[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from the series finale of HBO's The Newsroom. Read at your own risk.]
Even though The Newsroom's series finale featured a funeral, it was unlike the final send-offs of so many other death-obsessed cable dramas. Instead, the message of the final hour of Aaron Sorkin's latest (and last?) TV series was simple: Life goes on.
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Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) and their team of idealistic staffers gathered to say goodbye to their former boss Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), who died of a heart attack in the penultimate episode while fighting with new corporate owner Lucas Pruit (BJ Novak). But the finale still featured plenty of Charlie, as flashbacks illuminated exactly how the Don Quixote-obsessed old-timer pulled the strings that helped Will and Mack make a cable news broadcast they (and Charlie) were proud of — a task they quickly returned to in the final moments of the series after laying Charlie to rest.
But getting back to normal was easier for some than others. Not only did Sloan (Olivia Munn) and Don (Thomas Sadoski) spend most of the episode apologizing for killing Charlie, but Will also struggled to come up with a eulogy he thought was befitting his former boss, mentor and friend. But after Will learned that he was going to become a father (and played a rousing rendition of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis"), he was finally able to pay tribute to Charlie's crazy, quixotic life. "You were a man, Charlie," he says. "A great, big man."
Yes, life goes on, and because of Charlie's tinkering, those lives seem set up for pretty happy endings. In addition to Will and Mackenzie's impending parenthood, Mackenzie gets Charlie's old job thanks to Leona (Jane Fonda) putting Pruit in his place. Elsewhere, Neal (Dev Patel) returns from Venezuela to rebuild ACN digital, and Mackenzie gives her executive producer role to Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), who finally professes his love to Maggie (Allison Pill), who is presumably heading to work in Washington, D.C., as a field producer. (They vow to make the long-distance relationship work.) And Will, who began the series as a news anchor who had stopped caring, sat behind his desk once more and delivered the news.
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TVGuide.com chatted with executive producer and director Alan Poul about bringing the series to a close, which scene was the most challenging and why that ending was so important. Plus: What will the legacy of the oft-debated HBO drama be?
The finale seemed like a love letter to Charlie. What was your intention for this final episode?
Alan Poul: It's clear how important Charlie was to the entire mechanics of the various story lines of the entire series, but the real underlying idea was to go back and revisit how everything got set in motion. Aaron had the thought of, "Let's look at what we didn't see in the pilot, or what we didn't see in the circumstances surrounding what happened in the pilot." That way we can put Charlie to rest, put the series to rest, and tie things up without simply having to remain in the present. The echo chamber effect of being able to go back and revisit how it all started in the light of how it all ends, creates a very interesting set of harmonies. It was important to go back to the beginning to understand fundamentally what the show was about.
Plus, the flashbacks allow the audience to have one more memory of Charlie.
Poul: Yeah, that's right. And it was interesting because we wanted to literally evoke the world of the pilot and the feeling of the pilot, [even though] we're three years later. The flashback scenes are treated visually — in terms of the color palette, in terms of the amount of color saturation, in terms of look — in a certain way to evoke specifically the look of the pilot and the feel of the pilot.
We've kind of seen Will off his game all season, blowing that speech in the first episode and so forth. In the finale, he struggles with the eulogy.
Alan Poul: Will's reluctance to do the eulogy I don't think is really related to blowing the speech in the first episode. I think it's more a question of Will trying to grapple with his own feelings because his feelings about Charlie run so deep. And it involves so many factors, including the present state of the network, including Will's own issues with his father, including everything he'd been through this season with Mac and with jail, and particularly in this episode, his discovery that he's about to be a father himself. The issue of Charlie for him is so big that he feels that to try to put it into a few short sentences cannot possibly do him justice, and that's why it's not thought through but spontaneous when he turns around and goes back and addresses the crowd.
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Will's going to be a dad. Mackenzie got Charlie's job and Jim got Mackenzie's. Neal is back to re-launch the website. Jim and Maggie and Don and Sloan both seem to be in pretty functional relationships. So, everybody gets a happy ending?
Poul: It's a little harder for me to respond because I'm not the writer, but I think [that] was important, It's self-evident that when you do the finale to a series, you want to leave everybody in a good place.
