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Hear Me Out

The Morning Show's Flashback Episode Is Horror TV for the Pandemic Age

New showrunner Charlotte Stoudt dials up the COVID and insurrection scares to fill in the two-year time jump.
  • Reese Witherspoon stars in The Morning Show (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Reese Witherspoon stars in The Morning Show (Photo: Apple TV+)

    In Hear Me Out, Primetimer staffers and contributors espouse their pet theories, hot takes, and even the occasional galaxy-brain idea.

    There’s a chill in the air and pumpkins ready to be carved, but TV’s scariest encounter this October doesn’t come from the mind of Ryan Murphy or Mike Flanagan. Nothing sends a shiver down the spine like this week’s Morning Show episode opening with a title card that reads “March 2020.” “Love Island” travels back to the start of the lockdown to reveal what happened during the two-year time jump between seasons. With a bonus January 6th jumpscare, The Morning Show has entered horror territory, complete with close-ups of knives, a monster (briefly) coming back from the dead, and a demasking surprise.

    It’s not the first time the pandemic has been a spectral presence on the show, as the second season premiere, “My Least Favorite Year,” opened with an eerie tour of an empty New York City. The desolate scene would have suggested a post-apocalyptic story before the pandemic; now viewers see a shutdown metropolis with a crushing familiarity. “My Least Favorite Year” ends with the promise of a great year as 2019 gives way to 2020 and a knowing wink of what will come.

    That opening was another example of The Morning Show leaning into one of the most significant news events with extremely mixed results (see also its attempt to frame the first season around #MeToo). After all, there was a period when TV shows didn’t know how to cover the pandemic, with network titles like This Is Us bearing the brunt of figuring out whether to acknowledge it. When reality is a daily horror show, it is hard to escape into a make-believe world if those characters are dealing with similar dread.

    The Morning Show builds tension with the pandemic backdrop, but maybe not for the right reasons, and revisiting this period in Season 3 is a reminder of how a ripped-from-the-headlines narrative can pour fuel on a waking nightmare. Watching the Season 3 premiere, I couldn’t help but sigh in relief that it breezed past the height of lockdown, the 2020 election, and the insurrection. However, Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) receiving an award for her coverage inside the Capitol on January 6th, coupled with the flashes of blood-stained hands, indicates the show hasn’t totally skipped over the attempted coup. Considering the frantic hand-washing imagery accompanying UBA network CEO Cory Ellison’s (Billy Crudup) request for a returned favor from Bradley and the many other unanswered questions of the two-year time jump, it’s best to keep your guard raised as these storylines are waiting to pounce.

    And they do pounce in the fifth episode, which is far scarier than any other recent TV offerings. New showrunner Charlotte Stoudt couldn’t leave this news-heavy period alone, and unlike an equally bonkers show like And Just Like That, there is no easy, breezy end to the pandemic. (Of course, when Carrie Bradshaw gets COVID in Season 2, it results in a screamy-worthy punchline after she faked having the virus.) It should also be noted that cases and spikes still occur on reality shows such as The Real Housewives of New York and in real life. However, The Morning Show turns back the clock to the first year of the pandemic, cycling through the early days of finding entertaining ways to keep busy to a summer of terrible events and then the winter of our (and their) discontent.

    Horror plays on the known and unknown, offering a smorgasbord of scares. In the case of The Morning Show, it takes the known of the pandemic and leans into this shared experience. So when Bradley heads to her girlfriend Laura Peterson's (Julianna Margulies) Architectural Digest-ready Montana home, it provides a respite from the real world, including Bradley’s dysfunctional family. Flirty banter before their TMS broadcasts from virtual safety slowly gives way to the outside, which seeps into this safe space. You don’t need a serial killer in the woods to tear apart a home. Time and deep-rooted insecurities take care of the rest, and the close-up shot of the knife as Bradley chops a mountain of strawberries for Laura and her coastal elite lesbian friends is enough foreshadowing to know this will end in a (figurative) bloodbath.

