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[Spoilers ahead from Sunday’s episode, “Willie Pete.”]
Trash the talking points memo. Civilize the gossip columnist. The latest episode of the HBO drama returns to its “better way to do journalism” refrain, a theme during season one. The action picks up on Sept. 23, 2011. Notably, unlike the first episode, there are no flashbacks this week.
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) begins with a News Night monologue sharply rebuking GOP candidates who refused to denounce a debate audience that booed a gay soldier, Stephen Hill, for asking a question. “The audience members who were booing were in Orlando, soon they’ll surely be in hell — though not soon enough,” the anchor admonished, before comparing Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Co. to “witless bullies and hapless punks.”
Speaking of Romney, Jim Harper (John Gallagher Jr.) is fed up with trekking along in the campaign bus and regurgitating the rehearsed message from the Republican frontrunner. He has a new foil, however, as the candidate’s spokesperson, Taylor (Constance Zimmer, of House of Cards, Entourage), is introduced to the series. And she is very much on message. Jim decides to ask tough questions. Other journalists are annoyed.
Meanwhile, McAvoy devises a brilliant idea. Nina Howard (Hope Davis) — the columnist for gossip site TMI who got access to the anchor’s hacked phone last season — has now found out that McAvoy didn’t have the flu during the 9/11 anniversary coverage but was taken off the news desk by his employer. McAvoy thinks someone leaked her the story. Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) isn’t sure if she accidentally did.
Nina would like to run the flu story, which would be embarrassing for McAvoy. So the anchor decides to tell her the truth that he didn’t have flu. After inviting the columnist to the ACN dining area for a mimosa, McAvoy appeals to her as a human being to not report about him. To his surprise, she decides not to run the story. He then asks her out on a date. She initially declines, citing his love for Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer).
McAvoy learns, from Nina, who did leak the news about his non-flu: It was the president of ACN, Reese Lansing (Chris Messina), the same person who hacked the anchor’s phone last season. McAvoy and news division president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) confront Lansing and present a secret recording they made of him. Turns out, neither of the newsmen was able to hit “record” properly, and Lansing laughs them off.
Back to the newsroom: Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill) takes some medication before her trip to Africa and is afraid of awful side effects. Don Keefer (Thomas Sadowski) takes apart his chair and rebuilds it, but now it doesn’t work well anymore. Neal Sampat (Dev Patel) tries convince everyone of Occupy Wall Street’s merits. After a pointed exchange, he’s finally granted five minutes in an upcoming broadcast for an organizer to speak.
Meanwhile, dogged ACN producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) convinces MacKenzie to go along with him to interview a source for the news team’s pursuit of the Genoa tip. Remember, the story arc for this season is based on a operation called Genoa, where the U.S. is thought to have used Sarin nerve gas on civilians in Pakistan during a marine extraction.
The source’s story confirms the tip, but Mackenzie and Jerry need to gather more intel. Jerry enlists a team to dig up info, including enlisting Twitter analytics to check out if anyone in the village was tweeting about the incident. Charlie is very skeptical about the story.
While tweets are being sifted, Jim is toiling away in New Hampshire covering Romney. Finally, on a night bus ride, the ACN producer pulls a Jerry Maguire.
“Why aren’t we insisting on answers?” he entreats fellow reporters. “We can get off this bus, rent cars and cover the campaign the way a campaign should be covered — like a cross-examination in a courtroom. We can force them to answer our questions if we do it together … who’s with me!?”
Jim gets dropped on the side of the road as the Romney bus drives off; only two other reporters join him.
The Newsroom airs at 10 p.m. on Sundays on HBO.
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