Will McAvoy is the character on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom that won Jeff Daniels an Emmy Award in 2013, and it’s easy enough to see why. He’s a brilliantly written and complex character, and Daniels’ portrayal of him is just gorgeous. All that said—it’s May, and that makes it Mental Health Awareness Month, and it is in that context that I want to talk about Will.
The very first time we meet him, Will McAvoy is having a Network moment. A bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college student at Northwestern asks him a question at a Q&A. When pressed to answer, his response to “why is America the greatest country in the world” is a rant the likes of which might easily come out of many of us (especially nowadays, when a lot of us are mad as hell and would love to not have to take it anymore), were we fortunate enough to have Aaron Sorkin as our speechwriter.
Here’s the thing about Will. Will needs everyone to like him. He needs everyone to like him, because he doesn’t really like himself. Will McAvoy’s entire psychosis is a tug-of-war between his public and private personas, the love of his life and his father, his superego and his id.
Will’s father was an abusive alcoholic redneck from Nebraska. Will grew up under this shadow, and it’s not a shadow you can ever really escape, no matter how many years and medications you throw at it. Young Will had to protect his mother and younger sisters from this drunk, violent bully of a man, and even after Will stopped the beatings by fighting back, the scars remained. Will realised that not only was he brave enough to stand up for others, he was smart enough to know how to do it. He left the farm, tore his way through college and law school, became a prosecutor, then a speechwriter, and finally an anchor for cable news. He discovered that when the camera was on him, he could light up for millions of people he couldn’t even see.
I’ve always said that the ego of an average actor (at least, me) is a crystal palace. It is huge, and it is fragile. One rock thrown in the form of a bad review, dip in ratings, or a Twitter troll, and the palace crumbles in shards around your feet. Will McAvoy is, in many ways, the poster child for this phenomenon. I don’t pretend to personally know about the particular weirdness of the father/son relationship, but I think any child wants to feel like their father is proud of them. When there’s mutual love and a healthy relationship there, it simplifies things. When the relationship is complicated, the whole thing becomes harder.
Was the news audience a substitute for Will McAvoy’s father? I don’t know. Certainly in part. In front of the camera, Will could be a rebel and he could be a hero, and all at a safe distance. And if Dad wasn’t the type to watch a cable news show, Will could think to himself, “doesn’t matter, I have a zillion people out there who think I’m great.” And since TV ratings are a thing, Will had a tangible way to gauge approval, and he could alter himself to bolster the image he thought he ought to have, of the guy that everybody liked.
Here’s the problem with that. Will himself didn’t particularly like that guy. Deep down, doing soft news and special interest stories was just another way to humour his father so his father wouldn’t hit him again. Soft news and special interests were a way to not rock the boat. But that’s not who Will McAvoy really is, and he knows it. He’s too smart to simply be affable, and while being the Jay Leno of cable news has made him rich and famous, it’s also made him bored. He’s also afraid to stop being Affable Guy, because he’s afraid that his father is lurking somewhere inside him, and he doesn’t know if there’s a middle ground. Will needs a kick in the ass, from someone wearing $1,200 Louboutins.
Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) is an executive producer, and she’s the best in the business. She’s also Will’s ex-girlfriend. Once upon a time, Will and Mac were together and they worked together, and they did the news. They did the real news, not the kind that gets good ratings by not pissing off anyone. Will was able to be a person he could respect, because now he had someone else to impress, apart from his father and his invisible audience. Mac was able to direct his talents to their best use, and he loved that, and he loved her. With Mac, Will discovered that not only could he be a good newsman, he could also be a good boyfriend. When Mac cheated on him with her ex-boyfriend Brian (Paul Schneider), that shattered Will’s ego in every possible way. He associated Mac with doing real news, and when she betrayed him, he had to turn his back on both. It’s understandable. She made him into a better person, but in order to get over her betrayal (which he never really did), he had to reject both her, and the person she helped him become.
