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The Newsroom Recap: Mission to Civilize, Onward

“Willie Pete,” the talkiest Newsroom yet in this mildly improved second season, yakked its way through one question in particular: What does it mean to be a good soldier? Should the "don't ask, don't tell" soldier have kept quiet about his sexual orientation? Should Mitt Romney have scolded the bigoted voters who could help elect him? Should Nina Howard have published the story even though Will asked her not to? Should Jim keep quiet on a bus full of bullshit, for fear of being thrown off? Should Sloan not speak up about Lockheed Martin’s drone participation? Should a marine keep quiet about a (fabricated) chemical weapons strike?

In a universe where speaking truth to power is practically an initiation ritual, being a good soldier means being a subversive one. But The Newsroom is increasingly suggesting that being on a “mission to civilize” is as pompous and fraught in its fictional world as it is in real life. The DADT soldier gets booed for speaking out, Jim gets kicked off the bus for speaking up, and Sloan gets led by the hand to the principal’s office to account for her Lockheed heresy. The world at large is not ready for NewsNight’s civilization — it’s too busy navigating the one that already exists.

The NewsNight crew love each other because they’ve found a family with the only people willing to put up with them — others who aren’t equipped with the social skills to stifle a rant. They may be good soldiers, but for anyone not in their unit, they’re bad company.

This episode showed what happens when our heroes try to recruit others into that family. Nina Howard, newly civilized and not yet the publisher of the best-selling Pride Goeth Before the Fall, envies Will’s strident approach to morality. He is her antithesis, and she is his project. But curiosity isn’t enough to earn you a place alongside the NewsNight crusaders. You’re either born on a mission to civilize, or you have to sleep your way to the slop.

Will, after falsely equating gossip with snark with Charlie, tries to save his own career by deterring Nina. This is how all great romances are started. Undeterred by the fact that the last time he tried to do this he took a drink to the face and a punch to the ego, he invites Nina up to ACN’s executive dining room, sits his buddy Wayne down on the piano bench, and mansplains a mimosa. This is how he thinks he can stop Nina from publishing the scoop on his 9/11 censure.

Somehow it works. Maybe it was just Wayne’s bravura performance of “What the World Needs Now,” but Nina agrees to spike the piece, claiming it’s because Will told her the truth, and truth, in Nina’s business, is a rare commodity. Will, aroused by his victory like a boy who finally won a game of tag, takes the occasion to ask her out. Nina takes the occasion to remind him he’s in love with MacKenzie. Will takes the occasion to convince Nina to sleep with him anyway. Mission to civilize, accomplished.

Except how civilized has Will made Nina? Instead of publishing what is supposedly Will’s highest value — truth — Nina has cowed to his plea for self-preservation. Does Will not spend an hour a night railing against politicians who do the same? Mitt Romney could have spoken the truth at that CNN debate, but he chose self-preservation instead. The tea party, Will’s Taliban, ignores truth in the interest of gaining power. The Obama and Bush administrations refuse to make public details about their drone programs, fearing that if they do they won’t be as effective, or as legal. Somebody leak a blind item to Nina Howard explaining how Will McAvoy became the kind of person he hates.

The second adoption story line is up north, on a Romney campaign that apparently does not visit any other state than New Hampshire. It’s a miracle the guy won the primary. There, Jim, standing in for everyone’s annoying little brother, pesters Romney flacks for 30 minutes with the candidate on regular 30-minute intervals. Jim seems to think this proves he’s a good reporter — but actually all it does is prove that he’s a horrible one. Jim’s too busy cultivating his reputation to cultivate sources, and he’s so adamant that Romney bend to his will that he refuses to think of what could be gained if he only bent to its demands.

Nevertheless, Jim’s crusade inspires Hallie to rise up against the borg, but they discover that resistance is futile. They’re tossed off the bus, and now Jim’s responsible for Hallie’s failing website and Turkey-Sandwich Guy’s appetite. Such is the responsibility of being a family man — sometimes you have to get your brethren out of the mess you put them into. Their time in the wilderness will, presumably, teach Jim how to open up emotionally (as his fellow embeds want) and show how Hallie will learn to stand up for herself professionally. It might take a while. As Toby, Josh, and Donna can tell you, being stranded in a Sorkin show during a campaign episode can be grueling.

