The Newsroom: Episode 6 – Bullies – Recap

The Newsroom Episode 6 called Bullies was saddled with an ungainly structure which utilized a forward and back style. We started with Will flubbing a couple of routine items. He misspoke during the news by calling the debt ceiling the deficit, then by thanking the viewers for ‘washing‘ instead of ‘watching‘, and he even said, Stay tuned to watch Will McAvoy with The Capitol Report from Washington coming up next, I’m Terry Smith. We hear Mackenzie McHale speaking into Will’s ear – End the broadcast…!

Okay, networks don’t have their broadcast licenses revoked by the FCC because a TV news anchor made a couple of gaffes in reading the news as well as small matters like staffing and schedules. In short ‘no big deal’, however it was still a matter for concern, at least to Will’s Exec Producer, Mackenzie McHale, and was noticed by the whole staff – not to mention the viewers.

The date is April 12, 2011, and we will come to learn that Will isn’t himself. He’s tired. Extremely tired as in simply not sleeping at all. He’s got serious insomnia. Of course there are reasons. Will makes himself a scrambled egg, bacon, and melted cheese sandwich on toast before going to sleep every night. He has no idea that bacon contains a mild stimulant. But the bacon is the least of his concerns. He’s been bullying people that he interviews on his show, he is a bully to the staff, AND he’s received a death threat.

So he heads off to see his shrink to acquire a prescription for sleeping pills. Will has a standing visit scheduled for every Wednesday at 10:00 AM with this shrink, one Abe Habeeb. Only he hasn’t been going, but he continues to pay for the Dr’s services that he’s not using. In fact, Will isn’t even aware that this psychiatrist died two years ago, and the practice has been taken over by the doctor’s son – one Jacob Habeeb. And therein lies the framing device for the show – Will is talking to Jack – and we get the actual events in flashback.

I’m Jacob Habeeb. My father died two years ago. You have been paying me for the last two years. Won’t you come into my office?

So what went so horribly wrong that the sleep thief visits Will every night? That process, of full disclosure will follow, in brief spurts and only grudgingly. Will brow-beats his bodyguard (provided by his employers insurance company) into reading a magazine in the Dr’s waiting room, and then is resistant to Jack Habeeb, even after he hears that Abe died two years ago. Will wants to collect a prescription, and not have a ‘session’. Jack thinks otherwise and softly probes Will for the answers to why he’s having insomnia.

The sources of Will’s problems don’t exactly tumble forth – but they do come out. In a short list, they are:

Issues about viewers comments which ultimately included a death threat.
Browbeating a woman who publicly spoke out against the Islamization of America.
Bullying an aide to ex-Senator Rick Santorum.
Guilt about pushing Sloan Sabbith into going after a story about the Fukushima nuclear energy disaster.
The still unsettled issues about his relationship with Mackenzie.
Issues stemming from the fact that Will comes from a family with an abusive, alcoholic father which caused him to assume the role of ‘protector’.

Before we have a closer look, I will say that I thought this episode was riveting. The series itself has some overall problems – especially with its portrayal of the female characters, the recurring issues of the Maggie/Jim and Will/Mackenzie relationships, and Sorkin’s politics. In this particular episode the character of Sloan Sabbith takes on the role of an important character, yet this occurs only after she has to jump through some of Sorkin’s hoops by acting silly.

Sabbith has just barely been introduced to Will’s bodyguard, and she says – Wow! Nice to meet you. Can I tap your chest? She’s astounded by the bodyguards’ pecs. Okay. moving on, Sabbith will later have a major shootout with Charlie Skinner which is actually (for me) the highlight of not only the episode, but all we’ve seen of the entire series to this point.

Back to the list. As the closing segment to Will’s broadcast every night, a few comments sent to Will’s blog are excerpted and appear on-screen with their authors using anonymous handles like Lollypop Lollypop or Surrender Dorothy. Will reads the comments and responds accordingly. Will feels this is not the best way to handle these kind of comments. He’d like real names, occupations, and level of education. Only News Night doesn’t have the staff to handle the vetting of the authors. Nor the time, nor the funding.

In a Current Affairs discussion Will talked to a woman who spoke about her concerns about the creeping Islamization of America. Will responded by asking if she was concerned about the creeping Christianization of America. Will trotted out the specters of the KKK, the neo-nazi movements, the anti-abortion folks, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, John Lennon, and the near assassination of President Ronald Reagan – as he put it – all done in the name of Christianity. Heavy stuff, and certainly not what you’d expect from a news anchor. But Will McAvoy is not real. His words are those of Aaron Sorkin.

