Spoilers ahead for The Morning Show and Bombshell.
In its climactic first season finale, The Morning Show — a series that I have deeply enjoyed and been frustrated by in equal measure — proves what it is capable of being without quite shedding its tics.
The final hour of the high-profile Apple TV+ series is filled to the brim with all the Morning Show signatures: characters being awakened by 3:30 a.m. iPhone alarms; intense blowups between Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston; Billy Crudup saying words like gulag with an enormous smile on his face; and many conversations in rooms that are lit like the lobby of a Kimpton Hotel. At this point, these are not annoying clichés. If you became as addicted to The Morning Show as I did, you’re accustomed to all of its idiosyncrasies and would be disappointed if they weren’t there for this final leg of the ride. And it is, actually, a ride, one that’s much more satisfying than the thematically similar journey taken in the movie Bombshell, which, coincidentally, opened nationwide the same day this episode dropped. (More on Bombshell shortly.)
Showrunner Kerry Ehrin, who wrote the finale, and director Mimi Leder replicate the sense of visual movement that’s been present throughout the season — people are almost always in a hurry on The Morning Show — but this time it goes somewhere specific: to a climactic moment when the fired former co-host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) is supposed to confess to his sexual misconduct in a live interview with his replacement, Bradley Jackson (Witherspoon), while Alex Levy (Aniston), the other host of this Today show–esque program, is off the main set doing a segment. Where it ends up is somewhere entirely different.
Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the producer who slept with Mitch against her will and wound up with a promotion, overdoses after giving Bradley permission to tell her story in the interview with Mitch. Chip (Mark Duplass), the executive producer helping to orchestrate the interview coup, gets fired by Fred Micklen (Tom Irwin) the head of UBA and the man responsible for the network’s climate of misogyny and abuse. There is still a coup staged during the live broadcast, but it’s spearheaded by the two current female hosts, Bradley and Alex, who look directly into camera and admit that the environment at their show is toxic, that Micklen is responsible for a lot of it, and, in Alex’s case, that her inaction over the years has made her complicit in allowing this unpleasant environment to fester.
This is The Morning Show’s Network moment. But instead of Howard Beale ranting about how he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, we get Alex Levy saying, “It’s bullshit and I’m not going to lie to you anymore,” and Bradley Jackson urging other women who have been victimized to “get loud.” It’s a little much, but then again, so is that Network scene and we’re still talking about it more than 40 years later.
As the finale ends, there’s a lot left dangling. Did Hannah kill herself on purpose, or was her overdose an accident? (My vote is accident.) Will Micklen actually face any consequences for his behavior? Will Mitch continue trying to stage a comeback? And most importantly, what will come of the The Morning Show’s morning show and the two hosts who blew it up in real time? To the series’s credit, I am deeply invested in finding out the answers to all of these questions in season two. (I am also deeply invested in hearing Billy Crudup smile while saying “gulag” a few more times.)
For all its flaws, The Morning Shows does a much more nuanced, cogent, and absorbing job of exploring a MeToo story line within a broadcast newsroom than the aforementioned Bombshell. True, The Morning Show has ten hours to unspool its threads, whereas Bombshell only has two. But in just this last hour alone, The Morning Show manages to more sensitively juggle the mix of complicated emotions and motivations swirling among the men and women caught up in this drama about ambition and abuse.
The Morning Show finale gets at the intense, unearned shame that Hannah feels because of her encounter with Mitch, as well as Mitch’s inability to see what he did wrong. It captures Chip’s fury over being turned into a fall guy and the sense of guilt that both Alex and Bradley feel for their involvement in a situation that led to a woman losing her life. Bombshell, which follows the downfall of Roger Ailes after key female employees at Fox News come forward with sexual-misconduct allegations, tries to touch on some of these issues, but its take is much more black and white. It really doesn’t even try to engage with the degree to which Megyn Kelly or Gretchen Carlson, played respectively by Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman, may have been complicit in maintaining the status quo at Fox News, certainly not to the degree to which The Morning Show does. While Mitch is a jerk, you can see why he might seem charming to these women, whereas Ailes, played by John Lithgow from beneath a mountain of facial prosthetics, is a one-note ogre with immense power. He seems, at all times, about ten seconds from rubbing his hands together and emitting a “Mwa-ha-ha.”
The two projects also diverge in the way they handle their most heart-wrenching scenes. In episode eight, when Mitch suddenly manipulates a platonic evening with Hannah into something sexual, the focus is less on the sexual acts happening in that moment and more on Hannah’s reaction to them. We see a relatively quick image of Mitch’s hand abruptly reaching into Hannah’s jeans and, when they go to the bedroom, hints that Mitch is going down on her. But Mitch is out of the frame when he’s supposedly pleasuring her. All we can see is Hannah’s face in close-up, which is a mixture of confusion and discomfort that eventually surrenders to what’s happening.
By contrast, in Bombshell, when Ailes makes Kayla (Margot Robbie), a producer gunning for an anchor chair, lift up her skirt so high that he can see her underwear, the camera stays focused on Kayla’s crotch for an unnecessary amount of time. Director Jay Roach does show us her face, too, and the way that, just like Hannah, Kayla is uncomfortable but trying not to show it or think about it in the presence of a man who could either help or hurt her career. But there’s a significant difference between the extra seconds Roach spends lingering on the peekaboo of her underwear and the way Michelle MacLaren, who directed episode eight of The Morning Show, makes an extra effort to show the encounter between Mitch and Hannah in a non-gratuitous fashion.
There was one gamble The Morning Show took that I am not sure fully paid off, and that’s the way it handled the details about what Mitch actually did wrong. We know right away he’s been fired for sexual misconduct that involved more than one co-worker. We eventually learn that he had a consensual affair with Mia (Karen Pittman), another producer, who has conflicting feelings toward him. Eventually, we learn about what happened with Hannah. But we are never privy to exactly what the public knows about what Mitch is accused of doing.
There’s a scene in which New York Times editors and reporters make it clear they have a source confirming that everyone at the network knew about Mitch’s misbehavior and covered it up. But a full, objective sense of what’s in that article is never offered. I understand why Ehrin and the writers wanted to be vague on this point: By taking their time to part the curtains around Mitch’s past, they allow us to start to empathize with him a little before we fully understand how twisted his actions have been. But that approach makes what’s happening on The Morning Show feel like it’s occurring within a bubble. The series tells us that the fallout from Mitch’s termination is a very public matter, but it doesn’t effectively show us the public side.
“The Morning Show” within The Morning Show itself feels hermetically sealed. Aside from the trip to California to cover the wildfires and the one to Las Vegas to cover the shooting, the program itself is stuck inside a studio with no windows. The shows that it’s clearly modeled on — Today and Good Morning America — make an effort not to have that vibe. The anchors routinely go out on Rockefeller Plaza or into Times Square, and their studios have massive glass windows that enable viewers to see the fans standing outside and peering at what’s happening on the air. There’s an intentionally folksy “we’re among the people” sensibility that “The Morning Show” does not have, but that the series leads us to believe it is famous for having.
Perhaps the decision to make The Morning Show feel claustrophobic was intentional. It lacks windows because the whole operation is not transparent. But that also doesn’t feel entirely authentic, a quibble I’ve had with the series all along. In its final episode, it gets closer to achieving authenticity on a number of other fronts, which makes me hopeful that even more course-correcting can be done for season two to take this show from compelling with caveats to compelling with no asterisk necessary.
The Morning Show doesn’t quite have all its teeth yet. But it’s grown enough to be a real nail-biter, right until the final credits roll.