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One week before it ends for all time, The Newsroom trots out its worst episode yet

Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) visits a woman accusing a man of rape in the latest episode of The Newsroom.
Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) visits a woman accusing a man of rape in the latest episode of The Newsroom.
HBO

"Oh Shenandoah," last night's episode of The Newsroom, was a disasterpiece, an episode of television so bad I was gobsmacked by what I was watching. Literally everything about it was miscalculated, with every storyline hitting some point where it became too ridiculous to take seriously at all.

But at the center of the episode's problems was one terrible idea: Aaron Sorkin isn't sure rape victims should be naming their rapists, because somebody somewhere might miss out on a medical school scholarship.

It's evident what Sorkin is trying (and failing) to do. But about the only thing about this whole awful ordeal that isn't his fault is the fact that the episode is airing shortly after Rolling Stone backed away from a story about rape allegations at the University of Virginia, something that has eerie echoes in this episode.

Other than that, the episode is just the latest example of everything that has been so bad about this show, so often.

Just tell me what happened, because who watches this show anymore?

Good point. Here's what happened in a nutshell.

Producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) is assigned by his boss to go to Princeton University and track down a woman (Sarah Sutherland) who is accusing a fraternity member of raping her, via an anonymous website the woman has set up to let rape victims name their rapists, when they have no legal recourse. The new owner of the network (played by a perfectly smarmy B.J. Novak) wants the accuser and her accused rapist to go on TV together. Don thinks it's a terrible idea, but, hey, he wants to keep his job.

So he finds her via a process not unlike stalking, something the show doesn't really say anything about but, instead, celebrates as great journalism. (If Sorkin had more self-awareness about his characters, he might make a great, sly joke out of this.) He tells her why he's there, then tells her he hopes she won't go on TV in this fashion. She says she wants to.

The two argue about it a bit, and Sorkin, to his credit, lets the accuser get in some great points about how she has literally no recourse when it comes to receiving some sort of justice for the crime perpetrated against her. Don says that, yeah, he thinks she was probably raped, but as a journalist, his job is to side with the accused until proven guilty. (We'll get into this more in a bit.)

The crux of the scene — and the thing that has people so angry — is a moment when Don tells the student that he thinks her site is, essentially, equivalent to revenge porn. He understands why she thinks it's necessary, but inevitably, Don argues, someone will use it to make a false accusation, thus ruining the life of some promising young man who might have gone on to medical school or played professional football. (Because the NFL has such a problem rewarding players who have problems with violence against women.) He begs her again to not go on TV. She says, no, she wants to do it.

But it's all moot because Don lies to his boss and says he couldn't track her down, thus making the decision for her, in just the latest in a long line of scenes in this show where a man knows better than a woman and, thus, makes the decision for her.

How did people respond?

Poorly. Reviews from TimeThe A.V. ClubPreviously TV, and the New Yorker all called out the episode as horrifically bad.

And then there was this, from someone who worked as a writer on the third season. (The "room" she refers to is likely the show's writers' room, where the writers gather to come up with and structure the season's stories.)

Oof. Was the rest of the episode at least good?

Oh, not even a little bit.

This was the penultimate episode of the whole series, and Sorkin spent most of it having Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) argue with a hallucination of a ghost of his father (Kevin Rankin) in a jail cell. It wasn't hard to sympathize with said ghost, even though he was an emotionally and physically abusive tyrant, simply because his main accusation against Will is that he talks down to everybody, and, uh, Will definitely does that.

Meanwhile, Charlie (Sam Waterston) kept betraying his principles in order to keep the network humming under the guidance of its new owner, but he was so frantic and over the top that his first line of dialogue might as well have been, "Hi, I'm going to die in this episode," because he had a heart attack and did just that to close the hour out.

Also, Jim and Maggie, easily the show's worst couple, finally got together in a storyline that felt more icky than anything, and Sloan (Olivia Munn) took on the network's new celebrity stalking app. Every single storyline here was hackneyed, cliché, and dumb, to go along with the general offensiveness of the weird rape apologia.

Celebrity stalking app? Was this episode about the right to privacy?

Was it ever!

See, Jim and Maggie are alone together because they're in Moscow trying to find Edward Snowden, and Snowden's exposure of NSA programs meant to spy on US citizens provides the weird, paranoid backdrop of the whole hour.

