This week’s episode of HBO’s new series The Newsroom, takes a peek into what makes News Night anchor Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels) tick. The fast pace and subject matter of the series make most episodes intense, but this week’s “Bullies” pack a powerful emotional punch when Will finds that he cannot sleep, and it begins to affect his work.
When we first meet Will at the beginning of the series, he is bottled up, more concerned with image than integrity, with ratings than real news. He is distant, and feared by his colleagues and staff.
Re-discovering his inner crusader (and a bit of his heart) when News Director Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) brings back former lover Mac (Emily Mortimer) as executive producer, the genie, as it were, escapes Will’s bottle. He becomes driven by a need to expose the lies and lay bare the truth, whatever the cost, especially hard-wired to punch back at the bullies of the world.
I hadn’t thought of it until this week’s episode, but has Will does seem compelled to be the bullies’ bully. But how far can you take the argument “I’m protecting people from the bullies” before you become one yourself?
Journalists, especially in these days of social media wield incredible power. Misdirected or miused, that power can destroy the lives and livelihoods of innocent bystanders, who become victims to hubris, intended or not.
In a news interview, when does agressive questioning become bullying? When Will interviews an advisor to the just-announced presidential candidate Rick Santorum, he crosses that line.
Will mines the irony of an African-American gay educator being Santorum’s advisor, hitting the advisor with tough, unyielding questions, believing the attack is against the narrow-minded, former U.S. Senator. But Will’s line of questioning ventures into bullying, cross-examining the poor guy like a prosecutor forcing a confession from a recalcitrant witness on the stand.
Even after pretty much destroying the guest, Will keeps on punching, as Mac tries to get him to end it and go to commercial. It isn’t until Will lands a final crushing blow, asking the educator if Santorum would believe that he should have the right to be a teacher, given his sexual preference, all the poor man can do is say “no.” The whipping is at an end.
Now unable to sleep, Will consults his psychaitrist to get a prescription for sleeping pills. The doctor, whom Will has actually never seen (althought he’s been paying him for two years) wants to know more about the source of Will’s sleep issues. In a revealing session, we begin to understand Will’s need to protect the people around him, whether standing up to gossip-mongering reporters or the lying liars that spin talking points instead of facts, never mind the collateral damage.
An abuse survivor, Will had been powerless as a very young boy to protect anyone—his mother or his siblings—against his alcoholic, abusive father. Finally, at the age of 10, young Will had the physical strength to fight back, but the damage inflicted upon him is something he’s carried with him since.
No wonder he had kept himself bottled up, protecting himself behind layers of indifference for years. No wonder, too, that Mac’s betrayal several years earlier, still hurts him to the point that no matter how much in love with her he may be, he cannot allow himself to feel, to let her in too close. It’s not surprising, either, that Will chose to become a prosecutor before segueing into journalism.
Subconsciously, Will is troubled by his own abuse of power in tearing down a decent man, someone, in fact, that Will would in other circumstances be inclined to protect. In trying to make Santorum’s advisor open his eyes to a bully, Will becomes one. He becomes what he hates; he becomes his father.