The following contains spoilers for Winning Time S1E5, “Pieces of a Man” (directed by Tanya Hamilton and written by Rodney Barnes & Max Borenstein)
As a thematic subject, faith is one of the most interesting things a dramatic work can tackle. “Pieces of a Man,” Winning Time’s fifth episode, opens with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar adopting his new name in a mosque following a speech by the imam discussing the role of a Muslim in being a servant to God. As such, the episode switches between the present and the past multiple times, showing how Kareem’s faith informs his entire life.
And then, huge reveal! Kareem’s girlfriend, Cheryl Pistono, cracks open a jar of Minute Maid orange juice concentrate and mixes it into a jug of water. The fact that both Nixon and Magic have painstakingly juiced oranges in the hopes that it is up to Kareem’s standards when they bring it to him with the morning paper day after day at the crack of dawn only to be rejected, and this dude is drinking instant concentrate, is one of the funniest sight gags of the show so far. It’s unclear whether Kareem is aware of the simplicity of his ideal orange juice or he’s just been jerking around the rookies, but it’s terrific nonetheless.
It’s one of the few genuinely funny moments of the episode, and that’s by design. Really diving into the psyche of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Pieces of a Man” is an incredibly compelling hour of television, specifically in how it dives into the psyche of the stoic and apparently miserable Kareem. Not only does Kareem make it a priority to pray every day, the episode shows us how much he was affected by the racism poisoning America. As such, he refused to participate in the Olympics and his relationship with his police officer father was strained as a result of his vocal criticism of a young black teen shot by a white officer. That relationship does not benefit from Kareem’s conversion to Islam and his name change, which means “Servant of the Almighty”—much to his father’s indignation, as they shared a full name (Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor), making the change feel like a slight against their bloodline.
One of the most affecting scenes this week was a distraught and lost Kareem returning to his imam for guidance following a verbal disagreement and physical altercation with Magic. The imam delivers a fantastic monologue to Kareem that re-contextualizes and refreshes Kareem’s relationship with God, basketball, and his approach to being team captain. It’s such a great scene in how quiet it is, without any of the show’s normal energetic editing, and it feels noticeably different how it just lives in the moment with Kareem’s pain.
Another scene that stuck out to me was when McKinney tells Magic he expects him to be a leader on the team. Of course, Kareem is the captain, so it’s interesting that McKinney is pushing Magic to lead, and more so that he tells Magic that Kareem had a similar interest in Magic leading. This of course leads to tensions between the two, as the over-enthusiastic rookie tries time and time again to crack that shell—with the only person able to do so thus far is new addition to the team, and Kareem’s friend, Spencer Haywood.
I don’t think Jerry Buss is ever built up to be a paragon of virtue or even someone to definitively root for, but he’s really hard to root for in this episode. He’s starting to come apart at the seams over the stress of making this work, and it’s sent him on a frustrating power trip where his obsession with perfection undermines the work his team has put in to satisfy him. When Jeanie and Claire present Buss with a new sound system and a stunning dance number led by Paula Abdul, he’s ecstatic until he realizes that the opening to the bar counter isn’t flush with the bar and storms out. A tiny detail in what is otherwise a revolutionary presentation sets the owner off, and it’s painful to watch, especially since Jeanie is clearly uncomfortable with what Abdul and her dancers are exhibiting.
I’m definitely curious how Jeanie and Jerry will interact in the coming episodes, as the previous episode punctuated how Jerry’s carnal proclivities have affected Jeanie’s development. Hadley Robinson really sells Jeanie’s discomfort as she watches the dancers, and her conflict between supporting her father’s success and crafting a show after her father’s sexual appetite is painfully visceral.
The final stretch of the episode is a return to the energy and fun of the season prior, as the Lakers come into their own with a classic montage of a string of wins and successes, even showing Magic and Kareem having a kinship on the court. Everything is great, which as we all know is a stone cold death sentence for a serial drama. McKinney, relaxing on a day off following a string of successful games, goes on a sun-soaked bike ride set to The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” This setup, combined with the song choice, and incredibly ominous overhead cinematography, make for the most tense and unnerving minutes of the show so far. Obviously, McKinney in real life suffered a bicycle accident, but with or without that knowledge this is a stunningly dread-soaked final sequence, culminating in a devastating crash that sends McKinney sliding bloodily across the asphalt before lying motionless. I’m trying to stick to my method of watching this show without much knowledge of the real events, but I immediately Googled McKinney to check whether one of my favorite characters was dead.
This was a really good episode, and it’s great to see the show exploring its characters on a deeper level. Some of them have been introduced as caricatures, and some of them still can be, but it’s been an effective strategy to paint these characters in broad strokes initially and then give them more depth and texture as time goes on. We’re now at the midpoint of the season, and as these characters get further acclimated with each other and the Lakers machine continues to pick up speed, McKinney’s injury might not be the only thing the Lakers have to be worried about. TV’s most compelling and entertaining new drama shows no signs of slowing down.