In particular, Sorkin seems to want us to see the app that tells users where celebrities are at any given time as somehow tantamount to the student's rape reporting site. Both are taking someone's private business and making it public, in a way he finds discomfiting.

The problem with this is the difference in degree of what's happening here. If someone takes a photo of actress Kristen Bell and her kid walking out of a movie (the example offered by Sloan when she interrogates the app's inventor on TV), then reports that to lots and lots of people who might stalk Bell, that's self-evidently a bad thing. (Sorkin is loosely basing this on an actual Gawker app from 2006.) Yes, celebrities have given up some degree of their right to privacy thanks to their career choice, but they haven't given up all of it.

But accusing someone of raping you — when the legal system won't do anything about your case — is a very different situation altogether. Sorkin is arguing that both the person accused of rape and Kristen Bell are having their lives ruined by invasion of privacy. But Bell is guilty of nothing other than going to the movies; the rapist is potentially guilty of, well, rape.

What he's trying to interrogate, more or less, is the old dilemma of 10 guilty men walking free while one innocent man goes to prison. Very few rape accusations are false, but to Sorkin's mind, the existence of even one false rape accusation ever means that it's probably just better that everybody who can't somehow "prove" their rape and/or take it up via the legal system somehow never say anything about what happened to them, or name names, or anything of the sort.

Broadly speaking, in terms of the allegations made against Bill Cosby, Sorkin would find it in poor form for the women accusing Cosby of raping them to be raising these grievances right now. That may not be his actual opinion, but it's how the episode plays.

Isn't that a legitimate argument we're having all the time right now?

Sure! And there are moments in the scene between Don and the student that seem like Sorkin is willing to engage with the difficulty of this particular discussion. He seems at least sympathetic to the student's point of view, even if her desire to name and shame her rapist makes him feel a little uncomfortable about the whole thing.

But he also falls into a pitfall he often has in his work and on this show in particular: he's not willing to let the complexity of an issue speak for itself. If Sorkin were just there saying, "Hey, yeah, campus sexual assault is a huge problem, but there's more than black and white here," that would be one thing.

But he's uncomfortable with shades of grey and demands conclusive answers, which leads to the whole scene where Don lies and says he couldn't find the student. Once again, a man knows better. Once again, a member of the newsroom's staff is smarter and more intelligent than 99 percent of the human race.

How are these problems related to the problems of The Newsroom as a whole?

I'm glad you asked, because watching this episode made me realize I've been considering this show in the wrong way.

Will's ghostly father brings up his "mission to civilize," a storyline from the first season that was roundly derided by critics as Will's attempts to mansplain the world to women who were too dumb to get it. And, yeah, that was how it played. But I also wonder if this isn't, on some level, the grand theme of The Newsroom, the idea that Sorkin has always been trying to convey.

This season of The Newsroom, in particular, has been obsessed with the idea of citizen journalism, the idea that someone live-tweeting a news event might be as valuable a source as someone with a journalism degree and/or training. Sorkin is pretty firmly against this idea, as he is almost everything having to do with the internet in general.

But I think this is of a piece with Will's so-called "mission to civilize." Sorkin has a desperate nostalgia for an era when people upheld certain journalistic standards and, thus, looked to news anchors as beacons of light in an uncertain, scary world. It was an era, in his mind, of civility and arguing in good faith, and an era when there was some sort of consensus about how American life should operate and what was or wasn't appropriate for the public sphere. Sorkin is a diehard liberal, but one with a conservative view of society. He wants freedom and equality for all, but do we have to agitate for it?

And, to be sure, we live in a coarser, more vulgar society than that one. (This new world, I should add, was ushered into being by Sorkin's fellow Baby Boomers.) But it's also a world that's more willing to take a look at certain underpinnings of society that have always been there, just waiting to be picked apart. He is that person on your Facebook feed who understands why people in Ferguson are upset but also doesn't understand why they're protesting. He's the guy who thinks sexual assault is a huge problem but doesn't really want anybody to talk about it.

All of which is to say that the problem with The Newsroom — and Aaron Sorkin — is that both realize, to some degree, that they are a part of the problem. But rather than figuring out a way to fix that problem, they simply want to go back to a time when nobody realized this and call it civilization. And that's, ultimately, the most destructive argument they could possibly make.