This review contains spoilers
2.5 News Night with Will McAvoy
“I guess it’s just us now.”
Now, this is more like it. Here’s an episode that takes place in real-time, depicting several major developments in the characters and their workplace, with a sense of coherence and emotional investment that has perhaps been lacking in the previous four episodes of the second season so far – and it reminds you why you became interested in this show to begin with.
Simply named after the series’ own news programme, News Night With Will McAvoy follows one tumultuous evening in the newsroom, with our News Night team confronting problems both on and off-air. Just as the opening titles roll, Will misses a call from his father, John. In the first ad break, he calls back and discovers that John has had a minor heart attack. Despite Mac’s protests, he resolves that the show must go on.
Elsewhere, financial correspondent Sloan Sabbath is humiliated by a nude picture leak that puts her credibility in jeopardy, Don is chasing after a retraction on a potentially damaging story from a tabloid outlet, and Jim and Maggie are reunited in awkwardness over an intolerably slow download.
In terms of the series timeline, we’re now up to March 16th 2012 – George Zimmerman has shot and killed black teenager Trayvon Martin, and breaking news comes out of Syria as the rebellion escalates. Wisely, Sorkin only uses the news as context for the personal drama, rather than an opportunity to tether characters to their respective opinions on recent history.
Will’s drama unfolds over the course of the episode, but as anybody who has been reading these reviews over the last few weeks will expect, I’m largely happy to see Sorkin redress his treatment of female characters. This week’s episode really puts the women front-and-centre – not getting bailed out, or calmed down, or patronised by the men, but really stealing the show.
Olivia Munn’s Sloan gets the best out of this. The actress has a knack for delivering Sorkin’s dialogue that few others amongst the cast have so brilliantly mastered, and the storyline, in which a callous ex-boyfriend of Sloan’s puts naked pictures of her up on the internet, could possibly have been inspired by events that really happened to Munn.
Sloan’s very public humiliation turns into a quite welcome excuse for a whole series of excellent scenes of her occasionally neglected character dealing with it. Whether she’s mortified at the thought of her doting dad finding out about the scandal on his daily Google search, or indignant at Don’s suggestion that she should’ve known that something like this would happen, Munn knocks it out of the park. The moment that she finally converts her embarrassment into righteous anger, and decks the bastard who shared her private pictures online, is a thing of pure, undiluted “Fuck yeah”.
Another thing to note is that the chemistry between Don and Sloan, which has been bubbling under for the last few episodes, is catalysed by this crisis, and that there’s more to the one-on-one scenes between Olivia Munn and Thomas Sadoski than there was in a whole season of the tedious Don-Maggie-Jim love triangle. While things remain chaste at the moment, it’s easier to root for them than any of the other couples in the show.
Speaking of other couples, Jim and Maggie also get a little better than usual as a result of the all-around superior script. As they wait for the audio of Zimmerman’s 911 call to download, the two of them discuss institutional sexism, relationships and the aftermath of all that’s happened to Maggie this season.
Confusingly, the episode jumps forward six months from the previous episode, and Maggie still has her long blonde locks. When we saw her cut it off at the end of last week’s episode, it seemed like this had happened shortly after she returned from Africa, but it looks as though she’s first going through a spell of alcoholism.
When her condition causes her to make a foul-up with the Zimmerman audio editing that’s uncannily close to CNN’s reportage of the story, we know that this is the development that will ripple through her arc for the rest of the season. Frankly, this seems far more dramatic than a haircut, so we’ll take that as a development of her character over her usual mistreatment, any day.
Amongst the lead female cast, that leaves Emily Mortimer’s Mac. While she’s not been one for looking silly this season, her new seriousness sometimes comes off as harsh. While she rightly shouts down a teenager who tries to piggy-back to fame on the suicide of a gay classmate, she also has a really contemptuous scene with an undeserving Neal.
The reason for her outburst; Neal has been furnishing Will with updates on the Twitter-sphere during the show, and the #NewsNight tag is being hijacked by more gossip about our erstwhile anchorman. Mac is baffled that this concerns him more than his father’s state, and the episode keeps coming back to scenes where Mac shoos Neal away so that she can convince Will to react appropriately.
Like most of The Newsroom, these scenes range between shouting matches and tender speechifying, and despite the fact that you can see where it might be headed, the wrap-up for this plot is no less effective- when Will calls to leave him a message, he finds John has passed away, due to a complication. The very end of the episode, when Will blanks, live on air, is a haunting note on which to close things- at his most emotionally restrained, Jeff Daniels is at the peak of his powers in this episode.
News Night With Will McAvoy is an episode that feels a world apart from the uneven season we’ve had so far, and it happens to be head and shoulders above anything we’ve seen since last season’s 5/1. It’s that much more interesting to watch these characters – Sloan, Mac, Maggie – react to being humiliated or disrespected and take an active part, than to watch them be rescued or hectored by the guys, and certain scenes atone for a great deal of the complaints with previous episodes all on their own.
As bits of Operation Genoa evidence continue to miraculously fall into ACN’s lap, an episode like this feels very welcome indeed. It feels less ambitious than usual, but the stacking of more interesting storylines makes for genuinely enthralling passages, before a surprisingly understated conclusion. To fall back into old habits would be an awful shame at this point, so here’s hoping Sorkin stays on form.
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