Warning: Spoiler Alert
Here we find ourselves on the doorsteps of a series finale we all hoped we could delay. The Newsroom has been every bit the Sorkin gem we’d hoped it would be. Even at its most unimpressive moment, The Newsroom still stands head and shoulders above 90% of what television has had to offer during it’s run. Jeff Daniels has been amazing. Sam Waterston has been career defining good. Each and every character has found a way to pull us in.
Thinking back to the pilot episode, there was about a 50/50 split. There were characters I liked immediately and ones that took time to grow on me. Reese Lansing, Don Keefer, and even Maggie Jordan. As we look back before the series finale, even the people I did not care for, have found a way into the proverbial heart. An ability that very few writers have, Aaron Sorkin accomplishes with resounding results.
Tonight is the last episode of the journey in the ‘mission to civilize’. The swan song for raising the collective expectation for what delivering the news should mean. The swan song for that dying breed of the honorable newsman. One last hurrah for us the viewer to experience something fictional, seldom found in day-to-day non-fiction.
Mack: Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect, and a return to what’s important; the death of bitchiness; the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot; a place where we all come together.
I don’t mean to belabor the point here. The Newsroom took us on a journey of what could and quite frankly, should be the way things are done. We live in a place where ratings and appealing to the lowest common denominator is a blueprint for success. Whether it’s news or reality television, we are satisfied with the sound bite or deplorable. Not because it’s accurate or important. Because the requisite amount of people would tune in to watch this unimportant thing. And that number of viewers sells enough soda or car insurance or toys. The Newsroom, beyond the show, was a metaphor for where we are versus where we came from. At least within the construct of television news.
As recently as today, I saw on social media someone posted a link to the video of Will McAvoy’s first speech about “Why is America the Best Country in the World”. This person had no idea that this was from a television show currently running. And that becomes the bigger issue at hand. This is a remarkable show created by a remarkable writer. And that would be enough. This show like a few Sorkin shows before it will prove to measure beyond the scope of entertainment. This show vividly shows us a great many things about ourselves, good, bad or otherwise.
Everything Aaron Sorkin does has tremendous merit. Every mainstream project he’s ever completed increases in value. Like a great artist, his work is normally not truly appreciated until it is too late. I could have easily watched The Newsroom into a 6th season before even considering when it should end. So today is a bittersweet day for me and I imagine anyone who is a fan of The Newsroom or Aaron Sorkin. At the conclusion of tonight’s episode some will reflect and move on to whatever is next on their DVRs. The rest of us will wallow in re-runs of The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sports Night, A Few Good Men, American President or whatever Aaron Sorkin works they may have at their disposal. Without any further delay, let us look forward and see exactly how this story ends.
We begin the series finale exactly where we should. At Charlie Skinner’s funeral. Everyone is present. All those we expect and some we might not have. Everyone except Mackenzie, because she’s outside having a very cryptic phone conversation. She quietly sneaks back into the funeral service. She attempts to whisper something to Will, who if famous masculine fashion misses it the first time. Mack tries again and only two phrases (under the circumstances) are required. “My Doctor” and “blood test”. A natural and convincing smile grows on Will’s face.
We immediately follow-up that great news with a three-year flashback that starts with Will yelling for ‘Ellen’. Those viewers who go back to the beginning know what this is. This is the Show Runners for The Newsroom taking a moment to show us exactly how detached Will McAvoy was. Not knowing Maggie’s name. Not knowing what Neal even does. Strong arming his executive producer. And Charlie Skinner watching the broadcast moments before the decision not to right the ship, but to rebuild the ship.
During this flashback we get something I thought we’d never see again as of last week. Charlie Skinner in a benevolent manner giving it Will regardless of how Will feels about that. He beats around the bush asking if Will ever plans on kids. Will gives some reply about being afraid to pass down some of his father’s demons and questioning if it’s worth it in the long run. Charlie then redirects the conversation back to the current state of the show. He is going news segment by news segment, pointing out deficiencies and missed opportunities on Will’s part. Trying to get passed the ratings and to begin talking about content. Charlie walks us all the way up the line in the sand. He even asks bluntly, “what are we doing?” Then just before concluding the flashback, Charlie leans back in his seat and says, “Being a father…it lives up to the hype.” The flashback washes away to reveal a truly joyous Will McAvoy smile.
