I knew that one day a currently running series would air an episode that would instantly be their Best Episode Ever. I think “The Newsroom” did it this week. I’ve always liked the show, its take on real news history, its portrayal of how the news industry works, its political biases and all. It’s always been a densely scripted show, but I hadn’t been ready to declare a Best Episode Ever until this week. We’re only in season two, so there’s every possibility they can top this in the future.
It’s been a bit of a sophomore slump until now too. I enjoyed the subplots about Occupy Wall Street and the Mitt Romney campaign bus, but this wraparound with the legal depositions, this fictional Genoa story, Sloan (Olivia Munn)’s nude photo scandal and Will’s (Jeff Daniels) father have seemed like odd distractions from the meat of “The Newsroom:” Telling real news from the inside with perfectly articulated dialogue.
“Red Team III,” which only aired last Sunday, August 25 (two days ago as I’m writing this, three by the time it publishes), brings the two ongoing subplots together. It helps that the lawyers finally revealed what this whole inquiry is about, but more importantly it leads them to uncover what really happened and they do this in a powerful dramatic way. They push the characters to admit their own mistakes.
We saw last week in “One Step Too Many” that Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) edited a video with General Stomtonovich (Seven Root) to make it look like he said “we used sarin gas.” I could already see the TV in the background change in his edit. I don’t know how the entire boardroom didn’t see it, or why McKenzie (Emily Mortimer)’s discovery of the shot clock was so dramatic. There are far more obvious tells than the shot clock. The entire picture on the TV changes! Maybe I just think like an editor and I knew where the story was going so I was looking for it. Anyway…
Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden) reveals that Jerry sued ACN for wrongful termination. WHAT??? How can someone who falsified materials claim wrongful termination? Could there be any more rightful termination? This is where it gets beautifully complicated. We live in a world where you can’t just fire someone for doing their job wrong. There are laws in place to protect employees from corrupt bosses, but those can be manipulated by corrupt employees against noble bosses.
Jerry is clearly the one who did something wrong here, but that turns out to be not so simple either. Not stopping someone from committing a crime makes one culpable as well. Like when Spider-Man didn’t stop the robber and paid the ultimate price when the robber killed his uncle. In this case, the News Night staff is the collective Spider-Man, Jerry is the robber, the military is the sleazy wrestling promoter who didn’t give Spider-Man his winnings, and the public’s trust is Uncle Ben.
Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) is a rock star in this episode. He vehemently defends his news crew against Jerry’s attack, and we think he’s right. Morally, he is. Only through deep introspection, prodded by Rebecca’s inquiry, does he realize the bigger picture and see where he could have prevented the false report from making it to air. I can tell you from experience, feeling responsible for not stopping a wrongdoing feels worse than committing the wrongdoing yourself. You can just feel that that moment, the knowledge that he could have prevented this, will haunt him forever.
It goes deeper than Jerry’s fake soundbite though. As the news team gives individual testimony about the events that lead to Jerry’s report making air, we find out there was more corroboration for his story. Charlie (Sam Waterston) vouching for it is a big deal for us as the audience, as well as for his staff. When we discover that Charlie’s source corroborated false information out of revenge, it’s heartbreaking. Far fetched, sure, but this is drama. What if a formerly reliable source now had reason to spite you? The secret message on the fax was a nice touch of dramatic license. I was hoping that the source’s story about his junkie son being fired as an ACN intern was actually a subplot from season one, but I cannot find any confirmation of that in online recaps, and my colleagues online don’t recall it either. I’ll need to corroborate that one further.
As the sarin story continues to fall apart, McKenzie discovers that she asked one subject a question based on the Stomtonovich report that was “leading the witness” with false information. This is a dramatic portrayal of how good people can make well-intentioned mistakes that cost dearly. Had the Stomtonovich interview been accurate, her question would have been a valid follow-up. Any one of these mistakes alone could probably be corrected or retracted, but they all spiral from Jerry’s deception in a complex web of ethics and drama.
The most harrowing moment of the episode is when Elliot Hirsch re-interviews one of the Genoa sources, a soldier who lets slip that he suffered a brain injury in combat. I knew before Don reacted that it was the death blow. Then watching Don and Elliot react in a pinch, Don realizing he needs to cut the story, Elliot asking his natural follow-up questions damning himself, wow, what a powerful, layered few seconds of television. I’ve been there in interviews where something shocks me on the spot and I’m thinking on the spot, and I only interview actors about potential spoilers!
The depositions and the staff debates are all beautifully Sorkiny with banter, and I love the moment where McKenzie confronts Jerry. “You’re fired.” “I know.” Even more layered because while Jerry knows he’s caught, we know he doesn’t take it like a man. The episode ends with Will, Charlie and McKenzie ready to take one for the team and stand down. Of course I know this isn’t the end of the series, but when Leona (Jane Fonda) demands they earn the audience’s trust back, I was like, “F*** yeah! Fight for this!”
I just realized I picked a Best Episode Ever of “The Newsroom” in which Will is hardly in it and he doesn’t go after people on air. That’s what I love the most about “The Newsroom.” But “Red Team III” outdid even that. I’ve never had the problems with the romantic relationships some other critics have had, but I wonder if it’s this episode’s strength that it largely ignores them. This isn’t about Will and McKenzie’s past or Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie’s (Alison Pill) future. This episode does, however, work in the “Newsroom” trademark of real news events. This week, the Innocence of Muslims debacle provides a backdrop to the real timeline while this fictional story takes precedence.
A fictional story like Genoa may have been the only way to portray a story that News Night got wrong. If it were a real news story, they’d have to construct fictional false sources and it would be so complicated and confusing the drama wouldn’t work. To that end, this fictional sojourn was worth it. I wonder if Sorkin will come up with any other dramatic reasons to invent fictional news stories.
I was riveted by this entire episode. I normally give “The Newsroom” my undivided attention because I don’t want to miss any of the pithy dialogue or details, but so much was unfolding within that this week, I had to literally sit up and take notice. To haters of the show, “Red Team III” may be an equally powerful indictment of what they feel is wrong with “The Newsroom.” Wouldn’t that make it the Best Episode Ever for haters too? Either way, I win. “Red Team III” is the Best Episode Ever.