While Will remains incarcerated for contempt, ACN becomes a shell of its former self, with dire consequences for everyone involved.
In honor of the late, great newsman and onetime U.S. Marine Charles Skinner, let’s all raise a glass, preferably containing a good, stiff drink—because we’re going to need it heading into next week’s Newsroom finale. First off, talk about some really bizarre timing with the story lines of “Oh Shenandoah”: If this had been any other weekend, only the last few minutes of the series’ penultimate episode would have been permanently seared into our brains, and it would have been enough. Sam Waterston’s beloved news director suffers a heart attack on the Atlantis Cable Network’s newsroom floor and dies a few hours later—placing the final nail in the coffin on Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama. (Because as good as these last episodes have been, no one wants a Newsroom without the perpetually inebriated Charlie Skinner.)
But instead of being the episode where everyone’s going to be talking about how we all ugly-cried over Waterston’s big death scene (oh, you know you did, don’t deny it), “Oh Shenandoah” will now be remembered as the episode with the eerily timely college-campus-rape subplot that aired two days after Rolling Stone magazine posted this note with regards to its own disturbing college-campus-rape feature.
There are other important things that happen in this episode too, but Sorkin has crammed way too much into each hour block (a six-episode season is really failing him here). Plus, the magnitude of the two above-mentioned plot developments makes it impossible to devote any amount of energy to Will McAvoy’s 52 days in prison, or real space in this recap. In short, Jeff Daniels spends all but one scene this episode in tan prison scrubs straight from Orange Is the New Black Couture’s spring line and still refuses to give up the name of the person who provided Neal Sampat with the 27,000 classified documents—even though source Lilly Hart put a bullet in her head on the steps of the Justice Building—preferring to do battle with his bigoted, drunken cellmate who likes to beat his wife in his spare time.
But guess what? That “cellmate” was just Will’s mind playing tricks on him after 52 days in solitary. Didn’t those cues of “drinker” and “beats his wife” give you any indication that Will was just having a long, overdue cathartic fight with his deceased father? Don’t feel badly if you were fooled—I was too, but it was worth it for the clever reveal when Will was packing up to go home (he proved his point after close to two months of voluntary incarceration and the government eventually got fed up with his quixotic resolve): As he took down a childhood photo of him and his dad, we see that Papa McAvoy has the same face as Will’s antagonistic cellmate.
The way “Oh Shenandoah” is set up, other than a brief prologue with Will being brought into his prison cell, we then skip ahead to “52 Days Later.” New ACN owner Lucas Pruit’s mission to turn the network into a journalistically tone-deaf digital-media empire has been a huge success, at the expense of Charlie’s physical and mental health.
NEXT: Meet Don “Quixote” Keefer
From the first moment we see him—presenting a new promo featuring the cringe-worthy hashtag #uracn to a dumbfounded (which may have been the point) MacKenzie McHale and Don Keefer—something has drastically changed. He’s got a violently short fuse, and he’s now ordering up interviews with Lady Gaga’s manager to discuss her latest tweet. Strange that he would be so miserable given that in 52 days ACN has gone from fourth to third in the ratings and second in the preferred “young” demographic. “The average age of our audience has dropped three years,” he reminds Mac. Then why so glum, chum?
Maybe it’s because Pruit is insisting upon an incredibly poor-taste “news” segment (read: ratings bonanza) that will feature a female Princeton student and the BMOC she’s accused of raping her going head to head on camera with only Elliot Hirsch there to moderate them. There are so many things wrong with this idea, not to mention the fact that I was surprised to hear Elliot still worked at ACN (he hasn’t been seen since the season premiere. Think his tongue might still be swollen? If so, he could always just be ACN’s “bassoon” reporter).
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Charlie knows this is a bad idea. Don knows this is a bad idea. But instead of promising to be the buffer between Don and Pruit, like he always was between his news team and Leona Lansing, now Charlie is telling Don to get his ass down to Central Jersey. After all, Charlie says, “There is an epidemic of campus sexual assault in this country.” Regardless of recent events that involve Rolling Stone and the University of Virginia, Charlie’s message is on-point, even if Pruit’s vision for tackling this issue is not.
So, Don heads down to Princeton to meet with the victim in question, Mary (Veep‘s Sarah Sutherland—and Kiefer’s daughter, by the way), who has sparked Pruit’s interest because she started a “public service” website that allows women who have been sexually assaulted to name their perpetrators. Even though his job is on the line, Don knows that Pruit’s plan for this segment is abominable, so despite believing Mary’s story, he implores her to refuse to appear, because a trial on TV, with the court of public opinion presiding, will be far worse for Mary than prosecuting her attackers in an actual courtroom.
