‘The Newsroom’ Season 3 Episode 5 Recap: “Oh Shenandoah”


The media commentary on The Newsroom has always been an odd mix of troglodytic and eerily prescient. On the one hand, the show is, by its very design, a year and a half too late to have anything real to say on current event—an approach that always seemed to fit well with a preachy worldview that’s far more than a year and a half behind the times. And then, very occasionally, the show manages to seem almost clairvoyant. Like when “Oh Shenandoah” airs this week.

By the time I actually watched “Oh Shenandoah,” it was already infamous as the “campus rape episode.” This being Aaron Sorkin, a man who has written a female character to say she considers sexual harassment a sign of respect, my bar was about as low as it could possibly go, so if I’m being honest: yes, I’m furious, but nowhere near as much as I’d thought I’d be.

The story Don goes to investigate isn’t literally ripped from the headlines, but the Princeton website for anonymous accusations is obviously based on the “rapist lists” that showed up in Columbia bathrooms earlier this year (a tactic activists borrowed from Brown students in the early ’90s). Sorkin goes out of his way to make the story’s subject a Good Victim: after two men assault her while intoxicated on coke, booze, and that notorious college rager drug shrooms, she not only goes to the campus police, but to the actual police. And the district attorney’s office. She even seeks help in time to have a rape kit, which will go untested.

The problem is that Don, objective, ethical Don, insists that he’s not just legally obligated not to believe the victim—he’s morally obligated to. Strike one. And that he believes the desperate measures taken by those who’ve tried to work through the system, only to have the system fail them miserably, are comparable to…revenge porn. Strike two. And that campus rape, which Charlie rightfully points out is practically an epidemic, is somehow the same kind of audience-pandering, morally reprehensible clickbait as a celebrity stalker app.

Strike three.

Honestly, it’s been a very, very long week for those of us who care about campus assault, and I don’t quite have the mental energy to explain the rage I felt when Don claimed he couldn’t find his source and the audience was supposed to interpret it as a Triumph for Journalism. Instead, I’ll just say that The Newsroom inadvertently captured another aspect of the sexual assault story by relegating it to a B-plot of a single episode. Just like certain (heavily white, heavily male) pockets of the media, campus rape may be awful—but it’s not nearly as awful as what the Internet is doing to TNR ACN!

Because even though “Oh, Shenandoah” is already notorious for the sexual assault subplot, Sorkin reserves far more screen time, and indignation, for the war between Pruitt’s Prideless Punks on one side and All Good Journalists on the other. Here’s what I don’t understand about this: not only is “ACNgage” a ripoff of Gawker Stalker, which has been down for years, it’s a ripoff that Sorkin is perfectly aware of and writes into the script. Also, I’m not really sure what Sorkin has against Gawker-editor-turned-bookseller-slash-novelist Emily Gould, but my suspicion that Hallie’s tell-all essay was modeled after this magazine article was confirmed when Sloan’s interview was clearly a rehash of this one with Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel even comes up in the interview!

So…what’s the point of rehashing a debate that’s a half decade dead? Has the specter of early Gawker really haunted Aaron Sorkin that much? Or was he just looking for an easier hit job than Gawker’s current iteration, where ten-grand bounties for Lena Dunham photos exist side by side with original reporting and critical essays? Doesn’t matter, because five minutes later, Charlie’s dead of a heart attack, and any critical thinking on the viewer’s part is supposed to be subsumed by our grief for Sam Waterston.

Finally, Will spent a lot of time in jail with a wife-beating anti-Semite and Maggie/Jim, a couple whose lack of a good portmanteau says a lot about what a terrible couple they are, finally get together. Will has many opportunities to be self-righteous and not do a whole bunch, and we learn that making out in coach on an overcrowded flight to Cuba looks as unromantic as it sounds.

Next week is the finale, when we can expect Neal’s return from Venezuela and a funeral for Charlie—and for journalism!!!! ACN is imploding, the Kundu story’s over and done with, and the worst topic The Newsroom could possibly cover that isn’t police brutality has already been dealt with. All that’s left is one last chance to mansplain the news before Sorkin rides off into the sunset. Can’t wait!