A.J. Bauer is visiting assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU and co-editor of News on the Right. Reece Peck is assistant professor of media culture at College of Staten Island (CUNY) and author of Fox Populism. Each week, they'll recap the new Showtime limited series The Loudest Voice.
Last week saw Roger Ailes riding high — boldly declaring war on the Obama administration, rabble-rousing the citizens of Garrison, kidnapping subordinates with wild abandon, manufacturing "news" out of whole cloth.
Not for long.
Unlike his doomsday bunker, the alternative reality Ailes used Fox News to build has a shoddy foundation — Ailes' own misogynist and authoritarian ego. This week, as the world of his making begins collapsing around him, Ailes clings all the more tightly to his paranoia and delusions of grandeur.
Episode 5, "2012," begins with Ailes up to his old sleazy tricks. Gretchen Carlson, looking to branch out from playing the "fox" on Fox & Friends, is considering a guest appearance on The View. Ailes visits her dressing room, where he negs her about her intellect and voice, and feigns a "breathing techniques" lesson as an excuse to cop a feel.
Carlson, played fiercely and resolutely by Naomi Watts, at first seems to acquiesce to Ailes' advances. But when she mouths "motherf---er" into the mirror as he leaves, we know our heroine has arrived.
Early episodes of The Loudest Voice tended to over-emphasize Ailes at the expense of fully developing the supporting cast. Now that we've reached the beginning of Ailes' downfall, a rush toward his promised demise, the Fox executive's friends and foes deliver long-overdue catharsis. Ailes' voice is still the loudest, and only growing louder, but it is no longer able to command control of those around him.
Take Joe Lindsley, the conservative journalist who the Aileses hired (and effectively kidnapped) to run the Putnam County News and Recorder. It's been nearly four years, but Joe is still living in the Ailes' pool house, apparently psychologically confined to Garrison (we watch as Roger rebuffs Joe's attempt to visit his sister, inviting her to visit him instead).
The pressure of living and working under Beth and Roger has clearly taken a toll on Joe, and when his newspaper staff quits en masse, he is pushed near to his breaking point. Beth (Sienna Miller) tries to console him over drinks at the house — "Let them quit. We don't need them if they can't support what we're doing." — but her vision of their mission does little to assuage his concerns.
Apparently attempting to strengthen Joe's resolve, Beth shows him the family's panic room — well-stocked with tubs of shelf-stable foodstuffs and equipped with a tunnel that leads to the Hudson River, suitable for a clandestine getaway. "Roger has enemies, Joe," Beth warns. "People hate him."
When Joe dismisses her paranoia, Beth persists creepily. Touching him flirtatiously, Beth reveals that Joe's being groomed: "When he's gone, you're going to have some awfully big shoes to fill."
The episode's sense of dread heightens as Joe's sister Kat (Erin Darke) visits for dinner, one week before the 2012 election. When Kat — who Joe insists is ideologically "on our side" — pushes back against Roger's racist dinner table ramblings that Obama was born in Kenya, Roger resorts to his usual chauvinist petulance. "Joe, I thought you told me your sister was smart."
Kat wisely cuts her visit short, but not before holding a much-needed mirror up to her brother. "You live with him. You agree with everything he says. You even look like him now," she warns Joe. "It's like you're in a cult."
Haunted by his sister's words, Joe ultimately decides to flee.
He musters the courage to do so on election night, catching Ailes in an especially foul mood as it becomes apparent the Romney campaign has faltered. Roger manages to convince Joe to return to the Ailes estate to attend to a triggered security alarm, as Fox anchors focus their attention on must-win Ohio (Ailes' home state).
In a scene that skillfully captures Roger's slipping personal and professional control, we watch him isolated in his office, splitting his attention between Fox election coverage and closed-circuit TV footage from his strobe-lit mansion. He watches rapt as Joe is confronted by police, who briefly mistake him for the source of the alarm, while Bill Shine (Josh Stamberg) grimly informs him that the Fox decision desk wants to call Ohio, and the election, for Obama.
Enraged, Ailes demands that Shine stall: "I just need a f---ing minute." He calls Joe, using his security camera omnipotence to watch has he hesitates, then picks up his phone. While Joe pleads for time to think about his future, suggesting he needs to pray on it, Roger mocks him sinisterly.
"God's not home, Joe. He doesn't have time for your problems," Ailes growls. "If you're looking for someone who can change your life or send you straight to hell, you're talking to him."