Enter Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston). He’s the Director of News Division for Atlantis Cable News, and he’s a Sorkin Charlie, so right off the bat we now he’s the guy with the clue. Charlie has been around a long time, he’s world-weary and bullshit-weary, and he wants to watch the real news. When he sees Will have his meltdown at Northwestern, Charlie realizes that this is the guy who, if properly motivated, can get him what he wants. And the way to get Will motivated is to bring Mackenzie back into the picture.
I’ll tell you something—before I got into The Newsroom, the importance of Charlie’s kind of news had never even occurred to me. I’m not politically minded, and I’ve never been a news-watcher, so I never realized that the whole point of it is to be informational broadcasting. It is supposed to provide me and the rest of the American electorate with information that will be valuable to us when we step into a voting booth. And never before realizing that, I had never realized how far from that the majority of the news out there has strayed. I’m not saying real news doesn’t exist. I’m saying more of it needs to, and it needs to be impartial and honest, and not influenced by ratings and advertisers. An impossible dream? Maybe. But one that brings me to my next point—the Mission To Civilise.
Don Quixote was an imaginary knight. He lived in the imagination of Miguel de Cervantes, who wrote his story in 1602 (and then again in 1615), and in the imagination of Alonso Quixano, an old man with dementia who sets out to make the world a better place by acting like a knight, fighting evil anywhere he found it. Charlie Skinner identifies with Don Quixote, and he makes Will believe that he can be Don Quixote too. Not only is Charlie Will’s best friend, Charlie is Will’s good dad, and the person (apart from Mackenzie) that Will wants to be proud of him.
When Will goes off on the college student, Charlie thinks it’s great. Will himself isn’t even able to take proper responsibility for his tirade. He thinks he sees Mac in the audience (he did see her, but he doesn’t find that out til much later), and that rattles him so much that out comes the word vomit. It’s like a fugue state, that he tried to blame on vertigo medicine. Getting off the stage, he says “what did I say out there?”
It’s the little things that Will does that demonstrate who he really is as a person, even more so than the things he says. He’s quick to bark at his staff, doesn’t know anyone’s name, and is described by superiors as “the biggest ratings whore in the business.” I can’t blame him for having more faith in ratings than in humans. But despite having been let down by his father and then by Mac, he feels a need to do what’s right, even when the audience isn’t looking. When he hears about a guy in Spokane (S1E3) who is having trouble with the costs of getting to and from his job, Will arranges for one of the newsroom staffers to cover the guy’s expenses and send Will the bills. He wants it done, but he refuses to let the staffer tell anyone else. When a stringer reporter they’ve found to bring them the news of a coup happening in Egypt is kidnapped and ransomed (S1E5), Will pays it out of his own pocket, saying “he’s one of our guys.”
Will decides that yes, he too is Don Quixote, and the windmills he will fight will be rudeness, bitchiness, and indecency. He announces that he is on a mission to civilize, and goes out of his way to try and encourage others in his quest. More often than not, it doesn’t go well.
Will, for all his bluster about how he can’t forgive Mac (and his need to keep punishing her by flaunting other women in her face, and holding his ability to fire her each week over her head), is all in to do the kind of news Mac and Charlie want. E3 opens with a direct apology to the audience for the kind of newscaster he used to be, and a pledge to be a better one now. In E4, they get the breaking news story of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords having been shot in the head. They get one report that she’s been killed, but Mac says no, this is double confirmation territory. Reese Lansing (Chris Messina), the President of the network (and the owner’s son) storms in, demanding that they announce her death, that other networks are calling it, and that ACN is losing viewers every second they don’t call it. Will is in front of the camera, and he has to decide.
Sometimes, it’s easier to believe in yourself after someone else has believed in you first. Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) is another EP, and Don has no problem standing up to Reese. “It’s a person,” he says. “A doctor pronounces her dead, not the news.” This was the moment I fell in love with Don Keefer, but I digress. Emboldened by Don’s words, Will sticks to his guns, and a good thing too—seconds later, they discover that the first confirmation was wrong, that Giffords is being prepped for surgery, and that all the other news networks who announced her death now need to retract it. Charlie is proud of his boy, tells Reese to get the hell out of his newsroom, and tells Will that rather than having feet of clay, Will has feet of steel. Will is even able to look a teary Mac in the eye and tell her everything is going to be okay. It’s the real beginning of change.