When the funeral service concludes, Will and Mack struggle to get passed the lines and into open space. Will then, in first time Dad form, pulls Mack aside to ask 20 questions. We, in this moment, run down a relative checklist. Then in typical Will fashion he declares that the next 7 months will go smoothly because he is in charge of morale.
Will: Do we know if it’s a boy or a girl?
Mack: Yes. It will likely be one of those two.
Leona Lansing wants Mack to ride with her to the cemetery. She then ‘invites’ Pruitt to join them. Pruitt is clearly still ticked about the interview prior to Charlie’s heart attack. In a different limo, Maggie hold Jim’s hand in silence. Jim breaks out the ‘nice service’ line before Maggie interrupts him. Maggie was recommended for a promotion to ‘Field Producer, Washington DC’. An interview she would not likely be in line for, had Jim not recommended her.
In the Lansing limo, Leona outlines Pruitt’s problem. Pruitt owns a company that is not worth explaining. Multiple news stories have surfaced with allegations that Pruitt pays the woman of this company less. Less even that the national average. This then sparks an impromptu debate over the subject of unfair pay, conceptually. Mack gives her piece even though she doesn’t know why she was invited. Leona then informs Pruitt that today, she will help him out.
In yet another limo we find Will, Don and Sloan. Don and Sloan are almost having a non-verbal, eyes are screaming at each other conversation. Then Sloan speaks up. They think it’s important that Will know exactly what happened leading up to Charlie’s heart attack. It sounds exactly like you’d think it would. Sloan speaking a mile a minute and Will just taking it in. Then there will be a portion of the story that Don tells, which should alleviate any fault away from Sloan and onto Don.
New flashback takes us to Charlie and Mackenzie’s first meeting. At 11:30am on a Monday in a dark bowling alley. She is bad at bowling and it is apparent that she has been drinking. The two of them sit down and before you know it, she’s explaining the lack of career options she has. Then Charlie suggests that had she not been drinking and her head was clear, she might ask why Charlie was there (she is aware of who Charlie Skinner is).
Mack: …Hang on…YEAH. That’s for sure what I would have done.
Charlie: I want you to take over News Night.
(Mack stares blankly then leans back in confusion)
The flashback continues with Sloan Sabbath talking to Don and ripping Will’s interview pertaining to a news story that is right in Sloan’s area of expertise. Don let’s her rant and then fires back. Pointing out that she only talks about one subject for one hour. Don and his host are responsible for much more than that. He then goes on to explain how nothing she’s said makes any sense to even an informed person so maybe she should work on her job instead of ripping them for doing theirs. To look in her eyes, that might have been the moment that opened the door for their eventual relationship.
After trying to process what Charlie has just said, Mack begins to break down why it can’t work. She gives up the previous ‘romantic’ relationship. A relationship that has long since ended. She cites reason after reason and each time she does, Charlie agrees with her. Charlie points out that when the two of them worked together, they really put something special together. She keeps resisting based on her relationship with Will, or lack thereof. Charlie is pursuing her because of that very relationship.
Mack: Don’s a smart guy and from what I hear a good EP, what makes you think I have better luck than Don making your car go fast?
Charlie: Because Will doesn’t care about impressing Don.
Mack: You’re not offering me the job in spite of my history with Will, you’re offering it to me because of it.
Charlie: I’m offering it to you because you’re my best hope of turning our flagship news hour into something we can be proud of.
Mack: He hasn’t returned any of my phone calls or emails or letters in…years. I don’t think he’s all that interested in what I think of him.
Charlie: That may be the only thing he’s interested in. (Charlie stands up) An offer’s on the table, Midterms are in six months, and another Presidential campaign in two years. Take the offer and you’ll have a chance to frame the debate. Or pass, but then you never get to complain about the news again.
The very next shot is Mack walking up to will call at a venue to pick up her ticket to the debate at Northwestern. We even find Jenna (the student who Will will eventually rip on stage, and who will eventually work for Will) outside getting her ticket as well. While they wait in line, Mack notices Jenna writing something down. She’s curious so she asks if the lady will ask a question to the panel? This is where Mackenzie gets the question that Will is destined to obliterate and he does so because Mackenzie provides him with the answer while he thinks of a way to sidestep the question.