While Ailes' demonic turn crosses the line into caricature, flattening his character enables others to flourish.
Gretchen Carlson shines brightest in this regard. Portrayed as equally ambitious and principled, Carlson deftly manages to avoid Roger's repeated sexual advances while keeping her career, mostly, intact. Ailes retaliates by initiating a whisper campaign against her, warning producers at The View that she is difficult to work with. In one final attempt at coercing her into sex, Ailes gives Carlson her own show — albeit in an unenviable midday timeslot.
Carlson fights back by appearing on air sans makeup — a rejection of Fox's blatant male gaze, and an implicit rejection of Roger's sexual advances. Ailes receives her message loud and clear, and he berates her. "I hired you because you're a beauty queen," Ailes fumes, predictably expressing his sexism through right-wing lingo. "This no makeup feminazi bullsh-- — if you want to look like a lesbian Teamster, do that on your own time."
This scene and the subsequent revelation that she has been secretly recording Ailes' sexual harassment seem designed to heighten Carlson's appeal among the show's presumably liberal viewers. In light of the facts — Carlson was, indeed, instrumental in Ailes' ultimate firing by Fox — it makes sense to depict her as aggrieved but empowered.
But the show over-plays this feminist framing — emphasizing her no-makeup protest and her private confrontations with Ailes, while downplaying her on-air complicity in Fox News' promotion of blatantly anti-feminist interpretations of the news.
A fuller, more interesting depiction would dig into Carlson's own political ideology, as well as the conservative movement's long opposition to basic legal protections for women both in and outside the workplace. It's sadly ironic that Fox's own programming decisions often required women to vehemently criticize the very feminist interventions that could have provided them some institutional safeguards against predatory men like Ailes.
Overlooking this tension is a missed opportunity.
Brian Lewis (Seth MacFarlane), who has thus far been depicted as little more than Ailes' foulmouthed and brand-concerned henchman, also outshines his boss in Episode 5, revealing the limitations of Ailes' supposed public relations "genius."
Lewis spends this episode attempting to wrangle intrepid New York magazine investigative reporter Gabriel Sherman (Fran Kranz). Sherman — who in real life authored the biography of Ailes upon which this series is based — replaces Joe Lindsley as the show's embodiment of journalistic ethics. Unlike Lindsley, Sherman's news judgment is driven not by ideological concerns, but by a muckraker's zeal to uncover wrongdoing by the powerful.
"People with nothing to hide don't push back this hard," Sherman rebuffs Lewis' attempts to get him to reveal his anonymous sources at Fox News.
If Ailes consistently blurs the lines between journalism and strategic communications, Lewis' handling of Sherman astutely personifies the dueling interests and strategies that demarcate the two professions.
Sherman, whose aim is a deep-dive profile of Ailes, will interview any source who is willing to talk, but he knows his story will be more credible if he can get access to Roger himself. A skilled public relations practitioner, Lewis knows he has the option of shutting out and discrediting Sherman, but also knows it is better when possible to work with even a critical journalist in hopes of shaping the ultimate narrative.
When Lewis suggests this conventional approach to Ailes, pushing him to agree to an off-the-record interview with Sherman, Ailes bristles. Deluded by an increasingly Manichaean worldview, Ailes mistakes Lewis' attempt at best practices with serving Sherman's interests, and responds by effectively declaring war on both — launching a surreptitious effort to smear Sherman, complete with anti-Semitic tropes, and tracking Lewis' movements.
The confrontation between Ailes and Lewis over media relations strategy ultimately results in Lewis' ouster. Though forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement, Lewis immediately leaks to Sherman the truth about Roger's complicity in efforts to discredit the journalist — implying his own collaboration in the ultimately successful effort to bring Ailes down.
This episode's meta turn begs the question: What would have happened if Ailes had followed Lewis' advice to work with Sherman?
Lewis, thanks in no small part to Seth MacFarlane's charm, exits the series having earned viewers' begrudging respect after standing up to an increasingly despicable Ailes. But would Sherman's biography (and, indeed, this very series) have focused so much on Ailes' authoritarian management style, his paranoia, his vindictive and even criminal treatment of subordinates if Lewis had succeeded in getting Ailes to play ball?
We'll never know the answer, but we appreciate this show's subtle invitation to question the circumstances that produced its own narrative.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is part of the CBS Corporation, Showtime's parent company.)