‘The Newsroom’ Season 2 Rage-cap: “One Step Too Many”

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It’s rare for an episode of television that isn’t a premiere, a finale, or a pilot to represent its show as perfectly as “One Step Too Many” does The Newsroom. Among the Sorkin-verse tropes that came out to play were three of the most basic, and the most representative of the show’s strengths and weaknesses: strictly professional story lines good; personal life subplots bad; subplots involving women especially bad. Luckily, most of “One Step Too Many” was good ol’ fashioned story-chasing, proving that The Newsroom has a shot at being a solid piece of entertainment as long as it steers clear of love triangles and tossed drinks.

From start to finish, this week was all about Genoa. The opening Red Team meeting is appropriately tense and businesslike, even incorporating some banter about Santa’s reindeer without distracting from the gravity of accusing the military of war crimes. Jerry, Mac, Neal, and Maggie debrief Don, Jim, and Sloan with the help of some ACN-issue binders and a very nifty PowerPoint presentation, while an unusually somber Charlie looks on from the sidelines. The Red Team members are as shocked and skeptical as they ought to be, and the session goes swimmingly until Jim decides to ask Maggie her opinion. The moment doesn’t feel as off as Maggie-Jim moments usually do, but derailing a meeting that’s compelling in its own right with an irrelevant bit of personal baggage could be a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with The Newsroom. For the rest of the episode, Jaggie Stuff (see, they don’t even have a good couple name!) is wisely shuffled off to a different subplot, far away from Genoa.

Neal identifies retired general Stanislaus Stomtonovich, helpfully spelled out in the aforementioned PowerPoint, as a possible source for the story. He’s played by Stephen Root, an actor who’s only slightly less compelling as a chemical weapons enthusiast cum basketball fan than he was as Gaston Means, Boardwalk Empire’s Southern-fried corrupt official. After he confirms that Charlie and Mac aren’t magazine salesmen or Jehovah’s Witnesses, Stomtonovich agrees to an on-camera interview with Jerry Dantana the next day, provided his face is blacked out, his voice is distorted, and the basketball game is left on. He even tentatively admits Genoa happened using an odd analogy involving free throws and knife fights, because no topic of conversation is too sacred for Sorkin characters to refrain from whipping out the witty banter. Not even war crimes.

Moving down the totem pole from Team Screws Up Big-Time to Hero Suffers Obligatory Self-Doubt, Will decides to focus-group himself for likability and is shocked to find that viewers don’t adore him for calling members of Congress useless and cross-examining religious conservatives. Rather than let any of this understandable anxiety about his audience appeal come from Will himself, however, the show lets Nina Howard be the snake in his ear, saying things like “Is this really the show you want to do?” and “Why don’t you throw a football at a tire to show how folksy you are?” Paraphrasing on that last one.

Will’s Nina-induced fit of insecurity brings him to ACN’s morning show, where he takes out his frustration at how very un-serious and un-newsy life outside News Night can be on a nearby light fixture. Back upstairs, he angrily breaks up with Nina as a proxy for his own image anxiety. While turning the Will-Nina relationship into an allegory for gossip corrupting news is a major misstep for a show with a “woman problem” this well-documented, the subplot redeems itself by beefing up the relationship between Will and Sloan. He gives her advice, she gives him armchair psychology, and the two give each other the mutual respect and platonic affection that’s missing from so many of The Newsroom’s mixed-gender relationships.

Less redeemable is Jim and Neal’s disastrous double date with Hallie and Aubrey Lerner, a drunken reporter from mtvU with a passion for Ron Paul. Taylor the Press Aide is “sad,” so Hallie invites her along, because there’s nothing Republicans love to do when they’re down more than be a fifth wheel for a bunch of journalists at the Meatpacking District version of P.F. Chang’s. Drunk Reporter manages to supplant Sex and the City Laundromat Girl as this season’s worst female character, an impressive feat considering her mere two minutes of screen time. She’s a punching bag for Neal’s mansplanation of why Ron Paul is terrible, after which she shuts up so Taylor can confess that she just got canned by the Romney campaign.

Just when a sexually frustrated Jim and his girlfriend are about to get some alone time, they run into Maggie drinking alone at the Soho Grand’s bar. After Hallie gets sent off to Colorado on 90 minutes’ notice, Jim’s left with no choice but to head back downstairs and patronize his not-even-ex, reminding her to “be careful when you’re drinking” and not leak the Genoa story to any creepy bartenders who happen to take her home. It’s a plot device to fill us in on Maggie’s hungover state of mind during the general’s interview the next day, but it’s a gross, condescending plot device that makes us dislike Jim more than ever.

Before the interview, the general demands Maggie leave the room, but not before he pronounces “it happened” while she’s still in earshot. Though he tells Jerry he’s about to fess up, Stomtonovich dodges the question once the camera’s actually on. A frustrated and increasingly unstable Jerry decides facts shouldn’t get in the way of his crusade to expose the Obama administration’s human rights abuses, so he edits the raw footage to turn “If it happened, here’s how we used sarin” into “We used sarin.” It’s still not enough for Charlie to run the story, but the operation’s crew chief, previously presumed dead, calls ACN to confirm a few months later. We cut to Charlie’s solemn testimony, as relayed to Fierce Lawyer Lady: Genoa was aired as a special report to six million viewers at 9 p.m. on a Sunday. “By 10:05, I knew we had a problem. None of it was true.”