A generous evaluation of the second season of The Morning Show would be that the Apple TV+ series is going for broke, though maybe it’s just breaking itself. After the events of last week’s episode, which somehow ended with Steve Carell’s character, Mitch Kessler, driving his car off the side of a road in Italy, the show has accelerated into its own uncanny soap-operatic valley. Nowhere is that more apparent than in this week’s big moment of bathos: a needle drop of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” during a fight between Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson and her alcoholic brother, Hal (Joe Tippett), deployed with such self-seriousness it can’t help but be funny.
To explain the whole “Boxer” moment, we have to provide some general context for the show. Back in season one, Bradley didn’t have many defining traits: She was brunette, spunky, and from a vaguely conservative southern background. This season, The Morning Show confronted that lack of definition by adding a plot point about how Bradley isn’t quite fitting in on the show, making her blonde, dropping her into a relationship with Julianna Margulies’s serious journalist and emotional-support lesbian Laura Peterson, and sticking with the vaguely conservative southern background. None of this turns Bradley into a coherent character — she’s sharpest when she’s playing off Jennifer Aniston’s Alex Levy, but the show never seems to keep them in the same hemisphere, much less the same room — but it does give Witherspoon a lot more to do. Bradley’s exasperated with her ratings, her new hair color, the rumors about her new relationship, and her vaguely conservative southern family, so the show has her shout about all that a lot.
In the more recent episodes, Hal shows up to guilt-trip her about her fancy new life in New York and prod her about the rumors she might be queer now. This is done with all the subtlety we have come to expect from The Morning Show, and in the eighth episode, it reaches a crescendo with Hal and Bradley getting into a fight in her office. He’s intoxicated and spouting phrases like “I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told.” When Bradley tries to get Hal to calm down, he blurts out that their father “killed a kid driving drunk while we were in the car.” This is meant to be an echo of Mitch’s death or something, but it goes by so quickly there’s barely time for it to register before Hal shouts more lyrics to “The Boxer,” smashes a coffee mug, and then, as Bradley tries to grab him to make him stop, launches into the whole “lie la lie” refrain as the song kicks in at full volume.
This leads to a montage that is meant to offer some big cathartic moment but ends up being even more confusing. It starts with the fight scene: There’s shaky camera work, Bradley clutching her hair in shock, Laura looking disappointed in everyone involved, and Hal being dragged out of view while shouting “Bradley!” But then it continues, covering a group of Morning Show journalists who are trying to confirm Mitch’s death in Italy by phone (does UBA not have any international employees who could do some legwork?); Mark Duplass’s Chip Black driving to Teterboro airport to confirm whether Alex made her flight from Italy, fretting over the possibility she was in the car with Mitch; and Karen Pittman (in an underserved role as producer Mia Jordan) sighing dramatically as she wraps up her draft of an obit for Mitch. (She has a lot of feelings about his pattern of preying on Black women, which the show introduces suddenly and does not try very hard to explore!)
I have no idea why the writers decided “The Boxer” was the song that would hold together this bouillabaisse of dramatic vignettes. Was Hal and Bradley’s father a big fan of folk music? Are we supposed to see some parallels between him and Mitch? Is Mitch supposed to be the boxer? Is this about the economic anxiety of the white working class? (Bradley did get noticed reporting on a coal mine in West Virginia, though the show has pretty much forgotten about issues of class since then.) It seemed as if The Morning Show wanted to mirror the way a needle drop would play out in a climactic scene on a prime-time soap like ER or Grey’s Anatomy but had no coherent idea how to deploy it.
Then the montage ends. Bradley and Laura sit together as Laura suggests she go to therapy. Not a bad idea but a wild thing to bring up to someone who just experienced a situation like that. Meanwhile, as we’ve heard from various bits of dialogue scattered throughout the background of the episode, COVID-19 is spreading to the U.S., and none of the main characters seems to notice. This is perhaps a realistic depiction of how the American public and media confronted the pandemic, but it brings up more unnerving questions about what might happen as The Morning Show goes forward. Someone has to get COVID, right? Will it be Hal just so Bradley can feel guilty? Or Alex because she went off to Italy? And if the show has already used “The Boxer,” what even more melodramatic song will it play over that reveal?