‘The Newsroom’ Recap: Episode 6, ‘Bullies’

Photo Source: HBO
Ah, the talking cure. Dr. Sigmund Freud will always be best known for building the framework that eased a million neuroses, but his impact on television exposition runs a close second.
This week on “The Newsroom,” Will McAvoy finds himself on the couch, as Aaron Sorkin attempts to give us some insight into what makes his anchor extraordinaire tick.

Tossing and Turning
Following an uncharacteristically lackluster performance at the news desk, Will (Jeff Daniels) admits that he’s been having trouble sleeping. His producer, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), is relieved to find out that her anchor is getting back into therapy in an attempt to set things right. Initially the source of Will’s insomnia isn’t clear, but there are a few clues dropped at the outset. The biggest and most muscular clue comes in the chiseled form of a new bodyguard, Lonnie Church, played brilliantly by Terry Crews. Lonnie’s been assigned to guard Will in the wake of some recent death threats, and his new therapist wonders if that little matter might be putting Will on edge. Of course, Will’s not interested in delving into his subconscious and just wants young Dr. Habib to hit him with some drugs so he can get back to sleep and be on his way. Oh, Will. Haven’t you ever seen a TV show?

Ultimately we discover that Will’s father was an abusive alcoholic, and that lousy formative relationship resulted in both a lifetime of loathing towards bullies, but also a healthy measure of what Psychoanalysts call “identifying with the aggressor.” In other words, Will realizes he can be kind of a bully too.

Opposition Research
The death threats came from the comment section on the ACN website, in response to a few particularly adversarial interviews Will recently conducted on News Night. One of these on-air conversations was with a critic of the much publicized “ground zero mosque.” Will points out, with the help of some really expert control room video cues, that terrorism isn’t a strictly Islamic problem and that plenty of terrible attacks in the United States have been plotted in the name of Christianity. The other conversation rankling the anonymous web trolls comes in the form of a compelling scene between Will and a gay, African-American advisor to the then-budding Rick Santorum campaign. That interview, in which Will tries to point out to the advisor that his own candidate thinks he’s an abomination, turns around in a dramatic fashion with Will getting a fat slice of sanctimony-flavored humble pie. Will finds himself, despite his best intentions, being a bully. Watching him get cowed and learning something about himself on the air adds more depth to the character than anything gleaned from the story about his father. It’s a truly powerful scene, and another example of how “The Newsroom” works best when the cameras in front of the cameras are rolling.

A Meltdown and a Meltdown

Why “The Newsroom” isn’t a show about Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) is kind of a mystery after this episode. Early on in the episode, Sloan finds herself on the receiving end of some tough love from Will, who gives her hell because he thinks she takes it too easy on her on-air guests. Sloan takes the advice to heart, and ends up revealing off-the-record information in an aggressive interview with a Japanese official regarding the severity of the Fukushima nuclear plant accident. It’s a compelling bit of business, as Sloan ultimately loses patience with the translator who’s sugar-coating the official’s responses, and conducts the pointed interview in perfect Japanese much to the chagrin of the control room. Needless to say, the boss isn’t happy. Charlie (Sam Waterston) suspends her with pay immediately, pending further investigation. It’s a great arc, as Sloan realized the magnitude of what she just did and tries to accept it. Munn’s convincing blend of frustration, shame, and moral confusion is spot on.

Sadly, the story takes a peculiar turn at the end when Charlie and Will find a very convenient lie that will save Sloan’s job and News Night’s already battered reputation. They want her to “admit” that she misunderstood what the Japanese guest said, and write the whole thing off as a translation error. We are supposed to read into this something about the necessity of moral grey areas, but it’s too big a lie to swallow for my money. If the whole show (and show within the show) wasn’t built on the notion that ACN’s new approach to news was going to be one where they always put integrity first, this ethical blind spot might have landed better. But considering the fact that all season long Charlie, Will, and Mac have consistently decided to risk their jobs and reputations for a higher, better form of journalism, it’s a pretty ugly lie for all three to be party to it.

For an episode about bullying, you can’t help but feel a little let down when the protagonists collude to hold down the truth and forcibly take its milk money.

Win Rosenfeld is a producer and national television correspondent. He's produced and reported for PBS, NPR, and Current TV. He's a bad actor, but his portrayal of Linus in the 3rd grade production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," was widely acclaimed by his family.