A.J. Bauer is visiting assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU and co-editor of News on the Right. Reece Peck is assistant professor of media culture at College of Staten Island (CUNY) and author of Fox Populism. Each week, they’ll recap the new Showtime limited series The Loudest Voice.
If you love the chronological passage of time, you’ll enjoy this penultimate episode of The Loudest Voice.
It’s not that Episode 6, “2015,” is lacking in plot — it depicts a crucial step in Gretchen Carlson’s ongoing struggle to hold Roger Ailes accountable for years of sexual predation. But it seems as though all remaining surprises and character developments were packed into an overstuffed fifth episode.
The result is a stagnant sixth episode comprised of plodding, utterly predictable behavior and dialogue from all parties involved.
Despite being rendered wan, debilitated, incontinent, and impotent by prostate cancer, Roger (Russell Crowe) is still a disgusting sexist committed to wielding TV power for right-wing ends. Beth (Sienna Miller), his wife and now caretaker, remains a staunch ideologue who loves him in her own ruthless and delusional way. Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) is still aloof, jet-setting, focused on the bottom line. Gretchen (Naomi Watts) remains aggrieved and empowered. Not a single character gains real depth here. We’re just treading water in anticipation of the series finale.
Last week there was the bombshell revelation that Carlson has been surreptitiously recording her meetings with Ailes. This week finds Carlson mostly in meetings with lawyers, prepping a sexual harassment lawsuit against him — a development that, while historically accurate, does not make for terribly compelling drama. The sort of news and politics enthusiasts inclined to watch a Roger Ailes biopic already know how this story ends, and those who don’t can surely see the writing on the wall.
This is not to say that the difficulties and decisions Carlson encounters along the way don’t provide useful insights into the myriad headwinds still facing women who publicly stand up against their powerful abusers.
Carlson’s first hurdle is her husband, Casey (Josh Charles), a sports agent who seems more concerned about what all this sexual harassment stuff will mean for his client, Yankees star Derek Jeter. When Gretchen confides that Roger has groped and kissed her against her will, Casey offers an abject lesson in how not to respond to a loved one who has been sexually abused: “I was thinking it was going to be even worse.”
When Gretchen pushes back and reveals her plan to sue Fox News, Casey goes full basic bro and makes it all about him.
“My clients are supposed to be in the spotlight, not me,” he whines.
“Wouldn’t want to upset Jeter,” Getchen mocks.
Gretchen’s contract with Fox includes a clause preventing her from suing her employer; she’ll have to sue Ailes personally. Even though she’s collected more than 20 hours of audio recordings, in which Ailes can be clearly heard making sordid and demeaning comments about Carlson’s appearance and work, it may not be enough to meet the legal criteria necessary for a viable sexual harassment claim.
“Is there a specific offer of career advancement in exchange for sex?” Nancy asks Gretchen. “I know it’s hard, but a quid pro quo makes all the difference in proving sexual harassment.”
In search of a properly incriminating clip, Gretchen has to listen back through all her audio. This tedious and re-traumatizing exercise is made palatable for television via montage scenes of an earbuds-donning Gretchen going about her daily life. Jogging, traveling for her book tour, in the bathroom preparing for work, drinking wine after a long day — all set to a greatest hits of Ailes’ nastiest misogynist soundbites.
Gretchen finally discovers the money quote — Ailes lamenting his ongoing professional conflict with Carlson by telling her, “I’m saying that you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago” — while sitting in the bleachers at her kid’s Little League game. Her cheer of relief at finding the clip — “Yes!” — is mismatched with the children’s gameplay in a cheesy and unnecessarily contrived attempt at levity.
But Gretchen has to move quickly.
We soon learn that Ailes has decided not to renew Carlson’s expiring contract. Deprived of the opportunity to say her goodbyes, Carlson is unceremoniously fired and replaced by Kimberly Guilfoyle. Pushed by Bill Shine (Josh Stamberg) to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which would jeopardize her burgeoning legal strategy against Ailes, Carlson wisely feigns a minor emotional breakdown and is escorted out by security without signing.
