'The Morning Show' finale recap: Sweating it out with America's sweetheart
Well, we have reached the end of the second season of The Morning Show, which skids to a stop this week amid a lot of COVID and cancel-culture foofaraw. And ultimately, it's a moment to ask yourself the one question that probably defines your reaction to this season: Are you buying what the show is selling when it tells you Alex and Bradley are worth rooting for?
Alex has COVID, of course, and ... you know, it's interesting. It used to be that shows that wanted to "humanize" women would have them stalked, beaten up, or sexually assaulted. There were two problems with that, of course: first, that it's offensive to use violence as a device in that way; second, that it doesn't actually make a woman any more likable, as violence happens to pleasant and unpleasant people alike. Using that device thoughtlessly inspires at best sympathy and at worst pity. I'm very glad they didn't go that route.
Giving Alex COVID is much more palatable, so please understand I'm not drawing an equivalence. But it feels like her illness is supposed to serve the same purpose here — it's a shortcut to resolving the conflict between the way the character has been acting and the way they want you to see her. (In fact, this rapid route to redemption also feels like the reason they killed Mitch!) Alex has been reckless, nasty, dishonest, inconsiderate, and hurtful, but now she's sick, and she's shivering, and she feels terrible and scared. And yes, this activates a gut-level sympathy for people who are suffering. It should! But if the aim is to generate sympathy for her, this is kind of like using the microwave, compared to the slow roast that would be actually writing her complexities into the show.
Much of your reaction to this season, I have learned, will turn on whether you are fundamentally sympathetic to Alex or not. There are people who are persuaded by Alex's view of herself, which is that she's a victim, first of a betrayal by Mitch and now of unfair prying into her personal life and, of course, of the dreaded cancellation. This view depends on the notion that her close personal relationship with Mitch didn't deserve to be scrutinized as part of the inquiry into why his behavior continued at TMS for as long as it did. In this way of thinking, Maggie was motivated by an interest in salacious gossip, rather than being motivated by a genuine desire to report the truth about how Alex enabled Mitch, and the evidence for that is mostly that that's what Bradley said after she read the book. And if you see Alex the way Alex sees herself, then her decision to do whatever she wants from now on, no matter the consequences, is cathartic.
But for me, the presentation of Alex as a victim is not persuasive. She was literally just trying to force Mitch to lie to save her reputation, like, days before the events of this episode. She didn't take sensible precautions about going to Italy, or while she was in Italy, or when she got back from Italy! She decided to break the news of Mitch's death to Mitch's ex-wife, apparently completely clueless about how said ex-wife viewed her. She left her bosses and her colleagues to twist in the wind right after she negotiated a huge contract for herself. She has not been covering herself in glory this season, and most of her problems are self-inflicted.
The show, nevertheless, is building to a climactic redemption for Alex, so Chip decides to take care of her while lying that he's already tested positive and isn't vulnerable. This is a generous thing for a friend to do in theory; it's a foolish and insensitive thing for an engaged guy to do without talking to the person he's engaged to. It should also be remembered that despite their close friendship, Alex probably makes ... I don't know, 20 times what Chip makes? More? She will always have more power than he does, and she will always have more options than he does. And yet: He's been cleaning up an awful lot of her messes, even before she starts throwing up.
At any rate, Chip comes up with the idea for Alex to host a show about having COVID, Cory puts it on the streaming service, and before long, Alex has a captive audience to listen to her descriptions of her illness as well as everything else that's on her mind. She goes on a long rant about how unfair everyone is to her as a famous person and how it shouldn't really matter whether she's a good person, because why isn't she just like a tailor? (Of course, one answer is that morning television is not a job for people who are trying to keep their personalities out of it and she wouldn't have her job in the first place if people hadn't liked her, so it's a little late now to want to be treated like a tailor.)
