For the most part, The Newsroom‘s final season is dying-broadcast-news-business as usual. Will McAvoy continues to be an insufferable blowhard. Olivia Munn continues to be way, way better than the show. And the Internet continues to be the Big, Bad Bogeyman that’s taking journalism to hell in a hand basket. (At one point, Meryl Streep’s daughter says the word “retweets” in a way that is supposed to convey profound shame. It does not work, but not for lack of trying.) But there is one new, potentially earth-shaking development here — one with very important consequences for our understanding of Sorkinland.
Here’s the background: like The Newsroom‘s second season, the third has a unifying, season-long arc. This is a good thing, both because it gives the series something more to do than rehash old news and because Marcia Gay Harden gets a chance to come back as the show’s resident Terrifyingly Competent Woman Over 40. (Still a reductive archetype, but a better one than the Hysterical, Phone-Chucking Woman Under 35.) Last season, that arc was about Will and company’s first major fuck-up: doctoring footage to expose the military’s use of chemical weapons on civilians, a horrifying story that never actually happened.
This time, the major plot line can best be described as The Newsroom Does Edward Snowden. Neal Sampat, the McAvoy team’s token ‘net enthusiast, gets a tip from a mysterious whistleblower. Like Snowden, the whistleblower is cautious to the point of paranoia, hiding a flash drive in a Manhattan restaurant’s restroom. Like Snowden, the whisteblower provokes the ire of US law enforcement. Neal even gets the tip in the spring of 2013, meaning the story will likely break around the same time that Glenn Greenwald’s did.
There’s one important difference, though: Neal’s story is not about surveillance, or metadata, or the NSA. Neal’s story is not even about an actual country; like Genoa, it’s made up, freeing Sorkin somewhat from the constraints of the actual news cycle. (Side note: of all this show’s flaws, Sorkin apparently decided that the real-news angle, and the ham-fisted media criticism that comes with it, is the worst. It’s a start, but there are about half a dozen other things I’d rather see fixed first.)
Instead, Neal’s story is about THE EQUATORIAL REPUBLIC OF KUNDU.
No, the Equatorial Republic of Kundu is not a real country. So why does it sound familiar? Because along with Qumar, Kundu is part of the proud tradition of making up countries that marked another, better-regarded Sorkin show. A little show called The West Wing.
Which raises a whole host of questions. The Newsroom supposedly takes place in our world, a world where Obama is president and Jim Harper can hitch a ride with the Romney campaign and the Boston Marathon bombings happened. The West Wing supposedly takes place in an alternate world, a world where Clinton basically got an extra two terms and presidential elections happened two years off schedule and 9/11 didn’t happen, but was obliquely addressed via preachy bottle episode anyway.
But what if that’s all wrong? What if The Newsroom and The West Wing take place in the same universe, a universe where Kundu exists and has been dealing with ill-advised American interventions since the early aughts? What if there’s a Grand Unified Sorkinverse where maybe, just maybe, Will McAvoy will have his head served to him on a platter by the greatest press handler of them all, CJ Cregg?
Obviously, there are problems with this theory. If 9/11 didn’t happen in The West Wing universe, then why would Bin Laden’s capture play such a big role in The Newsroom‘s first season? If Matt Santos became president in 2006, when did Obama come into the picture? Does that mean Santos is Obama, the way Bartlet basically is Clinton?
The simplest, Occam’s Razor solution is that The West Wing still takes place in its own little universe, a universe where the wishful thinking of centrist Democrats is reality, and The Newsroom simply takes place in a slightly retooled version of the actual universe. But that possibility isn’t only less fun — it closes off all kinds of possibilities. Like flashbacks where a young Will meets President Bartlet and we finally find out what happens when two Sorkin stand-ins are in the same room at the same time.
More importantly, though, time spent hashing out the details of the Sorkinverse is time not spent counting down the minutes until Olivia Munn is a free woman again.