true. This, for me, is what makes The Newsroom compelling drama, week after week – an address to real world issues that, in actual US news media, are worryingly neglected.

There’s an element of confirmation bias, of course – I already feel the way Sorkin does about these issues, and I doubt anyone who holds the views he despises will be much inclined to change them on the say so of a fictional character like Will McAvoy. But by using drama to give us facts that are all too often overlooked by an increasingly partisan press (the liberal side becoming every bit as bad as the conservative one, it seems), Sorkin sweetens a bitter pill that we all need to swallow. The medicine’s easier to take if administered by the charming likes of Will, Mack and Charlie, and I’ve enjoyed it so much I’m looking forward to more next year.