SPOILER ALERT: This article includes details about the second season of The Morning Show, so if you haven’t caught up, read at your own risk.
In most of Steve Carrell’s last scenes as disgraced news anchor Mitch Kessler on the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show, he’s shown hiding out in an Italian coastal town while living in a picturesque villa. In one scene, while slow dancing in the mansion with his former co-anchor Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), Alex airily says, “so honestly, this is what being canceled looks like.” To which Mitch responds, “Oh God, that word.”
That word has loomed over social media feeds, water-cooler conversations, headlines, political debates, and classrooms. The concept for The Morning Show was birthed from how impactful cancel culture has been in the media industry. However, much like the real world, The Morning Show proposed more questions than answers about “that word.”
At the beginning of the second season, we see Mitch adjusting to daily life in Lake Como, Italy. During a cringey moment at a gelato shop, a young American recognizes Mitch and proceeds to berate him for the actions that caused him to exile himself from the States. When Paula, a local Italian woman, comes to Mitch’s aid, she tells him, “If you apologize, she says it’s insincere. If you try to do good for the world, it’s self-serving. If you dare live your life, ‘the gall.’ If you choose to die then you’re taking the coward’s way out. You must live and suffer. But you mustn’t do it in front of us and you mustn’t try to learn from it.”
It’s clear from this dialogue that the writers of The Morning Show intended to spark meaningful conversation about the layers of cancel culture that go beyond the initial public outrage. Where The Morning Show, and those who zealously preach the harms of cancel culture, shoots itself in the foot is the fact that on most levels, for people in power, there are rarely real, tangible repercussions from being canceled.
It’s almost unreal to think that a split-second moment during a fight on Love and Hip-Hop: New York irrevocably changed popular culture for the foreseeable future. During the verbal altercation, which aired in 2014, cast member Cisco Rosado told his girlfriend Diamond Strawberry, “you’re canceled.”
The phrase then caught on within the Black Twittersphere, and, of course, like most popular culture phenomena, it began to trickle into wider circles eventually mutating into something entirely new.
For some, the word represents accountability and a shift in power dynamics. For others, the word is the manifestation of “woke” politics; a tactic that liberal aligning people use to silence the old guard. Now, “that word” has become so ingrained in popular culture and everyday life that it’s beginning to be one of the concepts that define the zeitgeist of a post-internet world. This evolution coincided with another groundbreaking moment: #MeToo.
#MeToo began as a way to support sexual assault survivors through solidarity. Tarana Burke, activist and sexual assault survivor, had begun using the phrase on MySpace in 2006, but it took off as a movement during the public outing of Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator. After high-profile, white celebrities like Alyssa Milano began using it as a hashtag on social media, #MeToo became an international movement.
The Morning Show lives at the intersection of cancel culture and #MeToo. The first season depicts the fallout after Mitch is revealed to be a sexual predator who had unsavory relationships with female coworkers. He is subsequently fired from the show and replaced by Reese Witherspoon’s character Bradley Jackson.
While the nuances of Mitch’s character are a major plot point in the first season, the focus was mainly on those who were peripheral to him, specifically Alex. So when Mitch’s character returned for the second season, viewers were curious how The Morning Show would portray life after being “canceled.”
In the grand scheme of things, especially from the perspective of those not fortunate enough to be included in the 1%, being able to afford an extended stay in an Italian mansion without a main source of income is somewhat of a fairytale. But for Mitch, this is the darkest and lowest his life has been. Sure, there is internal anguish, dealing with being black-listed, and the reality of not being universally liked, but most people who have made headlines for their missteps remain rich and extraordinarily privileged.
Instead, The Morning Show continues to humanize Mitch, as his character grapples with the reality that his power as a successful white man caused harm to others. The audience is reminded that he’s not only a sexual predator, but he’s a father, husband, coworker, and friend.
Considering that Mitch sexually assaulted a coworker who eventually went on to commit suicide, it shouldn’t be easy to view him through a sympathetic lens. This is why Carrell may have been the perfect casting choice to pull off such a complicated character. Only Carrell could make Michael Scott on The Office a character so begrudgingly likable that by his farewell episode most fans of the show admit to shedding a tear.