With change comes emotional turmoil. First of all, suddenly there’s been a death threat, and Will has been saddled with a bodyguard (Terry Crews). After his announcement that he is going to single-handedly fix the internet (what could possibly go wrong there), he gets a death threat via ACN’s website. To say he chafes at the idea of a bodyguard is an understatement, and the stress causes him to suffer insomnia, and worse, to behave badly at work. He breaks down and goes to his psychiatrist (David Krumholtz) for sleeping pills. Just having to go to the doctor is a thing Will hates. He hates admitting weakness of any kind. He had been on meds for depression and anxiety, but he took himself off them, and he stopped going to the doctor four years ago. He’s been paying for the sessions, he just hasn’t been going to them. It’s been so long, in fact, that the doctor he had been seeing died, and his 29 year old son has taken over his father’s practice.
Aaron Sorkin writes the absolute best psychiatrists. I would pay heaps to get to go to a Sorkin shrink. David Krumholtz looks Will dead in the eye, and calmly asks, “What are you f*cking around with me for?” Will starts out by being his usual evasive schtick, wanting to just get pills and get out of there. The fact that the doctor is so young adds insult to injury. Using a carrot-and-stick technique, Dr. Habib is able to get a proper session out of Will before agreeing to put Will back on the meds he needs. Will hates needing the meds as much as he hates having to talk about why he needs them, so not only does he self-medicate for the medication (that is to say, mix them with a bit too much bourbon), he acts out in the newsroom.
When Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) comes to him for advice on how to get a straight answer in an interview in which her guest is being evasive, he not only gives her bad advice, he passive-aggressively sets her up to fail, because he’s feeling lack of control because of the security guard. He tells her to keep pushing the guest, which she does, but she’s new at this method and makes poor choices in her execution (including clearing the room of witnesses during her pre-interview, and then unexpectedly speaking to the guest in his native Japanese during the broadcast, despite pleas from her EP to not go rogue). When she does fail, humiliating both herself and the network, he feels terrible about it. On his own show, he tears into a guest for no real reason except that his own sense of power is threatened, and now on top of that, he gave Sloan bad advice. Even with Mac continually telling Will “stop hitting him,” he pummels the guest (to be fair, he did finally get the guy to answer the question properly, but it took him being a bully to do it).
Will McAvoy just had to get the last word, humiliated the guy (who is also a teacher, as is Sloan) in front of students, parents, etc. I’m pretty sure Will would have felt guilty for upsetting students even without the Northwestern thing having happened, but this made him feel even worse. Will is so terrified that he’s like his father that occasionally he becomes like his father. Charlie finally figures out a way to clean up at least the Sloan side of things in a way that will leave her with egg on her face but ultimately save her job and reputation, and Will feels responsible. He tells her, “If there’s any fallout, I’ll be standing right next to you and in front. I’ll always be standing right next to you and in front.”
Heading up toward the finale to Season 1, things start to heat up for Will even more. There’s an election coming up, and the News Night team is trying to get a new debate format approved for when the Republican candidates come on air to be moderated by Will. Unfortunately, this comes at the same time as the Casey Anthony trial, which is exactly the kind of sensationalist, ratings-scoring news that they have been trying to avoid. In addition, the owner of the company, Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), is fed up with losing money due to ratings and Will’s mouth. She told Charlie ages ago that Will is going to tone it down, because if the ratings don’t go back up, she will simply invent an excuse to fire Will McAvoy, despite his being the second most watched anchor on cable. She says it will be easy to create a context which will make the network look good, while making Will look bad. Charlie kept this to himself for a long time, but now Will and Mac need to know, and a series of unpleasant compromises starts to happen.
