"What ‘The Newsroom,’ ‘The Bridge,’ And ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ Have In Common: TV’s Mastermind Problem"
I was catching up on The Newsroom a couple of weeks ago, and when I reached the episode’s climax, I was so flabbergasted I tweeted “Wait, so #TheNewsroom and #TheBridge this season have the exact same plot?”
I was referring to the revelation that the story the News Night With Will McAvoy team had just broadcast, alleging the use of sarin gas by American troops, wasn’t just the result of the result of feverish overreach by Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater), a crusading investigative reporter so disgusted by the abuses the U.S. had committed in the War on Terror that he doctored an interview tape with a retired general. No, the story was in fact a frame-up concocted by a long-term source of Charlie’s, a high-ranking figure in the intelligence community. Apparently, this man had a son who was in recovery from drug addiction when he was hired for an internship at ACN. Once there, he posted political commentary with the ACN social media accounts, for which he was reprimanded by Neal, and then ultimately fired, and he subsequently committed suicide. The source blames Charlie for not intervening to save his child’s job, because apparently the firing was a precipitating event in his suicide. And as a result, he’s concocted a scheme to convince a bunch of vulnerable people that the U.S. used sarin, arranged to have it get back to Jerry, faked documents to support the story, and duped Charlie rather than having him killed, because humiliation is apparently the best revenge.
The story is terrible for The Newsroom because it makes very little sense as a causal chain of events, and even more, because it does what the show always does, and avoids dealing with actual issues in gathering and presenting the news in favor of magic and the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. But the fact that this plot happened represents a larger issue for television: masterminds are taking over far too many shows, and rendering them simultaneously grand and incredibly boring.
A similar evil genius has emerged on FX’s procedural The Bridge, a show that shares none of The Newsroom‘s considerable deficits and has many of its own marvelous strangenesses. It turns out that the serial killer who’s been toying with our four main characters all season isn’t just a master of logistics. He turns out to be a federal agent named David Tate whose wife was killed in a car accident on her way back from a tryst in Ciudad Juarez with Marco Ruiz (Demián Bichir). Inspired by his grief, Tate has gone on to steal the writings of a survivalist to provide a pseudo-intellectual cover for himself, kill a man and assume his identity to fake his own disappearance, kill a judge and a missing Mexican woman, bisect them, leave their bodies at the Bridge of the Americas (which he appears to have knocked out with some as-yet-unexplained jiggery-pokery), poison a bunch of immigrants, kidnap one and tie her up in the desert hoping to watch her bake to death, decapitate his former partner, cut the throat of a police psychiatrist and be in the right place at the right time to stab the man’s daughter and get away with it, romance Marco’s pregnant wife Alma, kill the son of a Mexican industrialist who was driving the car that killed his wife (and to do so without getting any of the dead man’s blood on his suit after messily cutting his throat in a public bathroom), trick Alma into taking a live grenade from him, and intuit where Sonya and Gus, Marco’s partner and son, would be driving at a given moment so he could hit their car and kidnap Gus.
If this feels ludicrous to read, it felt ludicrous to write, even more so than it was to watch. Almost all pop culture, particularly the prestige television that shows like The Bridge aspire to be, hopes for a long shelf-life in which it’s discussed and consumed again. But the risk of inviting viewers and readers to do that is that they may discover, on careful consideration, that you’ve offered something up to them that is actually completely crazygonuts, and that, rather than enjoying the ride, the realization of what a show has done to them makes them less likely to want to put their disbelief in your hands for you to chuck out the window. Mastermind shows are particularly vulnerable to this kind of ex post facto reconsideration, because when you make someone all-powerful, it’s tempting to test the limits of their capacities by having them show up in places they couldn’t possibly know to be, by having them get exceptionally lucky in ways that defy reason and the odds, or giving them levels of hubris that would cause even smart people to get caught. Once careful viewers start poking holes in these causal chains, the masterminds themselves start to look a little flimsy. They’re not human in a way that might make them actually frightening, but rather, forces of plot, with all the paper and paint and gears visible if you look for longer than a moment.
And even more importantly, masterminds have a tendency to damage the integrity of your main characters, the people whose moral and emotional arcs are supposed to matter.
