[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from Sunday's penultimate episode of The Newsroom. Read at your own risk.]
The Newsroom usually milks its drama from the real-life news stories the show's fictional characters are covering. But on Sunday's penultimate episode, the drama hit much closer to home.
The episode — which jumps ahead 52 days since Will (Jeff Daniels) and Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) tied the knot and Will went to jail for failing to reveal the name of his source — shows just how much the vibe at ACN has changed since Lucas Pruitt (guest star B.J. Novak) took ownership. In addition to a new tagline/hashtag — #URACN does look like urine, doesn't it? — and a traffic-hungry digital team, News Director Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) finds himself assigning stories about Lady Gaga and a "promotable" stunt that puts a Princeton rape victim in the same room with her attacker.
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But the staff decides to rebel. Don (Thomas Sadoski) spends the better part of the episode trying to convince the Princeton student to not agree to the interview, and Sloan (Olivia Munn) intentionally turns an interview with the creator of ACN's new celebrity stalking app (a promotional segment Pruitt & Co. wants) into a an attack on the app's irresponsible violation of privacy.
After seeing the coverage, Charlie flies into the newsroom in a rage. "Is this a mutiny?" he screams at his underlings for their open insubordination. However, the old Charlie comes back to the party when Pruitt storms in and publicly fires both Sloan and Mackenzie. Charlie invokes his exclusive right to hire and fire — a leftover gift from Leona — and arranges a sitdown with Pruitt to talk about how the new direction is hurting the network. But before Charlie can head upstairs to clean things up, he collapses from an apparent heart attack and hits head on a desk.
Although he's rushed to the hospital, a (newly released) Will and viewers learn together that Charlie didn't make it.
TVGuide.com chatted with Waterston about saying goodbye to his character and why fighting for his journalistic ideals literally killed Charlie. Plus: Find out why you'll still see Charlie in the series finale.
At what point did creator Aaron Sorkin tell you that Charlie was going to die?
Sam Waterston: He didn't. I found out when I read it.
Was that a shock to you?
Sam Waterston: Oh, it was a surprise. But it was very cool. I made it clear before [that] I don't want to know what's coming next because sometimes the writers tell you what's coming next and then they change their minds. And so you build what you think is coming into what you're doing in the present, and then it turns out that that's not what's coming. The great, cool thing about not knowing is that you're surprised with everybody else.
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Once you read it, did Aaron tell you at all why he made that choice?
Waterston: No, he didn't need to. I'm terribly glad he did it because it so fits the argument of the show, about what's happening in the news business. These old lions of the news business who cut their teeth around World War II, they are dying, and they are being replaced by marketers. So it fits the narrative perfectly. Listen, if the show's going to end, it's a very cool way to go.
Were you happy that Charlie went out fighting?
Waterston: Well, I think it's been well established about Charlie from the beginning that he wants to do the news the way he wants to do the news or die trying. So, it's not a departure, and I think if he were a real person, and you could ask him, he would say that he would prefer to die in the newsroom than be put out to pasture. From an actor's point of view, Moliere famously died while performing one of his plays. That kind of gets into your head as an actor. It's not a bad way to go.
At the same time, Charlie was having to assign stories he never would have wanted to do. How hard was that for him?
Waterston: Well, not to be stupid, but it killed him. [Laughs] It killed him to do it. He had to do it, but it just killed him [to do it]. Then, it did kill him.
Do you think Charlie ever considered just walking away instead of being forced to do the news Pruitt's way?
Waterston: Walk away and leave everybody leaderless and have them be eaten alive by this guy? And not try to defend them, and not try to negotiate the best deal possible, and not try to preserve the newsroom, and not try to preserve their jobs? I can't see him doing that.
I guess the good news is that viewers still get to see Charlie in some flashbacks in the series finale.
Waterston: Yes.It was like the ghost of Christmas past. Instead of it being Marley's ghost, it's Charlie's ghost.
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Not to spoil anything, but the finale does show just how important Charlie was in all these characters' lives. Did you appreciate being such a linchpin?
Waterston: Well, you never knew how to take it, but Aaron always had him saying that he knew everything that was going on. And every so often he gave him knowledge of things that nobody was ever going to figure out how he knew about them. So, yeah, he was the omnipresent, omniscient guy in the head office who just knows everything that's happening. That's who Aaron described him as from the start.
But at the same time, he was sometimes like everybody's drunk grandfather. How did you go about playing that balance?
Sam Waterston: Well, I never thought of Charlie as a type. That was one of the great pleasures of doing this show was that the characters were actually fully imagined people. They weren't off-the-shelf characters by any means. I think the operative word for Charlie was stealth. I don't know how many of them there are in the world of TV, but in the real world there are lots of people like this who manage things by seeming not to manage them at all.
In the previous episode, Charlie tells Sloan he's too old to fight Pruitt the way he did with Leona. Yet, he didn't give up and was still in battle. What do you think that says about him?
Waterston: I think there is a kind of romantic idealism about Charlie, which is not surprising because I think there's a romantic idealism about Aaron Sorkin. So maybe if you asked him, he might have said, without really meaning it, that he'd rather be dead than see the things that were coming happen to the news. On the other hand, he's a realist too, and he is negotiating with the enemy right up to the last minute. So, I don't know. I think he likes the fight too much and he would just keep on fighting.
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There is certainly a lot of idealism in The Newsroom. What's the most important thing about the show for you?
Sam Waterston: Well, I religiously don't read criticism, so I don't know what the critics are saying. But to me it's a realistic portrait of what's actually going on in the news business. And what's actually going on in the news business is very bad news for the American public because that's where we get our information. It's being heavily influenced, edited, distorted, and censored by things that have nothing to do with just delivering the news as it happens. So, to me, it seems like a pretty realistic portrait of how it is, and if a few people are alerted, and object to the dumb-ification of the news, I think that would be a good thing.
The other thing is [that] it was enormous fun to do. So if anybody watching it is getting a particle of the fun that we had making it, then that's its own justification for the show. The Newsroom was a jewel of rare price. It was a great thing.
The television business is also changing. You've gone from a long-running network show in Law & Order to a cable drama and, next, you're doing Grace and Frankie on Netflix. Have you enjoyed navigating that change?
Waterston: One of the things that actors dread about doing a television series is becoming pigeonholed or getting locked into a character and having your whole identity as an actor be tied up with that character. So, what has happened in my career since Law & Order ended has been wonderful. These three characters, Jack McCoy, Charlie, and Sol on Grace and Frankie, they really couldn't be more different from each other. I'm getting to play radically different people. It's a trip, and it's a great thing. There's lots to lament from the actor's point of view about the fragmentation of the audience that is going on these days, but that's a definite plus.
On Grace and Frankie, you play a man who falls in love with his wife's best friend's husband. Between that logline and the cast — Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Martin Sheen — it sounds like a lot of fun. What can you tell us about it?
Sam Waterston: You've got it right. It was just a huge amount of fun to do, as you can imagine, with those people. I've got my fingers crossed that the audience will take it the same way. It's got a lot of substance to it too. It's dealing with being old and alone and ignored and overlooked, and real identity crises coming late in life and all the disruption that brings. So, it's got a real serious underbelly, but, man, I hope it's as funny to watch as it was fun to do.
The Newsroom's series finale airs Sunday at 9/8c on HBO. Grace and Frankie will debut on Netflix in 2015. Were you sad to see Charlie go?