After which we see the death threat comment posted to Will’s website. Charlie Skinner wants to talk about it pronto. Will will get a bodyguard and more than likely there will be another tabloid story about Will – a purported claim that Will has created a hostile workplace environment. It’s not the case, and Will makes light of it. But Charlie wants Will investigated, an in-house Opposition to Will study to be done by a team that Mackenzie assembles. Will tries to laugh it off. Charlie isn’t impressed and he puts it into no uncertain terms – “I’m not fucking around“.

The conference call with Tanaka

Sloan Sabbith is having a conference call with a contact in Japan about the Nuclear disaster at the Fukushima facility. What’s surprising is that Sloan speaks fluent Japanese. Actually Olivia Munn who plays Sloan, grew up in Tokyo. In the midst of questioning this Japanese spokesman, she asks for an off the record response about the level of radiation. The public response is that the current radiation reading at Level Four will rise to Level Five, but off the record, the spokesman adds AND it might reach as high as Level Seven. As this is off the record, Sloan is not sure what to do about this – especially since Don has cornered her, and asked her to replace the 10:00 PM anchor – Elliot Hirsch.

So Sloan seeks Will’s advice. Sloan: What’s the trick to get him to say it on the air? Will: There is no trick – you just don’t stop until you get him to say it. Will continues to say that Sloan is entirely too passive and accepting. She allows her guests to lie and get away with bullshit. She’s got to get away from that. Sloan says she gets it.

Back at Jake the Shrink’s office, Will says, I don’t know, I guess I was in a bad mood. Honestly, I was just trying to motivate her. She’s the last person who needs motivation, so I ended up… Jake: Scaring her. A portent of things to come? You betcha.

Sloan’s segment is on the air. She’s interviewing Tanaka, the Tepco spokesman. Since this is for American television, a Japanese interpreter is on hand to translate Sloan’s English questions to Japanese for Tanaka, then give his Japanese answers back to Sloan, (and the American viewers) in English. Only Sloan knows that the answers are not being strictly translated, so she switches to Japanese herself, and proceeds to directly question Tanaka.

Sloan is not liking what she hears from the Japanese interpreter

Don, as the E/P is going out of his mind. Sloan ignores him and proceeds in Japanese. When Don, (screaming into his mike which Sloan hears in her ear, tells her to go to break) she pulls out the earpiece, and referencing her earlier pre-interview with Tanaka, the one that was off the record, starts to grill him about the possibility of the Levels rising. When the interpreter gives a different response – Sloan herself says that there is an expectation that the levels of radiation could rise to from Four to Seven – the difference being life and gruesome death.

Don is watching Sloan ‘interrogate’ the Japanese spokeman in Japanese and he is freaking out…

Sloan’s show is over. She heads back to the newsroom. There’s Don. As Sloan begins to explain, Don says, Whatever you are going to say, save it for 10 seconds.

Sloan: What happens in 10 seconds?
Don: Please just hold off for another five seconds …
Sloan: What happens in five…

and Charlie Skinner comes in through the doors to the newsroom.

Charlie Skinner: WHAT IN THE NAME OF HOLY FUCK WERE YOU THINKING ABOUT?

To say he is hopping mad would be a gross understatement. To say he was going ballistic would be more accurate. Since Charlie, like most people who don’t live in Japan, is not fluent in Japanese, he says he has to ask:

Charlie: Did you just make up statements for somebody we had live on our air?
Sloan: I didn’t make them up.
Charlie: About a deadly radiation leak … [watch for the hop]
Sloan: I didn’t make them up. He told me a reactor was going to a Seven …
Charlie: When? Tonight? I’m asking honestly because there was a portion of the broadcast that turned into a Kurasawa movie…
Sloan: These things are measured on a scale of zero to seven. Five is Three-Mile Island, Seven is Chernobyl.
Charlie: [pointing with his finger a foot from Sloan’s face] On air, did he say that the reactors were going to seven?
Sloan: He said it to me in a pre-interview.

