Sam Waterston

There are few things better than a great episode of an Aaron Sorkin show. There is a musicality to the dialogue, a humor in the face of adversity, a thread of connection that runs through the center of each character that, when tugged, results in them falling in line like so many paper dolls strung together. So lovely are these episodes that it causes intense cognitive dissonance when they inevitably crop up on a typically underwhelming Sorkin production. (See also: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.)

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By the end of this week’s episode of The Newsroom, “Run,” my mind was in full dissonance disarray. This was not the show I had come to expect in my years of watching. This was something very different. This… was great.

But why? What made this episode of the show such a departure from what we’ve witnessed before? For one thing, this was maybe the first episode of The Newsroom in which every female character was fully realized, smart (or at least smart about their own idiocy), well-spoken, and competent. Looking at that list, it seems like a pretty low bar to have for a show populated with allegedly intelligent, professional women, but the previous seasons are proof that such a low bar is necessary.

Let’s start with Maggie, whose plot was my least favorite element of the episode. She’s traveling back to New York after her time covering the events of Boston and overhears an EPA employee having a frank phone conversation that she secretly records and confronts him with. That’s some ace detective work on her part, and the frazzled Maggie we’ve come to know on the show is replaced with someone cool and focused, who reasonably explains her right to proceed with publishing the employee’s conversation and eventually backs down not out of fear or manipulation, but because she didn’t feel like she was being true to her own moral code, something that only someone with a spine could do. Of course, this being a Sorkin show, she’s promptly rewarded with an exclusive copy of an upcoming environmental report as well as a potential new beau, because she’s a good person, but even this is taken in stride, as this new, competent version of Maggie Jordan gives the learned law professor her number and coolly urges him to call her soon because the world is ending.

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Meanwhile, love of my television life Sloan Sabbith and Don “I completely forgot he used to date Maggie” Keefer go on an amazing brunch adventure involving secret waffles and imaginary parental anniversaries, driven by the fact that Don inadvertently made money off of Sloan’s insider information. Olivia Munn and Thomas Sadoski manage to make it all strangely winning and there’s something innately appealing whenever a show manages to subvert the typical commitment-phile vs. commitment-phobe dichotomy. Seeing these lone wolf characters struggling through a relationship upgrade is refreshing in the same way that How I Met Your Mother’s original coupling of Barney and Robin was refreshing. Moreover, there just aren’t enough portrayals of strong, smart female characters on TV, who really enjoy being alone but also enjoy having sex. Sloan is fiercely protective of the life she’s built (a life that makes her very happy) is great, as is her willingness to make small concessions toward incorporating new things that make her happy. Like Don. And waffles.

And, back in the land of poor decisions, Hallie (Grace Gummer) made a tweet that was in poor taste (albeit funny) at the expense of Republicans and had to be shitcanned. It was a stupid decision, one clouded by the bad judgment that inevitably follows fatigue and she deserved to be fired for it. Typically on The Newsroom I would expect something of this tenor to be played off as a flighty mistake and the dangers of technology, but Hallie was stoic, understanding the gravity of the situation with near immediacy while still understanding that in the world of the Internet, nothing goes unnoticed for long. It was that inevitability that made her furious website refreshing so gut-wrenching to watch, as there’s no feeling quite like knowing you have been responsible for your own demise and wondering if you’re a strong enough person to own up to it.

On the other side of that coin, the most enervating moment of the episode likely came from the boardroom, where Reese spent the episode trying to sweet talk (sweet yell?) his half-siblings into not selling the company off for parts. Here’s another example where, by the end, the men were left in the background while the women played ball. Casting Kat Dennings as Blair, the half-sister, was brilliant. Her bile towards Reese in the wake of years of his dismissive attitude feels pure. She’s an underrated dramatic actress who shines when the negotiations eventually devolve into her and Jane Fonda sniping at each other. Here’s another scene that revolves around women protecting their own self-worth and going after the things they think they deserve. Was that really so tough?

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That ultimately leaves us with the adventures of Neal and Will. As the company deals with the potential fallout of Neal’s espionage, it calls in resident attorney Rebecca Halliday, played by the always welcome Marcia Gay Harden. Halliday is one of the only characters on the show who’s consistently been able to cut Will down to size and she does nothing less in this instance, insulting his class rank, his lawyer skills, and the fact that he wears makeup to work. More surprising, then, is the fact that Mac, too, bests Will repeatedly as they argue over whether or not to proceed with the story buried in the leaked documents. Our softer, gentler, broken-er Will McAvoy wants to protect Neal, destroy the documents, and, basically, shit all over journalistic integrity. But Mac vociferously argues—and Neal agrees—that a few weeks in jail is worth the lives of the 38 people dead in the scandal they’ve uncovered.

However, this is still an episode of The Newsroom, and Will McAvoy is still our cantankerous old-man protagonist. The crux of the episode was always going to come down to finding a way for Will to save the day. In the end, he’s the one who realizes that Neal has already made the decision for the staff, and it’s he that finds a way to get a message to Neal if things go down poorly, and it’s he that finds a way to be the omnipotent White Knight that the show knows him to be. And while I’m not sure his victory on this front is earned, at least the show took the time to beat him down a bit before landing here.

As much as the strength and passion of the female characters drove this episode there’s something else that elevates it. Each storyline embraces conflict in a way the show rarely does, forcing characters to face the music, when typically they’d dance around it with mere witty wordplay. Each story, big or small, comes down to what happens when you are held accountable for your actions. Maggie and her EPA recording, Don’s stock purchase, Hallie’s tweet, Reese’s familial relationships, Neal’s source, ACN’s journalistic integrity, all of it comes down to who you are as a person and what you do when you’re called out on the carpet. What kind of person are you really and will you stand behind it when everything goes to shit? Can you take responsibility for your actions and will you put your money where your mouth is?

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For the longest time, I would have said no if you asked me about whether or not the characters of The Newsroom were capable of being the kind of people they always talked about being. But “Run” has me re-evaluating that stance and that, in and of itself, is a victory.

Stray observations:

  • “How often are you sleeping when I’m talking?” “I really have no idea of knowing that.” Reader, I died.
  • Hallie’s tweet: “Republicans rejoice that there’s finally a national tragedy that doesn’t involve guns.” I mean, it’s not not true.
  • “Everyone does where I work.”—Maggie acknowledging her tendency to monologue. At least they’re self-aware, goddammit.
  • This episode featured a lot of Sam Waterston yelling. It was a little much, but I do like to see that little fella working.
  • Sloan Sabbith really likes waffles. Leslie Knope also likes waffles. What if Sloan Sabbith were the lead of Parks And Recreation? I’d watch it.

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