Once Mac hears that protecting Will is a factor, she reluctantly agrees to cover Casey Anthony. Will is all in to do it if it’s the price they have to pay to get the debate they want. He hates having to cover Casey Anthony—though part of him is probably ashamed to be pleased that it’s getting more viewers back. It’s easier for Will to sit back and not object to Casey Anthony when he knows Mac is going to do it for him. On top of everything else, remember Brian Brenner, that ex-boyfriend of Mac’s that she cheated on Will with? He’s a reporter, and when a big news magazine wants to do an all-access story on Will and the News Night team, Will gets to choose the reporter, and he chooses this guy. Will gets to flaunt his relative success to Brian (whose career in print media has dipped significantly), and have control over Brian, while at the same time continuing to punish Mac by forcing her to compromise all her principles in front of her ex. Will knows he’s doing it, though he also needs to imagine himself as a good guy, so he needs an excuse to rationalise it to himself.
Sorkin likes to write about exes who haven’t really broken up (see Matt and Harriet, Studio 60). When Will is disappointing over Casey Anthony, he’s personally breaking Mac’s heart again. He’s throwing his weight around in front of her ex, wherever he can. At one point, Mac accuses Will of never having been serious about her at all, and his response is to pull out a Tiffany’s box and show her the engagement ring he had planned to give to her. What Mac doesn’t know then is that this is a ring he had his agent’s assistant purchase that day, just so Will would have proof of how serious he had been. He tells Dr. Habib he plans to return it, but we see Will throw out the receipt, and lock the ring in his desk.
When Will asks Dr. Habib why he is doing all these things: compromising the show, hurting Mac, doing things he hates (even Will acknowledges that buying a $250,000 ring as a prank isn’t normal), Dr. Habib tells him that Will is holding his hand over the candle, because he thinks the trick is not to mind how much it hurts. But that’s not the trick, the trick is forgiving Mac, and Will knows that too. Will is wearing his pain like self-righteous armour. Will simultaneously knows that he is doing these things deliberately, while at the same time insisting that he isn’t doing them on purpose.
The whole Casey Anthony thing turns out to have been for naught anyway. The RNC rep not only isn’t a fan of the new debate format, he’s not a fan of Will or Mac either. The News Night team loses the debate, and Will stands there and takes insults from the RNC guy without batting an eye…until the RNC guy insults Mac, and Will is immediately all hold my earrings. Clearly, no one is allowed to abuse Mac unless it’s him. Once they lose the debate, he’s got nothing to lose. Will won’t consider the notion that Leona might fire him—he doesn’t care about that. He scraps Casey Anthony, tells Sloan to do the important economics story she has been pestering him to do all week, and he asks Mac if she can handle just a little more time with her idiot ex hanging around the newsroom.
In the season finale, Will is in the hospital. The meds, bourbon, and stress have torn a hole in his stomach. Furthermore, the article from Brian has come out, and it’s brutal. He calls Will “the greater fool,” and he tears down everything the News Night team has been building, claiming it was all an exercise in Will McAvoy feeding his ego. The depression hits Will with both barrels, and he truly feels like Don Quixote, brought down by the Knight of the Mirrors, shown that he’s no knight, just a ridiculous old man with delusions of grandeur. And he know it’s is own fault, because he’s the one who brought Brian in to write the article.
Will had equated the article to the end of Camelot, when there’s a kid whose job it is to run from village to village to tell everyone about Camelot and how great it was going to be—really, it’s a humblebrag. It’s both serving of the people and serving of Will’s ego, since someone else is doing the bragging for him. Thank god for Charlie, who smacks Will around and gets him to refocus, and thank god for Sloan, who informs him what it truly means to be the greater fool.
The greater fool is actually an economic term. It’s a patsy. For the rest of us to profit, we need a greater fool— someone who will buy long and sell short. Most people spend their life trying not to be the greater fool; we toss him the hot potato, we dive for his seat when the music stops. The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools.
In Season 2, right away we know something is rotten in Denmark’s refrigerator. They’re all taking turns talking to a lawyer (Marcia Gay Harden) about something called Genoa. The details of Genoa aren’t particularly important in this context—suffice it to say that Genoa was a big, huge story that they did, that turned out to be not true. As the leader of Team News Night, Will feels responsible for everyone. And in fairness, he kind of is. The chain of events that led to Genoa was started off at the very end of S1, when Will went on the air, stated that while he himself is a Republican, he can’t stand the Tea Party, and referred to the Tea Party as “the American Taliban.”
