Dramatic irony is encoded in The Newsroom‘s genes. Since the show is set two years in the past, viewers already know, for example, what inflamed rioters to attack the Benghazi embassy before the characters do. Using the newspapers as a cheat sheet (I assume Aaron Sorkin wouldn’t deign to read the “horrible, horrible snakepit” known as the Internet), the show’s scripts generally use the dramatic irony afforded by hindsight for Sorkin to deliver sermons from his mount.
But “Red Team III” is so overstuffed with dramatic irony that the whole thing falls apart like a wet burrito. Last night’s episode was a solid if overly complex procedural that finds the lawyers, led by a less-mannered-and-therefore-much-more-tolerable Marcia Gay Harden, trying to reconstruct how “News Night” was hoodwinked into running a false story about the Marines deploying sarin gas. One by one, their sources’ credibility falters or interviews become unusable, until Mac and Will are forced to retract the Operation Genoa story.
The procedural format would’ve worked much better, though, if it weren’t laden by all the things we already knew: that chemical weapons weren’t used, that Jerry edited the tape, that Mac would discover Jerry’s misdeeds through the basketball timer, that Jerry would retaliate with a lawsuit. In recent years, the flash-forward has become a staple of TV shows in creating suspense, especially prestige cable dramas. Personally speaking, watching the characters fill in the holes of the plot to reach a preordained destination is not as interesting as trying to guess where the destination will be. (This is true of Breaking Bad as well; the random appearances of neon pink fur in Season 2 that suggested the plane crash were much more portentous than Walt playing with his food at the diner at the beginning of the current season.)
That godlike view of knowing the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, only works when the pieces fit satisfyingly. “Red Team III” almost succeeded, but not quite. The suggestion that, even though Jerry is most directly at fault, Operation Genoa was a reflection of institutional failure at “News Night” is a fascinating one. I, for one, agree; Will is too trusting of Mac and Charlie and Jim and Maggie’s jealousy games hamper their performances at work. (Too bad it looks like Sorkin is too in love with his characters to delve into that idea further.)
But the episode’s one major revelation — that Charlie’s spy source fed him the lie about the helicopter manifest carrying sarin as a personal vendetta — wasn’t quite believable. Granted, I’ve never been a power player who abused my government connections to get my ne’er-do-well, junkie son a cushy media job he probably didn’t deserve at the expense of hundreds of much stronger applicants, only for him to get himself fired and then slowly kill himself soon after, but the spy source’s motivations didn’t line up for me. I enjoyed his lemon-juice FU to Charlie, though.
So Charlie and Will and Mac all volunteer to fall on their swords, but Leona won’t let them. Does that mean that the Genoa flub will have no consequences?
The show’s overreliance on dramatic irony is also why I can’t say I’m too excited about The Newsroom‘s two-parter finale starting next week, since it’ll hinge on the presidential election. (Not exactly on pins and needles about the outcome here.) With most of the second season’s storylines wrapped up, though, it’s gratifying to see that The Newsroom‘s tics and habits haven’t calcified. In the first year, for example, most debates climaxed into a screaming match, with the “correct” interlocutor, usually Will, yelling the loudest and last. (Is Sorkin’s theater background to blame for this?) In “Red Team III,” though, it’s Jerry who yells the most (at MacKenzie) — about how Operation Genoa most definitely, absolutely happened — and for once, vocal might doesn’t make right.
My hope for the last two episodes of the season is that Sorkin will do something similarly self-aware with Jim. His blind loyalty to Mac, which hasn’t really been explored since the pilot, is currently his biggest flaw, which is to say that he’s pretty much perfect. After Charlie and Will’s fall, Jim’s assumed the slot of the show’s default “all-knowing white male,” as he was in this episode when he was the leading skeptic about Operation Genoa.
Regardless of all that, I’m still waiting for characters, not soapboxes, to work on The Newsroom.