Back in real-time Pruitt tries to spin to Leona what he and his PR Firm are going to do about his perceived problem with women. Pruitt believes he has all the steps in place to make this go away. Leona leans in and suggests that Pruitt has a PR problem because he has an actual problem.
The part of the story Don was going to tell Will that would take the pressure off of Sloan was the college girl who created the website for those victims of sexual assault on campus. As Don tells it, it was a bad story that Pruitt wanted. Pinning victim vs accused in studio live. It would have been Jerry Springer on network news. Don explains how this was a standoff between Don and Charlie and Charlie lost. Then Will asks if they should go bury Charlie now or if Don and Sloan believe they’ve already done that.
Back in the past Charlie views the Northwestern speech via YouTube like the rest of the planet. Then we find Will (on vacation) explaining to a bartender who honestly could not care any less that the ‘lady in the crowd’ that provided an answer to the question like a producer would, was a hallucination. The bartender’s phone rings. He asks if his patron is Mr. McAvoy and hands him the phone. It’s Leona. Will apologizes for the embarrassment, but Leona doesn’t care.
Leona: You’ve made a career out of being likable.
Will: I’d like to make a career out of doing the news.
(a long pause)
Leona: Who’s stopping you? (she hangs up before he can respond)
Sloan shows up again a Don’s office (still 3 years ago). She is there to adequately explain what she tried and failed to do before. She explains it in a way that most people should understand. Don follows it wonderfully. Right as she begins to bring her explanation to a close, he cuts her off. Admits that he is no longer the EP of News Night. He then goes further by admitting that Will doesn’t like to come off as rude on camera. Finally a step even further, admits that Will blew the interview. That everyone concerned would have been better off if they let Sloan keep the interview. We’ll call this moment #2 that opened the door to their eventual relationship.
Here’s a fun fact, Jim Harper is impressively good at playing the guitar. I did not know that. Mackenzie shows up at Jim’s apartment. He’s recently broken with a long distance girlfriend and he’s been drinking. Mack lays it out rather quickly and he is resistant. Then Mack pulls out the book Charlie sent her as a metaphor of his intentions. The book was Don Quixote, which as we know plays a relevant part in a future episode. So, Charlie really did orchestrate this in the most literal terms.
Will is outside Charlie’s wake talking to three female staffers and one male. He says that it is “suddenly” important that he monitor his health. That’s when he realizes he’s smoking a cigarette and puts it out immediately. Then removes all the others from the pack. The Martin asks why ‘suddenly’? Will deflects. Then Tess figures it out. Then Kendra and so on. Martin still has no clue. Fearing he’s violated some spousal trust, he immediately backpedals and insists they are forget the conversation ever happened.
Maggie is getting mixed signals or misinterpreting signals that aren’t present in regards to Jim recommending her to DC. I was really starting to come around to new and improved Maggie Jordan. If she messes this up, I’m going to be significantly upset with her.
Leona’s angle to help Pruitt continues but with marginal clarity. Pruitt explains what happened with the Bree interview and asks how can he not fire Mack and Sloan. Then Leona transitions back to Charlie. She explains that he wants a news director he will fight with. He also doesn’t want the ACN he thinks he wants. He wants the fight, because the fight means both sides are doing their jobs. It feels like Leona is leaning towards a recommendation for Charlie’s replacement that Pruitt probably won’t like at first glance.
At ACN the ‘digital team’ are working. And by working I mean not working and ripping movies for the fun of it. The one of the ‘digital team’ computers suffers an error. Then another. They frantically scurry to find the problem. One guy suggests they got hacked. Then Bree says, “this wasn’t a hacker, somebody just walked in”.
Neal: I shut it down from my phone.
Bree: Are you Neal?
Bree: Welcome back man…
Neal: The nine most overrated movies of all time?
Bree: We thought it’d be fun.
Neal: For who?
Bree: For movie fans…?
Neal: I see you went all the way back to the Matrix. 1999. All time and 14 years are two completely different units of measurement, but my question is why is overrated more fun than overrated? You embarrass me.
Bree: I what?
Neal: It took me a long time to build ACN Digital. I was laughed at by the people in this newsroom. People I respect did not respect what I did around here, but I built this into a tool. I gathered, expanded upon and disseminated it into information that is useful. I kept telling my colleagues and my bosses that the internet is user sensitive just like most things. And I watched from a thousand miles away while you proved that. You embarrass me.
