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'The Newsroom' Recap: 'Amen'

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Does Aaron Sorkin have some kind of dirt on Emily Mortimer?

The thought flashed through my mind as I watched poor Mortimer be dragged through yet another hour in which MacKenzie MacHale is shown to be a pathetic mess. "Amen" was, in many ways, a relative rebound from the horrors of "I'll Try To Fix You," but its treatment of MacKenzie was nothing less than ugly to witness.

Let's count the ways, shall we? First, we're led to believe that MacKenzie knows nothing about basic facts of American economic history, and has to be treated to a crash course by a stunned Sloan Sabbith. We're talking things like "Ronald Reagan was a deregulator."

None of this makes any sense whatsoever. The idea that a seasoned news producer and a supposedly damned good journalist would have such a poor grasp on these matters simply defies logic. MacKenzie even confuses Tom Friedman with Paul Krugman, which, huh? For one thing, both are frequent guests on cable news shows — especially shows like the one "Newsnight" purports to be. These details are seemingly tossed in to push the ongoing narrative about MacKenzie's kooky flaws, and to give Sorkin a chance to hold forth, through Sloan on economics. But it just winds up feeling very cruel.

Of course, part of the reason MacKenzie hasn't been able to concentrate on the economy much is that she's so maniacally obsessed with Will and the breakdown of their relationship three years ago. There's a mind-boggling series of scenes between her and Sloan where she repeatedly cuts in with wails about how she did him wrong.

Sample dialogue:

Sloan (giving a rudimentary history lesson): We also won World War Two, put a man on the moon and a computer in everyone's lap. And you know what we did next?

MacKenzie: We cheated on the perfect guy with the guy who dumped us! (She then blubbers.)

MacKenzie is also found to be unlucky in her relationship with boyfriend Wade, who is ushered out of the series as quickly as he was ushered in. Surprise -- the random lunk with no charisma isn't here to stay! Instead, we find that he's been secretly planning a run for Congress and has been using his frequent appearances on "Newsnight" to raise his profile. This all goes public and MacKenzie gets accused of ethical violations.

Will then meets with the evil gossip columnist from the last episode, who's not only writing all these MacKenzie stories but also tries to blackmail him into giving her $50,000, which he almost does. Sorkin has always had a weakness for straw men (or women in this case), and the comically noble Will is just too easy a contrast with the equally comically poisonous Nina Howard. The contrast between his brilliance and selflessness and MacKenzie's bumbling and infidelity can also not have been an accident, and the imbalance in power between them is both annoying and very dull to watch.

The Maggie-Jim-Don-Lisa romance storyline is similarly unfortunate, an attempt at youthful screwball levity that was flat from the first second and hasn't gotten better.

If there's a savior in "Amen," it's to be found on the news side of things. It doesn't stretch the boundaries of news credulity as much as previous episodes have, but I do have to mention a couple of really insane threads.

It's set during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the network has sent 10 PM anchor Elliot to Cairo. He gets beaten up in Tahrir Square and is shipped home. But Charlie Skinner refuses even to announce that his anchor has been attacked, or to let him on the air right away, since journalists shouldn't be the story. This would never happen! Never ever ever ever. Your anchor gets that kind of first-hand story and you think it's not newsworthy for him to tell what he saw? Please.

I'll mostly skip over the insane on-air anti-Will rant from one of the network's morning show anchors, except to say that it would also never ever happen.

But, in another corner, we have the titular story of Khalid, an 18-year-old Egyptian citizen journalist who goes by the pseudonym Amen. "Newsnight" needs stringers who can actually go through the country and gather material. Neal, the show's Internet geek played by Dev Patel, has been following Khalid's stuff online and convinces his bosses to hire him, send him off to report and put him on air. (Patel has been almost invisible on the show up to this point, and Sorkin awkwardly shoehorns in a backstory monologue for him as if to make up for lost time.)

This plot line works better than just about anything else has on "The Newsroom." It's one of the first times in the entire series that Sorkin stops smugly bloviating about how terrible everything is and remembers that gutsy, on-the-ground reporting can be pretty awe-inspiring stuff.

Khalid gets captured by the military (Will, of course, pays a fortune to free him), and while he's being held, Neal watches a clip of Rush Limbaugh mocking the journalists who have been targeted by the Mubarak regime. Limbaugh starts laughing about this and saying it's no great loss, and Neal punches the computer screen so hard in anger that he breaks a couple fingers. That punch is the most moving commentary on journalism so far on "The Newsroom," and, tellingly, requires no dialogue at all to get its message across. It's an exercise in relative subtlety that I hope we'll continue to see in upcoming episodes.

And please, please, Emily Mortimer -- just confess your sins so you can stop Sorkin's blackmail and get yourself a better storyline.

(UPDATE: I initially said that a freshman entering college might know more than MacKenzie about economics. But that is crazy.)