On The Newsroom, the machinations of Charlie’s source render them guilty of really only one sin: being duped. Instead of having committed actual journalistic faults (and Jerry’s doctoring of the video doesn’t count, because he himself is a plot device rather than part of the team), the main characters turn out to have done everything correctly. They’re victims, rather than people who actually need to grow and improve as professionals in any substantive way. The whole plot arc seems to have been, essentially for nothing, unless you count the argument that news organizations should be more tolerant of the serious missteps made by children of powerful people in the course of their internships as a point worth making.
Similarly, The Bridge has made a great deal of Marco’s tomcatting and the harm it’s done his family, particularly his betrayed wife Alma, and his son Gus, who’s devastated by his father’s carelessness and ejection from the house where he now feels like a visitor. But as soon as David Tate emerges on the scene, his outrageously disproportional reaction to his wife’s death–I mean, seriously, the man is murdering random migrants as cover–renders Marco’s behavior relatively unimportant. The bloody swath Tate’s cut between El Paso and Juarez renders Marco’s actions irrelevant, or at least dramatically delayed a reckoning with them. In the grand scheme of things, the man who leaves his girlfriend holding a live grenade and locks her in her house with her two young daughters is doing worse by her than the man who cheated on her. It even dwarfs the far more interesting actions of Fausto Galvan. When a guy who leaves the bodies of his enemies tied to power poles and porcupined with knives is the less urgent threat on your show, it’s clear that The Bridge‘s mastermind is sucking all of the oxygen out of what the survivalist Jack Childress would call the Greater El Paso Del Norte area, leaving us gasping for the greater potential in simpler stories about migration, cartel capture of government, and the challenges of doing both policing and journalism on the U.S.-Mexico border.
A similar trajectory risks happening on the upcoming season of Sons of Anarchy, where a retired U.S. Marshal named Lee Toric (Donal Logue), who showed up last season after motorcycle gang member Otto Delaney (Sons creator Kurt Sutter himself) murdered Toric’s sister. Now out to put the titular Sons through hell, Toric, who has absolutely zero actual law enforcement authority, but what seems like an unending string of favors available to him, and a steadily-flowing supply of people to dupe, is running around Charming, California, causing all sorts of trouble. Like David Tate, Toric derives some of his powerful aura from his willingness to commit exceptionally brutal violence, carrying out acts that are so unpleasant to watch that it becomes easier to root for Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) and his club largely by comparison. Making us like main characters who, given what we’ve seen of their actions, deserve to lose our respect mostly by default given what they’re up against is a cheap play to make. It’s easy to imagine Sons of Anarchy having a more powerful, nuanced sixth season if Jax and company were up against a morally worthy, clever, but fallible adversary like Linc Potter (Ray McKinnon), the Assistant U.S. Attorney who let the club slip earlier in the show’s run, mostly to play out a bureaucratic vendetta.
It’s entirely possible to understand the appeal of masterminds, from both critical and commercial purposes: Breaking Bad, which is arguably the strongest show currently airing on television, is built on the dark fantasy of an ordinary man fulfilling his true potential as a master meth crook and powerful criminal. But one of the strengths of Breaking Bad is the ways in which it’s continually demonstrated that Walter White is, more than anything else, a master improviser, a man who dispatches criminals with a handful of chemicals out of desperation when he’s still a cringing schoolteacher, and later on, when he’s deep in his illicit career, concocts a clever bomb and finds an adversary willing to detonate it for him a suicide attack. Walt’s always had an overarching dream, to achieve financial security for his family, or to build an empire, but he’s never had a master plan that he executed seamlessly along the way. In fact, some of the series’ most thrilling moments have come when Walt’s alchemical gambles paid off, or when his sense of himself as a powerful mastermind has been punctured, most recently by his boorish brother-in-law Hank.
Similarly, one of the best decisions Homeland made it its flawed second season was to kill off Abu Nazir, the terrorist who’d turned Sgt. Nicholas Brody into a double agent. Nazir was human, and he’d reached his limits. Rather than grasping for a rationale to keep him around, the show wisely chose to let him go. That’s a move it would be smart to repeat in this third season in explaining clearly how the CIA’s security failed so badly, rather than suggesting that the plot to blow up the agency succeeded because of some magical deviousness.
Breaking Bad is a great show precisely because it recognizes that hubris is more interesting than actual omnipotence. And the dramas that are following in its footsteps would do well to remember that they’d be better off building feet of clay for their characters, and finding ways for both their heroes and villains to grow when those foundations crumble, rather than spending their days in the lab engineering baroque monsters.