So far, the second season of "The Newsroom" has suggested that creator Aaron Sorkin had heard his critics and made some slight improvements to his show. Sure, Maggie has been driving everyone up a wall and very little reporting has been shown. But "The Newsroom" had dialed down the sermons, let its hero Will McAvoy stumble a bit and made some other small but appreciated adjustments.
Then came this week's episode and all of last season's ghosts came back to haunt us: the pettiness, the sanctimony and Nina Howard.
MacKenzie McHale might be the episode's biggest casualty. So far, "The Newsroom" hasn't given her storyline much meat, but at least this season has her behaving like a capable, intelligent news producer. The first two episodes let her show off the reporting chops we were led to believe she had from the show's beginning. And for a bit, the same was being displayed in this episode: Notes for Will, face-to-face meetings with Operation Genoa sources and talking Maggie through medication tied to her trip to Africa.
But then "The Newsroom" brings Mac back down to size in the most melodramatic and whiny way possible: through a voice mail Will left on her phone last season, telling her he still loved her. We also learn that it's the voice mail that Nina, in her phone hacking heyday, deleted before Mac fully heard it because she has a crush on Will or she feels bad for Mac (or both).
Mac nags Will about the voice mail before he meets with Nina to "appeal to her God-given humanity" and asks her not to report that Will had been removed from the 9/11 tribute. We learn Mac has been nagging him about the message almost daily. Mac uses Will's crusade to uncover Nina's 9/11 source to bug him about it, provoking him into an angry rant about how Mac cheated on him (albeit in a hushed voice, because Will's a gentleman). "Sometimes you're not as cute as you think you are," he growls. Hell have no fury like a cable news prima donna scorned.
The nonsense overshadows this season's fresher (and better) storyline: Mac playing chaperone to Jerry as the Operation Genoa story unfolds. Mac shows skepticism – as her display of knowledge pertaining to U.S. nerve gas policy punches holes in the soldier's story – but presses on anyway, which adds some intrigue to how she's involved in the eventual fallout of this story.
"At what point do we have to take it seriously?" she asks Charlie, who shrugs her off, "We'll never find that out." Except we eventually do through tweets that are translated via fax (because, theatrics) that back up the soldier's account.
Mercifully, "The Newsroom" let another romance subplot – Maggie, Jim and the "Sex and the City" tour bus – lie. Jim expresses his frustrations with the Romney campaign – that Romney's positions are ambiguous, that he has a history of flip-flopping, that he fudges the facts – mirroring the actual complaints of the actual press corps two years ago. This inspires him to lead a media coup, which only results in him getting kicked off the media bus. His only solace can be found in the fact that he is not alone, joined by Hallie (who Jim keeps calling "Maggie" even though she is a sharper, prettier, more serious reporter) and the weird guy with the facial hair.
Meanwhile, there is another romance heating up: Sloan and Don. Sloan turns to Don for advice in dealing with her executive producer over a conflict of interest. When Sloan's EP drags her into Don's office to confront him for his perceived subterfuge, Don meagerly stands up for her. In the end, Sloan is better off defending herself, giving her EP an epic verbal beat down: "If you ever lead me by the wrist through that newsroom again I am going to take each of your God d-mn knuckles out with a ball peen hammer."
In addition to Will's marijuana-infused voice mail, the episode brings back another trope from last season: Charlie and Will's recording of their boss/antagonist Reese Lansing admitting to hacking ACN's phones, which, by way of blackmail, they believe affords them all the editorial freedom they desire. When they realize Reese is again up to no good, they dramatically retrieve the recorder out of the safe and march into his office to remind him of their leverage. (And, admittedly, hearing Sam Waterston utter "son de la bitch" is pretty thrilling). But – whoops! – they don't have the recording after all and Reese isn't all that concerned anyway.