When he did that, it caused a great hue and cry from the government, and because of that, Charlie made the call to pull Will from the upcoming 9/11 anniversary coverage. Will plays it off as the cost of doing business, but really he’s devastated, among other reasons because it was Charlie’s decision to do it, and Will can’t bear the thought of letting Charlie down. Pulled from the coverage, he tries to ameliorate the Tea Party comment by refusing to challenge a former Air Force Captain who is a guest on the show, and a bit of a blowhard. The Air Force Captain, realizing he hadn’t done well on television, tries to compensate by giving their guest producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) the scoop on a hot story called Genoa, and the dominoes begin to fall down.
Will is still on his mission to civilise, making big loud statements about things that come naturally to someone like Charlie. When no one is looking, however, he sits around googling “Will McAvoy hate” on the internet, and brooding to Roger Daltrey songs about his relationship with the audience. Mac’s got his number about that too (she’s got his number about most things), and says that the problem with having a relationship with the audience is that “they don’t feel about you the way that you want them to.”
When the 9/11 broadcast goes on without him, a couple of the newsroom production techs watch archive footage of then fledgling anchor Will McAvoy on air when 9/11 actually happened. Charlie, whom he barely knew at the time, came in with a cup of coffee for Will, who by that point had been on the air for 16 hours. Charlie, in his inaugural “Will McAvoy inspirational speech,” tells him that tonight, he needs to do for the country what he did for his mother and sisters so long ago—protect them from something violent. His words into the camera say everything you need to know about the pure Will McAcoy. “We don’t know how many are dead—it’s gonna be a lot, it’s gonna be in the thousands—we don’t know who attacked us, we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, and I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’ll make you this promise. I’m gonna be with you all night. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be right here.”
On-brand for Will, but definitely not helpful to his own cause (except perhaps in that way of making a person realise what he definitely doesn’t want in a relationship) is the time he spends dating Nina Howard (Hope Davis). She’s the gossip columnist whose “take-down pieces” got him repeatedly into trouble in S1. She’s not entirely scum underneath it all, and she does have vague integrity that Will notices and likes to think he is encouraging. When he reaches out to Nina to reason with her to not run her latest harmful scoop, is it an attempt to befriend the enemy? And then when she agrees to his proposal, does he ask her out because he thinks he can reform her further? A guy like Will absolutely loves to see any positive effects he’s had on others. Nina agreeing to be a good guy at his suggestion, and not run her latest piece of poison is all Will needs to reinforce his Don Quixote thing. Nina refuses his first invitation to a date because she knows damn well that he’s still in love with Mac…Nina calling him out on this is probably what makes him even more keen to date Nina (she soon changes her mind about not wanting to date him), since he’s got to maintain his refusal to forgive Mac.
Somewhere in the middle of S2, Jeff Daniels’s own father died. Aaron Sorkin isn’t shy about tapping the real lives of his actors for things to throw at their characters. S2E5, “News Night With Will McAvoy” takes place in essentially real time during the airing of a broadcast. At the very top of the hour, Will gets a phone call from his father which he is unable to take, and then he discovers that his father has collapsed and been taken to the hospital. Will has to keep his focus during his live show, hiding the fact that he is immediately defensive and hostile over anything involving his father. He gets into an online kerfuffle with a Twitter user, and, in typical Will fashion, tries to micromanage the Twitter thing because he has no control over the dad thing. Not that the kerfuffle with a random Twitter user wouldn’t have freaked him out anyway (but everyone must like me!), but dad being in the hospital makes it worse. Plus, he’s got Mac in his ear trying to talk sense at him about both his father and Twitter, and Will being Will. He needs to push back just because it’s Mac and she’s talking sense. He does take her advice and calls his father, but it’s too late, and his father has died. At the very end of the broadcast, Will looks for a long time into the camera, and finally says “I guess it’s just us now.”