(Neal turns slightly to the other guy)
Neal: Build a page that says the site is down for repair.
Guy#2: For an hour?
Neal: For a week. We’re going to rebuild the whole thing.
Mackenzie finds Will staring blankly from the middle a young boys room. Then he demands that they finish the renovations on the apartment so they can sell it, buy a house, with a pile of leaves in the front yard and a flat street for riding a bicycle on.
Charlie’s widow escorts Don into Charlie’s home office. Don interrupts. He quickly blurts out that he may have contributed to Charlie’s heart attack. He begins to outline the circumstance, she cuts him off and explains that Charlie didn’t want the story. Charlie was banking on Don fighting him over it. Her words of what Charlie thought of Don are moving. Don’s non-verbal reactions are that of a figurative son unaware of his figurative father’s affection. Which is made more poignant when you remember that Charlie needed to be restrained from Don in the pilot episode. Mrs. Skinner passes Don a large manila envelope. She wanted Don to have Charlie’s yellow bow tie.
Will makes his way to the garage where Beau is strumming a cello. Earlier, Charlie told a story of his grandson Beau and that he was a musical savant. There was a story about a song called ‘How I Got to Memphis’. Memphis being a metaphor for wherever you are. Will starts to play the song and sing the lyrics. Beau joins in with the cello. Jim comes around the corner. He picks up another guitar and begins to play as well. They are joined by spectators, Gary and Tess. And more join them. There is a large crowd that gives a large ovation. When the crowd dissipates, Will looks to Beau. Acknowledges that he knows that Beau would confide in Charlie. Will makes an offer to do the same, if he’d like.
Mackenzie approaches Will and asks if he told anyone. Memo to new mothers who give the news to the new father. You need to specify that we aren’t supposed to say anything. Otherwise we will out of excitement. His scolding is preempted by Pruitt. He would like a word. It is a short conversation and before they depart for the car, Mack asks one last time if Will would like to say anything on Charlie’s behalf. A running line throughout the episode.
Will: Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me everybody. I just want to say…I’ve been trying to piece together what happened last Monday night. People keep giving me their accounts, seems everyone feels responsible for Charlie dying and of course ridiculous. It was Sloan. Charlie Skinner was crazy. He identified with Don Quixote. An old man with dementia who thought he could save the world from an epidemic of incivility simply by acting like a nut. His religion was decency. He spent a lifetime fighting its enemies. I wish he could be here. To learn the name of his successor, like I just did. Our new boss. The new President of ACN is Mackenzie McHale. (Long pause) So this fight is just getting started. Because he taught us to be crazy too. You were a man Charlie. A great big man.
Back at the studio, Mack offers the EP job to Jim. He hesitates as he believes it should go to Don. Don turned it down in favor of building something at ten o’clock. Jim accepts. Jim immediately finds Maggie and tells her to cancel the interview in DC. As Executive Producer of News Night, he is promoting her to senior producer. As excited as she is, she informs him that she will still interview for DC because it is what she wants. Jim replies with a lovely confession. That he doesn’t care how many states away it is, this is something more. Maggie agrees. They agree to travel arrangements that would suggest a real effort to make a long distance relationship work.
Maggie: Have you been in many long distance relationships?
Maggie: Did any of them work?
Maggie: Why is this going to be different?
Jim: I wasn’t in love with them.
Sloan is clearly having a hard time processing Charlie’s death. Don walks towards her and picks up a large manila envelope and says, “Nancy wanted me to give you something.” Don gave Sloan the bow tie that Nancy gave to Don.
Mack is pushing back slightly on the promotion to News Director. Citing that it’s only the articles uncovering Pruitt for being gender biased that he would give a woman such a promotion. Will’s point is why does it matter? She’ll get to do the job.
The remainder of the episode is a cleverly shot slow crawl of each of the major contributors to the show. From Will to Mack, Jim, Don, Maggie, Sloan, Neal, the graphics guys, etc. It is slow and lacking any audio polish. This is these people doing the job they were all brought along to do. Journalism was supposed to be a calling. These men and women are simply answering the call. And there is a swelling of pride that comes with the privilege to do just that. Close up of Will at the News Night desk just as the lights come up. Will looks directly in the camera and says…”Good evening.”
. . .
“You know what kiddo, in the old days. About ten minutes ago, we did the news well. You know how? We just decided to.” -Charlie Skinner