NewsRoom's Dark, Disturbing Season Finale

First off, you're welcome.

If I hadn't advised you seven weeks ago to watch HBO's NewsRoom as a farce about high-minded, pseudo-intellectual, self-congratulatory liberal idealists; if you were watching under the assumption that the characters are protagonists whose bold enterprise we should root for and admire; then Sunday's season finale was surely the most painfully bad hour of television you've suffered through in a long, long time.

But let me focus on one thing that lies at the very center of the entire series, and its main character.

It's not entirely uncommon for journalists to rethink their careers, and consider rededicating themselves to Serious Journalism. Sometimes this comes about after engaging in a particularly compelling story -- a natural disaster, righting an injustice, or exposing corruption. Sometimes it's just the combined effect of repeating the same motions on the same type of story too many times. Sometimes opportunity strikes, for a new position, or fellowship. And sometimes it's just your typical mid-life crisis.

None of that is what happens to Will McAvoy, aka Anchor Guy. No, McAvoy has a psychotic breakdown.

This doesn't strike me as a controversial interpretation. I'm no psychiatrist, so I don't know the exact DSM-IV diagnosis, but the existence of a significant medical problem seems to be laid out pretty clearly.

The pilot's pivotal opening scene has McAvoy crack, in a public forum; he can't tell if he is hallucinating, he launches into a rant that is both situationally inappropriate and, it is made very clear, entirely out of character.

The season finale begins with McAvoy near death on his bathroom floor after overdosing on anti-depressants.

In the 15 months or so in between, McAvoy sheds his milquetoast, professional personality, becoming an erratic, self-destructive, obsessive nervous wreck. He goes sleepless for days at a stretch. He starts using marijuana. He points an unloaded gun at a woman's head. He becomes needlessly confrontational with virtual strangers. He crosses social and professional ethical lines, often for little reason.

Midway through the season, a pivotal scene depicting how far McAvoy has descended into his delusional condition, and his inability to properly discern the world around him and his place in relation to it.

A gossip-magazine writer has reported on his executive producer's conflict of interest in repeatedly booking her ambitious political boyfriend (which McAvoy chalks up to Mack being incredibly stupid, rather than ethically challenged), and is rumored to be working on a piece exposing something very bad from Mack's war-correspondence work. (We're not told what, exactly, but the implication is that some terrible lack of judgment on her part placed a number of people's lives in jeopardy.)

McAvoy takes no interest in learning what Mack might have done. Instead, he meets with the gossip writer in a restaurant, and writes her a $50,000 check to bribe her to kill the story. He then, for no particular reason, completely reverses course, rips up the check, and instead threatens to use his show to destroy her if she writes the piece.

Imagine, say, Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer doing this. You would recommend discreet hospitalization for mental health treatment, correct?  Before his inevitable public humiliation and disgrace, rightly destroying his public and professional reputation?

In this context, it seems pretty obvious to me that Mack is the trigger, not the root cause, for McAvoy's breakdown. This is a man with a clear mental health problem that has been building for some time; unexpectedly spotting his lost love Mack triggers the break, and she becomes the central focus of his delusional world. His obsessive thoughts force him constantly to act as he imagines she wants him to act; this is not a man in love, this is a neurotic compulsive unable to control his thoughts, or distinguish his internal ideations from reality.

I suspect that much of this is deliberate and understood by writer Aaron Sorkin; the unrelenting portrait of McAvoy's breakdown is too carefully plotted out to be entirely accidental.

But Sorkin doesn't seem aware of what to me is the obvious further implication of all this, which is that the new "NewsNight 2.0" is part of this delusional, self-destructive behavior. It is driven by McAvoy's ideations about what would make him the perfect man for the Mack who occupies his mind. 

It's sad, and tragic. It leads McAvoy to ignore or condone the incompetence, inanity, and lack of ethics repeatedly displayed by the actual Mack and her acolytes. It leads him to the irrational and reprehensible attempts to protect Mack from the gossip writer. It leads him to ever-greater displays intended to impress her, from berating his fellow Republicans on the air to the mock debate where he ridicules the GOP's candidates in front of the RNC's top executives.

And, meanwhile, he is rapidly deteriorating until he ends up unconscious, on the bathroom floor, with blood coming out of his mouth.

The saddest part of this spectacle, and tragically all too realistic, is the portrayal of those around him as enablers, ignoring McAvoy's ongoing meltdown -- in part because people have a hard time recognizing and understanding mental disease, and in part because he is providing them the psychic gratification of blessing and validating their self-aggrandizing Big Project in Serious Journalism and Democracy. (To borrow one of the show's metaphors, they are a cavalry of Don Quixotes, and McAvoy is their Sancho Panza.)

The crucial link between McAvoy's mental disease and the viability of NewsNight 2.0 is made pretty explicit in the dark, disturbing season finale. After a magazine article reveals that pretty much everyone else in the world views the show as the ridiculous conceit that it is, the clash of reality against his interior ideations pushes McAvoy's illness to a new, suicidal level. He is left hospitalized, depressed, intent on never broadcasting again and, clearly, in desperate need of monitoring and treatment.

That is of no concern to Mack or any of the others devoted to NewsNight 2.0. To them, the article is of no consequence; its observations are brushed aside as easily as the conservatives they mock dismiss climate-change or debt-ceiling reporting in "lamestream media" sources like theirs. They cannot, psychologically, question their belief in their project.

And that means they can't allow their Sancho Panza to question it either. So, they need McAvoy to toss aside the magazine, leap forth from his bed, and come back to the anchor desk more determined than ever. Never mind that he is a clear danger to himself.

They succeed, of course. It doesn't take much; they convince him, implausibly and ahistorically, that if he remains in bed nobody will ever expose the fact that Republicans are backing Voter ID laws that would disproportionately depress voting among minorities.

McAvoy, like many mentally ill before him, is able to put on the public face again and carry on despite the demons haunting him behind that mask.

NewsRoom is ultimately something of a counter-point to Intervention; it is Enabling, the dark chronicle of a mentally ill man propped up by those around him. It is not a sunny story at all. There are no protagonists. It is a tragedy, with much worse to come.

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