The Newsroom Season 2 Episode 3 recap: Willie Pete

The Newsroom Jeff Pfeiffer

The NewsroomThe Newsroom season 2 episode 3 kicked off creeping stealthily toward a rabbit hole of creator Aaron Sorkin’s favorite hobby, flagellant landmines-of-misunderstanding-ravaged love. In case you missed the half of last season wholly devoted to that hobby, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), News Night anchor, left a voicemail for his executive producer and ex Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) after the big we-got-Bin Laden broadcast, when he went on-air stoned and she talked him through it – but left it for the wrong person, gossip-chanteuse Nina Howard. Now, Will and Mackenzie tussle playfully over what might have he might’ve said after, “I’m not just saying this because I’m high but…”

There was a Monty Python live-stage bit where one guy on one end of the stage sees another guy walking his way from the far side and sticks his leg out, and we laugh because, hackneyed as a guy tripping might be, we see it coming to an absurd length of time and they just gleefully go on with the gag. It’s way less funny when it is ostensibly serious, sober, if plucky, drama and when we get it, they’re going to hook up again, or not, who cares? It becomes particularly trite when padding a drama intended specifically to deal with a ton of way more serious subject matter – the central thread of this season merely an alleged war crime – continuing as if Aaron Sorkin feels some OCD need to interrupt substantive story threads stories to poke us in the ribs with a spackle knife.

Mackenzie raises it again later, speculating, “I think you got home from the Bin Laden broadcast and for a minute, just a minute, you forgot that you were mad at me.” Will of course dredges up the fact that she cheated on him in a way that makes it seem super important and that his sense of butt-hurt is just as serious as a war-crime. He apologies later for being mean, but she says, in a pithy paean to Sorkin’s overweening  “I’m impressed it doesn’t happen more.” Because she is there to be a Great Man’s punching bag.

Sorkin doesn’t even disguise this it in extending the Nina Howard thread, as it turns out she’s gotten the tip that his illness on the night of the big 9/11 anniversary broadcast was a feint to pull him off the broadcast after he called the Republican Tea Party wing the “American Taliban.” Against news chief Charlie’s (Sam Waterston) best advice, Will chooses to attempt to speak reason to Nina. “All it takes, Charlie…is one great man, a friend of the angels. There are things we can do. We can be one inch nicer. An inch more polite. We can be decent.” (Emphasis mine, as is the finger-gun-to-head gesture.)

Nina meets Will for lunch, is charmed by his honesty over the matter and agrees not to run the story. The Great Man then asks her out. She says she would except she recites, verbatim, his voicemail to Mackenzie suggesting he still loves her, but obviously these two dig each other.

Meanwhile, at the effing war crimes investigation, Mackenzie and the story’s shepherd, Jerry (Hamish Linklater), meet with an Afghanistan vet whistleblower. He tells the story of a cross-border raid into Pakistan that, when it went dicey, support air-power laid down covering fire, which wound up emitting something that ravaged the civilian population, which he says is sarin gas. The story seems overly rehearsed and Charlie and Mackenzie later question whether the details of the whistleblower’s story line up, though Jerry is gung-ho and gets a team together to find other members of the mission to corroborate the story.

Distractingly hot business anchor Sloan (Olivia Munn), herself alarmed my some of the administration’s more covert policies, balks at recommending a defense contractor’s stock and seeks the counsel of 10 o’clock hour exec producer Don (Thomas Sadoski), because they not-so-secretly like-like each other but won’t act on those emotions because Aaron Sorkin created them and Don just broke up with Maggie and has adapted wacky coping mechanisms like taking his deskchair apart to put tires on it. Sloan also tells Don she might be the leak, since the 9/11 broadcast made her break a date with a guy who turned out to be Nina’s literary agent.  There’s a bit with Don’s chair later that is super-hilarious and I don’t have the space, but suffice to say it’s scenes like this that makes me wish Sorkin would ditch the romcom and intrigue BS and just do screwball farce.

Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), now riding the bus in New Hampshire after a pretty no-nonsense pool reporter Hallie (eerily Meryl Streep-esque starlet Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter) told the hack Romney PR guy to quit being a cretin, has settled into a game of attempting to mine actual idea-based information out of the wall of obfuscation that is/was the Romney campaign. Establishing verbal game of cat-and-humorless-white-person with the PR hacks, he finds himself increasingly without anything substantive to report and iring the go-along-to-get-along press corps eager to relay the campaign’s handouts.

“Are you a moron?” Hallie finally says. “Learn how this works because you’re driving the rest of us crazy.”

He finds out she had tried to be a reporter but had been replaced at the Denver Post on the last presidential campaign for asking hard questions her replacement wouldn’t.  Anyway, he doesn’t learn how it works and leads a rebellion, but the go-along-to-get-along reporters predictably don’t follow. Hallie does and gets tossed off the bus with him. Given Jim has excavated her Achilles heel – she used to not suck – and Sorkin has written her as whipsmart-snarky, one can only wonder what will happen next – except, um, no we don’t because they are going to make out at some point, duh.

But they’ll likely trip some landmines along the way.