Winning Time S2E4 Recap: “The New World” — The Almond Tree Bears Its Fruit in Silence

Pat Riley confronts Paul Westhead on the court.
Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO

The following recap contains spoilers for Winning Time S2E4 “The New World” (written by Max Borenstein & Rodney Barnes and Jim Hecht and directed by Tanya Hamilton)

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Winning Time S2E4 “The New World” opens on 1981 pre-season, and Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) and Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) aren’t getting much friendlier after last week’s row. An article featuring a photograph of Paul standing in a classroom with some of his players asks what they’re doing in there, and as Paul revels in the coverage, Pat breaks the fourth wall to remark, “Good f*cking question.”

The Lakers aren’t much happier with their coach or with The System, and neither are Jerry West (Jason Clarke) and Bill Sharman (Brett Cullen). Surprisingly, Paul seems to capitulate to Pat’s earlier objection to cutting Kurt Rambis from the team, and decides to place Rambis in the final open roster slot, but Paul’s attitude towards Pat when telling him to deliver the news to Rambis feels oddly vindictive. The Rambis decision, of course, does not go over well with West. One of my favorite running bits this season is West flying into an escalating rage and Sharman having to aggressively rein him in, in this case actually nearly wrapping him into a bear hug to hold him back. 

Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) spills the beans on Magic’s (Quincy Isaiah) 25 for 25 lifetime contract (which makes Magic the highest paid athlete in the world) to the press, something that was behind closed doors until now and immediately sows seeds of division between Magic and his peers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) in particular is not exactly subtle in making a “favorite child” analogy and suggesting he’s willing to be traded during an interview. In a later scene, Magic’s teammates blatantly express their displeasure at Magic’s lucrative deal. 

Red Auerbach meets with reporters courtside.
Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO

Paul insists on talking to Kareem to reassure him that he’s still the fulcrum of the team, pointing out that the contract Buss (John C. Reilly) brokered with Magic implies that the kid is the most important member. Buss counters to say that the team belongs to him, and Paul barely misses a beat to point out that he is the coach, and that Magic has struggled to integrate into the vision Paul has laid out for the team. We’re really getting into a power struggle over control of the Lakers, both inside and outside the team itself, and it is making for some excellent drama. 

Buss confronts Paul over his met demands for the team, and asks what else he’s supposed to provide him. Paul replies, “I’d like to be able to handle my players without any interference, so if you can do that for me, I’ll promise you that I’ll bring you another trophy.” The little tics that Segel imbues into Westhead continue to make him one of the most compelling actors of the series. Buss responds: “Well, Paul, if you don’t, I’m gonna look like a f*cking idiot, and you’re gonna be looking for a new job.” Is Buss getting drunk on power? Is Paul?

Johnny (Thomas Mann) is still upset at Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) for trading his girlfriend, and Jeanie is doing everything except offer him a genuine apology, something that Honey (Ari Graynor) picks up on immediately, and Jeanie soundly rejects. Jeanie’s ferocious business focus is further hampered when Buss announces that he’s going to marry Honey. Jeanie is visibly shocked and upset by this revelation, as it will take her father’s attention away from her. 

Gathering the team, Paul invokes Victor Frankl’s quote “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” which doesn’t really seem to have much to do with anything basketball related and feels more like Paul trying to sound cool. He reiterates his commitment to The System, and with direct eye contact with Magic, states that anyone with a problem with that will be benched. That strategy doesn’t go well for a series of games for the Lakers, as they lose several of them by a slim margin as the team struggles to cohere with their coach’s hardline expectations. I’m also not sure what Paul’s angle is here with suggesting to Kareem that he transfer to the Knicks; he seems to bounce between appealing to his players’ best interests and antagonizing his peers.  

Pat and Paul talk courtside
Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO

Jason Segel is one of the last actors in Hollywood that one could envision as playing a mean guy, which is why his performance in this episode is so surprising and excellent. Paul is seemingly entering his villain phase and Segel is absolutely vicious in his reaction to losing control of his team’s morale. This leads to yet another episode-best verbal showdown between Paul and Pat, as Segel and Brody’s electrifying chemistry delivers an incredibly-acted scene as the coaches argue. Paul invokes another historical analogy, this time with Cortez meeting the Aztecs, and burning his entire fleet of ships so that his crew had no choice but to forge ahead. Paul’s scorched Earth approach can’t bode well, can it? He does, however, seem to make a major mistake by remarking to a reporter during a party that, with The System, “You can plug in anybody,” which quickly makes its way to the press and further sours his players on him. 

Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) is back! One of my favorite characters and performances of the previous season, now coaching the Indiana Pacers, returns with a vengeance as he meets Paul for lunch. Their energy is immediately tense and awkward, and McKinney wastes little time belittling and menacing the man who ousted him from the Lakers leadership, and promising to “expose” Paul. Surprisingly, Paul does manage to pull off a win against his former friend. 

Magic’s lust for celebrity status and Paul’s intent on control finally bring them to a head. Pat attempts to call the head coach back, but when Paul aggressively counters Pat and Pat smirks and backs off, a scowling Paul says “good,” as Pat grimaces, seemingly expecting Paul to dig his own grave. Paul confronts Magic in a broom closet, and for all of his aggression this episode, Paul honestly is in the right in pointing out Magic’s haughty attitude.

With the clashing personalities rising to the top halfway into the season, it feels like things are less about who to root for and more about holding on for the ride. A rift is growing between Buss and Jeanie; Paul is losing control of his team both in front of and behind the scenes; the ink is barely dry on Magic’s revolutionary contract, and yet he stands up in the locker room to proclaim his desire to be traded. We’ve only a few episodes left in the season, but there seems to be so much more story to tell. I am loving this arc and am thrilled to see where it goes. 

Written by Hawk Ripjaw

Hawk Ripjaw has been sharing his opinion on film and TV since his early teens, when the local public library gave away prizes for submissions to their newsletter. Since then, he's been writing for local newspapers, international video game sites, booze-themed movie websites, and anywhere else he can throw around some media passion. He watched the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat movie over 50 times in two years, for science.

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