And the whole time, they keep cutting back to Chip nodding with satisfaction, which is a hint that they know Alex's position here might not be convincing. It reminds me of the pilot of the musical Smash, where rather than relying on a great performance to make the story point that someone was talented, they would cut to people watching that performance who were practically muttering, "Oh, she's so very talented!" Just in case you didn't get it from seeing for yourself. Chip serves the same purpose here, because in case you think Alex is full of it, they keep showing Chip nodding in order to create the sense that maybe Alex is right?
At the end, Alex says this: "I am done apologizing for myself. Either get on the Alex Levy train or just stay at the station." This is where, as a writer, I really wish "LOL" were a good English word, because it's all I have. I mean, what unwarranted apologizing has Alex done as a character to make this air of defiance feel earned? I'm hard-pressed to remember very many times when she has honestly apologized for herself except to people she personally likes who she thinks can help her. Even while reading a teleprompter apology for putting her co-workers at risk with her sojourn to Italy, she kind of undercuts it and rolls her eyes. "Alex Levy, serial over-apologizer" is not a characterization I think tracks with the show we've been watching.
It's not that she never ever apologizes: She did apologize to Bradley, and to Chip. But has she apologized in a meaningful way to Mia? Stella? Because honestly, the way she has treated the two women of color who are her direct boss and her next-up boss, in part by constantly going around them or over their heads to deal directly with Cory and Chip, is the elephant in the room of this entire speech — of this entire season! In fairness, she for sure apologized to Daniel in an early episode for the way she put the screws to his career, but genuine unforced contrition-wise, that seems like it's about it! Suffice it to say that for me, this is a pretty simple choice. The Alex Levy train is free to leave without me. Goodbye, Alex Levy train! Choo-choo!
(If I were doing psychoanalysis of a television character, which is a fraught game to be sure, I would say Alex's actual problem is that she feels the pressure of having people mad at her all the time, and she can only handle the notion that the reason people are mad at her all the time is that she's a victim of a pile-on. "Help help, I'm being unfairly canceled" is a pretty nifty off-ramp for people who are frustrated by the pressure of widespread public complaints. In fact, the reason people are mad at Alex all the time is her behavior. But that's wearing on her, and her reaction is to push back.)
Bradley starts this week in agony over the disappearance of her brother, Hal. This is a really sad story, and I think Reese Witherspoon has done a solid job with it. What's odd about it, though, is that Laura — who originally gave Bradley the wise advice that she might have to let her brother go rather than getting sucked into his problems over and over until she destroyed herself — disappears from the finale in favor of Alex, who gives Bradley a whole "it's family, you just have to keep loving them" speech.
This turn is a little unfair to Laura as a character and to the position she took, and kind of a disservice to people who do cut ties with family. That's because what happened to Hal here isn't a surprise that suddenly makes it clear that Laura's advice is wrong; Laura's advice anticipates exactly what happened here. The idea isn't that other people won't struggle after you cut ties; it's that you have to cut ties anyway, because you cannot fix other people. That's what makes it hard to cut those ties!
(A side note: It's also sort of funny that during this heart-to-heart, Bradley says she went after Maggie on Alex's behalf not only because she believed in what she was saying but also "because we're friends." I'm not sure how much the people who write this stuff know about journalism, but that's kind of the definition of what a conflict of interest is, and it's why you're not supposed to cover things you're too close to. But hey, the tinkly piano music thinks it's very sweet.)
Bradley winds up posting on social media about Hal, and someone who works at a hospital gives her a tip that Hal might be at the ER. So Cory and Bradley go to the ER, where she is too important to deal with the people who are desperately trying to stay afloat at the intake desk at the overwhelmed hospital; no, her unmasked ass will just sneak back into the restricted area where everyone else is masked and in some cases wearing elaborate PPE. There's a genuinely jaw-dropping sequence where this sea of humanity is teeming in the ER, and Bradley is just like, "I don't think you understand, I have an important problem," as if everybody else there is attending book club.
