Episode Title: “Amen”
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Director: Daniel Minahan
Previously on “The Newsroom”:
The episode opens with “News Night” covering the political upheaval in Egypt in February 2011. Mubarak has announced he will not be stepping down, and Elliott Hirsch (Dave Harbour) is reporting live from his hotel room, safe from the riots outside, but unable to provide much in the way of actual news coverage, frustrating his producer, Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski). Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) bursts into the control room, hitting Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) with the door in the process. She announces breaking news about a teacher’s protest in Wisconsin, and both Maggie and Jim rush to edit the footage together in time for the broadcast. They succeed, but Maggie hits Jim in the head with the door again anyway.
At a meeting afterwards, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) humiliates MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) by forcing her to count on her fingers in front of the whole office. She fires back with the supposedly insulting revelation that Will cries at the movie Rudy, but everyone agrees that it’s a heartwarming tale, especially the scene where the entire football team lines up outside the coach’s office to offer the title character their place on the field during the big game. The meeting is interrupted when Don shows up with the news that Elliott has been assaulted with a rock while trying to cover the story more effectively.
Charlie pulls Will and Mac out of the meeting to reveal that the latest tabloid story against the show will reveal the (true) story that Mac’s boyfriend, Wade Campbell (Jon Tenney), has been using her to appear on “News Night” frequently, raising his visibility for an upcoming political campaign. Mac later asks Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) to teach her economics – about which she knows absolutely nothing – in advance of a public appearance in which she’ll have to speak on the topic.
“News Night” needs a new reporter on site in Egypt. Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) recommends an anonymous reporter known as “Amen” to cover the story. They meet with Amen and tell him he will have to show his face and reveal his real name – Kahlid Salim (Amin El Gamal) – on camera to give his reports credibility. He agrees and goes about his task revealing the story behind the Egyptian military coup for the American public.
Meanwhile, ACN’s morning news anchors rip into the scandal and relationship backstory between Will and Mac on live television. Sloan teaches Mac economics, but Mac is too distracted by her relationship woes to pay attention. Maggie prepares Jim to go on the perfect Valentine’s Day date with her roommate, Lisa Lambert (Kelen Coleman) and Don tries to overcompensate for Elliott’s injuries by putting him on the air with visible wounds, only to be stonewalled by Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), who doesn’t want to parade Elliott’s sacrifices for the media.
Will is informed that Nina Howard (Hope Davis) is going to run a story about Mac nearly getting her crew killed in Pakistan, but also learns that Nina would be willing to kill the story for a bribe. Later, Will sees Nina with the intent of paying her off, but when she makes a remark about both of them being journalists he changes his mind, and threatens to destroy her career if the attacks don’t stop.
Tragedy strikes when Kahlid goes missing. The team soon discovers that he’s been abducted, but can be ransomed for $250,000. ACN won’t pay the money, and Don tries to break Reese’s door down to get his attention, injuring his shoulder in the process. Don tells Will that he feels guilty because he told Elliott to go out into the field, and nearly cost Elliott his life. Will says Don shouldn’t feel guilty because Elliott is a newsman, and Elliott agrees, telling Don he couldn’t even have stopped him.
Mac breaks up with Wade after he tells her that he thought their relationship was doomed because she was working with her ex-boyfriend, and figured he should at least get something out of the situation. Jim forgets about Lisa on Valentine’s Day, but Maggie manages to convince them to stay together.
Khalid is finally recovered because Will fronted the $250,000 himself. To show their appreciation, the entire office reenacts the scene from Rudy, lining up outside his door to contribute what little they can to help Will pay the ransom.
Another week, another episode of “The Newsroom,” a series that may not be consistent but is, at least, consistently worth talking about.
“Amen” is in many respects the most well rounded episode we have seen so far of Aaron Sorkin’s new series. With the exception of an occasionally out-of-place screwball antic – Jim’s repeated injuries in the opening sequence, for instance – the relationship drama is actually dramatic enough to sustain interest and the journalistic angle, here based around the title character’s abduction in Egypt, is organically incorporated throughout the episode, which also successfully juggles a few emotionally involving subplots, particularly Don’s guilt over putting Elliott in danger.
The problem with being well rounded, however, is that the episode never peaks. At its best “The Newsroom” has had the ability to stir the audience through the not-quite-current events, the perpetually moving cogs of the newsroom itself and the protagonists’ ideals in the face of a market designed to quash them. “Amen” lacks these peaks. The drama surrounding Amen’s abduction is involving but lacks fist-pumping intensity. Perhaps that’s why they stole a plot point from Rudy.
The Rudy moment actually isn’t that bad. On the surface it could seem like a rather blunt ploy, referencing a popular tearjerker and then copying the film’s memorable crescendo for its own purposes. Aaron Sorkin deserves credit for establishing the reference on an emotional level: the reference isn’t thrown in haphazardly, and is instead designed by “The Newsroom’s” cast of characters to affect Will emotionally in a positive way. They know he loves Rudy, so reenacting the scene will mean more to him. Great. But the biggest problem with “Amen” is rooted in the scene where they establish Rudy’s significance.
To recap: Rudy is first referenced by Mac, who attempts to use Will’s emotional connection to the film as a pejorative. She does so because Will publically humiliated her moments before, forcing the entire office to witness as she reveals her limited math skills in front of them. She responds by telling the office that Will took tap-dancing lessons in elementary school – a weak insult – and Will fires back with yet another public insult to Mac’s intelligence, revealing that Mac believed that “This Old House” was fixing up the same house every single week.
It’s very symptomatic of “The Newsroom’s” difficulty in establishing Mac as a necessary character, not to mention the bizarre glee the series seems to take in tearing her down. She was introduced as a heroic war correspondent, potentially the best executive producer in the business. “Amen” reveals that she barely understands math, allowed herself to be used to promote her boyfriend’s political agenda, almost got her crew killed in Pakistan, knows so little about the economy that her position as an executive producer of a show dealing in economic news is called into question, and can’t focus on her economics lessons for more than thirty seconds without obsessing over romance.
Or how about this? While defending Mac from Nina’s defamations – defending, mind you – he describes her as “a grown woman who has to subtract with her fingers.” While he respects her journalistic integrity, he also clearly views her as an object of pity. An object of pity he publically humiliates for fun. That’s a little grotesque if you think about it hard enough.
So what is Mac’s function on the show if they’re going to depict her as a borderline incompetent who needs the constant protection of Will to keep her job? She doesn’t keep the flame of journalistic integrity burning: Will took up that mantle episodes ago and has a lot more to lose in the process, making his ideals – admittedly cribbed from Mac – intensely more dramatic. You certainly can’t call her the heart of the series, since the young idealists Jim, Maggie and Neal have that covered. Besides getting the ball rolling, what is Mac even doing here? Her position makes her a ubiquitous presence in the series, but her actual role in the storyline has been usurped at every turn. Surely there must be more to be mined from her character than using her as a simultaneously comedic and dramatic punching bag.
Am I holding “The Newsroom” to too high a standard? Perhaps. But a series with as much ambition as “The Newsroom” is placing itself under higher scrutiny, kind of like a news show that espouses integrity above all things. If we are to take the series’ underdog heroics as a kind of rallying point, then the plot points, characterizations and details that support that ideal need to function as well. “The Newsroom” falls short of perfection, but at least it puts together a decent episode once in a while. “Amen” is decent. Except for the Mac thing.