Mitch's misconduct is on full display in the flashback episode 'Lonely at the Top.'

By Jodi Walker
December 06, 2019 at 08:39 PM EST
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“So this is how it happens.”

It’s not a question. It’s a statement, a realization made by Hannah Shoenfeld — the woman we’ve come to know as The Morning Show’s extremely talented but clearly wounded head booker — after she attempted to report Mitch Kessler’s sexual misconduct to Fred around two years ago, and he suggested they promote her instead. “So this is how it happens,” she says, stunned. “Absolutely,” Fred replies, answering her unasked questions with unsaid words. “People do fantastic work, and they get promoted — that is absolutely how it happens.”

So Hannah becomes head booker. And Hannah was doing fantastic work as a junior booker, but for her the two things can never be connected. The bridge that connects them instead is Mitch Kessler taking an interest in her that she believed to be earnest right up until the point where he started kissing her neck in hotel rooms and ignoring her in the TMS halls. Hannah is very good at her job, but she’ll never know if she got that job because of her talent and hard work or because Mitch Kessler wanted to sleep with her without consideration for whether she wanted to sleep with him, and wanted to shut her up about it.

If it’s not clear yet, episode 8 of The Morning Show is done entirely in flashback over the course of a few days in 2017, beginning with the Las Vegas mass shooting and ending with the allegations against Harvey Weinstein being published in the New York Times. Those real-life events also happen to coincide with Mitch Kessler’s 50th birthday and one particular instance of his sexual misconduct that wasn’t even exposed when the allegations against him came out in a separate New York Times article two years later.

Watching Mitch prey on Hannah in order to mitigate his own feelings of insecurity is nauseating, but at the same time, much more nuanced than anything we’ve seen from the Mitch character to this point. Watching this episode, I have to wonder what the series would have been like if we’d never actually met Mitch until this flashback episode. For all its energy and shine, The Morning Show’s most consistent setback is that it does a lot of telling, and not a lot of doing.

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But in this episode, we see how charming Mitch really was, rather than just hearing about it; we see why America and many people on the TMS staff would have loved him. Before this we’ve heard about those things, but what we’ve mostly seen is a narcissistic crybaby who wants to blame anyone but himself for his own actions. In this hourlong flashback, though, Steve Carell is every ounce of a charismatic star who’s also fully capable deteriorating into a self-loathing mess the moment the cameras turn off.

That we watch in real time as Mitch grows depressed and uses his innate charm to manipulate those he holds power over in order to assuage his own feelings of inadequacy doesn’t make this character any more sympathetic, nor do I believe it’s intended to. The realism of how quickly Mitch is able to comfort Hannah and then turn that comfort into overwhelming confusion makes it all the more insidious.

This episode begins as so many others have, with an alarm clock going off at 3:30 a.m. It’s time for Mitch to get ready to co-anchor The Morning Show; this particular morning just so happens to be his 50th birthday. Mitch walks through the TMS halls like the celebrity he is, giving and receiving high-fives and back-claps, and from Allison, a Marilyn-esque “Happy birthday, Mr. Kessler.” As we’ve been told, Mitch is a flirt, with Alex especially. When they sit down at the desk together, Mitch teases Alex about how she should wear more dresses like Allison’s flippy little number.

There’s a clear love and affection between them, but there’s also — from Alex’s end, at least — a competitiveness. She’s in Chip’s office before they go on air, complaining that Mitch gets all the good stories, when Chip lets slip that the network had done some testing and Mitch tests very well. “Mitch tests well when he’s with me,” Alex insists, and it’s true: That chemistry we’ve heard so much about is right there on the screen. But there’s also the uncomfortableness of Mitch’s constant innuendo, even if Alex happens to find it endearing. “I would take you in that dress over Allison any day,” Mitch tells Alex, pausing for effect. “Because if you were wearing the dress, it means she would be naked.”

Zing! Right over the mic for everyone to hear. “There it is, first one of the day,” Alex says with a laugh, right before they go to air.

In the midst of all this is Hannah, a fairly new junior booker who seems to really love her job but is also letting that job isolate her from any other personal connections she once had. Hannah suddenly catches Mitch’s eye when she steps in to say she has some connections at a senator’s office the head booker is refusing to contact even though Chip wants him to. “She’s a go-getter,” Mitch says causally to his makeup artist. And later, at the surprise birthday blowout Alex has planned for Mitch and the whole TMS crew, Mitch spots an uncomfortable-looking Hannah again and tells her she did the right thing speaking up. “You know what you did?” he says. “You made the show better on Friday — categorically better. So keep up the good work.”

