HBO’s The Newsroom is generally about a crusader and his gallant team championing the facts, standing up to those who would deceive and mislead the American public. But what makes the kind of man who becomes this kind of leader of the righteous army? That is the question at the heart of this week’s episode, “Bullies.”
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) can’t sleep. He doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t want to know. But viewers do, and the only way Will can conquer his problem is to open himself up to inquiry. It’s funny, but wholly authentic, how someone who can be so brave on the air shudders at the mere hint of personal analysis. Yet, that is exactly what happens. Luckily, Will does have some sense and wisdom, which is why he visits a mental health professional.
The doctor is named Jack (David Krumholtz, Numb3rs, The Santa Clause), a quirky prodigy, like just about every other character on The Newsroom, and Will has been paying him for two years without visiting. Actually, Will has been paying for four years, having previously been treated by Jack’s father. It’s as if, no matter how much Will protests, he knows he needs help, but just can’t bring himself to ask for it, at least not until today. Jack sees right through the facade, and despite Will’s attempts to just get a prescription for sleeping pills and get out, Jack makes Will confront those demons keeping him up at night.
The source of Will’s issues? He has become a bully himself. Will is the son of an abusive alcoholic. The need to fight back is what drives him, first to become a prosecutor, and then to become the king of news. But there is a point where Will is no longer acting in self defense. Rather, he has become the bullier of bullies, kicking a man long after he goes down. Will might not want to admit to the bully label, but he knows what he’s doing is wrong, and cannot live that way.
The subject of Will’s attack this week is the former chief of staff for Rick Santorum, who happens to be a gay black man. Santorum is famously against homosexuals, and Will uses that angle. The staffer almost breaks, pleading with Will, near tears, to stop defining him by a simple label, and realize that his gayness is far from the only part of him. Will refuses, assaulting him over and over again. There’s a moment where viewers think Will will back down, as the interview subject gives a wonderful speech. But Will can’t resist one final blow, and respect for himself goes out the window.
This is a complex topic, both the conversation being had, and the psychology behind Will’s actions. Will is right in that this man should not be working for someone who doesn’t respect him. But the man is also right in refusing to be put into a box, and in defining his own priorities the way he wants to. That’s what American freedom is about. Both are right, and yet, because they focus on different points, they can’t reach an agreement. The Newsroom‘s masterful writing balances both opinions, as well as the way they are portrayed, so expertly, it leaves one in awe of “Bullies.”
The question going forward is, now that Will knows his weakness, what kind of man will he be? Surely he will not slip back into the aggressor when it is unwarranted, checking himself. However, he also can’t hang his head and be a passive anchor. So he must find his balance, being a protector, but not delivering unnecessary blows. Under the powerful skills of Daniels, this character is likely to remain intriguing and deliciously layered.
While this war rages within Will, a number of other significant events are going on around him. He rails on the internet, demanding a stop to anonymous posting. One commenter strikes back, delivering a death threat. This means Will now has a bodyguard (Terry Crews, Everybody Hates Chris, The Expendables). Adding the new guy into the mix changes the office chemistry slightly, and hints at a larger arc. Will anything come of this story, or is it just an excuse to bring in the talented, funny Crews to the ensemble? Either is totally acceptable.