The Newsroom Season 2 episode 16 recap: One Step Too Many

Halfway through Season 2 of HBO’s The Newsroom, we’ve been treated to glimpses of something resembling a season-long arc pegged to the botched investigation into a potential war crime stemming from American troops’ use of sarin gas in the Afghanistan theater. It at least promised to keep us on the rails of a story, but then creator Aaron Sorkin continued to project his ADD and apparently crippling romantic issues into a raft of B-stories, as if the show were the sitcom it might be had it been conceived better, but isn’t. Episode 6, however, kicked off binding up the relevant pieces of the story thus far, as five ACN staffers privy to the Genoa investigation – news chief Charlie (Sam Wasterston), News Night exec producer Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer), grunt producer Maggie (Alison Pill), tech-nerd Neal (Dev Patel) and short-fused D.C. bureau producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) – review everything they’ve gathered thus far.

The Newsroom Season2 episode 16

There is a point to be made here as to any incredulity toward U.S. forces’ propensity to engage in barbaric acts in the name of “national security,” however much pacifying Afghanistan — or any country to which one applies the verb “pacifying — has to do with that anymore. For his many faults, Sorkin has found here a definitive, thick, thorny stem in that subtle code of American Exceptionalist programming to which even America-hating liberals are susceptible: Sure, people do horrible stuff, but not us. To be clear, given the stakes of publishing evidence of a major war crime, any journalist might approach such things with an aim to nail down every element of the story with a healthy dose of skepticism towards sources’ agendas, but after Jerry runs down five major components of evidence, other staffers’ reactions click to factory-default settings.

Assured the U.S. does, in fact, still possess such WMDs counter to its treaty obligations — which is true — agog brainiacal newswonk Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) raises the valid question of why U.S. military would employ them now, in spite of not using them in Vietnam (which they did) or the Gulf War (which they likely did). “Those all happened before 9/11,” Jerry says. “We torture people now. We kidnap them, wiretap them…”

The team has tracked down the names of 30 soldiers known to be on the Genoa mission, one of them, a Corporal Valenzuela, deceased, and none of them talking except the original source. But Neal has triangulated on a Marine general, Stomtonovich, who has previously taken some issue with the Pentagon’s chemical weapons policies, was in charge of munitions supply during Genoa and has since retired. Gen. Stomtonovich turns out to be a brassy, cagey didact played by Stephen Root, who is peculiarly adept at playing brassy, cagey didacts. Visited by Charlie and Mackenzie, he obfuscates, calling chem weapons a “tool” to be used or not used as circumstances warrant, offering some cagey blather about the rules of basketball and, in a clumsy device, mentions sarin before his visitors do. Charlie Sorkinistically trumps him on his dumb basketball metaphor, and the general agrees to do an on-camera-but-anonymous interview with Jerry.

Lest the story vest your interest, the episode’s B-story detours include Mackenzie’s pointed reference to anchor Will McAvoy’s  (Jeff Daniels) new girlfriend, print gossipeuse Nina (Hope Davis), as “Lady Macbeth”; Will continuing to be a pathological narcissist futz about how his audience perceives him; and Nina, as has been telegraphed, going all Lady Macbethian and challenging Mackenzie’s influence on the show, pushing Will into guest-shots on morning shows to folksy-up his image. When the latter turns out to be a hammy misfire, a mortified Will breaks up with Nina — yet Sorkin has also fairly clumsily telegraphed that Nina (in a future gasp-y reveal that won’t be) was only acting as an agent of douchey network president Reese Lansing to usher Will back to being the soft-news wanker he used to be.

Oh, and Jim’s hot blogger girlfriend Hallie (Grace Gummer) sets up a pointless double date with Neal and some bim she knows from the Ron Paul campaign, the mini-episode mostly laying the groundwork for a tasty Neal bodyslam on the dotty Randroid congressman and for Jim and Hallie to awkwardly bump into a drunk, boy-trolling Maggie. This looked like it might set up some kind of strained regurgitation of Jim and Maggie’s flirtation of “destiny,” but it didn’t, so I don’t have to fly to Hollywood, hunt down Aaron Sorkin and spackle-knife-murder him.

Anyway, back at the effing war crime investigation, Maggie accompanies Jerry to help produce his interview, though Stomtonovich insists only Jerry be present. This will be problematic as Maggie’s recollection of the event, we already know, will come into question, compounded by her getting crazier and debauchier. Stomtonovich remains cagey. He confirms Genoa happened — a mission to rescue two Marines, in which local civillians sustained considerable casualties under mysterious circumstances. “Exceptional measures were called for,” he says.

“Where they used?” Jerry asked.

If we used sarin, here’s how we used sarin,” Stomtonovich obfuscates again.

Jerry does a bad thing that, after all this, seems kind of a yoink. He edits the audio to say, “We used sarin. Here’s how we used sarin.”

Jerry wanted the story so bad he cut an unconscionable-to-cut corner because he believes it is true, when his job is not to believe but prove. Another meeting reveals still more skepticism. “Your problem is that you like this president, you trust him,” he says, then runs down how the Obama National Security State has simply picked up where the Bush one left off. It’s a good point, but the handful of remaining decent journalists in America will tell you it does not mitigate his actions.

The last clumsy device clicks in when they discover the dead Corporal Valenzuela is not dead — another guy of his name and rank is — and apparently a shoe drops on the story as we cut to the season’s framing device: Charlie being debriefed Marcia Gay Hardin’s legal team. They went, Charlie says, with the story on a special Sunday night broadcast. The problem, he says, “None of it was true.”

New episodes of The Newsroom air Sunday nights at 10/9CT on HBO.