In “Election Night, Part 1,” the penultimate episode of Season 2 of HBO’s The Newsroom, it is, indeed, election night 2012, the culmination of two largely wasted years of presidential campaigning, with Barack Obama soon to hand Mitt Romney his own ass with a choice of two sides. But that’s not important right now. Because the confounding, long, thorny, pointlessly abusive thing between News Night anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his executive producer Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is coming to a head with what appears to be a whimper versus the firing squad both she and I think the whole thread deserves.
Creator Aaron Sorkin began this series with the zany premise that the spunky, super-ethical Mackenzie would be key to reviving crusty hack Will’s career in spite of him still being bitter about her cheating on him when they were boyfriend/girlfriend a few years ago. And because Sorkin seems to utilize these plot threads to work out his own apparently deep-seeded intimacy issues, he has kept it alive to fester and ooze into actual interesting ideas and goings-on in the show lo these two seasons later.
Charlie (Sam Waterston), Will and hotshot lawyer Becca (Marcia Gay Harden) give us the rundown: the team’s extended in-depth investigation into a potential war-crime by U.S. forces in an Afghanistan-theater mission called Operation Genoa has turned out to be based on corrupt information; ACN’s credibility is shot; and boss Leona Lansing has tasked them with earning it back. Doing so, however, will have to come amid a sub-current of second-guessing and flagellation over getting the story wrong, fanned by Leona’s refusal to accept the resignation of any involved in her determination to fight the wrongful termination lawsuit brought by producer Jerry Dantana, whose zeal for the story prompted him to cook an interview tape.
Mackenzie has been taking the Genoa fail harder than the rest, and Charlie says, at very least, Will could sort of fire Mackenzie as an act of figurative euthanasia. Will says he’s not firing anyone. Charlie laments that there is no one to fire him. An obviously frazzled Mackenzie — irrepressible even whilst frazzled — urges for the millionth time that Will come clean about his feelings (which he denies hiding), and they have another interminable quippy ping-pong game about how he has emotionally been mean to her since she cratered his personal life, and now she fears how he might “punish” her after she has cratered his professional one.
Other staffers prep for election-night coverage, posing an on-air analysis panel that makes sense only in a way that Aaron Sorkin needs it to. These include 10 o’clock anchor Elliot (David Harbour), former Romney PR hack Taylor Warren (Constance Zimmer) – fired for counseling candor during a obfuscatory campaign whose obfuscation she helped enforce to the peculiar chagrin of intrepid ACN reporter Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) – and business anchor Sloan (Olivia Munn), who yet again has no conceivable reason to be on election night coverage other than Sorkin hired her to pretty up the cast and needs to give her things to do.
Amid Elliot and Sloan vying for dibs on quaintly-backstoried local races to highlight during the night, Jim arrives to get them more-prepped, act particularly shirty with Taylor and turn them over to former non-girlfriend and still-insane junior producer Maggie (Alison Pill). Elliot inquires as to the nature of Jim’s revulsion towards Taylor, and she reveals the early season’s minor subplot in which she tattled to Mackenzie that Jim had punted a 30-minute interview with Romney over to Hallie, the girl who soon became his girlfriend, because she needed the “get.” She says this in front of Maggie, the non-relationship with whom Jim was fleeing when he took the Romney campaign job.
Maggie introduces herself and says, “I hate Jim too.” This shouldn’t be a small thing, given that Maggie has no real reason to hate Jim and her hating someone now seems to mean their cat could wind up flayed in their mailbox.
Taylor says that if she gives Maggie a scoop Jim doesn’t get, it will make Jim sad (even though it probably wouldn’t). Sloan leans in for the dish, which prompts another outre funny Elliot moment as he commands, “Be less desperate for female friends!”
Charlie cheerleads the election coverage with a pre-broadcast fire-up-the-troops speech to the newsroom about how American democracy is the “envy of the world,” even though Charlie, as previously written, is smart enough to know this is not true.
In a mid-broadcast break, Mackenzie again tries to get Will to fire her. Again the horrible scandal that could end their careers simply becomes, somehow, symptomatic of something “deeper” between them, and, when he says, “I was a really good boyfriend,” I can’t be faulted for wondering who Sorkin is, in fact, saying this to via HBO. Further, after Mackenzie has dared to touch on Will’s giant, obsessive, narcissist ego – via which he has routinely emotionally abused her, btw – he gets even more butt-hurt and says “You think I’m not firing you because it would make me look bad. That crossed your mind?…How big a dick do you think I am and how long have you thought it? I was a good guy.”
He fires her, just between them for now, in effect as of the end of the broadcast. Yay!
Meanwhile, Maggie has enlisted Don (Thomas Sadoski) to help track down Taylor’s tip, which winds up being traded via a source for a bigger story. Given ACN’s still-lingering sting over the Genoa story, Charlie says he is interested “as long as it’s not a potentially libelous story involving misconduct in the armed forces …”
So it is sort of a punchline when Don says, “David Petraeus is about to resign over a extra-marital affair with his biographer, a lieutenant in the Army Reserve. And the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be investigated with regard to a relationship with a Florida socialite who has been receiving harassing emails from Gen. Petraeus’s mistress.”
We end with Will looking all butt-hurt-intense in the camera at a still-frazzled Mackenzie, which somehow seems to prep us for more emotional abuse on the season finale. Yay.
The Newsroom Season 2 finale airs Sunday, Sept. 15, at 10/9CT on HBO.