As the ouroboros continues to chew its tail, Winning Time connects Episode 6: “Memento Mori” to its pilot. Magic is weighing the options of which team he wants to join, although this time it’s with a shoe company. This decision loomed so large over his head that he couldn’t make time to visit his comatose coach in the hospital. Jerry Buss is trying to dig himself out of financial ruin, swindling himself into a deal with a bank to continue funding for his team to get back to his plethora of faceless, nameless twenty-year-olds. This episode finds him breaking the fourth wall at a rate unseen since the pilot. And the Lakers are without a coach. Jack McKinney has answered the question from the title of Episode 4 with one word - “genius.” As the head coach, he pushed the team to a 10-4 record, first place in their division, and with the right momentum to turn the sinking franchise around.
But with McKinney suffering from severe brain injuries after a nasty fall on his bike, everything is up in the air. When Magic meets with an advisor and is asked, “What do you want out of your future?” he answers, “everything.” And that’s part of the problem. All of the men at the show’s heart, at least their HBO avatars, have the world at their feet, making eventual replacement head coach Paul Westhead’s monologue of Shakespeare’s Hamlet relevant. Jason Segel gets his moment this episode. He plays Westhead as Kafka’s Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis or Camus’ Meursault from The Stranger. He is aloof in his absurdity. Magic’s advisor could tell even the youngster knew his dick from a doorknob. Westhead, not so much. He has inherited a throne two sizes too big for even his lanky, oversized body to fill.
These men are going through complex, philosophical dilemmas, even if they don’t have the language to word it as such. Each is battling their war, as both victor and loser. As souls hang in the balance, they are forced to make decisions that will impact themselves, their future, and everyone around them. As we saw in the pilot’s opening with Magic in the doctor’s waiting room, delivering news, most viewers know it as a part of American pop culture.
Magic’s financial advisor, and his current girlfriend’s father, can see the young prodigy’s weakness, even though the basketball star professes not to use alcohol or drugs. “And women? You gotta be smarter. Quieter. Make everybody happy.” Those familiar with history know this was too tall a task for even Magic to overcome. It’s a touching moment, a father talking to his daughter’s beau, knowing he isn’t good enough for her, yet seeing the future of their shared community at stake. Magic never looks at his girlfriend once throughout the excellent staged scene, even as her father sits across from him. His eyes are wandering towards the next big thing, leaving everything behind him. All the father can do is give the best advice he knows. He tries to convince the young man to separate “Magic” from Earvin.” As identities and sets of priorities. The pain is felt as the audience knows how it all plays out off the court.
As we see later in the episode, Magic is a neophyte to fame and, alone and isolated from his Lansing family, he has become distrustful of hangers-on. This makes it easy to dismiss his current “girlfriend” and her father’s sound advice as lies to get close to his burning star. But perhaps not enough to completely cut her loose, as ouroboros continues to chew, and Magic feeds his sexual appetite while never saying “I love you” back.
For Buss, the Hamlet of Winning Time, his world is crumbling. His mother’s mental deterioration is causing his financial hardships to overflow. She’s writing bad checks to pay vendors, causing supply chain shortfalls, while forgetting to file ownership transfer papers vital to keeping the entire family business afloat. He is also dealing with his head coaching being in the ICU. So when he tells his staff to tell the league and the team that McKinney fell off his bike, he’s not lying. But it’s precisely the kind of twisting of the truth that makes Buss such an enigmatic character. His entire fortune, the team’s future, and his family depend on such twists. His creative ingenuity is best expressed through his self-made narratives, from his “Dr.” title to his rags to riches origin story. This episode finds Buss stuck between his greatest strength and greatest weakness, two sides of delusional self-assurance. The show pushes this to the extreme with a montage of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Two men light on their feet under the pressure of performance. As Buss is about to meet with the bank whose partnership will save the Lakers, Buss decides, “I’m gonna put on my tap, and I’m gonna dance.”
As Buss guides them through the Forum Club, past the women, cocaine, crack, and alcohol, he guides them and the audience through his castle built on lies and charm. When an encounter with Richard Pryor (Mike Epps) forces Magic into a reckoning with the death of Earvin at “the cost of doing business with the white man,” we see how far Buss’ poisonous charm reaches. Even Buss, for all his neo-liberal ethos, still refers to Magic as “Lakers property,’’ revealing not just the insidious framework of man-made sports but all of Capitalism. What makes Winning Time so damn watchable is that these men are heroes and villains of their own stories. No matter the arguments against the “real-life” accuracy of its portrayal, the shot aims to say something more important than just a simulacrum of Showtime — it’s pointing the camera back at us as well.