“It’s sports, Mary. It will be covered like sports.”
In one of the most poignant scenes on The Newsroom to date, Mary and Don have a powerful back-and-forth about the subject that frustratingly remains so taboo in 2014 society: speaking out against sexual assault. “I’m scared all the time,” Mary admits to Don. “So you know what my site does? It scares you. It scares the living shit out of any guy who thinks even once about putting his hands on someone without an invitation.” Trouble is, Mary wants to go on TV for the ratings-juggernaut verbal-sparring match against her alleged attacker.
It’s then up to Don, completing his journey from season 1’s Douchey Don to Feminist Don, to burst Mary’s fantasy bubble and paint her a not-so-rosy picture of what will actually happen to her if she shows up to the ACN studio: “It is going to be a lawless food fight with irreversible, irretrievable consequences. Teams will be formed, you will be slut-shamed, and you won’t get the justice you’re looking for. That’s why I’m asking you to refuse.”
NEXT: Pouring one out for Charlie
Because this is a television show, and because next week is the series finale, the biggest insult to this particular story line is the fact that we don’t get to see what happens next for Mary. The main purpose of the “Princeton campus-rape” narrative was to serve as part of an “intervention” plot device staged by the ACN team to get Charlie to snap out of his Pruit-manipulated funk. Regardless of Mary’s resolve to tell the world her story via ACN’s news cameras, Don kills the segment in one fell swoop by telling Charlie he “couldn’t find her.” Good luck to you, Mary, but your time on The Newsroom has been bumped for the next breaking story.
Don’s insubordination, paired with Sloan Sabbith’s absolutely delightful on-air evisceration of Neal’s ACN Digital replacement, Bree Dorrit, who can best be described as a media organization’s worst nightmare, is a brilliant one-two punch of journalistic integrity straight to Lucas Pruit’s pompous set of balls. Bree, a pretentious, disrespectful, full-of-himself millennial who would probably still be living and working out of his mom’s basement if Pruit hadn’t taken a shine to him, is a graduate of the David Spade “And you are?” school of manners. But, because he created ACNgage, a creepy, stalker-esque app that allows anyone to trail celebrities and is bringing in a ton of cash for the network, he’s immune to any sort of disciplinary action (in reality, this guy would have been fired on the spot for saying “F— you” to Sloan).
So, Sloan, in the epitome of the character’s awesomeness, using little more than facts and Bree’s overly inflated ego, turns the tables on Pruit’s new pet by transforming his on-camera interview into a superb takedown of both him and ACNgage. The best part is when she grills Bree on his “vetting process” for ACNgage’s “citizen journalism.” Not only does he look as if she just switched the entire interview to Japanese, but it’s quite clear Bree, the senior editor for a major cable-news network website, has never heard of the term in question: “Vetting?” Having been knocked off the pedestal of his own making, Bree then delivers his own fatal blow to his career: “People don’t read [ACNgage] with the expectation of it being true.” Aaaaand this guy is done.
Unfortunately, so is Sloan (and Mac, who agreed to the broadcast). Pruit is on the newsroom floor within seconds to fire Sloan and Mac, but not before Sam Waterston begins Charlie Skinner’s heart-wrenching final lap. The hissy fit he throws is indeed epic, but instead of its usual comedic tone, there is something terribly wrong here, and Waterston brilliantly separates this rant from all the others with one distressing upward pitch in his voice. It’s not even an entire word, it’s just a syllable: “Is this mu-TIN-y?!”
Charlie’s time at ACN is officially over, because it’s become physically impossible for him to reconcile his beliefs with those of his boss, and he literally dies under the crushing weight of stress brought on by Pruit. If only Charlie knew what Don really did at Princeton that day—he would have been so proud of him. Throughout the montage of Sloan, Mac, and Don desperately undoing an unconscious Charlie’s bow tie and shirt buttons and Mac then riding with him in the ambulance, there is of course that glimmer of hope that he’s going to pull through. But all of our dreams are dashed when the new Mrs. McAvoy greets her husband upon his release from prison and informs him that Charlie has headed up to that great big bar in the sky.
RIP, Charlie. You were ACN.
—OMG, Maggie and Jim kiss on a plane that doesn’t contain Edward Snowden! And there are Russian people!