Wrapping up a series is always hard. What was the hardest part of this finale?
Alan Poul: First of all, when you're doing a series finale, the stakes are high because there's no chance to fix everything afterward. You want to make sure you are going to leave people properly satisfied. Tonally, the episode was very tricky. In the wake of Charlie's death, there's so much sadness hanging over everything, and with the funeral layered throughout the episode, there was always a danger that it would just become a big bath of tears — that it would be maudlin and that it would sink under the weight of some kind of sentimentality. So we felt from the beginning that we had make sure that we weren't trying to wallow or encourage the audience to wallow in the grief.
What was the hardest scene in particular?
Poul: Like many series finales, there are several scenes that could be considered the climax. In particular, the musical number, "That's How I Got To Memphis," there's so much heavy stuff that goes on before that to make sure that it pays off in terms of what that scene is really about. [That scene puts] Will's impending fatherhood and [him finding] a way express his feelings about Charlie all in a context that's actually on the surface joyful. Calibrating everything leading up to that scene was something that took a lot of effort. Because we didn't want it to get to that point and say, "Oh my God, we did so much, and now we're pausing for a musical number." It had to play thematically as something that was actually paying off specific story lines for Will. The eulogy and the announcement that Mack has been named the new president are climactic in terms of story lines. So those two moments back to back are the climax.
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What was the idea behind the final sequence in the newsroom?
Poul: For the final minute of the show, Aaron basically scripted these little, daily non-urgent moments leading up to the show going on the air. He was very clear in terms of tone that it had to feel like just an ordinary day. It wasn't breaking news urgency, but somehow it had to be shot in a way that elevated it and made it a fitting close to the series. So, he basically said, "It's all on you!" [Laughs] It's not about the text. In fact, it's very important that you understand that these are not important [moments] in and of themselves. It's more about the deep importance of going back to business as usual.
And life goes on.
Poul: Absolutely right. Even though the whole world has been turned upside down and then righted again, that they all just go back to work as usual. It's a quiet triumph and it's meant to simply make you realize that this is what the entire show has been about — ultimately, people go to work and do their job.
In terms of figuring out how to shoot it in way that it would subtly elevate it and feel like you've watched the end of the series, that sequence was very, very carefully storyboarded... so it would feel like one fluid piece. In addition — and it's something that I don't expect to be really noticed — but an awful lot of it was actually shot at slight slow motion. ... Their movements are slightly slowed down, not so much that it's immediately perceptible but it gives a slight elevated and dreamlike atmosphere to the sequence... a slight sense of enhanced reality to it.
When we spoke at the beginning of the season, you said you felt this was the strongest season of the show. What was it about this year that made it feel that way?
Poul: Knowing that we were working toward the end just really empowered you to be at the top of your game. Most of the time in series television, you want to make every episode satisfying, but there's this constant concern of, how do I keep it going? It's the bane of series television. Once you are freed from that and you realize you don't have to keep it going, you're able to think solely about what's the best thing that can happen in the story and for these people. And so that's the singular aspect that allowed this season to be so good.
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This show obviously had its ups and downs through its short run, including a lot of Internet rage over the rape story line in the penultimate episode. What do you make of that?
Poul: The fact that the show has been provocative along the way is nothing but a good thing. So I'm actually very proud of that. I think that the blogosphere is very loud in the immediate present. And then there's the leveling effect of history, and I think that with a little bit of time and distance people will understand that the show had an incredibly passionate fan base as well as a devoted group of detractors, which I think is as it should be.
Do you think that will be the show's legacy? What are you most proud of personally?
Poul: The thing that I'm most proud of is that the show entered the cultural conversation. When you're making any kind of fictional work that aspires to some level of topicality — either thematically or with regard to content, and I think Newsroom hits both points — then that's the greatest badge of honor you can wear. This show was referenced as part of a cultural conversation, and the show itself became news at sometimes. Will McAvoy as a character has become something of a cultural icon. When certain news commentators on actual news shows have gone off-script and done very tough grilling of guests, I've seen it referred to as they went Will McAvoy on somebody. So I couldn't be prouder than that. If you enter the lexicon that way, then you left a mark, and that's really why we do what we do.
What did you think of The Newsroom's series finale?