Episode Title: “Bullies”
Director: Jeremy Podeswa
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Previously on “The Newsroom:”
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) is tossing a word salad on the latest episode of “News Night,” mixing up his words and ultimately admitting that he has a serious case of insomnia. He ultimately decides to see his therapist, whom he has been paying for two years but never actually meeting, in order to get a prescription for sleeping pills. He’s surprised to learn that his old therapist died, leaving his 29-year-old son Jack Habib (David Krumholtz) with the practice. He refuses to give Will a prescription without talking to him first, leading to the episode’s flashback structure.
Will’s problems begin after a series of online reactions to the show, read aloud on the air, express hate and ignorance. Will tells Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) to change the system so comments can no longer be left anonymously, but shortly after a controversial segment about opening a mosque near the World Trade Center site, a death threat comes in that circumvents the program’s impressive security. The insurance company treats it as a viable threat, and forces Will to allow a bodyguard (Terry Crewes) to follow him around. On a related note, Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) and Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) start doing “opposition research” on Will, digging up dirt so they can stay ahead of anything the tabloids report in the future.
Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn), fluent in Japanese, performs the pre-interview with the spokesperson for the nuclear power plant that’s melting down in Japan, and has to ask the rest of the team to leave the room so he can reveal, off the record, that the disaster is worse than is being reported. Afterwards, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) asks Sloan to fill in as his anchor. Nervous, she asks Will for advice and he tells her not to let her guests get away with simply promoting their message. He tells her to ask the follow up questions and not let up until she gets the truth.
This backfires spectacularly when Sloan interviews the Japanese spokesperson on the air, and his story has changed. She can also tell that his translator is misinterpreting both her questions and his answers. Despite Don’s protests, she begins interviewing the subject in Japanese and ultimately reveals the information she learned in the pre-interview, even though it was off the record. Charlie Skinner explodes, telling her it was awful television, unethical reporting and probably the last time that any source will speak to Sloan off the record.
Mac learns from the opposition research that Will was considering a job in Los Angeles while they were dating, and is furious that he’s taking the moral high ground when that information proves he was never serious about their relationship in the first place. He reveals an engagement ring he’s been keeping in his desk, proving her wrong.
Back in therapy, Will reveals that he purchased the ring when he learned about the opposition research. He also expresses guilt over pressuring Sloan into her on-camera behavior. It turns out that Will’s father was an abusive alcoholic, and Will has severe issues with bullying. In particular, he realizes that his recent behavior on the air – an interview with a gay, black Rick Santorum spokesperson – was bullying in itself. Will’s interview subject supports Santorum, despite his anti-gay rhetoric, and Will wouldn’t let him off the hook, nearly bringing the subject to tears.
Charlie finally comes to Sloan, who was about to quit over dishonoring her own interview subject, with a solution: she confused the Japanese words for “four” and “seven” in the interview. Sloan finds the solution insulting (since she speaks fluent Japanese) and unethical, but Will finally agrees that it’s the best solution for a complex problem.
Back in therapy, Jack reveals that Will’s insomnia is caused by eating too much bacon before bed, but writes him a mild prescription anyway. He also encourages Will to stay in therapy, citing the purchase of the engagement ring as troubling behavior. Finally, we see that Will tore up the receipt to the ring, implying he wants to keep it on hand.
Well, shut my mouth. “The Newsroom” whipped out one hell of an episode this week.
Seriously, give it up for “The Newsroom.” I’ve been laying down some serious complaints about the show’s dramatic chops since episode one, knowing full well that the series had an impressive pedigree from top to bottom, and while it still stings that the series took this long to find its groove, “Bullies” is still an unequivocally great episode of Aaron Sorkin’s latest series. The drama, the comedy and even the relationship mumbo-jumbo play in fine harmony, making for an episode that doesn’t quite have the social significance the series usually aspires to, but functions as a complete unit. I’m even willing to geek out about it.
Yes, while jotting down my notes for “Bullies,” my notepad was finally full of comments like, “Emily Mortimer does an adorable Groucho impersonation,” “Olivia Munn is even hotter when she speaks Japanese” and “Alison Pill’s ‘dodging bullets’ routine is her best moment on the show.” I won’t dwell on these observations – they’re geek outs more than critical analysis – but the fact that I could set aside my reservations and just plain enjoy the events of an episode speaks volumes about the quality of “Bullies.”
The success of “Bullies” extends beyond the actors finding their voices with the characters. This may be the first episode of “The Newsroom” that successfully marries the news stories of the week – Rick Santorum’s presidential run and the nuclear meltdown in Japan – with strong subplots for the protagonists. Will feels guilty about bullying a Santorum spokesperson on the air, which sets off a string of intriguing events including death threats and Sloan’s internal and external struggle to report the news honestly while sacrificing honor in the process. The episode also ends with a genuine moral quandary on the part of a previously sanctimonious cast, who have to make a tougher decision than usual and understand that decision’s consequences.
This is how you do “The Newsroom,” apparently. A strong juxtaposition of character conflict with the news story of the day, replete with amusing and unexpected character interactions, narrative development and a relegation of romantic subplots to when they are needed dramatically, not just to fill time. Kudos, Aaron Sorkin. If you can manage to keep this up you’ll make a believer of me yet.