‘The Newsroom’ Season 3, Episode 4 Recap: “Contempt”


Welcome to “Contempt,” or: “The One Where Will and Mac Get Married–for Journalism!,” also known as “The One Where Jim and Hallie Break Up—for Journalism!” and “The One Where Maggie and Professor Ethicist Break Up—for Journalism!.” It’s an episode that’s the culmination of various Sorkin tropes, so much so that it’s less exasperating than a perfect example of the creator’s tics, to be passed down to Screenwriting 101 students throughout the ages. Except for that rooftop scene.

Trope one: the (barely) flawed, but noble authority figure. This episode’s name comes not from its stance towards the Internet and its female personification of the week—*comedy club drum noise*—but the legal repercussions of Will refusing to give up his source. Much as he sympathizes with the government as a Token Republican, Will refuses to give up the name of Neal’s source, possibly because he doesn’t have it. Whatever that conversation with Mac on their under-construction apartment floor means, it has to be protected under all costs, hence the Ave Maria-soundtracked shotgun wedding at City Hall.

Will defied a court order and cares a lot about being a real journalist and not just a celebrity (aside: has anyone ever written about how much benefit of the doubt this show gives broadcast news as opposed to how little it gives to the Internet? As Hallie herself pointed out last episode, both media can have twisted incentives), so he goes to jail, albeit as a newly married man. The only problem? The story he went to jail for gets kiboshed by ACN’s new owner.

Trope two: the evil Internet! Except Lucas Pruit, and Hallie too, comes with a new twist. This time, they talk back, and Sorkin mixes sensible points into their dialogue alongside the absurd. The effect is conflating totally reasonable criticism of Sorkin and his characters—Charlie really does place himself on a self-aggrandizing pedestal (Lucas) and gossipy media blogs really aren’t mutually exclusive with war coverage (Hallie)—with their totally insane actions, like using tech billions to expand ACN’s Snapchat presence instead of paying off the DoJ fines that come with breaking a huge story. It’s somehow even more dismissive than last season’s Sex and the City-obsessed Foursquare hound, mostly because it intentionally throws out the baby with the bathwater in order to discredit, or at least avoid listening to, said baby.

While Reese and Lucas are finalizing the deal, we learn that Lucas slept with Reese’s college girlfriend, which brings us to trope three: conflation of personal and professional motives. Because the sensible mogul went with some company called Halifax and ACN, Charlie is shackled to a “fiber-optic yak” for eternity, or at least the next three episodes. And the Kundu story gets handed off to Don’s 70-something former J-school professor, who is somehow the only other reputable journalist he knows.

And then there’s trope four, which is just all over this episode in a gross, gross way: irrational women, especially young irrational women. Mac remains up on that pedestal right alongside Charlie, but Hallie gets thrown under the bus as the representative whatever unholy combination of Gawker, xoJane, and Emily Gould’s New York Times Magazine cover story that is her new workplace. “Contempt” does everything it can to shift our sympathies from Jim as bad guy—he’s exactly as unwilling to trust his girlfriend’s moral compass and journalistic abilities as Hallie says he is—to Hallie as bad guy. Obviously writing a dishy essay about their relationship is out of line, but the piece feels less like something the character would actually do than a last-minute plot device to show she’s one-hundred percent in the wrong, leaving Jim off the hook.

Even the source falls into the crazy-girl category, refusing to move back Mac’s deadline despite the possibility of a dead kid. Mac complains about Neal facing consequences, not her (second aside: isn’t this the opposite of how whistleblower-journalist relationships work in the real world?), and the source in turn reveals that what she’s really pissed off about his Will’s distrust of her generation, the worst, period, ever, period. She tells Mac she’s not an idiot, but Sorkin sure does his best to make sure she comes off like one, and a child to boot.

Trope four bleeds into troop five: drawn-out office romances. Within hours, Jim and Hallie’s fight has transformed into an identical fight between Maggie and Professor Ethicist. Which, out of nowhere, turns into Professor Ethicist having a jealous fit because Maggie’s supposedly in love with Jim. Seriously: how long have these guys been together? Weeks? Is that even enough time for Maggie to tell him about anything that happened between her and Jim years ago, let alone time for the relationship to get serious enough for him to care? Either way, it ends with Sorkin taking the same approach to mansplaining that he did to Internetphobia: awkwardly parroting his critics in the form of a character who’s supposed to be on the losing side of an argument. Blech.

This will obviously end with Jim and Maggie together, an outcome I have zero investment in because a) Jim is terrible and b) less than two dozen episodes is not nearly enough time to make the audience care about this particular will-they-won’t-they. A couple I do care about, on the other hand, is Don and Sloan, whose HR guy admitted that he was trolling them all along. Now Sloan is free to lose herself in her Bloomberg terminal once again, and Don is free to…do whatever he does. Maybe they’ll eat that red-velvet-cupcake-on-top-of-actual-cake to celebrate.