Well, Sloan has to the tell Charlie what the Japanese response was, and that she thought that the Japanese interpreter’s translation wasn’t accurate…

Charlie: We don’t report what you think Sloan. The guy said ‘all six reactors are stable’.
Sloan: The Japanese are a deferential people. It’s very hard for them to explain when things go wrong…
Charlie: [Sputtering, stuttering] I don’t give a shit, Madame Butterfly …and right now, The Japanese who are reading an online report of your report are fleeing from their fucking homes. Now tell me what he said …tonight … on air?
Sloan: He said the reactors were at five.

So Charlie then hears Sloan saying that what Sloan said ON THE AIR, the Japanese spokesman has said OFF THE AIR, IN A PRIVATE CONVERSATION, that was off…

Charlie: No, finish the sentence.
Sloan: Off the record.
Charlie: Good luck trying to get a source to speak to you off the record. You have no value to me now as a reporter, and I have to suspend you …

You have no value for me as a reporter. I am suspending you with pay…

Don: Charlie!
Charlie: I have to suspend you…
Sloan: What?
Charlie: … and we have to bring in outside investigators to comb through the records of every report you’ve filed in the last two years to find out what other shit you made up…
Sloan: I didn’t make anything up. I would never make anything up…
Charlie: I know that, and you know that, and he [pointing at Don] knows that but why should anyone else know that? You’re suspended with pay…
Sloan: They were lying about a public safety…
Charlie: [Raising his voice] You’re suspended with pay …
Sloan: [screaming back at him] I don’t want the goddamn pay…
Charlie: [Raising himself up to a point of extreme righteousness] Don’t fresh off with me, girl…
Sloan: [Loudly, defiantly, and with strong determination] Don’t call me GIRL sir…

Wow – there it is. Sorkin gave us a moment of extra-ordinary strength in a woman. I’m not surprised that Sloan had the stuff to yell right back at Charlie. And it sure as hell stopped Charlie in his tracks. Don had to pointedly intervene and tell everyone to calm the fuck down. Charlie makes his exit.

Too bad Sorkin had to have Sloan break some reporting precepts first.

Back in Jake’s office Will’s says, There’s no way she does that if I hadn’t given her my awesome pep talk. Jake brings out Will’s protectiveness which leads to Jake asking about Will’s abusive alcoholic father.

We didn’t know that. And in the truest sense of scripting a story, they make it up as they go along. I’m not saying this info would have fit in better in an earlier episode, but it just seems ‘handy’ to have it made public now.

Time out for the Will investigation – which turns up nothing but was another opportunity for Maggie and Jim to shoot verbal arrows at each other. Finally, Mackenzie dismisses them and tells them to go back to their real jobs.

We next get a second time out for another Will and Mackenzie rehash of the past.

Mackenzie: You were deceiving me while I was deceiving you…

Only this time, Will brought out a diamond ring that could have cost him Fort Knox. Of course this was of interest to Jake who says, You found out they were doing an opposition report on you so you went out and bought a ring..
Will: Which I will return.

We will come back to that. Meanwhile Sloan is packing up to leave her office. She gets a call to come out and watch a Japanese news report. The news is not good. Tepco spokesman Tanaka has offered to resign today. His honor is at stake. Sloan asks Will for help, but before that, we have:

Will is still with Jake. Will: She’s just been suspended and she’s thinking about the other guy’s job. Honor is what she said.

After Will mentions that Sloan has students – she teaches at Columbia – Jake brings up the comment by Surrender Dorothy. The one that mentioned that Will’s guest that night had hit the Uncle Tom daily double. The guest was Sutton Wall, a fictional character based on the situation of a real life aide to Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who announced his intention to run for President. The aide was a man who lived an openly gay life style, he was black, and he was a professor at Temple University.

The record of Santorum’s views were that he was anti-gay, anti-birth control, anti-abortion, and that he was against homosexual marriages. I’m not going to comment on anything Mr. Santorum said or did, however Mr. Sorkin was not the least bit hesitant. Will McAvoy denounced the positions that Santorum had taken and did his almighty best to get this aide to speak out against what Santorum stood for.

The aide held his ground and despite the over-the-top bullying by McAvoy, this aide would not budge. It was tense, it was like watching a boxing match only it wasn’t in a squared boxing ring – it was men dressed as gentlemen speaking to each other across many miles via the medium of television. For once, a McAvoy/Sorkin sermon had a live person rather than the usual strawman. But it got loud, angry, and had they been in the same place – it was quite likely that blows would have been struck.

