“Is there room for redemption? Is there room for self-reflection and forgiveness?” That’s Jennifer Aniston on the central question being explored in the last few episodes of “The Morning Show,” the Apple TV+ drama that recently ended its second season. Spoiler alert — if you haven’t yet watched it, I encourage you to do so before reading what follows. And I definitely urge you to watch it. I loved it and I’m already dealing with withdrawal symptoms while waiting for Season 3.
The question of whether there is room for forgiveness, redemption and growth is central to our culture right now. “The Morning Show’s” second season ends just as the pandemic is beginning. And as it did for many of us, the pandemic and the existential threat it represents causes the main characters to re-evaluate their lives and ask themselves big questions about who they want to be and what they really value. And part of that, for them and for us, means taking responsibility for our mistakes so we can grow, evolve and redeem ourselves.
There has been constant commentary about our “cancel culture” and how we should reckon with past wrongs, but “The Morning Show” reminds us that stories have a unique and powerful ability to allow us to go deeper beyond slogans and hashtags.
As Joan Didion put it, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And in all good stories, as in the stories of our lives, growth and transformation are central. That’s the whole point of life, but right now our culture has conflated redemption and forgiveness with exoneration. But if we can’t learn from our past, we can’t build a better future — either individually or collectively. These are the questions being faced by Mitch Kessler (played by Steve Carell). After being exposed as a sexual predator in Season 1, he’s back in Season 2, a pariah living in Italy trying to come to grips with what he’s done.
His former co-host and close friend, Alex Levy (played by Jennifer Aniston), is afraid of being canceled by association. So she flies to Italy to get him to publicly deny that they’d ever slept together. And there they meet, at very different stages of their journeys: Alex, desperate to protect her public persona, by which she defines herself; Mitch, having moved from denial to acknowledgment of the wrongs he perpetrated, now struggling to grow beyond who he was and what he did.
The good thing about being canceled, Mitch says, is that you find out “who believes that you have the capacity as a human being to change.” He practically begs Alex: “I don’t have the tools to understand… Could you teach me? I want to be a better person… I want to be a good person.” But Alex can’t help — she’s still too wedded to what the public thinks of her, which is why she’s in Italy to begin with.
And in any case, it’s a task Mitch has to tackle for himself. The process of going from denial to a recognition of what he’s done is torture — that’s why recognizing and taking responsibility for our actions is so hard. In fact, that’s what hell really is. Dante’s Inferno is not a place but a state of mind. And as the show makes clear, there’s no shortcut — without accepting full responsibility, with all the torture that entails, there can be no redemption.
For Carl Jung, this meant coming to terms with what he called “the Shadow,” which he described as “that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality.” The more we repress and deny it, the more power it has over us, and the more we project it onto others.
It’s in the middle of this journey that Alex has reconnected with Mitch. He tries to see the possibility of his redemption through her eyes, but she’s too caught up in herself and her own fears. After Alex leaves, driving late at night, Mitch is tormented by the latest accusations against him swirling in his head. After swerving to avoid an oncoming car, he lets his own car careen over the cliff.
What’s so powerful about the series is how it humanizes Mitch without exonerating him. As Kerry Ehrin, the show’s brilliant showrunner, puts it, “The way Steve played it is that he wanted to be able to redeem himself inside of himself, and he would not allow it. He couldn’t go there, because he was really acknowledging what he’d done. And so, it was a kind of prison.”
In her eulogy at Mitch’s memorial, Alex speaks about their last moments together: “Mitch made unforgivable choices. And I wanted you to know that he was really starting to understand the effects of his actions. He was remorseful. He wanted to do better. He wanted to be better. And I know that’s not enough. And it will never, ever be enough.” But why should it never, ever be enough? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to do the hard, painful work until it is enough? Until we can earn redemption?
In the last episode, Alex gets COVID and hosts a livestream from her apartment as her temperature continues to go up: “I think we can all agree that the world seems to be at a turning point, and life right now is presenting me with some adversity,” she says. “I’m looking inward and asking myself who is it that I actually want to be? And then I’m looking in the mirror, and I’m asking if that’s actually who I am. I think a lot of people are going to be doing that.”
With death — both Mitch’s death and the specter of large numbers dying of COVID — becoming the fitting counterpoint to the idea of redemption, questions about how we live our lives, how we grow beyond our worst moments, how, as another character puts it, we get our “soul straight” and how we achieve justice tempered by mercy become more urgent than ever.
That’s the point of Portia’s speech by that much older showrunner, William Shakespeare. Mercy, Portia says in The Merchant of Venice, is “an attribute to God himself… It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” And as Portia warns, seeking justice alone without mercy won’t work out well for any of us in the end.
Baylor University ethics professor Matthew Lee Anderson sums it up perfectly: “If mercy does not season justice, our culture’s pursuit of retribution could be our undoing… we must find ways to temper our pursuits of justice with mercy. But that means we should engage with a person in a broader context than 140 characters.”
We’re at a moment when we’re going through a long-overdue reckoning with injustices of many kinds. But allowing for forgiveness, redemption and growth isn’t antithetical to that process. In fact, it’s a core part of it.
“One of the things I love so much about the show is how it will never just be black and white,” Aniston says. “It will always peep behind the curtain of the real conversations that are going on behind closed doors that are never dared to be uttered out loud and in public.” I can’t wait for Season 3 to continue peeping behind the curtain both of real conversations and of what it means to be human.
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