How enchanting would it be to hear those words from a superior, someone you truly admire, who’s already been through all the steps to become the successful person you hope to be one day? And Mitch is so earnest when he says them. And perhaps he really does recognize potential in Hannah, but Mitch is also a narcissist — the only person he really seems to consistently be able to care about is himself.

On the eve of his 50th birthday, that self-obsession is taking a nose dive into self-pity. While his party is dying down, Mitch speaks woefully with his Woody Allen-esque director friend, played by Martin Short, saying that he knows he’s accomplished a lot in his career, but is that really all there is? “I’ve let down the people I love — maybe that’s my legacy at the end,” Mitch says into his whiskey glass. “Maybe that’s it.” From an acting standpoint, it’s fascinating to watch Carell convincingly drive Mitch off this emotional cliff: from a preening star to a walking midlife crisis lamenting his legacy in a matter of minutes.

From a character standpoint, it’s foreboding. This is the frame of mind Mitch is in when the TMS crew hears about the shooting in Las Vegas, before many of them have even headed home for the night. The power Mitch wields — and therefore the power his own ego and emotional volatility have to sway the show and everyone on it — is on full display as he heads toward the airport. In the split-second between getting on the elevator and the doors closing, Mitch tells Chip to send Hannah to Las Vegas instead of the head booker, and that it’s time to switch Mia from his team to Alex’s because of the awkwardness following their breakup.

At the tragic scene in Las Vegas, Mitch burrows even further into his own feelings of insecurity; as Alex worries about the effect of having to face this kind of pain all the time for their job, Mitch says the unnatural part is actually how much money they have. “Part of being this successful is having enough money to not have to see the pain,” he says, clearly gearing up for a full-on existential spiral. “The world is unfair and sad and ugly, and we hide from it in our wealth, but then the way you and I make our money is, we put ourselves right in the middle of everyone else’s pain.”

Mitch asks Alex to go out and get a drink, but she turns him down, reminding him that they’ve been up for 48 hours at this point.

And that’s the state Mitch is in — sad, self-pitying, feeling powerless, and a little bit rejected — when he spots Hannah standing on the Strip. It’s not an excuse for what he does, it just all goes toward underlining that “I just want to feel good” mentality he’ll use as an excuse to himself later. But Hannah has yet to come to the numbing-the-pain point of her TMS experience that we know she’ll turn to substances for later, and that Mitch presumably uses sex and manipulation for. When Mitch finds her on the Strip, she’s crying, and he offers to walk her back to the hotel, seeming so genuinely nurturing in that moment.

On the way, they talk about what it’s like to have this job. Mitch tells Hannah that sometimes you “just have to feel sad as s— and live with it,” even though we know he’ll use her in order to escape his own sadness soon. Hannah says she doesn’t think she’s ever learned so much in a single day, and Mitch notes that she’s a sponge. “You just absorb stuff… that’s what makes you smart. You really care about your job, and that’s why I wanted you here.” Once again, how good would that feel? To know that the qualities Hannah wants so badly for people to notice are being noticed by exactly the right person…

And how much worse would it feel then, when that validation turns into just another method for Mitch to get a young woman into a hotel room where he can try to have sex with her?

It could make you feel like none of it meant anything, like you’re nothing but your body, like you’re worthless. It could certainly make you feel confused. And in those moments of confusion and heartbreak written all over Hannah’s face as someone she thought was becoming her mentor begins kissing her neck and telling her she smells good — that’s when Mitch changes gears. That’s when the words of affirmation and encouragement turn into coaxing “I just want to feel good,” and “It’s okay,” even as Hannah tries over and over to pull away while also trying not to offend her superior by flat-out rejecting him.

It’s like watching a horror movie as Hannah finally acquiesces to Mitch’s gropes, her face shuddering with a look of dawning numbness we know she’ll still be carrying two years later. And as Hannah takes on all that grief and confusion, Mitch gets to unload his. He sleeps soundly as she picks up her underwear afterward, staring blankly out into the hotel room.

Back at the TMS offices, Hannah gazes absentmindedly at her computer, walks distractedly down the halls. And when Mitch suddenly appears, he passes by with a simple hello, like nothing has changed at all for him…

Because nothing has. And in that moment, Hannah knows it — she marches upstairs to Fred’s office and demands to speak to him. She tells Fred that she’s a junior booker at The Morning Show… that she just got back from Vegas… that Mitch Kessler invited her up to his room to watch a movie and he wound up… and he wound up…

She can’t finish the sentence through her tears, but Fred says she doesn’t need to. He asks her name, says he’s heard she’s been doing good work, and that head booker could be in her future. “So this is how it happens,” Hannah says. Indeed it is, Fred tells her. As a fresh wave of numbness washes over Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s face — she is so, so good in this role — the news about Weinstein is breaking on the screen behind Fred’s desk. This is how it happens.

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