The following contains spoilers for Winning Time S1E7, “Invisible Man” (directed by Payman Benz and written by Rodney Barnes & Max Borenstein)
I was originally a little worried that Adam McKay wouldn’t be directing all of the episodes of Winning Time, given the pilot’s electrifying pace and energy. However, time and time again the show’s revolving roster of directors has maintained that same spirit, with just a little bit of an innovative twist on the style of the show. Episode 7, “Invisible Man,” (dir. Payman Benz) is no different.
I absolutely love the opening to “Invisible Man,” which finds Jerry Buss discussing one of his most memorable board games: Monopoly. He’s taken by the game because of the element of chance it contains. No matter how good you are, he says, a bad break will come. What follows is a sequence of characters reading an unfortunate circumstance from the past episodes. It’s such an interesting stylistic choice, particularly with Jack McKinney’s bit as he reads his accident off of the card with a still-bloody face.
It was pretty clear last week that something was wrong with Jerry’s mom. I was thinking either dementia or Wernicke Korsakoff, but it’s officially cancer. This is bad. I’m actually not sure how long Jessie Buss actually lasted, so I’m kind of on pins and needles for her. As contentious as this family can be, Jessie’s genius bookkeeping savvy combined with Jerry’s spitfire passion is a joy to watch and it’s clear they love each other.
Really, no one’s having a great time for most of this episode. Without McKinney, Paul Westhead is positively drowning as coach. He makes rash calls, he can’t keep track of his time outs and fouls (leading to Pat feeding him information from the booth), and his players resent his decisions. The only thing keeping the Lakers (barely) at the top of the league is them sticking to what McKinney taught them, but the point margins grow thinner by each game. Poor Paul is far out of his element and has no confidence in his ability to lead the team without his best friend. His spiraling anxiety and lack of the team’s respect quickly causes the Lakers to plummet in the rankings. Particularly painful is post-game footage flashing the opponent’s score, followed by a pause that feels like an eternity, and then the Lakers with their significantly smaller score.
Buss, meanwhile, has to contend not only with everything that’s faced him up to this point, but is now facing mounting pressure from Jerry West’s backseat driving on a coaching decision. Buss is trying to wait as long as possible hoping for McKinney to be back in fighting form, but each game that he’s out, his visions of glory glow dimmer. His visit to McKinney in the hospital makes me want to go seek out some more Tracy Letts performances, because the man just kills it as McKinney. His determination is all over his face, both in the conversation with Buss in which he insists that he will be back, and later when he tells Westhead over the phone that he needs better than his best, and to hold the team together until his return. “I came back from the dead for this,” McKinney says with determination. A deadly bike accident didn’t stop him from wanting to coach, and I suspect nothing will. Still, time is of the essence, because even if Westhead can pull it together, West is hell-bent on former Laker Elgin Baylor as coach.
Every time I thought I’d come across a conversation or interaction I loved in “Invisible Man,” another one I love equally or more wasn’t far off. This episode is filled with impactful one-on-one conversations, each one alight with fantastic chemistry. We’ve got another great exchange between Buss and McKinney in which they reminisce about playing Monopoly with their kids and never expecting them to grow up, before a good-natured competitive game between the two competitive dads; Pat Riley joining a dejected Westhead as his assistant and trying multiple times to whip him into being an effective coach, which comes to a boil in an explosive exchange in a hotel room that really cements the chemistry between the two; and an emotional reunion between Magic and Cookie that makes it clear they were meant for each other—psych! Cookie’s friend was just getting out of the shower.
Worthy of more attention is a Christmas conversation between Kareem and Earvin Johnson Sr. Earvin can’t contain his excitement at meeting Kareem, who quietly admits that Magic possesses some skill of his own. We haven’t seen too much interaction between Kareem and Magic recently so this was a nice little moment. What’s more impactful is what follows, where Kareem asks Earvin Sr. if Magic is so happy all of the time, to which he replies in the affirmative. The men discuss the racism they’ve faced in their lives, something that Magic never really experienced to the degree that Earvin Sr. did, such as seeing lynchings on a frequent basis.
This culminates in a pep talk between Magic and Kareem. Magic is incensed that during the pre-game press meet, Bird had the adoration of the crowd in spite of his dismissive demeanor and short answers. Kareem gives him the hard truth that they are “blinded by the white,” something that Magic, who has spent most of his life sheltered from racism, can’t exactly relate to. Magic, frustrated, opens up and vents to Kareem about how people seem to think his upbeat attitude is fake. He prepares to storm out, until Kareem stops him and encourages him to defeat Bird. “So they’ll love me then?” Magic asks. “F*ck. No.” Kareem responds. He says that the racists will only double down on Bird, and if they say anything good about Magic, it’ll be quiet. But that silence, he says, is power. Damn this was a good conversation. And I think it’s the beginning of a really good relationship between Kareem and Magic, like the former is the big brother looking out for his sibling, despite his hubris.
So, everyone was kind of a prick in the last episode, but my god does Larry Bird do a big ol’ “hold my beer” and in a matter of seconds, becomes the biggest prick in the show by a country mile. Along with the aforementioned interview answers, he threatens Magic before the game and is cocky as hell on the court. The game itself is incredibly exciting, sticking to the general trope of the opposing team playing unfairly while the referee does nothing, and looking like all is lost, until the final stretch. And then: Pat and Westhead finally coming into their own as coaches and arguing with the referee; Westhead swallowing his pride and taking Haywood off the bench; things coming down to the final second in a brilliantly edited final shot; and the catharsis of all of our main characters celebrating amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the Boston sports fans.
But it was a win by one point. Too close for comfort, and certainly not a clincher for the playoffs. Buss and McKinney (who, it should be noted, enjoyed a very handy victory over Buss in their Monopoly game) face the hard truth that if Westhead stays where he is, the team will not make it. It’ll be interesting to see how this affirmation will affect the relationship between McKinney and Westhead in the coming weeks, especially since Winning Time has been picked up by HBO for a second season. Things are picking up speed, and it couldn’t be more exciting.