Carlson’s firing expedites her lawsuit timeline, lest it appear that she’s motivated by sour grapes, and by episode’s end, she’s poised to pull the trigger — foreshadowing, no doubt, a series finale devoted to the lawsuit’s aftermath.
True to form, Ailes watches via security camera as Carlson is removed from the building. He then immediately takes the opportunity for one last attempted sexual assault. In yet another gratuitous scene, Ailes gropes Carrie (Taylor Louderman) while promising her an on-air gig.
“Gretchen going, there’s going to be a shuffle.”
Carrie, on the verge of tears and grimacing in anticipation of Ailes’ next move, is saved by his impotence. He tugs at his crotch impatiently, asking for a “rain check” as she looks toward heaven in relief.
The scene is one of several that comprise a veritable subplot focused on Ailes’ declining health. The episode opens by depicting a sickly-looking Ailes in the middle of a prostate exam. With Beth at his side, and often the object of his projected ableist rage and self-loathing, we see Ailes rejecting wheelchair assistance, struggling with a cane. We also watch him wet the bed.
“We all age,” Beth meets his frustration with compassion.
“You don’t, not in my eyes,” Roger replies, in a rare moment of loving appreciation.
Ailes’ declining physical capacity, and tightening bond with Beth, comes amid increasingly turbulent professional and political waters.
For starters, there’s been a corporate restructuring at Fox parent company News Corp. — Rupert, keen to spend more time with his new yacht and girlfriend, has installed sons Lachlan (Barry Watson) and James (Josh Helman) to run the company. This enrages Ailes, who lest we forget, negotiated for complete editorial control of Fox back in 2008. While Rupert assures Roger that the changes are superficial, James flexes his new CEO muscle, informing Ailes that there will be new “directives.”
“In fact, here’s one, no getting behind any one candidate during the primaries. Equal coverage for all of them. Got it?”
This episode makes the 2015 restructuring seem like an abrupt and hostile takeover of Fox by Murdoch’s liberal sons, but the real story is more complicated.
Less driven by ideology, the Murdochs were responding to the demographic reality that Fox’s aging, conservative viewership was not a sustainable base on which to build a long-term audience strategy. Fox had been making moves to attract younger, more moderate audiences as early as 2013 — giving rising star Megyn Kelly her own primetime show that was framed as less opinionated and tended to ignore the partisan red meat issues favored by old guard pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
Ailes, paranoid as always, bristles at the younger Murdochs’ attempts to rein him in. He immediately violates James’ directive, phoning Donald Trump to provide stage notes for the future president’s campaign announcement.
“You know the elevator entrance is a great idea, but that atrium has got to be full. It’s got to be packed,” Ailes tells Trump, suggesting that he hire a crowd for the occasion. “That first shot has got to be powerful. You’re Donald F—ing Trump. You’re a TV star, and this announcement is like a TV show. That’s the way you have to think about it.”
Indeed, Ailes seems increasingly more interested in producing the Donald Trump show than in programming Fox. When Trump briefly boycotts Fox, after some tough debate questioning by Megyn Kelly, Ailes maintains a backchannel — treating him in the same authoritative fashion as he does Fox talent.
“Don, I’m going to tell you something that is a fact, and you need to hear it as a fact,” Ailes chides Trump over the phone, demanding that he end his feud. “Fox News can make or break you. That is a fact.”
Relying heavily on one-sided phone dialogue to dramatize Ailes’ role in the Trump campaign, this episode again falls into the trap of over-stating Ailes’ prescience as a political prophet and media seer. Rather than letting the viewer draw the evident connections — and disconnects — between Ailes’ vision and Trump’s political performance, The Loudest Voice consistently resorts to heavy-handed dialogue; they tell us more than they show.
“You know, I think Donald is about to prove that television has replaced the political party,” Ailes tells Beth, in a typical scene.
“Just like you said it would when you elected Nixon,” Beth replies, on the nose.
While Trump may have seemed like a fruition of Ailes’ lifework back in 2015, he has long since eclipsed the network — exerting a political gravitational force all his own. Will The Loudest Voice finally admit that Ailes’ vision of the future was less than 20/20?
We’ll find out next week in the series finale.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is part of the CBS Corporation, Showtime’s parent company.)