Of course this was Sorkin at his most extreme, most strident, just as this was McAvoy in his most heavyhanded not the least bit nice manner. This was a true verbal slugfest. It wasn’t all pretty, and it wasn’t the least bit nice – but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Will cut off his respondent at every opportunity. He was overbearing to say the least. It seemed more like a grilling in a police interrogation room rather than a dialogue on television.

Will was doing exactly what he had instructed Sloan Sabbith to do – go for the story by getting your jaws around the other guy’s throat. Only the other guy had his say despite Will’s provocation.

Sutton Wall: How dare you define me by the color of my skin, or my sexual orientation. I am not defined by my blackness. I am not defined by my gayness…and I do not need your help or your protection….

Will had been told off, told to not interrupt, and told to shut up. But Will had one more question left to ask. This would be the ‘kill shot’ of the whole discussion.

Will McAvoy: Mr. Wall, does Rick Santorum think you are fit to be a teacher?
Sutton Wall: No he does not.
Will McAvoy: Thank you Mr. Wall.

Okay – there you have it. Will McAvoy at his worst and Sloan Sabbith at her best. I’ll give Sorkin credit – not for what Will said – which was to simply verbally assault someone – but for knocking down Will. McAvoy may have won the skirmish but he came off as someone who, in a certain situation, you’d have to think hard about siding with him. Mind you, I am not discussing the issues – only the way character played in the fictional story.

What happens in the last seven minutes or so remaining?

Don worries about losing Maggie.

Charlie has a plan to get Sloan back on the air, to save the Japanese Tanaka’s honor, reputation, and his job, to slightly improve the network’s dinged-up reputation, and to once again call the GIRL – Sloan, or Ms Sabbith.

Charlie Skinner; We can drop using GIRL and get back to calling her Sloan or Ms Sabbith

All she has to do is go on the air and say she misunderstood the Japanese words for four and seven. Despite the fact that she is fluent in Japanese, she will have to give the impression that she isn’t. She must also announce that she thought Tanaka had given the statement ON THE RECORD, another misunderstanding. And finally she has to say all this DESPITE that the Fukushima levels did rise from four to five and then to seven.

Sloan: Will, so you want me to lie, on television, with the ACN’s logo in the corner?
Will: [after a lengthy pause] I do. If there’s any fallout I’ll be standing right next to you and in front. We fucked up. Let’s just live with that now.

So the show ends with Will – still in Jake’s office – saying – We lied on television. Will and Jake make nice. Jake tells Will that bacon releases tyramine which releases norepinephrine – and that’s why he can’t sleep. Jake writes the Rx scrip for Will. Will tears up the receipt from Tiffany’s for the ring and stores the ring in his desk drawer amid his business cards and personalized note pads.

The price for Sloan’s rise was a backseat for Jim and Maggie (thankfully) , and a lessening of Mackenzie’s on air time. Charlie, as played by Sam Waterston, chewed up the scenery every time he was on set, looking like he was about to explode.  My verdict for this week’s entry: Personally – I loved this episode and deem it the best one of the season.

7 thoughts on “The Newsroom: Episode 6 – Bullies – Recap

  1. It bares repeating that I realize you don’t approach your recaps from a political perspective. But, as I’m sure you also know, I can’t help but approach it from that perspective when Sorkin makes his views the backbone of each episode.

    The Cordoba House issue was one that had me shaking my head. FWIW, I was NOT one of the masses screaming to STOP the building of the community center. Frankly, I felt that was up to NY zoning officials and not me.

    However, in defending those who wanted to build Cordoba House, Sorkin has McAvoy imply that a number of violent incidents in recent history were committed “in the name of Christianity.” That’s just plain wrong.

    Certainly, the formal organizations McAvoy cites (KKK, Neo-Nazis, Pro-Life zealots) characterize themselves as inspired by Christianity. But the comparison should have stopped there. The men who assassinated Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, John Lennon, and nearly assassinated President Ronald Reagan may have been Christians, but they did NOT commit their crimes “in the name of Christianity.” This is not a subtle distinction but verbal trickery on Sorkin’s part.

    To be more dramatic (I guess), Sorkin pads the list with a dubious litany of supposedly Christian assassins and, in doing so, once again effectively dilutes the power of McAvoy’s argument.

    Moving on, the Sutton/McAvoy confrontation is probably inspired by a real-life one between Chris Matthews and Robert Traynham – a gay African-American who worked for Santorum.

