If you’ll remember last week on HBO’s The Newsroom, tumblers clicked on the initially tenuous but potentially big investigation into Operation Genoa, revealed to be the alleged use by the U.S. military of banned sarin gas during a cross-border mission in Pakistan; cops were cavalierly beating the hell out of a nascent rising of anticorporate leftists called Occupy Wall Street; and, as importantly, crazy News Night associate producer and ostensible staff darling Maggie (Alison Pill) was going crazier after breaking up with both Don and Jim (John Gallagher Jr.). No matter that, in the latter case, she and Jim were never together, insanity accommodates for that, and it did not get any better for her this week, in “Unintended Consequences,” the fourth episode of The Newsroom Season 2.
Our framing device for this season, a legal debriefing of the NN staff by a team led by the spectacular – and in this episode, hilarious – Marcia Gay Harden, has one-by-one interviewed the staff to get some much hinted-at nut where the Genoa story goes horribly wrong. As we open on that some-months later scene, Maggie, once apparently attractive in a sweetheart of Sigma Chi way, has now been transformed by her intervening Ugandan adventure into a severe-ish anorexic with a bur of close-cropped hair. This indicates she is “damaged,” and it is hinted that much hangs on whether her memory and “state of mind” are impeachable as to whether a high-level military source said two words: “It happened.”
Flashback to fill-in producer Jerry (Hamish Linklater) flipping out. His big-get war-crimes story, Genoa, has hit a standstill as the team pulls up short in terms of on-the-ground confirmation of the sarin-tainted U.S. strike. “A preposterous stroke of luck has to occur,” Jerry says. Just as he does, the Deus Ex Sorkina (lantern hung squarely upon it) kicks in, and tiny OWS firebrand Shelly Wexler (Aya Cash), whom OWS-story-shepherd Neal (Dev Patel) has managed to get an on-air interview with lead anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), emerges from the makeup room, wheels in front of Jerry and says to Neal, “I forgot to tell you . . .” a fellow OWS guy worked for an NGO shut down by the Pakistani government because he wrote a report about chemical weapons being used in a border skirmish, and maybe Neal should talk to him. Ba-dum-BUM.
Shelly proceeds to get jerked around by McAvoy, avatar of Sorkin’s cudgel-subtle Great Man Theory of history, who proceeds to lambast OWS as rudderless because it is organized to ostensibly be leaderless. He makes some okay points but ruthlessly and bombastically so. She storms off, looks fantastic doing it, but leaves Neal and Jerry high and dry as to her tip about the former NGO OWS guy.
The rest of this thread takes a kind of comic Chicken Little path, with Sloan (Olivia Munn) and Don (Thomas Sadoski) taking turns sweet-talking Shelly for the tip and both failing with some funny displays of pomposity and social ineptness. When she deadpans at Neal, says, “Please stop arranging meetings,” and gets progressively more pissed, she cements my previous declaration that she is the hottest woman on television. It finally takes the Great Man, who has resisted apologizing himself, to come see her teach her college class and engage her like a human.
“Slavery, suffrage, Civil Rights, Vietnam, what all those things have in common were leaders, and the only thing the leaders cared about was getting it done,” he Greatmansplains.
“We’re just trying to point, so people will look, and you’re looking at us and not what we’re pointing at,” she says. A deft point, then she makes a sad face and cedes to the Great Man that she sucked on-air.
He finally admits, “I slapped you around to burnish my reputation as a moderate. You were a handy prop and I’m sorry I embarrassed you.”
Her NGO friend’s information turns out to corroborate the Genoa story.
Jim, meanwhile, has been suffering the slings and arrows of Republican flacks while attempting get him and his bristly young blogger colleague Hallie (Grace Gummer) back in the good graces of the Romney campaign without completely bowing to their demands of de rigueur media fealty. When he finally presses the chief PR weasel, she snaps at him, then shows a rare blip of humanity and tries to make good by getting him an interview with the candidate. Seeing Hallie is under heavier pressure from her boss, he sends her in his place. Initially she curses his charity, but when he is yanked from the campaign, they do as we knew they were going to from Day One and totally make out.
Ideally, this ends the whole preprogrammed “destiny” thing between Jim and Maggie.
Which brings us back to Maggie and something unsettling about this story-node. This has become tiresome media trope, the sullen but intrepid reporter fleeing to dangerous climes after suffering a broken heart in the same way trope-y guys used to join the French Foreign Legion – notwithstanding that such Third World field work covering awful things is the stuff actual journalists should be doing. There is something condescending about the standardization of their scenario: they meet children living under awful circumstances, realize what it truly means to struggle for a decent life in a lot of the world, and bond with one special kid to swelling music, as if to show us the Angelina Jolie waiting to be tapped in all of us.
This is, too literally, a liberal-guilt template suggesting that pale-skinned bourgeois-conditioned attention to something makes it real, when it is unconscionably real everywhere all the time. It seems a cheap hack device for Sorkin from the get-go, and it seems even cheaper when the cavalier violence of the “dark continent” encroaches, men with guns attack the school and that special kid catches a round. Maggie catches a hefty dose of PTSD and cuts her pretty hair off. It is, to use the Old Vaudeville phrase figuratively, a long way to go for a little bit.
Worse than that, it’s kind of like Sorkin threw Africa a sad, trite cameo just make a plot point.
The Newsroom Season 2 photo: Melissa Moseley/HBO