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Winning Time S1E6: “Memento Mori” — Cursed

Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO

The following contains spoilers for Winning Time S1E6, “Memento Mori” (directed by Tanya Hamilton and written by Max Borenstein & Rodney Barnes & Rebecca Bertuch)


Tensions are sky high in Winning Time’s sixth episode, “Memento Mori,” as nearly everything hangs in the balance: Coach McKinney’s life, Magic’s figure, and the future of the Lakers in general. This is a proverbial Jenga tower with one brick left before toppling. 

Good Lord, what a stressful episode. “Memento Mori” brings everything down crashing around Buss and the Lakers, and by the middle of the episode when Buss laments that he’s “cursed,” we still have half an episode left. To boot, the heightened emotions this week lead to a number of uncomfortable situations between characters being bad to each other. Misfortunes pile on mercilessly, making for an hour of real nail-biting tension. 

Although it was already very evident, “Memento Mori” really drives home Buss’s terminal inability to resist slapping a band-aid on his problems, putting off consequence as long as possible. He doesn’t like bad news, so he rejects that news and immediately conjures a solution that might be advantageous in the short-term but will only require him to patch another leak in the boat later on down the line. That tenacity has served him well so far, but there’s a palpable sense that his luck will have to run out sooner or later: he flies dangerously close to the sun when renegotiating his loan terms with the bank. That deal might have ended in tears had Jerry’s bookkeeper and mother not made the strategic slam dunk to sign the Lakers over to Jerry’s ex-wife, thus tying his hands in terms of negotiating ownership of the team. This bargaining chip is instrumental in negotiating a loan extension, but we learn later that Buss’s mom failed to file the paperwork, rendering this ace in the hole worthless if the bank does some digging. Luckily, Buss gets the executives boozed up enough that they take the plunge in the moment that night at the club.  

Cindy Day sits on the lap of her boyfriend Magic Johnson
Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO

Speaking of his mom, Jessie Buss is not doing well despite that genius move. The food vendors for the big game have been sent invalid checks from an account closed by Jessie herself five years prior, and the paperwork to pass the Lakers over to JoAnn sits unsigned on Jessie’s table, as she anguishes over a non-existent rancid smell in her apartment. I’m not sure if it’s dementia or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (Jessie says that she feels like she’s “rotting,” to which Jerry counters with a joking “alcohol is a preservative,” suggesting that Jessie’s drinking is much more severe than we even know), but it’s not looking good. 

This comes back to Jerry’s frustrating refusal to confront reality, as he chain-smokes on his mother’s balcony and talks to the camera about how his mother brought him up. The doctor visiting the apartment gives temporary good news about Jessie’s health, but there’s a sense that he suspects an underlying issue and suggests bringing her in later for a full evaluation. Jerry takes that as gospel and clean bill of health as he fires up another cigarette. He’s certain his mom is going to be fine, even when a tearful Jeanie confesses to noticing Jessie’s decline weeks earlier. “Jeanie, get it together,” he sternly tells her in the hospital elevator. “She’s going to be okay.” This, of course, is an extremely likely death sentence. 

Everyone’s a bunch of friggin’ pricks in this episode! Magic can’t give his well-intentioned girlfriend Cindy a break, constantly verbally berating her for how she tries to build him up around others, diverting business talks. At the end of the episode, he can’t even man up enough to break up with her, instead having his lawyer (her father) do it for him and deliver game tickets to Cookie. No wonder Magic himself doesn’t want to watch the series.

Jerry is more concerned about getting to McKinney in the hospital as his mother dissolves in confused anguish amidst her mental lapses. Later, he rips a panicked Westhead a new one over securing a win. 

Jerry Buss berates Bill Sharman and Paul Westhead
Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO

With McKinney indefinitely out of the picture, the onus of Lakers success falls on Paul Westhead’s petrified shoulders. Not only does Paul have to fill his best friend’s shoes and honor his vision, he has to get a win for a coming-apart-at-the-seams Buss and manage the narrative for the press and the team. Unenviable, to say the least. I also really enjoyed the kinship between Westhead and Pat Riley in this episode. Segal and Brody enjoy a very easy chemistry, and their conversations feel authentic and comfortable. 

One of my favorite elements of this episode is the handful of cutaways to McKinney, unscathed and awake, in a darkened room lit only by his desk lamp as he delivers rapid-fire ideas for plays and positions. He’s brainstorming and perfecting his method, with a couple of instances featuring Westhead listening to him on a couch. I feel like this is a combination of Westhead tapping into his best friend’s expertise to try to be successful as McKinney clings to life, and McKinney’s manic genius still going full steam in his mind even as his body is incapacitated. It’s a great, surreal couple of moments that really work in between the moments of chaos that drive the rest of the episode. 

I continue to enjoy how Winning Time isn’t just a Magic Johnson biography, but an all-encompassing exhibition of the entire enterprise. As Kareem had his deep-dive episode, Magic will probably get more attention down the road, but the show’s interest in all of the people involved in the Lakers on and off the court as well as the money and business behind the curtains makes this feel like a documentary attached to a lightning rod during a thunderstorm. The pure energy radiating from Winning Time and the uniformly excellent acting, directing and editing continue to make HBO’s drama feel like McKinney himself choreographed it. 

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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