This is the same Michael Scott who promised a whole class of underprivileged children free college tuition only to rescind his promise months before their high school graduation. Carrell’s portrayal of Mitch is similar in that the audience knows that this person has harmed others, yet it’s impossible to ignore the humanizing aspects of their personality.
The duality of Mitch’s character is what makes crafting season two of The Morning Show difficult. It’s widely known that Mitch Kessler is loosely based on the real-life experience of Matt Lauer of The Today Show. Like Lauer, Kessler is part of a cohort of people whose actions may not have landed them in jail like Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein but was enough to cause unemployment, ostracization, and a stain on their reputation.
This begs the question: How do people come back from being canceled? Was Paula correct in saying “you must live and suffer?” Or is there a way to rehabilitate people who have crossed a moral barrier?
The writers of The Morning Show seemed to find an existential solution to this real problem. In the seventh episode of season two, Mitch dies in a car accident after a monumental reconciliation with Alex. Paula’s thoughts were actually foreshadowing Mitch’s fate, as the scene hints that Mitch chose to allow his car to drive off the cliff. As he was driving down the winding Italian roads, thoughts of his unraveling life intrusively filled his head as he swerved, perhaps too deliberately, to avoid a collision with another vehicle.
In their last scene together Mitch pleads with Alex to teach him to be a better person, emotionally proclaiming that he “doesn’t have the tools to understand.” In a world where for the majority of history men’s behavior went unchecked, many men certainly do lack the tools to fully understand how they perpetuate rape culture. However, whose job is it to give them these tools? And is ignorance a sufficient excuse? And, perhaps most importantly, is redemption possible?
The Morning Show failed to definitively answer any of these questions. Which, arguably, may not be their job. But, killing off Mitch’s character closes a chapter of the show that was closest to addressing those questions. In the real world, however, wondering what to do with people in the strange purgatory between jail and permanent erasure from the public eye is a moral gray area.
Some argue that cancel culture in its current form ruins lives, comparing it to the culture that enabled violent dictatorial regimes. While others believe that cancel culture is a culture of accountability, a movement that pushes for consequences for misbehavior. The former often frame cancel culture as what Vox describes as an “omniscient and dangerous specter: a woke, online social justice mob that’s ready to rise up and attack anyone, even other progressives, at the merest sign of dissent.”
With opinions on cancel culture being so polarized, it’s hard to take steps to move forward when the targets often view themselves as the victims of political correctness. Mitch himself does not fully admit to his role in the toxic behind-the-scenes culture of The Morning Show until the season one finale.
Some people whose “cancelation” stemmed from perceived victimless crimes, (people who have made problematic statements but haven’t caused direct physical harm to another individual), lean into the popular rhetoric that cancel culture is infringing freedom of speech. It’s virtually impossible to rehabilitate someone who doesn’t feel that their actions are problematic. It’s even harder to rehabilitate people when society at large does not have a consensus of what redemption looks like.
At first, The Morning Show felt like an avenue to explore these concepts, but Mitch’s death stunts these conversations. As Daniel D’Addiro wrote for Variety, “In excising the character from the story, [The Morning Show] has shown a profound unseriousness in handling its subject matter: The question of what is to be done with Mitch now never needs to be answered.” Instead, viewers were given an ending to Mitch’s chapter through his obituary, which was delivered on-air by Bradley and painted him as a “complicated” character.
In the obituary, Bradley says that “transition for society is rarely easy. Reconciling with who we were with who we are with who we want to be is challenging. Figuring out what we want from the past we need to remember, to forgive, to learn from, or to ignore is impossible to do elegantly.” She also points out that many people are still paying the price from Mitch’s inability to do any of that. These words, while thoughtfully written, don’t really say much other than “bad things happen, times are changing, and it’s hard for us all.”
Unlike on The Morning Show, people who have been “canceled” rarely die conveniently after their PR crisis. As we transition into a world where power dynamics are shifting and marginalized communities are demanding accountability and change, the question of “where do we go from here?” continues to go unanswered.
