The Newsroom season 2 episode 3 review: Willie Pete

The Newsroom perks up this week, dragging its characters out of their slumps. Here's Mark's review of Willie Pete...

This review contains spoilers.

2.3 Willie Pete

“Hey Mac, it’s me. Look, I’m not just saying this because I’m high: I’ve never stopped loving you. You were spectacular tonight. Can you believe we got Obama?” 

The behaviour of certain characters in The Newsroom sometimes reminds me more of Anchorman than of Network. If we were to find some neutral ground between the ridiculous and the sublime, (and call it Broadcast News, maybe) and Sorkin continues to land at least two or three scenes per episode in that space, then we’re going to get along just fine. 

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After last week’s low-point, Willie Pete opens on September 23rd 2011, the day that a town hall packed with Republican supporters booed Captain Stephen Hill, an openly gay soldier serving in Iraq. This was just one event in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election that exemplified how the Republican candidates were trying to appeal to hardcore right-wing supporters. 

President Obama responded to the controversy a week later, condemning the candidates for staying silent while an American soldier was heckled. In The Newsroom‘s timeline, Will McAvoy obviously beat him to it. Sorkin writes these rampant editorials very well, and the result is a cracking start to an episode that gets our hero out of his two-episode funk. 

However, he’s immediately beleaguered by the revelation that Nina Howard (the gossip columnist who became the butt of Sorkin’s weird and nasty “stupid women” agenda in the first season) has a scoop on him. She knows that he wasn’t sick on the anniversary of 9/11, and that Charlie took him off the air because of his comments about the Tea Party. 

Incredibly, Will’s plan is to engage Nina head-on, with politeness, and appeal for her to kill the story. He musters all of his Ron Burgundy powers in the course of treating her like a human being (a novel approach to women, as far as this season has been concerned), and the scene of their conversation couldn’t be more Burgundy-esque if Will had pulled a jazz flute. 

The wonders never cease, because this plan works. It turns out that Nina, who was terribly patronised and demonised in the previous run, actually quite fancies Will. In an even more troubling development, she initially refuses to go on a date with him because she believes he loves Mac – she heard him say as much in an intercepted voicemail message from the night Bin Laden was killed. 

We’re deep into season one stuff here, so if you didn’t rejig your memory before watching the second season, you might be playing catch-up during this plot. Let’s get back to the present – Will’s latest evisceration of the Republican candidates feeds into the continuing voyages of Jim Harper on the Mitt Romney campaign bus. 

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After a few choice scenes in the last couple of weeks, Jim’s subplot really soars this week. He starts out asking difficult questions about Romney’s rhetoric, highlighting once again that even more moderate Republican candidates were sliding towards the right. It’s a near-nostalgic reminder that Romney never really sounded like he had a plan, but the scene neatly subverts expectations again when fellow press member Hallie calls Jim out on being a smart-arse. 

It’s nice to see someone call one of the super-news-team out on their self-righteousness every now and again, without being portrayed as a blithering idiot. The tone of the show is essentially optimistic, which is a good thing, but the debate within the show, between the characters, lessens the sometimes-overpowering feeling of Sorkin hectoring his audience into submission. 

Grace Gummer gets more to do as Hallie in this episode too, even if she’s yet another troubled representation of a professional female. There’s something that really doesn’t feel right about a woman, who is passionate about women’s issues, having to be reminded of that passion by a man, and a super-newsman at that, (try not to chuckle at Will’s straight-up reference to wearing a cape and boots early in the episode). 

Still, it leads to another neat subversion as Jim tries to enact News Night’s “mission to civilise” on the press bus, clearly expecting an “I’m Spartacus”-style response. Instead, he, Hallie and another blogger are kicked off the bus and left in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps that’s a little extreme of the Romney press aides, but it’s also as funny as intended. 

In other female character news, Mac is finally convinced to cover Occupy Wall Street when Neal makes a jibe about her shoes, (yes, really) Sloan becomes concerned that she might have been the one who leaked the truth about Will’s absence, just to get out of a date, and poor Maggie has taken the wrong medication, and gets paranoid about side-effects. 

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While the continuous drubbing of Maggie is risible, credit to Olivia Munn as Sloan should be given where it’s due. She’s got a knack for delivering Sorkin’s style of dialogue and she continually rises above the increasingly weaker representations of women in the show. When she delivers one verbal smackdown this week, it’s immediately punctuated by Don falling off his office chair, for the second time in one scene. 

As I noted last week, I missed the slapstick when it wasn’t there, so it serves its purpose in the tone of this series. It even pushes the plot forward when it’s revealed that the News Night team’s big coup de grace of the previous season finale, the tape recording of ACN’s corporate masters admitting to phone hacking, has now been nullified- company president Reese doesn’t care if they have it or not, and thanks to Will’s lack of technical prowess, they actually don’t. More on that as it comes in, we should think. 

Once again, the running arc of Operation Genoa, an alleged war crime committed by US soldiers, comes up late in this review. It’s not intentional, it just feels like a pretty minor thread at this point. Before this week, we were watching Jerry Dantana, a character that we didn’t know, investigating a story that we already know will blow up in ACN’s face. 

At least now that Mac is getting involved, the stakes are ramped up a little, and Sam Waterston played Charlie’s disbelief wonderfully- as cynical as he appears on the surface, you really feel that he needs to believe, as a veteran, that the US military has moved past such tactics. Hopefully, there’ll be more Charlie in the episodes to come. 

And so, with the cliffhanger ending, a few translated tweets from 2009 reveal that there may be some truth to the Genoa story – Willie Pete, a slang term for white phosphorus, appears in a local Twitter update from the date of the alleged attack. That’s surely going to be enough to bump the story up from the B-plots in the next episode. 

Willie Pete is an improvement on last week’s The Genoa Tip, dragging various characters up and out of their respective slumps, while also advancing on some of the less active subplots of recent weeks. The usual problems persist, but at least some of the optimism is back in it. With Jim’s exploits on the Romney bus proving to be the highlight, here’s hoping that things perk up in the titular newsroom in the rest of the season.

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