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The Newsroom Recap: ‘We Have Gone to the Zoo’

On prestige cable dramas, it’s the penultimate episode that usually holds the most shocking violence. But on The Newsroom the only thing wounded in “Election Night, Part 1” is News Night’s pride. It’s been only a day since Charlie, Will, and MacKenzie tried to resign, but the people who work at ACN are still as powerless as they were before. A loss of agency doesn’t sit well with that many type-A personalities, and so everybody’s searching for a hint that they can still shape the world around them, rather than wait for events to shape them. As Neal astutely put it, it’s “funny the things people try and control when they're not in control.”

It’s Election Night, and, to celebrate, News Night has gone to the zoo. Imprisoned in a cage built by Dantana Industries, our heroes are feeling claustrophobic, realizing that Leona and Rebecca’s refusal to settle Jerry’s wrongful termination suit means that two seasons’ worth of personal drama will get released to the world the day after the election. (As Reese puts it, “Jim and Maggie and Don and Jim and Maggie and Don and Maggie and Mack and Will.”) Now Elliot and Sloan are locking tusks, Charlie’s growling like a polar bear who’s had too much whiskey, and a cardinal has landed on top of Maggie’s head. For Mack’s sake, at least there aren’t any jellyfish.

Jim, always focused on the biggest story of the day, is getting ready for Election Night coverage by telling Hallie about Leona’s big stand. After a bit of off-the-record foreplay, Jim tells Hallie the whole ordeal but buries the lede: It wasn’t just Charlie, Mack, and Will who wanted to go. It was everyone but the intern. Don, Maggie, Jim, Sloan, and Neal all offered to pack their bags. If only Leona had accepted the resignations, we could finally have the Terry Smith spinoff we all so badly want to see (and that you’ve so expertly already cast).

But if Charlie stays, they all stay. And if they’re there, they may as well be happy. Will, showing a streak of managerial skill that we haven’t seen from him before, appoints himself in charge of morale — or at least MacKenzie’s. He’s worried about her, and not just because, as he put it, “You look like you were grown in an environment that was dark and damp.” (Which she actually does — kudos to Emily Mortimer and the show’s makeup team.) What’s most concerning is that MacKenzie isn’t excited for Election Night, an executive producer’s symphony at Carnegie Hall.

Instead, she’s waiting “to be humanely put down.” Failing that, she’d at least like Will to punish her. But of course it’s MacKenzie who’s punishing herself, obsessing about small details on her Wikipedia page, picking fights about her failed romance with Will, and shouldering the burden of Britain’s imperialist escapade in India. MacKenzie, like any journalist, most prides herself on her judge of character, and what’s perhaps most troubling about the Dantana affair is that Mack allowed herself to be cajoled into trusting Jerry, a man who had done nothing but guilt trip her for not respecting him.

The last time Mack made an error of judgment this big, it was when she cheated on Will with Brian Brenner, her ex and the guy who wrote season one’s New York Magazine profile of News Night. And so it’s no surprise that she’s in the mood to rehash it with Will, begging for forgiveness and for him to just fire her already. MacKenzie thinks she was due forgiveness years ago, but for Will, whose father assaulted him without remorse, forgiving betrayal does not come easy. He wouldn’t forgive Jerry, so why would he forgive Mack? That he works with Mack every day is forgiveness enough.

“I’m sorry I didn’t explode for you,” he tells her. But Mack, clipping any trip wire she can find, eventually sets Will off. And it blows up in her face. “You think I’m not firing you because it would make me look bad?” Will asks, incredulous. The camera ducks and zooms with the intensity of the conversation. “What have I ever done to deserve that? How big a dick do you think I am and how long have you thought it?” And then, Will’s final, wounded comment on their breakup, as much a plea as an assertion: “I was a good guy. I was a good guy.”

What comes next is, like all things MacKavoy, complicated. Will fires MacKenzie, but why? Is it a mercy kill, giving MacKenzie what she wants and proving that Will is the good guy he claims to be? Or is it because MacKenzie has finally gone too far, intimating that she thinks Will is as shallow and self-absorbed as he fears?

Whatever it was, Will seems to have taken on MacKenzie’s masochism. After firing his soul mate, he sits down behind the anchor desk and tells Taylor that she was right to question his personal politics earlier in the broadcast. “Take me apart,” he says, staring into the control room at Mack. But without Mack, who will put him back together?

Speaking of Taylor, she’s done what every political strategist does after she gets canned and become a talking head. Memo to future pundits: the best way to get a steady gig on cable news is to berate somebody who works for the network, fifth-wheel that reporter’s romantic night out, and then casually mention that you’ve been fired. Works every time.

But Taylor isn’t half-bad on TV, and not just because she keeps her fist pumps under the table at every Romney win. She speaks with conviction and even has a little scoop about a California congressional candidate who unwittingly supported Todd Akin’s rape comments before he denounced them. She sics Maggie on the story, and after an aside about Don’s preferred shower partners, they confirm that Taylor’s scoop is solid.

But the chief of staff of the California congressman proposes a trade: In exchange for not reporting on the congressman’s past rape comments, News Night can have the exclusive news that David Petraeus is going to resign because of that affair story you could barely keep track of in November 2012, let alone remember in 2013.

Charlie, upon hearing the news, yawped what was, on my HBO screener, an inarticulate screed. (The closest I could make out: “Are you, what the fuck?!” Leave your better captioning in the comments section.) News Night just finished breaking one military story, and now here they have to decide whether to break another. This one, we know, has the virtue of being true — but Charlie seems in no mood to go back to a well that may be tainted with sarin, especially not as he tries to get Reese and Leona to fire him.

But the Petraeus story offers the News Night team an opportunity to begin fixing an error far graver than a fabricated signature or a mistaken Wikipedia detail. All night the News Night team had searched for a sliver of control to help assuage their guilt over Genoa. Journalism, after all, is really just a process of finding order and truth in a chaotic, misleading world. Who cares whether MacKenzie went to Oxford or Cambridge when there’s real history about real decision-makers to be written.

The Petraeus story is the key out of the zoo. There’s no doubt News Night will run wild and break the news. But as we approach season three, a larger question looms: Will MacKenzie still lead the pack?

Odds and ends:

  • Jerry could’ve been a real asset to all of those Kickstarter campaigns that promise the world, but then take the money and run, never delivering what they swore they would.
  • Don, talking about Taylor, whispered, “She’s a Republican,” like he was talking about cancer in Brighton Beach.
  • Fun to think that Elliot was giving his tour of ACN's decision desk about the same time that Megyn Kelly was giving her own of Fox News’.
  • If there’s ever a day for a network’s dirty laundry to be released, it’s the day after Election Day, when the only people who would care — journalists — are a bit preoccupied.
  • Chris Messina, the actor who plays Reese, had a fantastic line read of “My mom says I can’t.” All of Reese’s Freudian baggage was hung on those five words.
  • Gary Cooper likes to think he’s also fluent in Icelandic, Esperanto, and Croatian.
  • Hallie, voice of the audience, asked Jim the question we’ve spent all season wondering about: When did Maggie cut her hair, and why? If Jim’s right and it was last week, that puts Maggie’s haircut at early November, at least a month removed from the scarring African experience we were made to believe led to the shears. That would mean she cut it more in fear of Rebecca’s interview than because of the trauma from Uganda.
  • Did I catch someone saying Rebecca’s last name as “Greenway”? Up until now it’s been Halliday, though she clearly would prefer it to be "Liquid Sex."
Photo: Melissa Moseley/HBO