    Bradley’s brother Hal (Joe Tippett) has been the source of much anxiety for the rising star. The second season ended with Bradley finding a beat-up Hal in the hospital as the pandemic was beginning to intensify. Now separated by circumstance, she gets updates about her mother and Hal (who doesn’t wear a mask) via the phone, and midway through an excruciating game of charades, she finds out her mom has died after contracting COVID. The perfect rural setting is now like any mansion in a slasher that hides new terrors in its darkened corners. Think Bodies Bodies Bodies but without the storm, TikTok videos, and copious amounts of cocaine.

    Back in the city, TMS producer Mia’s (Karen Pittman) romance with photojournalist boyfriend Andre (Clive Standen) has also tipped from a safe bubble into a claustrophobic ticking time bomb. And by the time Bradley departs after an ugly argument when words become weapons, she heads to Washington D.C., a city on edge. Bradley’s assignment puts her on an unexpected collision course, leading to award-winning videos that are a blessing and a curse. Cutting from archival footage outside the Capitol to Bradley armed with nothing but a scarf and an iPhone, we see her accidentally pepper sprayed during the melee. The Morning Show can’t help but add a twist, and we once again see Bradley and her bloody hands in a bathroom, which is a universal code for something (or someone) that needs to be covered up.

    Okay, so Bradley didn’t kill someone, but when she films a guy beating on a cop, and his face is revealed, it is akin to pulling the killer’s mask off and discovering a loved one is holding the knife. Considering this whole episode ups the dread levels with each change of season, Bradley’s brother Hal as an insurrectionist is a fitting and extremely Morning Show turn. She agrees to sweep his federal offense under the carpet by deleting that video. But anyone who has seen a horror (or a TV drama) will know that nothing stays buried. While it isn’t a Ring-style curse per se, when the Feds come calling for additional unaired footage, Bradley heads to Cory’s den of luxury in the Hamptons (which would also be a great horror setting) to ‘fess up.

    Both are dressed all in black for this showdown, and Bradley has all the attributes of a Final Girl, with her blond hair and fighting-back style. Here, she looks defeated, but Cory lets her live to see another day. Considering this episode also briefly resurrects Steve Carell’s accused sexual predator, Mitch Kessler, via the documentary he was shooting before his death, it is safe to say that no one ever stays canceled forever when a CEO is desperate for “content.” Cory listens to concerns about timing and being tone-deaf, but there is a time limit on this, and he is like a shark that keeps swimming.

    One person mostly absent in this episode is the woman who first got COVID on the UBA team, and Alex’s found footage-style ramblings into the camera are no longer needed. Instead, we get an interview with two first responders as part of her UBA+ series, Alex Unfiltered, and it is one of several sobering moments in “Love Island.” Much like the daily TV it emulates, The Morning Show will switch gears from a playful puff piece to a serious topic at the drop of a hat. Tonal whiplash is common, and this episode perfectly demonstrates this when a ticker stating “Highest Unemployment Rate Since Great Depression” accompanies Bradley and Laura’s honeymoon phase banter.

    As the real-life tragedies and catastrophes add up, the soapy series gets caught in this push-pull between the frothy escapism of this fictional TV network and the events that made 2020 one most people would not like to recall. A reference to a Henry Kissinger biopic that Aaron Sorkin won’t let Cory release on streaming platform UBA+ (that Cory greenlit because he “hates himself”) is a funny moment that reflects a level of self-awareness that runs throughout this third season. However, revisiting this no-good, terrible, awful year is horror TV for the pandemic era, and The Morning Show is already slaying with its patented brand of the silly and sublime without having to seek out ghosts from the past. No one needs these tricks when the post-lockdown setting has delivered so many treats.

    New episodes of The Morning Show drop every Wednesday on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: The Morning Show, Apple TV+, Billy Crudup, Jennifer Aniston, Julianna Margulies, Karen Pittman, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell