While by no means perfect, “Bullies” was a much stronger episode than what “The Newsroom” has been giving us lately. For one thing, it had a similar non-linear plot to what I liked so much in “The 112th Congress.” This time, instead of focusing on a board meeting coupled with flashbacks, we got a chance to see what Will McAvoy is like in a therapy session.
But first, we see him royally flub up his words at the end of a broadcast, even getting his own name confused along with thanking viewers for “washing” the program. Mackenzie’s handwritten eye test reveals in Will’s office that this is a problem that stems from his insomnia and not from a misfiring optic nerve. He hasn’t slept in days, and this is what prompts him to actually show up to his longstanding appointment with his psychiatrist, Dr. Habib.
It’s been so long since his last appointment, in fact, that Dr. Abe Habib has passed away, and his son Jack (David Krumholtz) has taken over his practice. At first Will only wants a prescription for a sleeping pill, but Jack manages to get him to sit down and open up, and it’s through Will’s answers to his questions that the events of the episode unfold. I love episodes with a gradual reveal of the plotline, especially when they play some events close to the vest like this one did.
The trigger here is the question “Has there been any extra stress at work?” The answer is yes: a death threat Will received via the comments section on their website. He used to address a couple choice comments on-air, but he changes the rules after an upsetting set of comments from two Wizard of Oz-themed screennames. He asks Neal to make it so that everyone has to verify their identity before posting a comment on the site.
After the broadcast of Will peppering an interviewee with questions about her anti-Muslim stance on the community center that was to be built roughly in proximity to Ground Zero, someone posing as a professor posts a death threat to Will in the comments. Since it takes extraordinary effort to scam the new system (according to Neal) the company has deemed the threat credible enough to post a bodyguard on Will. As if that wasn’t enough, Charlie’s concerned about the possibility of another tabloid story on this, and asks Mac to do some opposition research on Will so they’ll be aware of any possible sources for new stories.
Back in the newsroom, Sloan (who speaks Japanese) is on a conference call with a spokesperson for TEPCO about the state of the Fukushima nuclear reactors. The Japanese are maintaining that they’re at a level 5, but when Sloan speaks to the rep privately, he confesses off the record that they’re actually at a level 7, which is catastrophic.
Meanwhile, Mac pulls Maggie and Jim away for a “rotten assignment.” She means the opposition research on Will, but Jim asks if it’s to get gum out of her hair again. Just when I think the script will be fair and balanced in its representations of men and women in the workplace, we get yet another dig at Mac’s competency. Either she’s an excellent EP and experienced war reporter, or she’s a mess who has to subtract on her fingers and regularly gets gum stuck in her hair. You can’t really have it both ways.
Another employee proven to be incompetent is Maggie, who now has to explain the HR complaint filed on her behalf about Will creating a hostile workplace. Another employee saw him yelling at her for not only mixing up Georgia the state with Georgia the country but for signing a sympathy card from him with “lol” because she thought it meant “lots of love” and filed the report.
Jim asks the question that’s on everyone’s minds: “How are you still working here?” Seriously, though, we need a better answer than Maggie’s “I dodge bullets.” I like Maggie, but I think at this point I’m holding onto a characterization of her as I wanted her to be, not how she’s been written since. She screws up her job pretty majorly on a consistent basis, and it’s getting unbelievable that she wouldn’t be fired for any of it, likeability aside.
Sloan gets a chance to step up in a major way when Don asks her to fill in for Elliott on the 10:00 show. He has no other options, and she agrees despite her concerns that she won’t do well at hosting something that isn’t centered on finance.
It’s at this point that we’re formally introduced to Will’s bodyguard, Lonny Church (Terry Crews), a former football player and honorable Army discharge. I hope Lonny is around for a couple more episodes; I genuinely enjoyed his interactions with Will, and Terry Crews has great comedic timing.
Sloan comes to Will asking for advice on the Fukushima story. Thanks to her off-the-record conversation with Tanaka, she knows that the situation is far worse than the Japanese are letting on, and she feels obligated to tell that to everyone. She asks Will how to get someone to go from off the record to on it, and he says it’s simple: just keep asking questions, and if they’re lying, prove it with facts.
Back in Jack’s office, Will confesses that because of this advice, he feels responsible for what happened next—in short, Sloan ignored Don entirely and went after the Fukushima story hard. She called out the translator for not accurately representing either the questions or the answers, and has her own on-air conversation with Tanaka in fluent Japanese, finally revealing what he told her in confidence about the reactors being at level 7.
Of course, both Don and Charlie freak out. Charlie suspends her with pay while a team investigates all the reports she’s done in the last year to double check her facts and sources now that she’s “fabricated” this one. Sloan accepts the suspension, but refuses the “with pay” part of it.
