Photo: Melissa Moseley/HBO
We’ve spent so much time talking about The Newsroom’s women problem that we haven’t talked about its race problem. “Unintended Consequences,” an apt title for an episode that tried to anticipate its own backlash, was full of reminders that for all of its liberalism, The Newsroom is hamfisted when it tries to diversify. Last night’s episode turned Gary into a punchline, Kendra into a token, a racial slur into fodder, and African children into treacle. It was the kind of episode that a supposed race warrior like Don would have found execrable.
Let’s begin with Rick Perry’s family ranch, and The Newsroom’s decision to follow Elliot’s lead and explicitly say its name. Perry’s ranch — “upon which was painted a derogatory epithet for African-Americans,” as MacKenzie euphemized it — did cause actual journalists as much consternation as it caused The Newsroom. The Washington Post, which originally broke the news, explicitly referred to its name. MSNBC censored the Washington Post report when it aired an excerpt, and Lawrence O’Donnell said on-air that MSNBC’s standards department would not let them explicitly refer to it. Web news, predictably, did not censor itself.
But The Newsroom is not news. It’s entertainment, and the choices it makes are more considered, more artistic. So what, exactly, was the point of the Rick Perry ranch subplot? What did it offer last night’s episode thematically? Dramatically? Emotionally? Why did Elliot need to say it on air? Why did Don — so recently painted as a civil rights advocate — need to support Elliot in saying it? And why did MacKenzie get to have it both ways, first offering a disclaimer before saying it in the meeting with Kendra present — Kendra: “I accept your apology on behalf of all black people in the room.” — and then scolding Don for saying it on-air? The Newsroom seems to be suggesting that it’s ok to say the n-word in the workplace, but not on TV … unless you’re The Newsroom.
The Rick Perry subplot came in the same episode that the show again ignored its black characters. This episode was supposed to be better, as Gary was finally given something to do. Until now, black characters on the Newsroom have little to do besides protect the white characters — Lonny, I hope Will gave you a severance package. We know Chris Chalk, the actor who plays Gary, can act. His brooding, stoic turn as Thomas Walker in Homeland was a foil for Brody’s manic scramble. But on The Newsroom, Chalk is lost to an already-crowded ensemble. Last night was his character’s chance to break out, but we heard more about his name than his actual character motivations.
Sent to Uganda to report on the vague insecurities of Maggie’s ego, Gary and Maggie meet up with a fixer to rumble out to an orphanage the military is helping out with. When they arrive, a military dude not old enough to know who the real Gary Cooper was makes fun of Gary for his name (just as Rebecca Halliday, the ACN attorney does), and the NewsNight team films what amounts to an infomercial for the military. Then Pastor Moses shows up, everybody thinks Gary’s camera is a weapon, and Maggie finds Daniel, a kid whose favorite book takes place only eleven blocks from Maggie’s own apartment. The rest of the story follows Maggie’s relationship with Daniel. Aside from a heroic bed-prying scene as everyone tries to save the orphans, Gary is largely ignored. Who is Gary Cooper aside from a white man’s name? It appears Sorkin doesn’t even know.
With Gary marginalized, the Uganda plot was all about Jordan the Rain King. Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate how much worse this could’ve gone for Maggie. The past few episodes’ foreshadowing, mixed with a track record of ripped-from-the-headlines Newsroom plots, pointed towards Maggie incurring a sexual assault, as happened to Lara Logan, a kidnapping, as has happened to countless foreign reporters, or some other Reporters Without Borders concern.
Instead Maggie watched as Daniel, the boy for whom she played white savior, died. And as we learn near the end of the episode, it wasn’t because the cattle raiders wanted cattle — it was because they wanted the NewsNight camera. So not only can Maggie blame herself for not moving Daniel to the bus fast enough, but she can also blame herself for being in Uganda in the first place. It was only because of her need to advance her own career that Daniel died — one of those butterfly effect quirks that make a reporter’s stomach churn.
Poor Maggie’s lining is weaker than most. Is there a more tragic character on TV than Maggie Jordan? Of our rom-com couple on the run from each other and themselves, Jim sure made out better than Maggie. Two star-crossed lovers: One is given a new lover despite all of his personal failings, and the other has a child shot off her back. Maggie already had an anxiety condition, and now she’s so screwed up she can’t allow herself to take anti-anxiety medication. Plus, every time she itches her scalp she’s forced to remember that her hair is a metaphor for all the unjust suffering in the developing world.
Jim, meanwhile, has proved himself the worst reporter at ACN. How did he become a senior producer again? Exiled from the bus, Jim, Hallie, and Turkey and Tequila are putzing around the state, and unable to find a Romney event unless they’re directly following the press bus. Their humble leader is Jim, who almost crashes a car anytime somebody says the name of a woman he’s only kissed once. Hallie, meanwhile, is apparently sleeping with her boss, the kind of gentleman who says, “Unless you want to put on heels and fuck me for an hour, you need to stop being a little bitch.” Does anyone on this show have good taste in lovers? (Besides Neal, obvs. Nelly Wexpat 4ever.)