This waiting will not do! So, sensing that if she doesn't act quickly she will stand around like a plebe, Ms. Bradley Jackson goes back there with no protection at all, tromping all over the place and breathing her germs all over all the vulnerable patients and doctors and nurses at the hospital that she can easily see are wearing masks, because she has to find her brother and she cannot wait like everyone else. She does find him, so of course, it was all worth it and Bradley is lovable, and what could possibly be the harm of a person refusing to respect or listen to health care workers or take any precautions to protect others? Does any of that really matter when a pretty woman's personal needs are involved?
I have to tell you, most of my frustration has been reserved for Alex this season, but this is probably the best single encapsulation of what I think ails this show: The efforts to build emotionally significant stories around these two women are undercut by the fact that they persistently, unapologetically act like privileged, oblivious jerks. And no amount of good acting, great production design, solid direction — or even good scene-level writing! — can fix it. There's a clanging disconnect between the hero treatment these characters get and the way they behave, and it makes the show seem at times like a love letter to the kind of people who make the world worse. (I also suspect they're telling cancel-culture stories they don't actually believe in for "finger on the pulse!" purposes, which is why those stories are not persuasive.)
It's unfortunate what happened to Billy Crudup's Cory in the show's second season. Always the most reliably interesting character, Cory got caught up in two stories that didn't work. The first is the launch of the streaming service that winds up colliding with the memorable day when Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were diagnosed with COVID. Cory's thing — the fact that he has to postpone his streaming service launch and cancel his event — seems completely inconsequential more than a year and a half after these events happened. Oh, his event got canceled? Who cares? I can't imagine anyone watching this show who hasn't had ten more upsetting things happen to them since March 2020 than a postponed work project. Even within this world, the fact that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have COVID seems more important than the event!
The second is this story where he's in love with Bradley. It's never been convincing to me in the slightest — he's too weird to fall for someone so unrelentingly basic, and she doesn't seem to react to him much at all, so it just feels like something for Cory to do. And this climactic declaration of love is just uncomfortable! Does every dude on this show have to have the hots for either Alex or Bradley? (You'll remember Alex accused Chip of just being mad at her because she didn't want to sleep with him.)
Fortunately, these problems don't stop Cory from still delivering some of the best stuff in the finale, including his plastic partitions and his grinning admission that nobody is subscribing to the streaming service, so he might as well program, as he puts it, "Cory Plus." I'm not sure why Paola is still around shopping her Mitch documentary, given that more Sad Mitch is the last thing this show needs right now, but Cory seems interested in airing it. So I guess if there's a season 3, there's going to be ... a lot of that.
Other Neglected Characters
Daniel finally does what needs doing and quits TMS, telling Stella to stuff it with her offer to fill in for Alex and taking off by car to go care for his grandfather. When he calls from the road to talk to Mia about having quit because of all of the racism, she encourages him to come back, because racism is bad everywhere. That's a pretty weak tying up of that thread, I must say.
And finally: It's so sad to me that Stella's story just peters out this week. Greta Lee did terrific work in this role, and she deserved so much better than to be sidelined for the Poor Alex and Poor Bradley and Poor Mitch stories that took up the whole season. She gave these episodes some of their best moments, and she keeps it up right through her extremely funny burst of jokes when she sees that Cory has sealed himself inside Plexiglas. ("When's the feeding? Do you want my routing number?") I would like to believe they have better things planned for her next season. But absent a mass exodus where Bradley and Alex retire simultaneously, I suspect it's not in the cards.
I set out to examine these episodes to try to figure out why this very watchable show, which features a lot of very likable actors, has never worked for me for more than a few scenes at a time. Why, despite the obviously abundant talent involved, it wasn't actually good. And I think it's just ... I don't like Alex and Bradley, and if you don't like them, the stories about them are unsatisfying. That's not because you can't care about flawed characters; it's because their flaws are never really addressed. I mean, maybe they'll come back at the beginning of a theoretical season 3 and Bradley will be apologizing for breathing all over an ER full of people like a selfish goober. But I seriously doubt it.
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