The following contains spoilers for Winning Time S1E8, “California Dreaming” (directed by Payman Benz and written by Rodney Barnes & Max Borenstein)
The stylish openings continue with Winning Time’s eighth episode, “California Dreaming.” We’re taken to the moment before the Lakers score against the Blazers. Everything and everyone is frozen, the second before that basket stretched out to an eternity. Jerry Buss wanders across the court and through the frozen crowd, helping himself to a patron’s cup of beer as he talks about the first time a mile was ran in under four minutes, by Roger Bannister.
The reason Buss is telling us this is because Bannister wasn’t even an athlete, and he was told by many that it would be impossible—something that Buss himself is sick of hearing. But when Bannister heard the roar of the crowd, he pushed himself to conquer that record, though he wasn’t the last person to achieve the four-minute mile. In any case, Buss uses this story as proof that the limitations of human accomplishment lie not in the body, but in the mind.
It’s an interesting choice to start the episode by discussing the will to succeed and overcoming the limitations in the mind, because as the Lakers are riding high with playoffs in their sights, everyone is about to come crashing painfully down to earth.
The tension this week is thick. One of the central conflicts, surprisingly, is the triumphant return of Jack McKinney. Jack has every intention of returning as coach, and has no interest in retaining Pat. This is problematic, because when Westhead begged Pat to join him in coaching the Lakers (and help bring the Lakers success), he promised him that Jack would be fine with him staying on. It is painful to see Westhead visibly panicking over having to let down his friend, although it is amusing that he suddenly has to go to the bathroom every time he’s confronted with this conundrum.
Speaking of Pat, he’s been conspiring to trade away Spencer Haywood, who is dealing with a knee injury that Pat doesn’t see getting them a win later on down the road. This is unknown to Haywood himself, and McKinney revealing it to him brings Haywood’s temper to a boiling point. He kicks Pat out of his house, after which it is revealed that he struggles with a crack addiction. I don’t know if I see Haywood making it all the way to the playoffs, and McKinney’s dogged insistence on keeping him playing is going to hurt the team. Pat, for his part, is furious that McKinney wants nothing to do with him and wants Westhead to stand up to McKinney and stake their claim as the coaches that brought the Lakers to where they are now.
Another nail in the coffin of the relationship between McKinney, Westhead and Pat Riley comes when Westhead begs McKinney to at least let him and Pat coach the team through the rest of the season. This causes McKinney to turn completely around on his best friend, berating and insulting him for trying to steal “his” team. So now everyone hates each other, Westhead has a kidney stone, Pat is probably out of a job, and McKinney is troublingly hazy mentally. I had a hard time liking almost anyone this episode, but McKinney really takes the cake as he doesn’t really seem to care about what Westhead and Riley have pulled together during his absence, and his lack of trust for Pat doesn’t make sense. Pat’s probably my favorite character, so I’m hoping my guy bounces back soon.
Magic isn’t doing much better, still reticent to let Cookie into his life given that he’s been sleeping with her friend Rhonda. Poor Cookie keeps coming back to Magic and keeps getting treated like a one-night-stand. It comes to a head when it’s revealed that Rhonda is pregnant with Magic’s child. Magic states that this is a lie, though he doesn’t exactly deny he’s been sleeping with Rhonda. Given Cookie’s constant presence in Magic’s life and the focus on them, this can’t be the end for them.
And tying it all together is Jessie Buss insisting that Jeanie hide from Jerry that she is essentially on her death bed. As far as Jerry is concerned, she took a trip to hospital, got released, and is back on top. Jerry isn’t aware of his mom’s cancer, and as such continues his loud, optimistic party-animal attitude. Jeanie, for her part, is torn between honoring her grandmother’s insistence that Jerry be kept in the dark, and sharing the truth with her father so he can fully enjoy the time he has left with his mother. Hadley Robinson really pulls out the stops here with a devastatingly emotional performance.
The final moments of the episode feature a pair of scenes switching back and forth, with the first finding Jerry West having an uncharacteristic heart-to-heart with Magic in which he gives the rookie some sage advice. He recognizes that Magic hides behind his smile, and implies that he’s still working with the Lakers because he’s still chasing that victory that he didn’t have enough of in his heyday.
Elsewhere, a distraught Buss is dropping off his mom’s nurse Lucia and is finally overcome with emotion with the devastating truth that his mother is going to die. It’s a fantastic little bit of acting from John C. Reilly, as he weeps and acknowledges that he’s going to lose his mom. He leans over and rests his head on Lucia, and she begins to console him, rubbing his back.
And then, it’s deeply, uncomfortably soured as Buss undoes her blouse and fondles her breast. She doesn’t exactly push him away, but she’s definitely uncomfortable. It’s a clear act of sexual assault made worse by the fact that Buss promising to pay for her college education earlier might be informing her lack of physical resistance to the assault. Worse, this might just not amount to anything and the show is using this more as a exhibition of the nymphomaniac’s tendencies. Consequence-wise, there’s probably not much that’s going to happen to Buss, so what does this moment serve other than making our charismatic protagonist a predator?
With two episodes left in the season, there’s still a lot of ground to cover, which makes me happy about the confirmation of an additional season. With everything set to blow up in everyone’s faces in the next episode and emotions running high, I am fully invested in the rise of the Lakers Dynasty.