Well, it happened: in a plot line about half a sentence removed from an Onion story, The Newsroom decided to take on the Boston Marathon. Character-wise, we begin the final season almost exactly where we left off, except Meryl Streep’s daughter is now working for ACN as a blogger, complete with a roped-off little blogger pen proclaiming she’s a part of “ACN DIGITAL,” not the actual News Night team. Anyway, Aaron Sorkin has claimed that one of his biggest regrets from the show was giving journalists the impression he’s telling them how to do their jobs. That may be true, but “Boston” sure doesn’t show it.
There are inklings that these last six episodes have bigger, more interesting things to do than harp on the dangers of Twitter and Reddit. Sloan Sabbith, probably the most successful of The Newsroom‘s female characters, is given something substantive to do on her own; since a shiny new Bloomberg terminal isn’t much help in figuring out what’s going on in Boston, Sloan digs into the subpar AWM earnings report Reese asks her to sugarcoat. She won’t, of course, but she does figure out the company’s in the middle of a hostile takeover! This isn’t very interesting now, but it does mean juicy Jane Fonda scenes later.
The big Season-Long Plot, however, goes to Neal Samphat, token Internet enthusiast. In the middle of all the Boston commotion, Neal gets an anonymous tip demanding, among other things, that he get an “air-gapped” computer and plunge his hand into a toilet tank to retrieve a flash drive. “IT’S SNOWDEN TIIIIIIME,” my notes read, and while the Big Bad Secrets Neal uncovers aren’t about the NSA, the parallels are obvious enough. The Pentagon planted a false story in a newspaper in…Kundu?!?! Besides bringing up all kinds of crazy possibilities re: West Wing crossover, the story also means the US is responsible for the 38 deaths the fake story caused by inciting riots.
A big scoop for News Night, of course, except for one small problem: Neal told his source how to steal some more documents, meaning he’s not just a journalist anymore—he’s a felon. Oops! On the bright side, Will McAvoy’s totally sincere, totally likely-to-pan-out promise to quit won’t come true? We’ve got five more episodes of our hero parsing out the exact details of how his life is like a Greek tragedy, people. Cherish them!
Some decent groundwork is laid for fictional network drama and fictional exposés, but all that pales in comparison to the real-news-fake-reporters story that dominates the episode. Let’s start with how the News Night team finds out about the story: through a deluge of tweets, just like everybody else. But as Mac reminds us, the News Night team isn’t like anybody else! “We’re not going based on tweets from people we can’t talk to. What kind of credible news agency would do that?!” Certainly not yours, Mac! That’s why this exchange is supposed to sound proudly defiant and not embarrassingly retrograde: “Do you guys understand that this explosion occurred in the 21st century?” “Welcome to ACN!”
The smugness metastasizes from there into a full-on teachable moment. The failures of media new and old are literally outlined for the audience in a giant chart, so that we may meditate on the failures of BuzzFeed all the better. Once Don finishes walking us through the serial fuck-ups that led to the misidentification of a suspect, Dangers of Viral Hysteria 101 concludes with an appropriately on-the-nose moral: “Well done, faceless mob!” The entire scene feels like the J-school version of show and tell.
Even in the Boston story line, there are signs of improvement. Will’s failed pep-talk is a cute meta admission that snappy dialogue backed by high-minded principles doesn’t solve everything; Maggie begins the episode kicking ass at the gym and ends it kicking ass on camera. The hard 180 from last season’s horrific Africa debacle (wisely, it looks like Kundu is remaining safely offscreen) may show telltale signs of frantic backpedaling, but it gives Alison Pill the actual character she so richly deserves after two years of hysteria/weird Lisbeth Salander breakdowns.
But that doesn’t erase the central message of “Boston,” or The Newsroom as a whole: look how much better the media can be when it’s backed by a year’s worth of hindsight and an Emmy-winning writer! As much as this show loves to champion democratic principles and broadcast news as a public service, condescension still finds a way of ripping through to the surface—just listen to the way Will says “citizen journalists and citizen detectives,” who, by the way, he won’t “surrender” to. The Newsroom may love the people, but only as long as they trust its characters to lead them. And right now, News Night’s in fourth place.