Episode Two of Winning Time opens with an emotional gut punch. In the very first seconds of this episode, we see an irate, drunken, lout of a man pursuing a woman with ill intent, threatening her with all of the courage alcohol musters. Fearing the violent predations of this monster, a small boy hides in his tiny room, clutching a weapon he has purchased to commit patricide. Later, this young boy practices his dribbling and jump shot in the freezing cold on a makeshift hoop in the dirt driveway in front of his house. Against all odds, his nearly frostbitten hands obey his commands, even as the weather refuses to improve. Somehow, he knows that basketball is his only way out.
Norman Rockwell this is not. There are no white picket fences, no smiling family around a full dinner table–just anger, depression, brutality, and the figurative ghost of an older brother taken too soon by war. This was Jerry West’s life as a child. It is enough to drive any man to nihilism and despair. West’s angst and Magic’s youthful joy are obvious comparisons, but a comparison just as intriguing is the overwhelming compulsions that both men face. Compulsions to dominate, pursue women, and be recognized as winners.
Episode 2, Is That All There Is, is directed by Jonah Hill. It feels less madcap than the pilot with muted artistic flourishes. Instead, character development is the main focus. Hill depicts Jerry West (Jason Clarke) as the most unhappy of champions. Unsure of how to feel about finally summiting the mountain of the NBA playoffs and uncertain of what that ambivalence says about him, Jason Clarke blends a complex mix of emotions into one tragic mask with great aplomb. Clarke’s Jerry West is haunted by failure and success, and not even a random hookup with a lady he meets in the bar jars the confusion from his face or soul.
Quincy Isaiah (Magic Johnson) continues to crush the biggest role of his career so far. His ear-to-ear smile and natural charisma show what it means to be a #1 draft pick with millions of dollars on the way. He has several touching moments with his mother–moments that will be recognizable to any Black American who struggles with first-generation success. This episode also pulls back the curtain on a side of Magic Johnson that the popular imagination has yet to wrestle with. Quincy Isaiah portrays Johnson as a slightly egocentric, somewhat self-absorbed, and competitive athlete accustomed to getting his way and pouts when he doesn’t.
A high point of this episode is Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and his introduction to the other franchise owners. His subsequent showdown with Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) –the legendary Celtics coach and head of basketball operations–is great. Buss tries his usual man-about-town routine on “The Pope” and is laughed at for his pains. Buss doesn’t quit and finally manages to secure a one-on-one meeting in hopes of picking a rivals’ brain. Auerbach savagely disabuses him of any notion of friendly competition and delivers a chilling monologue deriding Buss and his dynastic pretensions. Even if this moment never happened, it is a fair approximation of the stakes for the coming decade and perhaps the feelings of the Celtics fanbase towards the perennial loser Lakers.
In this episode, director Jonah Hill and writers Rodney Barnes & Max Borenstein portray Auerbach and West as similar souls and even more interestingly hint at the incompleteness of their ideology of winning. In his monologue to Buss, Auerbach scoffs at the notion of luck or gremlins. To Red, he is the foundation of the Celtics dynasty. According to Red, Jerry Buss will never succeed to the level of a dynasty because he doesn’t possess the same commitment to winning that he (Auerbach) did. Subtly, Winning Time argues that single-mindedness is a necessary component only of misery, not success. Jerry West bled for victory and only achieved it once. The difference between his constant failure and Auerbach’s constant success had components beyond drive and devotion.
Despite a heavy beginning, several scenes made me laugh and rewind to laugh again. Kareem’s nonchalant showing off of his reading choice to a befuddled Jerry West, Magic’s mother shamelessly bragging about a gift she pretended to disdain, and of course Magic’s on-court dismantling of Cookie’s boyfriend. These were all moments I found to be hilarious.
Episode 2 poses a thought-provoking question about the powerful, driven men and women that spurred the transformation of the Lakers franchise. Is that–sex, basketball, success, the acceptance of your peers–all there is? Character by character, the response will eventually be “no.” Yet, almost as if by compulsion, the characters pursue goals that will not make them happy in the long run. Their loss is likely to be our gain. Magic Johnson and company’s relentless drive to pursue and conquer makes for terrific television, and I cannot wait for episode 3.