Aaron Sorkin has been performing quite the balancing act all year on The Newsroom, but with one cataclysmically self-involved, screechingly annoying episode he blew all the goodwill he’d carefully built up this season. With only two episodes remaining in the series, with every plot viewers might care about collapsing in on itself, the show indulged all its worst tendencies.
There were countless conversations that doubled as mind-numbing lectures on the state of journalism. There was lame, acidic misogyny that basically went unpunished because this show can’t help but worship its leading men. There was a closing musical montage, centered around an impromptu wedding, set to a hideous soft-guitar cover of “Ave Maria,” that just about outdid The Newsroom’s previous rock-bottom, when news team covered Gabrielle Giffords’s shooting to the sound of Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
Let’s try to sift through this garbage fire. The weirdest thing about “Contempt” was that it provided the pay-off for all of the storylines the show had nicely built up in its first three episodes, but it fouled all of them up. The big throughline remains the leaked CIA documents and News Night’s planned story on the U.S. intelligence community’s deadly meddling in a fictional African country. With Neal on the run, Will makes himself a martyr for the case, refusing to name Neal’s source and eventually getting himself thrown in prison by a very reluctant judge.
This is, perhaps, where Sorkin’s speechifying works best. Acting at his most lawyerly, Will curtly notes the history of First Amendment protection for journalists—but it’s in search of a point that is starting to elude everyone. At first, Neal and Mac insisted the story had to run, but then everyone starts to hem and haw at the violent impact it could have in “Equatorial Kundu.” Even Will seems unconvinced of the story’s pressing worth, although he remains (correctly) resolute in the belief that he should not be compelled to name a source.
In the end, it all serves as some daft plot trick to have Will marry Mac at once, so that he can protect her from testifying against him and also because what the hell, he’s going to jail, right? Their supposed “City Hall” wedding was low on plausibility (I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to bring your own Catholic priest and five-man band to a City Hall wedding) but even lower on romance. Has the Will/Mac pairing ever pleased anyone outside of Sorkin himself? Even the show’s characters seemed happy to get all that nonsense out of the way, but there was a last-gasp effort to convince us that Will is only taking this principled stand against the Department of Justice to impress his bullish journalist of a fiancée. Who has already agreed to marry him. Sorkin’s characters often tend towards such pointless extremity in the name of “romanticism,” but even by that measure Will is being over the top.
Sloan and Don remain much more authentically romantic, and their bickering battle with a pesky HR rep trying to out them ended this week with a lame hug. I suppose I should be happy that the show’s efforts to break up “Slon” finally ground to a halt this week, but it was hard to find this HR person’s harassment particularly adorable. He’s known they were a couple for weeks, and doesn’t really care, but just kept up the crusade because he’s bored, he says. ACN may not be as important a place as Sorkin thinks it is, but that still seems like a waste of everyone’s time just to convince the audience what it already knows—that Sloan and Don are perfect for each other. Nonetheless, if this show wants to end on their impromptu marriage, I’ll support it, no matter how abysmal a cover version of “Ave Maria” is played.
The biggest headache of them all came with Jim and Hallie, whose fragile relationship finally collapsed for good over opinion-driven thinkpiece writing, or something. Jim is the worst kind of character that modern television has to offer: He’s supposedly appealing, in that he’s good-looking and smart and warm-hearted. But he’s also controlling, snipey, mean and holier-than-thou, partly because Sorkin needs to examine his own hero complex, and partly because Sorkin wants to rail against clickbait journalism.
Hallie, who Jim ostensibly loves, has new job at some sub-Gawker ripoff called “Carnivore” that’s hungry for eye-grabbing content is apparently part of the “digital revolution” (at least, so she claims). Jim finds this objectionable already, but then she writes a personal opinion piece about her experience with Plan B, which elicits a snipe from him, about Penthouse letters, that would have been sexist in 1985. Hallie probably should have doused Jim in gasoline and set him alight right there, but instead she writes a nastier tell-all for Carnivore about their crappy relationship, and maybe-kinda leaks the story about ACN's battle with the Justice Department, giving Jim ample reason to dump her.
I can’t emphasize enough just how frustrating it was to watch this play out. For every snide comment or degrading lecture Jim handed out, Gracie stuck with him and kept apologizing for, I guess, being a lowest-common-denominator journalist. I was on her side through the mean tell-all and the leaked ACN secrets, but it didn’t feel like Sorkin wanted me to be. Even when Maggie sticks up for her actions, her new boyfriend just accused her of protesting too much because she’s really in love with Jim. Heaven help it if a woman on this show ever did anything that wasn’t in service of a male character’s totemic, beautifully flawed ego.
The final lecture on the future of media came from the demented young billionaire (B.J. Novak) buying ACN and planning to turn it into some sort of nonsense hub for buzzwords. In conversation with Charlie, he says he wants to give the news “tentacles,” have it appeal to the youth, and, I dunno, put it on Tumblr or something. At one point, Sam Waterston utters the phrase “epic fail.” I’d happily watch a show about Aaron Sorkin learning about the Internet’s latest nooks and crannies, but only if it was a tragicomedy about a man struggling to remain relevant. This just felt like a cautionary tale nobody needs to hear. Rumor has it next week’s episode is even worse. That’s going to be hard to pull off.