With head coach/Showtime mastermind Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) in the hospital in a coma, this episode of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty titled “Memento Mori” deals with the fragility of life and success. The main plots that writers Max Borenstein, Rodney Barnes, and Rebecca Bertuch focus on are Paul Westhead (A frazzled Jason Segel) coming to terms with being the Lakers new head coach with the help of William Shakespeare and Jerry West (Jason Clarke), Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) dealing with fame and everyone literally or metaphorically wanting a piece of him, and finally Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) using wine, women, (probably) cocaine, and the Jacksons to get Great Western Bank to postpone the payment of the loan he used to purchase the team.
After the heights of last episode, the ensemble cast of Winning Time is in a dark place, especially Westhead, who isn’t just McKinney’s assistant coach, but his best friend with director Tanya Hamilton lingering on a picture of them in better times. There’s a little bit of Segel’s usual roles he takes in his portrayal of Paul Westhead as a flailing Muppet even though he does show a cool-headed intellectual side that kicks in when he quotes Shakespeare in the locker room and goes with his game plan against the Denver Nuggets instead of McKinney’s. (Seen in hallucination sequences) He’s definitely more English professor than NBA head coach. In the space of an episode, Westhead exhibits growth going from barely being able to speak to the players and getting chewed up and spit out by the media to switching up the depth chart and freezing out a player (Spencer Haywood) that McKinney wanted to play a major role on the Lakers. But this is after freaking out in his car and offering the Lakers job to West and travel secretary/color commentator Pat Riley (Adrien Brody). Riley plays a nice cheerleader role to Westhead throughout the episode laying the foundation for his future role…
On the flip side, “Memento Mori” spends a lot of time with Magic Johnson, and it’s not the most flattering picture as he chases fame and fortune while his coach is in a coma. Hamilton and cinematographer Todd Banhazl make a scene set at a sporting goods conference feel like visual overload using a nine-way split screen set up that’s The Brady Bunch meets Watchmen showing how every shoe company wants Johnson to hawk and wear their product. A Converse exec even uses some uncomfortable farm metaphors, but of course, he signs with them to have the opportunity to stick it to Larry Bird. It also fits the family friendly, “play it safe” image that his agent/current girlfriend’s dad Dr. Thomas Day (Steve Harris) wants for him instead of the gamble (That would have paid off.) of taking stock options and $1 per shoe sold from Nike. In the sales pitch sequence, Olli Haaskivi is a quirky scene stealer channeling the eccentricity and start-up energy of Phil Knight, who wanted to put Johnson’s name on the shoe and made it actually help his speed and performance, but everyone laughs him off in the episode, including the bankers that Buss parades Johnson to.
Magic Johnson’s relationship with women has been a recurring theme in Winning Time, and as mentioned in a conversation with Day, it’s his only vice because he steers away from drugs and alcohol. “Memento Mori” features his short-lived girlfriend/agent’s daughter Cindy Day (Rachel Hilson), who he is unsure actually loves him or just wants to be close to a famous person. In a monologue where Isaiah brings out an angry and darker side of Johnson, he talks about how they would be in a relationship while Johnson was calling Cookie Kelly in the other room basically cheating on her. And Cindy is cool with this. She also oversteps her boundaries by bringing flowers to Jack McKinney’s hospital room and getting Magic Johnson to sign autographs for the Great Western bank execs, which makes him uncomfortable because he’s in casual relationship mode and honestly just wants to be with Cookie, who appears in the final scene of the episode, and isn’t into the whole fame aspect.
Throughout the episode, Johnson is told by everyone from shoe execs to Richard Pryor (Mike Epps), who gives him great advice and helps get Spencer Haywood interested in cocaine, that his real first name, Earvin, is a thing of the past. There’s a little bit of sadness in Quincy Isaiah’s eyes every time someone uses the Magic nickname to refer to him personally and not in a marketing context all culminating in Cindy moaning “Magic” when he gives her an orgasm from oral sex and realizes that she cares him about him more as a celebrity than a human being. Although, he puts “Magic” on the prototype shoe, Knight actually does use his real name hinting at how Nike would use an athlete’s name and personality to sell now-iconic shoes a few years down the road. Borenstein, Barnes, and Bertuch show Magic Johnson basically being consumed by the fame aspect of his job as he skips a team hospital visit to sign a shoe deal with Converse and does business transactions and chats with Richard Pryor and cocaine baron Dr. Mike in the tunnel before the game. However, he does manage to find some distance between his personal and work life by using a line Dr. Day said about Magic not bringing good news to have him relay the news about breaking up with his daughter before sending him to Michigan State’s campus to personally invite Cookie to a Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons game.
The third main plot of “Memento Mori” shows Jerry Buss and his business partner Frank Mariani (Stephen Adly Guirgis) try to wheel and deal their way out of losing the team by getting Great Western to extend their loan and line of credit by marketing them as “the official bank of the Lakers”. They don’t buy it, but Buss shows them enough of a good time at the Forum Club to extend the loan until June 1980 aka right after the NBA Finals. Unbeknownst to the players, coaches, and other front office folks, the Lakers basically have to win a championship or go broke. John C. Reilly also gets to show a vulnerable side of Jerry Buss when his mother Jessie (Sally Field), who raised him by herself has health issues that hinder her from doing her job as accountant. What begins as him being furious that she used the wrong checking account for vendors and didn’t file the right paperwork to transfer team ownership to his ex-wife ends up with him monologuing on a balcony about how she raised him as a 19 year old single mom in the middle of the Dust Bowl. Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson) continues to show her quality by alerting her father to her grandmother’s health issues and also acting as a buffer between Magic Johnson and Cindy and Dr. Day when she can tell that they’re making him uncomfortable before the game.
By contrasting Jack McKinney’s coma and time in the hospital with Magic Johnson chasing fame and Jerry Buss sweet talking Sacramento bankers, Max Borenstein, Rodney Barnes, and Rebecca Bertuch really put life in perspective in a sobering downer of an episode. Jason Segel’s Paul Westhead is the standout performance of “Memento Mori” going from goofiness to anxiety and poignancy with Shakespeare quotes that befuddle his team and sports journalists, but act as kind of coping mechanism for him to deal with a stressful situation. Quincy Isaiah also continues to find the darkness and charisma in the character of Johnson switching between Magic and Earvin by lowering his eyes, dropping his smile, and in some cases, raising his voice.
Overall Verdict: 8.2