“Red Team III” was an episode dedicated to answering the questions last week’s big Genoa reveal brought up. If a journalist fabricates an interview, why is he suing for wrongful termination? If a story isn’t true, why did four sources confirm it? If he’s playing a borderline cartoon, can Hamish Linklater still be insanely endearing? The answer to that last one is “yes,” but it’s not the reason “Red Team III” was my favorite episode of The Newsroom to date.
Part of this episode’s strength, of course, was the return of Marcia Gay Harden as Fierce Lawyer Lady. She and Don have a nice rapport that helps the exposition go down easy; he plays the straight man aghast that this bullshit has metastasized into a multimillion dollar lawsuit, she plays the attorney patiently explaining that Genoa might not have been entirely Jerry’s fault. FLL’s job is to prove that the story wasn’t a result of institutional issues like letting a senior producer skip out on his job because he had a bad not-even-breakup. Clearly, FLL has her work cut out for her.
“Red Team III” is named for the final staff meeting before the story goes to air. It’s also supposed to be the first time Will hears the “we used sarin” bombshell, except he’s already heard the story from a very reliable source. That revelation is the first of many myths FLL is happy to destroy with the ruthlessly efficient hindsight this show typically reserves for 2011-era media coverage. Will’s source and Charlie’s source are one and the same, but both men are Very Good Journalists and won’t name their contact before the story goes to air. Which it does, complete with an extremely intense soundtrack that crescendos when Stomtonovich calls to rip Charlie a new one.
We already know why Stomtonovich is a bust, but the next source to go is Eric Sweeney, the soldier who let Mac and Jerry know they were onto something way back when. Spooked by the Pentagon’s threat of legal action — FLL tells us the response took so long because they called in the Attorney General because this is Important — the ACN team has Sweeney do a follow-up interview with Elliott. The poor guy then blurts out on air that he previously sustained a traumatic brain injury he somehow forgot to tell Mac about, which really puts a damper on Don and Sloan’s prison banter. Strike two.
The almost-final straw is Charlie’s source, the mild-mannered military man who handed over the mystery substance invoice. The source’s motives for fanning the Genoa flames are personal: he blames ACN for causing his son’s relapse into addiction after he was fired from his summer internship. One-note characters like this drive me up the wall — this is the kind of origin story we expect from a C-list Batman villain, not a player (however minor) in an HBO drama. The invoice even says FUCK YOU, CHARLIE on it, which is just the on-the-nose cherry on top of the whole uncomfortable mess.
But at the end of the day, the ACN team still has the “raw” footage from Stomtonovich. In a stroke of brilliance that Will pompously compares to Martin Luther King and the New Deal, Mac realizes that the stop clock from the basketball game gives conclusive proof the footage was doctored. (Of course, the only reason she knows the stop clock exists is because of an earlier conversation with Will. Sorkin dialogue saves lives, people!) Jerry the Incensed Liberal is duly fired in an elevator, after which he packs off to file his lawsuit.
Real News this week is rightfully pushed to the very outer limits of “Red Team III.” The Cairo protests and nascent Benghazi controversy get a scant five minutes of screen time, and they’re mostly used as a plot device to show just how much Genoa has affected the News Night team’s confidence. They play it safe and report the Benghazi strike as another response to a heinous anti-Muslim film and not a terrorist strike, because that’s what everyone else is doing and conformity is the ultimate punishment in The Newsroom’s media landscape.
The final scene is awesome because Jane Fonda is awesome and looks awesome and breathes awesome. It’s the night before the 2012 elections, and Will McAvoy decides to take the blame for Genoa like the Christ figure he is. Before he can resign, though, Leona Lansing gives a hell of a speech to him, Charlie, and “McMac,” tearfully confessing she loves ACN even though “you don’t make me a nickel” and vows not to give Jerry Dantana one cent. Then she and FLL call each other “Lee” and “Becca” and it’s adorable, not to mention the one convincing Girl Power moment this show has ever had. Too bad it came at the end of an episode that also included lines like “The women here couldn’t deal with my Ultra Man Mode.” Baby steps!