The end of Season 2 is Election Night, and everything has come to a head with Genoa. Will has been running around telling everyone that he’s appointed himself in charge of morale (yes, everyone except him sees the irony there), and it’s the worst of the Will McAvoy bravado. In this case, he doesn’t have to be devastated because Mac is doing it for him. She’s blaming herself for Genoa, and she calls him out and asks what the next punishment is going to be. A punishment for wrecking his career in addition to breaking his heart years ago should be even worse when you consider his priorities. He’s got that Affable Guy wall up, denying that he’s ever punished her, when he knows damn well that’s what he’s done. He’s always had some doubt as to if he was at all responsible for her cheating on him—he’s pretty sure he wasn’t, but he has to call Mac out on it, and it’s just another excuse for him to be mean to her.
Meanwhile, she calls him out on whether his not firing her over Genoa is because it would make him look bad. It’s true, but he doesn’t want to be that guy (and he never was that guy with her), so it hurts. Will, Mac and Charlie all think they’re going to be fired by Leona anyway, and Mac and Will finally have the knock-down fight that the entire series has been leading up to. He even tells her about the engagement ring, that it had been a practical joke, which is easily the cruelest thing he’s done to her, and they both know it. She says to him, “I brutally hurt you, and that’s a fact, and facts don’t change. But in my lifetime, I have never done it deliberately.”
Did he do it to level the playing field? Did he just blurt it out like the rant from Northwestern, and think he can chalk it up to a fugue state and vertigo medicine later? A few minutes later, when Charlie says of Genoa, “Except for the things we did wrong, we did everything right,” Will finally has his come-to-Jesus. He realizes that with one small, relatively easy action, he can make all the angst go away, and he can make himself happy. That scene where he finally proposes to her is one of my favourites in television, and one of the reasons for that is that when she says yes, his response is “thank God,” and the look on his face is not only one of joy, it is one of relief, that he can finally put that whole mess behind him.
I’ve got my issues with the third season, and Will is one of the reasons why. The show had been cancelled, and while it does feel like Sorkin ended it on his own terms, it always feels like a bit of a rush job. My private opinion has always been that he agreed to end the show because he didn’t want to have to write about Sandy Hook, and I can’t really blame him for that. They’re still living in the shadow of Genoa, but they skipped over the trial that was talked about, and the only lingering significance of Genoa is that News Night is now lower in the ratings than before, and everyone is paranoid and extra careful about getting everything right. Will, now planning his wedding to Mac, is like someone flipped a switch, and can be ridiculously optimistic about everything. When he talks about being in charge of morale, it’s a little more believable now.
Neal (Dev Patel) is approached with another big scarey war-crime type story, and Will is all in to pursue it because they need something big to make up for Genoa. Despite his all-along insistence that he is a man with nothing to lose, he’s spent most of the series letting others step up to the plate first, while muttering “that should have been me” after the fact. When the story blows up and Neal is forced to flee rather than give up his source, Neal is Will’s hero, and Will finally puts himself directly on the line. Does Will really believe it when he says he won’t go to prison because he’s a TV star? Don’t know.
What I do know is that this is Will finally proving to himself and everyone that yes, he is a real journalist. And let’s be real—he hopes that Mac finds his Irish stoicism sexy. Even Mac is incredulous about his continuing need to prove this. “Don’t you know that anything that can be proven by courage and character, you proved to me a long time ago?” Even she can’t believe that he would go to jail just to win her approval, but even Reese says that if that’s not the case, it would be the first thing Will has done that wasn’t to win her approval. Mac is not only the love of his life, she’s also his executive producer, so his ambitions to be the real thing for both Mackenzies are intertwined, and always have been.
