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.
Making matters worse, he has also advised Sloan (Olivia Munn) to follow his example and go for the jugular on camera to get at the truth. But the brilliant, but inexperienced, news anchor goes too far, nearly ruining her career, and the career of a Japanese TEPCO spokesman during the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
I really loved this week’s The Newsroom episode. Focused less on the news, and less on the various romantic entanglements among the staff, the script allowed us greater access to the man behing the news, Will MacAvoy. Jeff Daniels is excellent in showing us into Will’s heart and mind. I’ve always enjoyed Daniels’ work in film (well, maybe except for the Dumb and Dumberer stuff), and I could not be more delighted to see him starring in an HBO series that gives him so much to work with. An episode like “Bullies” allows him the room to really shine.
As a news junkie, I’ve tremendously enjoyed the episodes in which the breaking news takes center stage and we see the natural entropy of the newsroom coallesce into a brilliantly-ordered entity, fueld by the energy of its staff and catalyzed by the power of its leadership. But I didn’t miss it this week when it took a back seat to the emotional impact of Will’s backstory as it begins to unfold. I like that the series takes on varying tones and shades, even slowing down the pace slightly to tell a more personal story like this one
And I also hope that Will’s psychiatric sessions become an regular, albeit occasional, feature of The Newsroom. They would provide a great non-linear storytelling framework to get at Will’s inner life.
The Newsroom airs Sundays on HBO at 10 PM ET.
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