Will tells Jack that though he and Sloan haven’t always been close, he feels responsible for her and he thinks of her as a younger sister of sorts. This leads Jack to question Will about his family past, and we learn that Will’s dad was an abusive alcoholic. Will learned young that he needed to protect his family from his father, and when he was in 5th grade he hit back, cracking a bottle across his dad’s face.
This scene in particular was one of the best of the episode, and I attribute that more to Jeff Daniels’ acting skills than anything else. He shows so clearly on his face when Will is emotionally disarmed by his therapist, and the quiet yet defensive way he answers questions brings such weight to the dialogue. It was certainly an interesting look into his character; now we know why he feels so overprotective of his staff and also why he may be bad at showing his affection for them.
Maggie, Jim, Neal, and Kendra report back to Mac about the opposition research, but they didn’t turn up anything she hadn’t already known. They were surprised to learn that Will was a registered Republican, though. The only fact they dug up that intrigues Mac at all (besides Jim being kicked out of an Arctic study abroad for trying to, as Maggie put it, “score with an Eskimo”) is a deal that Fox offered Will back in 2006 to host a late night talk show.
Back then, Will and Mac were together, and she’s upset that he never told her. She confronts Will in his office, mad that he’s been guilt tripping her about lying to him when he had lied to her about this. She accuses him of never having any intention of marrying her, but he stuns her by pulling a Tiffany’s engagement ring out of his top desk drawer. I don’t know much about engagement rings, but that diamond looks very large and very expensive and very much like intention to marry Mackenzie.
Will explains, saying that he never told her because he knew the deal was just for leverage. At first I was mildly concerned that he had hung on to the ring for five years (and at work, no less), but then we find out it gets worse: he admits to Jack that he’d had his agent buy the ring as soon as he learned about the opposition research.
I was so glad Jack asked Will if he thought that was normal behavior, because I was legitimately concerned that they were just going to let that twisted emotional ploy slide. Will defends it, maintaining that he’ll return it and that he doesn’t have feelings for Mackenzie. Yeah, right.
Now we get to Will’s newscast that ended with the word mix-ups, the newscast that the anonymous commenters were talking about: his interview with Sutton Wall (Damon Gupton), the deputy chief of staff to Rick Santorum.
Will goes after Sutton pretty hard on Santorum’s stance on gay marriage. He wants to know why Sutton, as a gay man, supports a man who thinks his existence is “disgusting” and a sin. Will pushes too far though, and Sutton gets angry and shuts Will down fast: “I am more than one thing! How dare you reduce me to the color of my skin or my sexual orientation!”
When Will protests, Sutton yells at him that he will not be interrupted. He stands with Santorum, he says, because he feels most strongly about the “sanctity of life” and approves heartily of Santorum’s anti-abortion stance. “I am far more insulted by your high-handed implication that I need your protection!” he says to Will.
I say bravo to Sutton Wall here for getting that message to Will. Will has been painted as a righteous crusader for truth and justice, but that’s an awfully presumptuous role to take on, especially since it’s his truth he’s fighting for. This turns into a moment of actual growth (I hope) for Will, though, as he realizes that despite trying to fight against bullies his whole life, he actually became one here.
Charlie, meanwhile, figured out the solution to the Sloan debacle. The words for “four” and “seven” sound awfully familiar in Japanese, especially to a non-fluent speaker. He proposes that Sloan go on the air and apologize for mixing them up, citing exactly this reason. It’s degrading to her real knowledge, but Sloan reluctantly agrees in order to save face and save Tanaka’s job at TEPCO. It wasn’t all for nothing, though, because Japan has officially announced that the reactors are at a level 7.
Jack, meanwhile, has figured out the simple solution to Will’s insomnia: stop eating bacon before bed. But he also prescribes a mild sleep aid as well as continued therapy. After all, Will is not only being hunted in the press and in reality, but Jack also sees signs of acute depression and unresolved issues with Mackenzie. Will lies and says he doesn’t have feelings for her, but we see the truth—he’s ripped up the receipt for the engagement ring.
I hope this means we’ll see Dr. Jack Habib again; I liked him, and I liked the insight we got into Will’s character through their therapy session. And, I liked this episode. It’s a definite improvement from last week, and though there are still some issues with Mackenzie and Maggie’s characterization, I think Sloan’s development this episode was spectacular. I’ve wanted an insight into her character for a while, and Aaron Sorkin certainly delivered that tonight. It was also nice to get a small break from the Jim and Maggie Show, though Don asking Sloan if Maggie was into Jim brings up the possibility of some serious drama in that department. As long as Maggie doesn’t smash anybody’s head in with a glass door again, I’ll be interested.