There's one scene in this week's The Newsroom that has so much fun with the show's "what if" premise that I wanted the whole episode to revolve around it. Following up on last week's most boring subplot (Maggie's ethical acquisition of a damning EPA report from an agency middle manager), this week we were treated to a fascinating bit of alternate history. What if someone in the Obama administration—a low-ranked assistant director, but nonetheless a government expert—went on television and told us as soberly as possible that the world was going to end and there was nothing we could do about it?
Aaron Sorkin isn't kidding around here. The Newsroom is the first show he's ending on his own terms—that's remarkable to think about, but true (Sports Night and Studio 60 were cancelled, and he was essentially fired from The West Wing). So he might as well end it with Paul Lieberstein playing the chilling harbinger of Earth's doom, warning us that humans maybe could have saved the world from rising oceans 20 years ago, but have now missed their chance.
Lieberstein, who was the hangdog Toby on The Office for many years, should be nominated for a Guest Acting Emmy for his work in this episode. There was something so thrilling about his despondent delivery of the doomsday message to a befuddled Will. Our host gamely tries to wring some kind of hope from him, but the best Lieberstein can offer is the concept that humanity will survive, but only to live in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where cities are leveled by storms and the population flees inward to escape rising tides and ceaseless wildfires.
My biggest problem with this episode: Not nearly enough time was devoted to the aftershock of this interview. There were some aghast silences as Lieberstein outlined Earth's calamitous future, but then we moved on to the more important plot at hand: the FBI investigation of the government leaker. If the next episode doesn’t pick up this narrative again, I’ll be disappointed. Do not dismiss this EPA Assistant Director as if he is some "Big Block of Cheese Day" crackpot from The West Wing, Mr. Sorkin! The idea of this interview airing on cable news is a truly juicy one and plays in wonderful contrast to the leaks ACN is trying to fight.
Simply put, the government devotes countless resources to bringing down Neal and possibly Will for making contact with the CIA, but it’s seemingly doing little (or nothing) to act on the EPA's report. The most damning moment of the episode is Lieberstein's shrug as Will asks him if he's worried about panicking the public. There's nothing more that can be done, so why not admit the world is ending? Sorkin excels at this kind of contrast, and that certainly was the most convincing bout of lecturing The Newsroom delivered this week.
Everything else in the episode had me a little bored. There's a long, dull digression about Jim's fired girlfriend Hallie (Grace Gummer), who bit the dust at ACN last week for writing an ill-mannered tweet about the Boston bombings. Now she's looking to work at a start-up journalism operation called "Carnivore," which offers bonuses to employees if they get a lot of page views. Such operations exist, and boy does Sorkin want to denounce them. Jim is filled with journalistic outrage at the kind of gutter writing that click-hungry employees might be forced to produce, and Hallie is understandably sick of his hectoring. It's truly dull from a dramatic perspective—I couldn't wait to switch back to a more interesting story—but there was at least one interesting note that followed.
Jim is by far my least favorite character on The Newsroom, since he is possessed of the same know-it-all, holier-than-thou arrogance as most of its characters but doesn't have the guts to admit it. But, amidst further boring debate with Maggie over the newsiness of her EPA story, he semi-admits that he was a judgmental jerk to Hallie (only after Maggie prods him about it, but still). I previously remarked on this third season showing a reflective side to Sorkin's tropes—is this another example? Could Jim finally be willing to see how foolhardy and patronizing he is toward everyone he dates? Much like Will's stupid "mission to civilize" gossip rags in season one, Jim is finally coming around to the idea that a free market might create forms of journalism he doesn't like.
Will is the biggest beneficiary of this change in tone. The FBI investigation storyline has turned him into the wise old mentor of the group (useful, since Sam Waterston's character is busy trying to preserve the life of ACN as it is possibly sold to an arrogant young billionaire played by B.J. Novak). Mac sticks up for Neal's idealism and human rights, and lawyer Rebecca (Marcia Gay Harden) plays by the government's rules as much as possible, but Will is trying to stake out his protest without simply sticking up his middle finger at the Feds. He understands their concerns and wants to work to protect the sensitive sections of this leaked information spreading onto the Internet and possibly putting U.S. secret agents' lives at risk.
Rather than just yell bullet points into the camera, Will's being nudged into an idealistic standoff by the government. It's much more dramatically efficient, and it helps that we don't know where things are going, as I said last week. Clea DuVall's appearance as the leaker at the end of the episode lit the touchpaper for the final three episodes. Let's hope Aaron Sorkin's fictional world doesn't end before then—but if it did, I'd applaud the audacity.