This week’s headlines
Mac and Jerry Dantana meet face-to-face with former Gunnery Sergeant Eric Sweeney, who provides a detailed account of what happened during the Operation Genoa extraction mission in Afghanistan on September 3rd 2009. He alleges that white phosphorus and sarin gas were used on innocent civilians.
(White phosphorus is a chemical agent widely used by US forces in World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen among others that can kill through smoke inhalation or tissue burns. Its use is regulated but not banned. Sarin, a nerve agent, is classified as a weapon of mass destruction – its production, stockpiling and use are banned.)
Mac and Charlie remain sceptical and tell Jerry to find more evidence. A trawl of Twitter in the locality on the day of the mission reveals a string of tweets providing an eyewitness view which apparently corroborates Sweeney’s account, including the update: “Willie Pete everywhere. Burning” – ‘Willie Pete’ being a colloquialism for white phosphorus.
Will lays into the “witless bullies and hapless punks” in the audience at a Republican candidates’ debate who booed Stephen Hill, a serving captain in Iraq, who posed a question via YouTube about the role of gays in the military. He asks where the leadership quality is when all nine candidates stand by silently and refuse to condemn the booing.
God didn’t give her humanity – she’s a gossip columnist.
Gossip columnist Nina Howard reveals that she knows Will didn’t have flu on 9/11 – his excuse for sitting out ACN’s anniversary coverage. He meets her, tells her the truth and persuades her not to run the story. Sloan, who went to a wedding with Nina’s book agent, is convinced she was the leak, but Charlie and Will realise it was Reese Lansing. They go to confront him with their recording of his admission of phone hacking, only to discover they never actually captured the discussion.
Mac keeps badgering Will to tell her what he said on the voicemail he left for her on the night the US killed Osama bin Laden and he was high. He pleads forgetfulness, and when Mac later asks Nina she omits the bit where he said ”I never stopped loving you”. We then discover that Nina is at Will’s apartment.
Still following the Romney campaign, Jim is increasingly disillusioned with being spoon-fed a diet of shallow and baseless talking points without being allowed to dig beneath the surface and question the lack of substance or consistency in the candidate’s policies. After openly encouraging his fellow journalists to demand real answers, he, Hallie and Stillman are thrown off the bus.
Maggie has started taking mefloquine ahead of her trip to Uganda to protect her against malaria, unaware of the potential side effects such as anxiety, paranoia and even suicidal thoughts. This is enough to send her anxiety level through the roof, even though the effects of the drug haven’t yet kicked in. To guarantee her trip, Mac asks her to also include a human interest story on a Ugandan orphanage.
Mac also tells Neal that Occupy Wall Street are making a mess of things and their lack of clear leadership is turning them into a laughing-stock. However, after he suggests to her that the reason she can’t empathise with OWS is because she’s wealthy, she agrees to give a representative five minutes on air with Will.
Don is attempting to fix his office chair, but only succeeds in constantly falling out of it. Sloan archly observes that this is clearly in no way a reaction to his break-up with Maggie.
What a waste of an episode, showcasing the series at both its best and worst. Quality-wise, the episode splits neatly down the middle. Where it focuses on the news, it’s very good. When it switches to more character-based interaction, it becomes clunky.
In a nine-part season, I would expect the writers to make the most of every episode but this one is a veritable mish-mash of unconnected storylines, many of which drag us back into season one: the (welcome) return of Nina Howard, that deleted voicemail, Reese’s phone-hacking. There’s too much going on, there’s too much focus on the soap opera rather than news elements and it doesn’t go anywhere fast.
Worse still, it feels like we’ve seen the slapstick elements before. Don repeatedly falling out of his chair is reminiscent of Will being unable to put his trousers on, while the revelation of Charlie and Will’s inability to operate a voice recorder properly smacked of Mac’s troubles with email. Neither joke was particularly funny first time around.
The other soap opera/character-based elements mostly annoyed me. I like the Will/Nina dynamic, but yet again we are asked to believe in Maggie being excessively hare-brained, Mac attempting to prise personal information from Will while shouting with her office door open and Sloan back in socially awkward mode. As for Don and the chair – good grief.
What was good? Quite a bit, actually. Will’s opening rant about an audience openly booing a soldier and the unwillingness of the Republican candidates to condemn them for fear of alienating a section of the electorate is a universal issue in politics. (As Jim points out later, having the courage and moral compass to speak up would likely have been a vote-winner rather than a loser.)
Jim’s frustration with his fellow journalists lapping up political spin without question is also a trenchant observation about the lack of depth or investigation in a world where the pressure to get a story out has overwhelmed the value of presenting an informed or balanced view.
The (fictional) Genoa storyline also continues to progress steadily. With each passing week a few more pieces are added to the puzzle, with the final reveal explaining the episode’s title Willie Pete handled deftly. However, while it’s a common enough slang term for white phosphorus in the military, I’m surprised that no one in the newsroom questions the use of such jargon in a remote Afghanistan village. If the tweeter in question is a civilian, how would they be able to identify the chemical and know the jargon, and if it is a Taliban militant then surely this would undermine its credibility as a source? It doesn’t hang together well for me.
And finally …
Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly gets a bit of a battering in this episode. She was the moderator in the Republican candidates’ debate where Stephen Hill was booed, and we later see her speculating ignorantly on video footage of Occupy Wall Street protestors, suggesting that women being pepper-sprayed by NYPD officers are acting up for the cameras. Here’s the latter footage, which unsurprisingly drew a huge amount of hostile reaction at the time.
Will continues to embrace his musical past. In the rundown meeting, he embarks on a minor rant which he concludes with “There’s gonna be a heartache tonight” – a line from Heartache Tonight, a 1979 number one by The Eagles.
Overall, Willie Pete was more miss than hit and was, sadly, reminiscent of season one’s weaker episodes. When The Newsroom is good, it’s very. very good, but when it’s bad …
The Newsroom continues on Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 9pm.