One headline summation of this latest edition of The Newsroom could read: A riveting new subplot unfolds and a previously unsympathetic heroine—associate producer Maggie Jordan (played by Alison Pill)—emerges transformed. Another might be: That hair color spells trouble (both Maggie's old blonde and new red. Not to mention that the new cut is awful).
As in the first episode of this season, this installment begins with the network's lawyer questioning a NewsNight staffer. First, it was the anchorman, this time it's a lowly associate producer. A young neurotic blonde in earlier episodes, Maggie always seemed to be writhing upon a hot seat of her own imagination. Now, with red hair badly cut, she is enduring the real thing. This darker, edgier look matches her new demeanor. She has returned from a first-ever overseas reporting trip to Africa hardened, somewhat combative, and possibly in trouble. The episode is Maggie's bildungsroman. And it's a compelling one.
Under the lawyer's questioning, she details her trip to Africa and we flash back to the eager but inexperienced associate producer out in the field for the first time; not only had she not been overseas before as a reporter, she apparently hadn't been out in the field anywhere before. She arrives in Uganda to do what is basically a story about an orphanage. Shortly after her arrival, it is mentioned in an aside by one of her greeters, "That hair color is trouble"—a reference to her fairly long blonde locks. And trouble there is, quickly.
Maggie makes a connection with a young boy named Daniel. He's shy and quiet and talks to no one, but the visiting reporter's blonde hair—something foreign in his culture—intrigues him. Maggie and her crew are not scheduled to spend the night but are forced to (vehicle breakdown—this often happens to news crews in remote, dangerous places). For journalists who travel regularly to such spots, vehicle breakdown is a constant concern and dread. What was meant to be a short human interest piece suddenly turns deadly as Maggie's presence unleashes a traumatic chain of events. As the night deepens, there is an attack by bandits, or enemy tribal warriors (it's not clear which; as is often the case in reality, you don't know exactly who is attacking). Amidst shots and confusion, everyone hustles the children onto a bus for an escape. But Daniel is missing. Maggie, along with some help, goes back to get him. They manage to lift him from under a bed where he's hiding and make it back outside, but the boy is shot as they run. Did he die? That seems unclear. Details of the rest of the night are lacking for the viewing audience. The whole story of what happened in Africa is apparently being kept secret for now in the show's effort to build tension.
I see it as a successful effort to create both suspense and further interest in this subplot. Some other journalists with whom I viewed this episode saw it as creating ambiguity and confusion due to, among other things, lack of context. Several of them thought that while the Africa storyline is interesting and promising, "the jumbled format" (as they called it) in which it's told is disorienting. In their opinion, rather than reflecting on the tragedy that occurred on screen, viewers are driven to debate and decipher what actually happened.
This, they say, leaves too many questions unanswered: Did the orphan boy die or not? What is Maggie lying about in her debriefing by the lawyer? Why does she keep saying, "It happened"? What exactly did happen? These colleagues of mine opined that the script held back too much information as a means of peaking interest. I disagree, but there you are; you decide. Whatever you think now, I'm willing to bet the doublewide that while viewers may be left with a blizzard of questions at the end of this week's episode, by the season's end it will all add up. The writer of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin, has a long track record of delivering, big-time, on such things.
Yes, his scripts are complicated, multi-faceted with sub-plots galore, sometimes hard to follow—one does have to pay close attention—but the man is a hellava story-teller and is a master of good value for time spent watching.
By the way, I have admired and commented on the authenticity of The Newsroom many times, and will do again now. The look, feel and dialogues in this program are often eerily realistic. But it is, at its core, entertainment. And liberties are taken. For example, few if any major network news organization would send an inexperienced associate producer such as Maggie alone to lead a story quest in Africa below the Sahara (or anyplace else overseas for that matter). She would have to be more seasoned to get this kind of assignment, or at least she would have been assigned to have a more experienced correspondent or producer along with her.
