With the 2012 presidential election reaching a climax, it's the busiest night of the year for the ACN cable network. Complicating matters, the news team is still in turmoil after reporting a libelous story alleging the use of sarin nerve gas by U.S. Special Forces in the "Operation Genoa" rescue mission.
That's the setup for "Election Night, Part I," the penultimate episode of Season 2 on HBO's "The Newsroom."
"It's critically important that we not make any mistakes tonight," news executive Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) cautions the staff. "We all know why."
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ACN was crippled by the reporting debacle, Charlie laments, and details of a $5-million wrongful termination lawsuit are about to go public, exposing the network's dirty laundry for the world to see.
Parent company president Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda) could avoid embarrassment by settling out of court and accepting the resignations of Charlie, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and executive producer MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer).
Leona is intent on doing "the honorable thing," however, by defending her news staff and fighting the lawsuit filed by former producer Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater). Jerry's the first person to lose his job over Genoa but maybe not the last.
Since Leona won't accept his resignation, Charlie makes an appeal to her son, ACN executive Reese Lansing (Chris Messina). By sacrificing himself, Charlie hopes to restore the network's credibility for the sake of his successors.
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"People have been fired for making much smaller mistakes than we did," Charlie implores. Reese heartily agrees, adding that people have gone to jail for less.
So why won't Reese dismiss all the responsible parties and settle with Jerry out of court?
"My mom says I can't," Reese admits.
Although he's not in danger of being axed in the Genoa fallout, executive producer Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) could become a financial casualty. Jerry filed a separate $20-million lawsuit against Don in response to derogatory comments he made to a potential employer.
"If your company needs a very hard-working sociopath, then Jerry's your man," Don said when the HR department called. Clearly, he wasn't the best choice for a job reference.
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ACN attorney Rebecca Halliday (Marcia Gay Harden) assures Don he could take out a second mortgage and settle the lawsuit for a mere $100,000. Problem solved.
"You are a member of a godless, soulless race of extortionists," says lawyer-hating Don.
"That's fair," Rebecca replies.
Suffering the most in Genoa's aftermath is sleep-deprived Mac, who bitterly blames herself for the false report. She also believes Will is about to psychologically punish her, just as he did when their romantic relationship ended because of her affair with an ex-boyfriend.
"Say what you want to say to me," Mac demands of Will, fearing he's "a bomb that hasn't detonated."
"Fire me. You're the only one who can do it," she pleads.
This exchange sparks a pent-up emotional outburst by Will, obviously still hurting from their breakup.
"I was a good guy," he insists, the pain showing in his eyes. "You're fired – end of the broadcast. Please don't tell anyone."
It's going to be a long night for Will at the anchor desk as he verbally spars with Taylor Warren (Constance Zimmer), a former spokeswoman for presidential candidate Mitt Romney. She accuses Republican Will of having a Democratic bias, supposedly like the news media in general.
Taylor apologizes for bringing personal matters into the broadcast, but Will is begging for punishment after firing Mac.
"Remember what I said before about my personal politics? Forget it," Will insists. "Take me apart."
Feeling guilty there, buddy?