Halfway through The Morning Show’s second-season finale, Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), co-anchor of the fictional morning show TMS, calls her disgraced co-host Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), who has just tested positive for COVID. Bradley is concerned about how Alex is holding up, but she’s also got problems of her own: Her brother, an addict, has been missing for two days after Bradley cut ties with him. She hasn’t even tweeted out his picture, she admits to Alex, because she’s too ashamed.
What follows is the closest thing to a thesis the scattershot show has come to. “If you want to cut somebody off, cut them off and be done with it,” says Alex, who has been wrestling with her own relationship with the show’s former anchor and her longtime friend, Mitch Kessler (Steve Carrell). “If that is not an option, then you’ve gotta own them. Don’t let your shame of what other people think run your life.” In the final minutes of the episode, we see Bradley reuniting with her brother, choosing the mess and chaos of owning the difficult parts of her life versus cutting them off.
The idea of owning your mess instead of trying to contain it or run from it is the one clear theme that emerges from The Morning Show’s deeply uneven second season. There were times when the season made so little sense—veering from one bonkers plotline to another while spending way too much time with post-cancellation Mitch moping around a villa on Lake Como—that I wondered if the incoherence might actually be the point. During COVID, it feels like we’ve collectively lost the plot, that none of us quite understand the story we’re in. So I admit I found it strangely satisfying to watch a show that seemed to have no idea what it was doing either. After a three-episode arc painstakingly laid the groundwork for Alex to return to TMS, only to have her ghost a presidential debate and disappear off to Italy, my first reaction was, What the hell is happening? My second was, Maybe this is the show we deserve right now.
In the finale, Alex, who has spent the entire season running from the consequences of her actions, turns to face them head on. Bradley, who enters into a relationship with the UBA anchor Laura Peterson because she is drawn to her ironclad no-drama mantra, realizes that as much as she respects Laura’s perspective, she’s not ready to exile her brother or disown her past. Is this the right choice? Hard to say. But it is a choice. You can own your mess or you can try to cut it out of your life, but you can’t outrun it.
As for Laura, played by the incomparable Julianna Margulies, she stands as the lone voice for calm and reason, the only one who has her shit together. It’s like she’s immunized from the chaos that’s coming because she went through her own trauma years ago, when she was painfully and publicly outed. She explains to Bradley that as an adult, it’s up to you to decide how to handle the traumatic things that have happened to you—do you seek support to work through them, or do you let them pull you down? This question comes into particular focus when Bradley’s brother Hal, who is bipolar and struggles with drug addiction, crashes the TMS offices, belting out Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” while breaking crockery. (In a testament to the show’s gonzo style, this is like the fourth craziest thing that happens in the episode.)
But nowhere is it clearer than it is with Alex that the more you try to contain your problems, the worse they get. Alex was fast-tracked to feminist hero status when she revealed on air the truth about Mitch and UBA’s CEO, Fred Micklen, who covered up Mitch’s sexual misconduct to protect the show. The trouble is, she was flung up on a pedestal without having to face the truth of her relationship with Mitch—what she knew, what she didn’t know, what she might have enabled. And she is aware of it. She spends the whole season in damage control mode: surprised that some of her coworkers aren’t jazzed to see her; desperately trying to get a muckraking author to remove the allegations about her and Mitch from her book; flying to Italy to get Mitch to sign a statement that they never slept together. She works so hard to contain the chaos that it, of course, explodes, ending with her exposing the entire show to a deadly virus.
When it leaks that Alex went to see Mitch in Italy, she finds herself teetering the brink of cancellation as well. The first season did interesting work around the idea of what happens when a public figure becomes a pariah for abusing their power, and how friends, family, and colleagues experience the fallout. For Alex, who must instantly, publicly denounce Mitch, there is no room for the kind of process that Laura talks about—reckoning with painful truths, doing the personal work that allows you to move on. All this comes to a head at the one place Alex still feels comfortable—on TV. Feverish and debilitated, she sits down in front of the camera to do a special on COVID and face her mess, all of it.
Alex’s primetime mea culpa ends up being—what else—a mess. Aniston does amazing work in this role, not only because it plays to her comic strengths but because of how deftly she can switch between the Alex in front of the camera and the one behind it, the way her girl-next-door glow freezes over the moment filming stops. What’s different at the end of Season 2 is that Alex now shows both personas on TV: the likability and talent that made her a star, and the narcissism that contributed to a toxic and enabling workplace culture. The fear that she might have just contracted a deadly disease makes her both vulnerable and fierce—and when she diverts an interview with an Italian medical specialist to ask whether he believes there is any existence beyond death, it makes for some great TV.
As long as we are human, the world will be messy. As Alex puts it to Bradley, the reason families are screwed up (she uses a saltier word) is because they are full of people. She’s not wrong. As much as I admire Laura and her chaos-avoidant worldview—and kind of wish she would come and tell me what to do with my life—we cannot all escape to our ranch in Montana. Our lives are not set up that way. We can find healthier ways to face our entanglements, we can develop better coping mechanisms, we can do our own personal work. But the only way to be completely unencumbered is to cut the cords that bind us to other people. That would make life uncomplicated, but also deeply lonely. The Morning Show seems to be rooting for the messiness of human connection, as long as you own it. That’s a storyline I can actually get behind.