What rings oh-so-true in this episode is that Maggie returns from her trip a different person. Reporters often meet and connect with people whose harrowing experiences leave indelible impressions. A reporter must be able to report a story objectively, to be able to be a sharp, fair-minded observer and an honest broker of information for his or her viewers, listeners or readers. But in order to get a story, a reporter sometimes risks becoming a part of it. As human beings, reporters are not immune to the pain and suffering to which they are often exposed. Even much-traveled, hardened journalists with years of experience don't come back from stories such as the one Maggie went through unchanged. (Covering Dr. Martin Luther King and the early Civil Rights Movement in the South on daily basis changed me as a professional and as a man. I have often said, because it is true, that no reporter can go through any extended coverage in India for the first time and come out as the same person. This was the case when I first went to India to cover the India-Pakistan War of 1965. The experience changed me forever).
As with all good drama, Maggie's abrupt transformation exaggerates this reality without distorting it. This is yet another example of just how good Sorkin is at knowing the nuances and deeper eddies of journalism and bringing them to screen as part of a narrative arc.
Elsewhere in this week's episode, as the viewer awaits details of what happened in Uganda, we are given another look back at the Occupy Wall Street protests that rocked the news for weeks in the fall of 2011. We're brought back to the social movement and its fight for income-opportunity equality. Anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) belittles and demeans a young college professor who comes on his program to discuss Occupy Wall Street and its purpose. Turns out this woman may have valuable information about "Genoa"—a story about U.S. troops using poison gas—that is another plot line involving McAvoy's news team. But she won't consider sharing it until the anchor apologizes, which he eventually does. So this "Genoa" plot line, a major one for the current season, hums along. We already know that the story will result in a heap of trouble for the anchor and his network.
As for romances…well there were already so many of them that you almost needed a scorecard to keep track and yet another is added this week. But that's a good thing. Intra-office and inter-network romances among news reporters and producers are common in the real world of journalism. The work is so time-consuming and otherwise demanding that romances with colleagues and/or competitors are practically pre-ordained among young people so dedicated to their craft. I'm not an authority of this, but it's been my observation over the years that young journalists don't drink or sleep with one another any more than the young in any other profession, trade or craft, but they may do it more among one another than is the case in other line of work. This, I think, is because they work so close together such long hours—including on weekends, through holidays and the like—that it's hard to socialize much with anyone outside the news orbit.
Anyway, this week, senior producer turned campaign bus reporter Jim Harper (John O'Gallagher) gives up a key interview to help competitor Hallie Shea (Grace Gummer)—and their budding romance begins to bloom. You may want to see this as a small but important reminder of the unpleasant fact that access to candidates is of prime importance to all reporters on political campaigns and, can skew coverage to candidate’s advantage as reporters vie for interviews.
The young women reporters who viewed this week's episode with me say that they are unimpressed with most, if not all, of the romantic storylines so far. An older, more experienced woman who saw the show with me likes the romantic stuff so far. By the way, she is an avid fan of the series and eagerly awaits each new chapter. She thinks this week's edition may be the best so far. Most of the young women mentioned like it so far as well, but generally opine that they are worried the story may bog down a bit unless its momentum picks up next week… and thereafter. Overall, they didn't think that this week's episode was among the best. Take it for whatever you think it may be worth. They are also of the opinion that, for any viewer coming into this season in the middle—just picking up on it—the show may be confusing and hard to follow.
While I don't honestly think so, it may be that I've become too biased, too interested, and too invested (with time) in the program. With that in mind, I say again: The Newsroom is good, very good, television. Still the best drama I've seen this season and getting stronger each week.
Author's note: Madeleine Rowe, Cherisse Cruz, Rebecca DeLaFuente and Miranda Landsman helped greatly with the preparation and writing of this review. It draws considerably on many of their thoughts, words, insights and opinions.
Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of Dan Rather Reports. You can follow him onFacebook and Twitter. He will be recapping each episode of the second season of HBO's The Newsroom. Except last week's, which was missed due to an oversight.