Aaron Sorkin knows how to write a good showdown. Think of the final cross-examination of Colonel Jessup and young upstart lawyer Danny Kaffee at the end of A Few Good Men, or the big relationship blow-up between Mark Zuckerberg and Erica that sets The Social Network in motion. For all the chatter about his “walk and talk” scenes, he works even better when people are sitting down and forced to deal with some big issues. That’s what made this episode of The Newsroom so great: it was one showdown after another, and all of them were exciting to watch.
The best were the confrontations that pitched in tone to add some levity into what would otherwise have been a melodramatic episode. In a restaurant over brunch, an argument about Don using a potentially illegal stock tip from Sloan slowly opens up a charming discussion about the status of their relationship. And on a train ride from Boston, Maggie eavesdrops on some particularly juicy gossip from a higher-up at the EPA (winningly portrayed by The Office’s Paul Lieberstein), leading to a big debate between the two about the morality of her actions. Because the young producer decides not to use her ill-gotten info, the exec starts to panic, and starts offering up more info than he probably should. It may have been all set up so Maggie could meet a law professor on the train (Jimmi Simpson, best known as one of the McPoyles on It’s Always Sunny, but it gave actress Alison Pill another chance to prover her mettle in this series, rather than look befuddled or pained. And she provided a mouthpiece for a little Sorkin self-mockery in this exchange between her and her potential beau. Him: “You’re giving a monologue.” Her: “Everyone does where I work.”
The biggest showdowns were taking place in separate conference rooms at the ACN offices. In the big, wooden board room, Reese Lansing had to fight with his half-siblings over potential control of the company. The twins are set to get a great deal of stock in the Atlantis Media Group handed to them on their 25th birthday, and are set to sell it to a competing agency that will likely sell everything off for parts. It’s a theme that Sorkin has hit on before, during the second season of Sports Night. Here, again, he sends a message about how the TV division should be spared the axe because of the good they’re bringing to the world. That part felt a little silly, but what didn’t was the face-off between Kat Dennings, playing half-sister Blair, and Chris Messina. You could almost feel the hatred exuding from the two of them. You could also feel the contempt that Reese’s mother Leona felt towards Blair and her twin brother, when she breezed into the room to offer them $2 more per share than the competitor. Now… to come up with the $4 billion she needs to afford the buyout.
The fiercest battle took place within Will’s head, as he tries to decide what to do about Neal’s possible jail time for espionage. The big boss man wants to protect his young charge, even if it means putting on a story about the U.S. causing the deaths of 38 people in a small country. Even when Mac insists that Neal will likely only go to jail for contempt in response to his encouraging the whistleblower to reveal more documents, that’s not enough to sway Will, nor the ACN counsel Rebecca Halliday. Neal ends up rolling the dice, as he calls a government agency for comment—a move that sends the FBI swarming to the newsroom to seize files and hard drives—and, at Will’s urging, he runs for the hills.
I also have to applaud Sorkin for the simple fact that I have no earthly idea where he’s going with this final season of The Newsroom. The optimist in me is really banking on a happy ending where everyone gets to keep being the moral compass of the American news media, but the acclaimed screenwriter keeps poking at my pessimistic side to keep it awake. Sorkin has given us both sides of the coin throughout the years in his TV and film work. But as the years have moved forward, he’s held firmer to the moral compass, while acknowledging over and over that humans are flawed creatures that fail and stumble more than they succeed. If anything, things are going to get much worse for the characters on The Newsroom, before they can get better. As long as no blood gets spilled along the way, the next four weeks are going to be one hell of a ride.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.