Sure, perpetrators like R. Kelly will face true consequences for their actions. People like Matt Lauer face unemployment and a tarnished reputation. But what about people like Dave Chappelle or Chris Pratt who have publicly said or done something that others deem problematic? For them, cancel culture is more of a scapegoat to deflect from the harm their actions contributed to marginalized communities.
Dave Chappelle is still living a pretty blessed life, with his numerous Netflix specials that aired after his initial “cancellation.” Chris Pratt still gets major acting roles. Ellen DeGeneres is hosting a new show on HBOMax. Even Mitch Kessler got to enjoy the rest of his life on an Italian vacation the vast majority of the population can only dream of.
Contrary to the belief that cancel culture is “ruining lives” and catapulting us into a dystopian society, it’s clear that large bank accounts, privilege, and access are still widely available to those who have been canceled. The only difference now is that they are facing backlash from people who are tired of outdated and possibly harmful ways of thinking. The fear of being canceled is usually bigger than the actual repercussions.
The death of Mitch Kessler on The Morning Show may have resulted in the failure of truly addressing these questions and misconceptions around cancel culture, but it succeeds in showing the various ways our culture is shifting power away from white men. As far as deciding how to move forward from being “canceled,” we as a society must learn to look past the noise and at the real issues in order to truly address redemption.
The political debate around what cancel culture is and isn’t is clouding our ability to look at these cases objectively. Osita Nwanevu eloquently summed up this reality for The New Republic, writing that “the power to cancel is nothing compared to the power to establish what is and is not a cultural crisis. And that power remains with opinion leaders who are, at this point, skilled hands at distending their own cultural anxieties into panics that—time and time and time again—smother history, fact, and common sense into irrelevance. Cancel culture is only their latest phantom. And it’s a joke.”
It’s easy to forget that a large part of cancel culture is so abstract that it’s almost a figment of our imaginations. Perhaps unintentionally, the frivolity of the season finale does a wonderful job of exposing the phantom that Nwanevu refers to.
In the final episode of the season, we watch Alex as she suffers through her COVID-19 diagnosis. We see Alex laying on the floor of the bathroom of many of our dreams, in silk pajamas, in her high-rise NY apartment. Beyond battling her physical sickness, Alex’s fear of her own cancellation culminates as she deals with the backlash of her actions throughout the season.
In true The Morning Show fashion, somehow Alex’s producer convinces her to live-stream from her apartment for the network’s new streaming service with the intention to show what dealing with COVID-19 is really like. During this completely unnecessary broadcast, Alex goes on an unhinged, fever-induced rant that exposed the true source of her anxiety, and what I suspect is the same anxiety of many people in the spotlight.
Alex is scared of not being liked.
Alex’s white woman tears are theatrical yet they show a glimpse at the childlike fear she’s experiencing. In her speech, she self-righteously proclaims that “fair is a man-made concept” and that she “was a kid like anyone else.” This is all in response to members of the general public questioning a speech she made at Mitch’s funeral on top of already questioning her level of complicity in the toxic culture at her job.
This is when it was clear to me that a lot of people who scream and yell about being victims of cancel culture usually have the same amount of security as before, they just don’t like being openly disliked or challenged.
Alex, who saw Mitch’s career and reputation crumble, is not worried about how she is going to pay her rent or how she’s going to put food on the table. But the severity of her anxiety is nearly the same. She herself visited Mitch, a sexual predator, and witnessed the luxury in which he was living yet was still scared because the fear of losing her lifestyle is more than she can handle.
Alex is afraid that she will be remembered on “the wrong” side of history. Alex is terrified that she is no longer America’s sweetheart and that her position in society will change. It’s easy to say that fair is a man-made concept when she’s in a crisis (where she perceives herself as the victim), but when did Alex care about fairness when she was living a life of access and wealth that most people will never see.
Like many white people in today’s world, it is uncomfortable for people like Alex or Mitch to fathom a reality where they are the villains in someone else’s story. The issue isn’t only about race, it applies to gender, sexual orientation, or economic status: people who have privilege rarely want to acknowledge that their position is at the cost of someone else’s oppression.
The Morning Show barely scratches the surface when it comes to unpacking the issues that go hand in hand with cancel culture, but it did a great job of showing how ridiculous people can act while trying to hold onto their power.