This article contains spoilers for the entire first season of The Morning Show, including the finale.
Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, a behind-the-scenes drama about a Today-like news program reeling after #MeToo allegations dethrone its longtime male host, was rebuilt “from scratch” after Matt Lauer’s fall from grace, but it’s not until the third episode that the show delivers anything resembling substantive commentary on sexual misconduct in the workplace and its aftereffects. In that episode, ousted host Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) muses to a filmmaker friend (Martin Short), a fellow inmate in the “prison of public opinion,” that the “first wave” of exposed men—the Harvey Weinsteins (and presumably the Matt Lauers) of the world—really was bad. But the men accused during the grayer second wave—in whose ranks Mitch counts himself—well, their situation is “just different.” It’s taken an awfully long while to get there, but The Morning Show’s first season finally hit its stride when it turned to illustrating how the men of the second wave can and have caused plenty of damage, even if they don’t break a single law. Add power to entitlement, and it’s easy to be a villain and never know it.
Unfortunately, that illustration is about the only thing The Morning Show does well. Glossy and expensive, the series is a giant, faultlessly tasteful gift box filled mostly with packing peanuts. Starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon as the uneasy new duo hosting the show within the show, the season launches with a cheap, dragged-out mystery about what exactly Mitch did, and ultimately gives too much screen time to one man’s rage on a show that’s ostensibly about how his colleagues, particularly his female subordinates, are affected by his abrupt, sordid departure. The series is strewn with a tangle of storylines that don’t work, a clump of supporting characters who fail to leap off the page, and a series of thuds where the emotional beats are supposed to land. Several of the awards-baiting season’s most showy tableaux—like Aniston’s Alex Levy, Mitch’s former co-host, theatrically notifying the network execs that she’s taking command of the show—feel reverse-engineered for the stars’ Emmy reels. The umpteenth time that Witherspoon’s idealistic newbie Bradley Jackson protests that the news they peddle is too soft, Alex blows up at her, asking whether she’s going to have to hear this complaint forever. Viewers would be justified in sharing her reaction.
“I fucked a couple of PAs and assistants,” Mitch claims in the pilot. “Big fucking deal.” It was probably many more than “a couple,” but by The Morning Show’s eighth episode, it’s suggested he at least isn’t guilty of anything from that first wave—nothing Cosby-ish. Flashing back two years to the Las Vegas shooting, that episode reveals that while a junior employee named Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was still emotionally reeling from the massacre, Mitch invited her to his hotel room, where they had sex despite her obvious lack of enthusiasm. (Mbatha-Raw’s heartbreaking performance shows the audience what Mitch refuses to see: a shocked Hannah mentally detaching herself from the situation as she wills herself to be OK with her boss, or really her boss’s boss, using her body.) When the news team returns to the studio in New York and Mitch acts as if nothing happened between them—that her discomfort and self-compromise didn’t mean anything to him at all—she storms into the network president’s office and is given a promotion in exchange for her silence. (It’s clearly a barter this executive has made before.) Hannah once again forces herself to accept this erasure of her pain, at least in front of the men who believe themselves to be too busy for it. But it leaves her open to corrosive guilt and self-doubt, as well as an ineradicable (and legitimate) paranoia that her co-workers would see her and her accomplishments differently if they were to find out. In the same episode, Mitch’s former producer and ex-lover Mia (Karen Pittman), inadvertently bears out Hannah’s fears when she’s kicked off his team because he decides he’d rather not deal with her discomfort around him.
At its center, The Morning Show is about women discovering that they have more power, and more responsibility, than they thought: Alex comes to terms with her complicity in the toxic fiefdom Mitch created and ruled over, while Bradley makes peace with the compromises necessary to a job on a morning news show if it ultimately gets her the platform that she wants. That’s partly what makes Hannah’s storyline so poignant and so compelling: She never had much of a choice. She’s forced into a position where she theoretically has a choice, but having to choose between her job and her dignity means she’ll lose either way. And even though from the outside Mitch’s targeting her may look like it worked out for her career, being devalued and then bought off clearly takes a heavy toll on her. (The Morning Show is often unrealistically colorblind, but the greater expectation on black women to be “strong” and stoic in the face of hardship and humiliation does lend Hannah’s mental deterioration another layer of tragedy.) Hannah’s suicide in the season finale is melodramatic, but only because it’s ultimately folded into a kind of racial fridging—to fuel the show’s white women into action (Alex and Bradley’s crusade against their network, and Bel Powley’s production assistant Claire running back into the arms of her older lover, whom she was afraid to be seen with lest she be defined by their relationship). Hannah’s is a story that #MeToo, as wide-ranging as the movement has been, has barely covered—that of women who are still too much in torment to come forward, who may still be making sense of what happened to them, or who conclude that the costs of speaking out still outweigh the benefits. The Morning Show spotlights the women who have the courage to stand up to powerful men. But it also reserves empathy for the victims who need to heal before they march.
Update, Dec. 19, 2019: This article has temporarily been updated to avoid spoilers for the finale.