“Red Team III” is such a good episode for 95 percent of its running time that the five percent that doesn’t work just pisses me off all the more. Where last week’s episode made it seem like Jerry Dantana was the guy who fucked up and everybody else might get to just blame everything on him, “Red Team III” turns everything on its ear in a really interesting and fun way. It turns out that the lawsuit we’ve seen depositions around all season has absolutely nothing to do with a libel suit or anything like that—though there’s brief discussion of ACN being charged under the Espionage Act in the immediate fallout of the Genoa story. Instead, this is Jerry’s lawsuit against Atlantic Cable News for wrongful termination. Sure, he edited that video to make it appear that Stomtonovich said “We used Saran,” but he also maintains the failure was not his and his alone. He’s been made a scapegoat, he says, for a broader institutional failure. And that’s interesting.
“Red Team III” is like Aaron Sorkin checking off answers to all of the questions someone might reasonably ask about everything swirling around the Genoa lawsuit storyline. Why didn’t it affect the election seemingly at all? Well, because the government immediately pushed back against the story, claiming that it was absolutely false and possibly prosecutable. Also, the story aired a couple of nights before the Benghazi attack became the dominant story on all of cable news. Both of these are perfectly reasonable explanations, particularly since Benghazi was easier for President Obama’s Republican opponents to use as a cudgel against him (a completely misunderstood and bizarrely mischaracterized cudgel, but let’s not politicize, eh?) than Operation Genoa would have been. And like the inauthenticity of the Air National Guard memos quickly became the story on the famous 60 Minutes II report on George W. Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard, rather than anything else in the piece, the fact that ACN fucked up becomes the story very, very swiftly.
The bulk of this episode is really good. Like probably the best episode of the series good, to the degree that I was considering giving it an A because it was so consistently and reliably entertaining. There are things that don’t work here, like the sweeping, dramatic music that plays over a montage of newsroom staffers watching a report we know will prove to be false, or the continued, weird demonization of the intern (who continues to be used by Sorkin as a weird example of things he dislikes about her generation, like how news about the royal baby is news she would be interested in). The bit where it’s implied that ACN could have gotten Benghazi right were it not distracted by the need to retract Genoa made me roll my eyes a little bit. And you’ve also got that scene where it’s revealed just how weirdly personal Charlie’s spy source’s vendetta against ACN has been. It’s a good scene, just by virtue of featuring Sam Waterston and Frank Wood facing off, but it’s also way, way too melodramatic in an episode that nicely manages to contain its melodrama quotient to Jim’s offhanded mention of mooning over Maggie and Jerry’s mustache twirling.
No, even when stuff in the bulk of the episode doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter, because this is just a riveting portrayal of what happens when otherwise smart people completely fuck up. Even in the more cloying and stupid Newsroom moments, it has a momentum that carries it past everything else. I’m not sure the structure of the season—ping-ponging between the past and present as it has—is entirely necessary, but man, it’s fun to watch Sorkin really cut loose with it in some of tonight’s scenes, like when the various newsroom staffers meet with Rebecca and her questions get answered in the past almost as often as they are in the present. Hell, I’m even more or less fine with the continued sanctification of Jim because he’s ultimately assigned some of the blame as well, just for not continuing to push his objections.
Sorkin even writes a crackerjack scene where everybody’s in the conference room, shouting at each other, something that just last week I wasn’t sure he was still capable of. These are still people who largely have each other’s backs, but in the wake of the Genoa report going out, they’re increasingly terrified that the objections to the story might be true, particularly once the general keeps calling to chew out anyone he can get on the line or when it’s revealed one of the story’s key sources suffered a traumatic brain injury he successfully kept from the team—a traumatic brain injury that affects his ability to remember stuff. This is interesting conflict and drama. This is people who are starting to wonder if they’re peddling snake oil. That dramatic power carries the episode past any rough patches.
It’s also a riveting example of how institutional failure becomes embedded, how otherwise well-meaning and basically good people can just screw up and then fall into line, one after the other, to defend that screw-up even if they have doubts. When the story’s right, when the information is good, when everything works, well, then the falling into line can be a good thing, because it presents a united front to those who would deny the story’s veracity. And everyone’s right to initially poo-poo those who say the story’s wrong, because that’s exactly what those people would say in that moment. That’s a powerful thing when the story’s right; it’s suicide when the story’s wrong.