Will may have genuinely thought that he’s too big to jail, but that bluff is called. He’s got the name of Neal’s source too (so does Mac, but no one knows that), and he kind of throws down a gauntlet at the judge, almost daring the judge to lock him up. Because Will’s heart is with the prosecutor, as he says? Anyway, Will is held in contempt, and sent off to prison, in hopes that this will coerce him into giving up the name. At Mac’s insistence, they have a quick-but-still-beautiful wedding (complete with “Ave Maria,” which we know Sorkin has a fondness for) right before he is handcuffed and escorted away. We hadn’t known anything before about Mac’s religious affiliations, but we learn that not only would she appreciate a Catholic ceremony, we learn that arguing about religion with a cool priest who is willing to argue has apparently been a regular thing for Will.
The penultimate episode of the series, “Oh Shenandoah” is (among other things) Will in prison, working out his daddy issues once and for all. They expect that he’ll only be inside for a day or so, but 50-odd days later, Will isn’t giving up the source. He’s got a cellmate whose name we never get, but it’s Kevin Rankin playing possibly the best-written redneck of his career (he has played ALL the variations of that guy). Over the course of the episode, Will gets quietly called out on all his father issues by a guy who we don’t learn til the end is actually Will’s father, in the form of an hallucination common to guys in solitary confinement for a long time. Will’s cellmate wants to talk about all the things Will doesn’t want to talk to him about—women, smart people, abuse, and Will’s own Mission To Civilise. Will gets to be a hardass with this guy in ways he never got to be with his father as an adult. You have to wonder if some part of Will knows that the guy he’s talking to isn’t really there, and this makes it easier for Will to be the necessary hardass.
When Will gets out of prison, he is greeted by his wife and the awful news that Charlie has died of a heart attack. While Will was away, the new owner of the network and Charlie have been fighting nonstop over how the network should be run. Charlie fought the good fight and went down swinging, but the stress was too much, and he’s gone. The series finale (“What Kind of Day Has It Been,” another Sorkin Easter egg) is one I’m still trying to make my peace with. The rewatch it took to prep this article is, I think, the closest I’m going to get.
It’s not that it’s bad. Out of Sorkin’s four TV series, I don’t think any of them ended exactly the way he would have wanted them to (either they were cancelled, or he himself quit), and the result always feels a little too rushed and a little too tidy. He’s certainly keen to wrap everything up with a nice bow and as happy an ending as possible.
Using the same flashback structure as the West Wing episode “Two Cathedrals,” the episode bounces back and forth between Charlie’s funeral and the days immediately before and following Will’s outburst at Northwestern. For the first time, we get to see the Will that has only been talked about, the Will who did the puff pieces and got good ratings for being likable. We also learn that Mac is pregnant. The look on Will’s face when he learns he’s going to be a father is pure joy, with a healthy sprinkling of terror. Will is terrified of fathers, because he’s terrified of being like his own. At this point, he rationally knows he isn’t his dad, but when he’s going to be a father himself, it pokes the fear again. At this point, he’s confronted his father in the only way he’s able to (an hallucination would be a great therapeutic tool, if only we could summon them at, you should forgive the expression, will), and I think that he knows that with Mac at his side to produce, he will be able to be good at this.
I’ve always found the whole “That’s How I Got to Memphis” sequence a little precious. That said, I’m also always happy to watch Jeff Daniels sing and play guitar, so I don’t mind that it’s a little precious. It’s a nice send-off to the series, with everyone sitting around singing and smiling, and for Will, it’s him finally being able to say, “that’s how I got here, and I can do this and I’m not my dad.” And he has to do it in front of an audience, and that’s what makes it real for him.
According to the commentary, Aaron Sorkin was concerned that Jeff Daniels wouldn’t be able to play Will McAvoy for the simple reason that Jeff Daniels is too nice a guy in real life. Obviously, he’s a fantastic actor, so that shouldn’t have really been a concern. Even if Will’s character arc was influenced by the affability of the actor, I’ve always found Will’s journey to be genuine and understandable. Many critics of The Newsroom write Will off as simply a narcissistic jackass, but I encourage you to visit it again sometime. Will McAvoy may not hold a candle to Don Quixote (or to Charlie Skinner), but his fight is one worth watching.
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This article made me tear up! Will is one of my favourite characters of all time, and this feels like a sort of love letter to him and the exquisite way that he’s acted. Thank you for writing this!