After that little blowup, morale is low and housing is hard to come by, but Jim is undeterred. Applying that legendary Harper charm, he pesters Taylor, Romney’s spokeswoman, enough to finally elicit a reaction: “Go fuck yourself, Jim, that is the official comment of the Romney campaign.” (And, coincidentally, the official comment of much of the viewing audience.) Jim, sensing an opportunity for blackmail, demands his 30 minutes with the candidate but selflessly gives the time to Hallie, recognizing that blackmail is the only way he’s going to get laid. MacKenzie recognizes this too, demands that he come home and stop making a fool out of ACN. Hallie, taking pity, kisses the side of Jim’s mouth. If there’s anything we’ve learned from The Newsroom, it’s that misanthropes love misanthropes. I hope Hallie and Jim scowl at one another for eternity.
Other than all that, “Unintended Consequences” dealt with the deus ex occupa of Shelly’s connection to a Genoa source. For that we turn back to the bestselling Pride Goeth Before the Fall: An Oral History of NewsNight, excerpted here, as always, courtesy of Nina Howard Press.
Shelly Wexler: Considering only a few hundred people slept in Zuccotti that fall, it sure is crazy that one of them had something to do with Genoa, huh?
Neal Sampat: Finding the Occupy-Genoa connection was crazy, but not as much as that time Jim knew somebody who worked for BP after the spill. Oh and then there was the time Maggie dated Jan Brewer’s press aide. And the time during Fukushima that Sloan could speak Japanese. And the time …
MacKenzie McHale: We were always very lucky at NewsNight. It’s made me believe in a higher power. I picture him in his early 50s, good head of hair, likes to talk even if he’s repeating himself.
Neal: When Shelly first told me about Leon Deet, the guy who unwittingly wrote the report on Genoa, I wanted to hug her. But she was rushed into the interview, so I turned to Jerry instead. He wanted a double high five. I should’ve known he was trouble then.
Will McAvoy: I destroyed her on live TV, it’s true. But has history not vindicated me? All of my points about Occupy being leaderless, not having political capital, etc. sound great in hindsight.
MacKenzie: Ever since the BP spill, Will’s been great about being on the right side of history in his reporting. It’s like the scripts he writes for the show come from the future.
Shelly: It’s not some big coincidence that I told Neal about Deet right when he needed him most. I had read his text messages when he went to the bathroom. I wanted to see if he was texting his friends about me. Most of what I found were sad-sack convos with some guy named Jim about Sex and the City and how flawed political horse race coverage is. Once I got through those, I saw texts with a guy named Jerry about Pakistan, and gas, and I put two and two together.
Neal: All week, MacKenzie kept mentioning the red team, as if everyone knew what she was talking about. But we smiled and nodded, hoping at some point she would explain it.
Sloan Sabbith: I was really excited to be on the red team when I thought it was an ACN color-war thing. Then MacKenzie told me what the red team actually was. I put away the red face paint I bought at Duane Reade.
Shelly: I stayed as long as I did at Shake Shack just so I could see whether Neal kept eating that hamburger, even though Sloan and I weren’t eating. Guy wolfed it down like an undergrad. I teach college, so I know.
Don Keefer: Why’d I say yes to meet Shelly? Because I wanted to do something better than Sloan. I figured that would win her over.
Shelly: Don telling me I had a “debilitating persecution complex that could be if not cured than put in remission by a team of Viennese specialists,” was a real turning point for me. I realized I wasn’t letting the world in because I was so busy pushing it away. The pop-psychology of the NewsNight crew really saved my life in that way. If it weren’t for their smug assassinations of my character, I’d still be a pleasant, if fatalist, professor. But now that I’ve started to act more like Don, Sloan, and Will told me to, I feel much more principled. I haven’t been able to hold down a steady job in the academy — “troublemaker” tends to be the performance review — but I’m much more principled.
Will: My talk with Shelly couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve really been missing my therapist ever since he and Lonny joined a fantasy league together. He told me I couldn’t be his client while he was competing against my bodyguard. It especially hurt because Charlie and I asked Lonnie to fantasy with us.
Shelly: When Will personally asked me to lead the NewsNight crew to Deet, I couldn’t say no. What a wounded person that guy is. He couldn’t refer to the woman he loved as anything other than “Well.”
Rebecca Halliday: I obviously had no idea any of this was happening with NewsNight at the time. I was only brought to do depositions a few months later. I was too busy shopping for apartments. Do you know how hard it is to find a place for under $17 million on the Upper East Side?
Maggie Jordan: After I came back from Uganda and HR cleared me to work, I wanted to get back out there. And so I went with Jerry to Virginia to meet with that Polish general, Tomjonovich or something like that. Jerry told me the invite to meet with him came over fax.
Rebecca: I still can’t believe the NewsNight people trusted a confirmation from a Dutch general. The Dutch are lying fiends.
Maggie Jordan: When we were getting his bio, the general told us some war story that happened while he was doing a tour of duty in Uganda. I had a flashback to Daniel. “It happened,” I could hear him saying. And I said it under my breath, too. “It happened. It happened.”
Cut for space:
- This script was more wryly self-aware than most. Sorkin’s disclaimer about the deus ex occupa, a few knowing winks to the show’s reputation for sexism, and Don’s sarcasm about his own smugness. It appears somebody’s ear is to the ground.
- Sorkinologists out there: What does Sorkin have against Vassar?
- Kudos to Allison Pill, making the best of a bad situation. Her annunciation of “pop, pop” had the right amount of dissociated chill to it.
- Maggie spent all that time studying about Uganda, all the local languages, the local political scene, etc … and she doesn’t know where Djibouti is?
- KONY 2012 shoutout! Sometimes I feel like Sorkin is just using Newsroom as a pilot for a VH1 I Love the 10s revival.