    The Newsroom’s version is more intense and, to his credit, Sorkin (who clearly, and perhaps rightly, disagrees with Santorum’s stance on gay rights), shows Sutton holding his own against McAvoy. On the other hand, being a frustrated writer, I always think of better ways to approach the material. For instance, I would have also included McAvoy interviewing a fictional spokesperson for the Cordoba House to find out his (the “spokesperson” would undoubtedly be male) opinions about homosexuality. I’m guessing the responses wouldn’t be any more progressive than the former Senator’s.

    I would have also symbolically linked the efforts of the Japanese reactor workers who faced deadly levels of radiation during the crisis (something not mentioned in the episode) with Sutton’s story – a gay man who has to face the radioactive statements of his boss.

    And, as you mention, the misogyny continues (so I won’t belabor it here). BTW, my usual, more lengthy rant is finally up. 🙂

  2. Thanks Matt – you have provided a distinctly separate perspective. I am more than happy to publish your comments as they do add another angle for folks to consider.

    However I disagree with your alternate story lines – combining the Community House/ spokesperson with his/her views on homosexuality. I think would be too far reaching in a dramatic context.

    Symbolically linking radioactive statements and actual deadly levels of radiation doesn’t work for me either. One man’s lifestyle and another man’s comments vs real life deadly radiation simply should not be used in the same structure. – at least not as a part of The Newsroom. In a film like Armageddon, Independence Day, or some other film about the destruction of life as we know it, might be a better place. IMHO.

  3. I fully acknowledge that my approach may be, like Sorkin’s often is, too clever by half. 😉

    BUT, I stand by the Cordoba interview idea mainly because it counters what I see as Sorkin’s worst offense — cherry-picking what he chooses to highlight. Clearly, the idea that Cordoba House would be a bastion for terrorists was ridiculous. BUT, that their philosophic dogma may closely overlap Santorum’s I think would have played out as inspired irony (if I do say so myself).

    However, I’ll give you that the Sutton radiation angle may be TOO obvious a stretch. But, then again, no more contrived than the Rudy homage from last week. Just saying… 😉

  4. I agree that this was the best episode to date and one of the best TV shows of the year. It should get nominated and win an emmy. Sorkin does more good writing in this episode than most TV scriptwriters do in a season. People who knock his politics or his portrayal of women are completely missing the point, which is to be entertaining. Sorkin, not only entertains better than most show runners, he has something to say. Shakespeare hits on women whenever he feels like it. Doesn’t hurt the play, does it? Politics? Royalty? …grist .

    I agree with your boxing analogy. Sorkin is a champion in every sense. A writer for the ages.

    • Thanks for the comment FD. I agree with your overview that the show is entertainment and that the point is to entertain instead of being taken as full-fledged editorials on the news. Every television news show broadcasts the news in their own determined and shaped manner. As does Will McAvoy and the News Night crew.

      For me, even if Sorkin’s is the best, or to quote you, ‘A writer for the ages’ that doesn’t or shouldn’t mean that each and every episode is great and that each and every character is perfectly drawn.

  5. I must be the only one who thinks Will wasn’t being a bully in the interview. The guy was clearly a trained mouthpiece who was there to deliver talking points. When it became clear to him that Will wouldn’t let him just read them out, he throws race into the water and puts on an angry face and, when he has control of the conversation, he starts reading off about abortion again.

    Watch it again. Will goes after him for Santorum’s views on homosexuality, but what does the talking head start his rant with? “How dare you reduce me to the color of my skin…”, later adding “There are people who look just like me…” and “I am not defined by my blackness…” Will knows that there’s no way he can, as a white anchor, do anything that won’t dig himself deeper in that perceived hole, so he shuts up.

    He deserved everything Will threw at him and more. You can bully a person, but you can’t bully a memo, even if it is being read out loud.

    • Good point. Will had to shut it down, when the character Sutton Drew fired back. Then again – context aside –

      1) Will did interrupt him continually.
      2) Will felt enough after effects to discuss it with his shrink.
      3) Will gave us HIS game plan about how to deal with the person being interviewed when he told Sloan what she was doing wrong.
      4) I didn’t entitle the Episode Bullies, Sorkin did, and with good reason

      But to be fair – the character may have earned/deserved some ‘push back’ from Will, but that doesn’t mean Will didn’t bullly him.

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