The other major action this week, besides a “Previously, on The Newsroom” segment about MacKenzie and Will’s voice mail that lasted the entire hour, was all Genoa. To relive it, we pull down our dog-eared copy of Pride Goeth Before the Fall: An Oral History of NewsNight. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3: The Fax Don’t Lie:

MacKenzie McHale: I remember being upset that Jerry came in to talk while I was doing my braille speed-reading of the newspaper. They taught me how to do it while I was in Waziristan in 2008. The feel of a newspaper reminds me of Will’s mottled skin.

Will McAvoy: I knew it was an important source meeting when Mack told me she was going to the Upper East Side to do it. I would’ve taken him to the new Ground Zero Mosque, myself. Did you know that opened? Sorry for telling you a few years after the fact — I just wanted to make sure you knew.

Amy the Waitress: I’ve worked at EJ’s Luncheonette for five years, and I’ve never served anyone as mumbly as that goateed guy who walked in with MacKenzie McHale. It’s like somebody numbed his mouth with a chemical war strike.

Eric Sweeny: [Inaudible.] … This one time I went AWOL, and my CO said, PVT, you’re SOL. I thought, WTF?

MacKenzie: Talking to Sweeny made me feel like a Rosetta Stone, translating all those acronyms. Poor Jerry pretended like he knew them, but the only weapon that guy ever fired was a Nerf gun.

Charlie Skinner: I asked if Sweeny’s hands were shaky because sometimes mine are, and the little ice in my tumbler starts clinking. Will used to come in and steady me when that happened. He’d put his hand on mine like so and then we’d talk about the glory days, before Twitter, when faxes still ruled the land.

MacKenzie: Looking back on it, Jerry was too adamant that the story was real, even after Charlie poked holes in it. But Jerry had this line that made me want to believe in him. “Whistleblowers can be patriots.” This was our Snowden, before Snowden ever happened.

Rebecca Halliday: We had a body-language specialist look at camera footage of that meeting between Jerry, Mack, and Charlie. She found that Jerry had two tics: He swallowed when threatened, and he looked at people out of the corner of his eyes.

Neal Sampat: When I explained Topsy to them, and nobody knew what I was talking about, I should’ve known that Maggie would choose a translator who faxed his tweets in.

Maggie Jordan: The crappy thing about having Jerry for a boss is that he didn’t do much. He’d just look at the fax machine, and then toss the translations in the garbage. Except he couldn’t even be bothered to really scrunch them up. Jim would’ve at least made a ball out of them. He’s manly like that.

Charlie: We were so close to closing the Genoa investigation down, but then those faxes started coming. It was like Jerry had waited until that moment to make those translations come through.

MacKenzie: The general consensus now is that we should’ve known Genoa was fake because the translator sent those last faxes so much quicker than all his others. Jerry made such a big deal out of how slow he was translating, and then all of a sudden he was willing to believe everything that came through once the faxes started coming quickly.

Neal: I was always suspicious of the tweets. When I went to look at @Hamni8’s Twitter page, it belonged to somebody in Malaysia retweeting about a Malaysian badminton hero. His name was not Willie Pete.

Odds and ends:

  • Judging by a mention in the show’s opening minutes, Terry Smith and his Washington Report are still on the air! If I remember correctly, we still haven’t seen Terry, making him the only bit of mystery remaining on The Newsroom, what with the old news and the spoiled Genoa outcome. All casting ideas for the inevitable Terry Smith–centric Newsroom spinoff are welcome in the comments.
  • Will and Charlie’s bromance summits deserve their own podcast. Will, we ride!
  • Charlie’s whiskey tumbler deserves its own Tumblr.
  • Was that Goodfellas/Godfather reference foreshadowing a return to last season’s assassination plot? Who’s going to gun down Will as he crosses the causeway? Wolf Blitzer? Joe Scarborough? Megyn Kelly?
  • The leak subplot with Reese, Charlie, and Will didn’t do much for me. But it was redeemed by Charlie’s immaculate, “Son to the bitch!” Reese now renamed: Son to the Bitch Lansing.
  • More self-aware feminist talk from Sorkin than usual this week. First there was Sloan’s shout-down of Zane, somehow managing to wrest the title of Office Chauvinist away from his many competitors. And there was also Hallie’s abortion isn’t jut a women’s issue scold to Jim. Who will change and grow more this season: Will or Sorkin?
  • If this Maggie subplot is leading where I think it is, I’m going with Will. Watching this Africa story line unfold is like watching a woman be marched into a sexual assault … which is very well what we could be watching.
Photo: Melissa Moseley/HBO