And the episode spreads blame around. Jerry’s sin is the most egregious, but everybody fucks up somewhere or another. Mackenzie led Valenzuela on in her interview with him. Will and Charlie never figure out they’re being misled by the same source, and neither figures out that source has a very personal reason to want to screw over ACN. Maggie apparently never told anyone she wasn’t in the room when Jerry interviewed the general, while Jim and Sloan hold on to objections about the story because they’re supposed to. Even the more minor of fuck-ups add up to a colossal problem that could take down the whole company. It’s not just Jerry. It’s an institution that went very, very wrong.
And then, of course, the final scene sort of shits all over this. Not enough to tank the whole episode, but enough to drag it down a couple of points. Look: I can explain this away. Leona doesn’t like the News Night team, but she likes them a fair sight better than a former employee who messed with raw footage and has the temerity to file a wrongful termination lawsuit like it wasn’t his fault. I get that she doesn’t want to pay him, and because she doesn’t, she needs the News Night team to stick around. And I’ll even grant you that Jane Fonda bellowing, “Then get it back!” toward the camera before a smash-cut to black is a pretty kick-ass ending. But the whole scene just feels like the worst of this show, from the way it seems designed to exonerate the protagonists for the shit they’ve just fucked up, because it would suck if they ever seemed unlikable or complex or human to the way that Leona keeps repeating Daniel Craig’s name, like that’s a thing that will start being hilarious at some point. And the part where Rebecca wanders in to tell Leona not to accept the team’s resignations? Just ugh.
In any other episode, that final scene would just blend into the woodwork. In “Red Team III,” however, an episode with consequences and stakes and dramatic conflict, this scene is a particularly egregious example of how the show can never quite stick to something interesting if it might lead to the protagonists having to suffer for their professional sins. Consequences and stakes are the most important aspects of drama, and without them, things fall apart. Maybe that’s why the last scene feels so much more jarring than it would have otherwise. “Red Team III” dangles the prospect of a version of this series where things matter, and it’s delicious. And then it has the audacity to walk almost all of it back, and you realize you’re still watching The Newsroom.
- The one thing everybody can agree on about this season is that Sorkin can write a hell of a deposition scene, and there are some stunningly terrific passages in the various scenes with Rebecca grilling the News Night team tonight. Awesome stuff.
- Watching Marcia Gay Harden relish the opportunity to speak Sorkinese made me think that he should next do a series about a modern-day Katherine Graham type, played by Harden, set in the dying world of the newspaper industry. Surround her with younger men, so she has all the power and if she takes one of them as a lover, that power is always implicit, even if he must make her act a little goofy. I would watch this series nine times, Aaron Sorkin.
- Okay, so when the hell does Maggie cut her hair? It must be in the wake of Genoa, but it seems really weird that that would trigger her particular memories of Uganda, even if she’s feeling like she was a part of the institutional fuck-up. The Africa storyline was just a miss all around.
- I enjoyed Don and Gary’s little back-and-forth about whether the embassy should have apologized for the Islamophobic film that briefly seemed to be the reason for the Benghazi attack and Cairo protests. I also liked how much everybody talked about how much the movie appeared to suck. And I liked Don’s freak-out when he heard the words “traumatic brain injury.”
- Weren’t Patton Oswalt and Rosemarie DeWitt supposed to be in this season? Whatever happened to that? I guess they could be in the final two episodes (which won’t begin airing until Sept. 8, because HBO is taking Labor Day weekend off), but I’m beginning to worry they’re casualties of the cutting room floor.
- Mackenzie constantly coming across clocks and/or having sports explained to her by Will could have both felt really stupid—like throwbacks to the Mackenzie of last season—but the show managed to earn both of them somehow. I think the former was so good because it eventually became ridiculous in how far it was pushing her to realize, oh, hey, shot clock, and the latter was good because Will made fun of soccer, and soccer is dumb. You heard me.
- One reason I’m willing to cut the show more slack on the Mackenzie beat: She’s much better at her job this season, and when she messes up, she’s the one to catch it. She’s the one who knows what she did to Valenzuela, and it obviously fills her with nausea.