This review contains spoilers.
2.7 Red Team III
“I thought about having you killed. Then I thought, what does Charlie Skinner fear more than death?”
Over the last few weeks, I’ve questioned Aaron Sorkin’s wisdom in revealing right at the top of The Newsroom‘s second season that its main characters were headed for disaster. There’s been six episodes’ worth of investigation of Operation Genoa, and evidence to suggest that the story could be true, and the US military might really have committed war crimes during an extraction.
In the seventh episode, Red Team III, we finally start to see how it could never really have been true, and not for nothing, but that makes for far more compelling viewing. In this episode, everyone testifies to ACN lawyer Rebecca Halliday at some point or another, as we find out the particulars of that pesky wrongful termination lawsuit.
In flashback, we see the third Red Team meeting, in which everyone was brought in on the Genoa story with the objective of using fresh eyes to find any holes in it. At this point, it’s only Will who’s left out of the loop. In the face of compelling evidence, (and one lightly cooked interview with General Stomtonovich) Will isn’t exactly shocked, he’s also heard the same story, months previously.
Charlie green-lights the story, and the sequence in which the show goes out (to a record 5.8 million viewers) has a surprising amount of suspense about it. The usual control room chatter is muted out, and any remaining doubts are told in a series of meaningful expressions between Mac, Don and Jim.
The eerie quiet that descends after the broadcast becomes a plot point too. ACN just accused the US military of a war crime, and the Department of Defence seems curiously slow to comment one way or the other. Except for a pissed-off Stomtonovich threatening to murder news head Charlie Skinner, all falls quiet.
As we find out right at the beginning of the episode, it’s producer Jerry Dantana who is suing ACN, tarred as unemployable for his decision to selectively edit the interview footage. I’ve been saying all season that he’s unlikeable and uninteresting, so his heel turn is the least surprising development of all- Sorkin has been setting him up as an antagonist to News Night’s utopian journalism from the get-go.
But such a massive act of misconduct can’t be the first domino to fall. The other sources must be discredited, one by one, and Sorkin makes great drama out of the story crashing down around the team. The first military source, Gunnery Sgt. Eric Sweeney, is brought in for a follow-up interview, in which it’s revealed that he sustained a traumatic brain injury in the line of duty.
While this doesn’t necessarily discredit him completely, it’s an embarrassing on-air faux pas, and the team gets jittery about the story. Elsewhere, these developments cause Mac to rake over her own interview with Lance Cpl. Herman Valenzuela, conducted when most of the other sources had come together, and realise that she may well have asked leading questions; a view that Will strongly disagrees with. He believes his source.
However, there’s a telling moment where Rebecca asks if anyone had thought to ask if Will and Charlie had the same anonymous source. When Charlie goes to meet Shep, the source who gave him the mission manifest for Genoa, we get an implied answer.
Although it’s less predictable than having someone try to discredit ACN based on a right-wing political agenda, I’m not sure how to react to the reveal that it’s all based on a personal grudge against Charlie. Shep’s son was an intern at ACN, who got fired for slagging off News Night online, and subsequently wound up relapsing into drug addiction and dying.
Even if it’s not entirely credible, it makes for damn good television. Shep’s furious vengeance upon Charlie is a far cry from the jocularity of the last time we saw him, and everything starts to make sense. The miraculous way in which every bit of evidence fell into the team’s laps is far more understandable when you realise it was a set-up.
A shot clock on a basketball game reveals Jerry’s duplicity, and Mac orders a retraction. To add insult to injury, their news superpowers are distracted from a killer opportunity to break the story of riots in Benghazi over The Innocence Of Muslims, the controversial film that was endorsed by an American pastor. Their top story on the night that story comes out- another 9/11 anniversary- is the Genoa retraction. As Will puts it, “We just stopped being good.”
News Night has wrongly accused the US government of committing war crimes, and their credibility is shot. Over the course of the episode, they’re all made to see how Jerry sees himself as a scapegoat, and that the holes in the story should have been picked out by that crucial third Red Team meeting. For now, the only real context is the characters’ reactions to their own personal failures to prevent this disaster.
The way that this Genoa plot has been structured – and it was re-structured by Sorkin at a relatively late point in production on this season – is fundamentally pitched towards telling rather than showing. That suits Sorkin’s dialogue-driven style down to the ground, but up until this point, there was a question of whether or not we’d been told too much too early.
Red Team III largely dispels these doubts, though it’s easy to think that it all might have fallen apart in the hands of a lesser writer. Pride comes before a fall, and as all goes to hell, it’s even easier to be reminded of how invested you really are in these characters.
Even better, there’s some solid humour in between crushingly inevitable scenes of the story falling apart. Sloan’s strategy for surviving in prison is a good example, early on, but it’s Jane Fonda’s arrival in the last scene that really livens up an otherwise downbeat episode. As Charlie, Mac and Will go to hand in their resignations to her Leona Lansing, she gets a killer line: “You will resign when I fire you out of petty malice, and not before.”
With resolve from such an unlikely source, the team go into the two-part finale, set on Election Night 2012, with something to prove, and after a plot that has played both as compellingly and exhaustively as a car-crash in slow motion, the stakes just got higher.
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