We asked resident Entourage apologists Rafael Gaitan and Mark Stack to team up and discuss each week of the spiritual Entourage sequel Ballers. This week they debate Ricky’s culpability in perpetuating a cycle of abandonment, the show’s baffling Oedipal predilections, and fantasize about hopeful casting coups.
Mark: Man, things got real serious real quick this episode as the spectre of death that hung over the first episode returned in the form of an engraved urn.
Raf: Yeah it did! I’m starting to sound like Dule Whitaker when I have to preface everything but here goes- every week I think Ballers tops itself and every week I’m curious what will happen to Charles Greene. Right from the start that “Dad’s home” joke got me. That was morbid as fuck! In a good way!
Mark: While I can’t quite agree with the sentiment that the show gets better with each episode, I feel safe in saying that the show is becoming more confident as it matures into what it wants to be. There are some serious growing pains in this episode with a subplot involving Vernon’s agent Jason that I honestly could not be bothered to give a shit about. But that’s a blip in the radar compared to how smooth the rest of this episode felt. We commented in our first recap on how the murder-suicide that claimed the life of Spencer’s friend played a little strange with an uneven mix of comedy and drama but this episode strikes a very good balance by letting the funny scenes be funny and the dramatic scenes be dramatic rather than trying to nail both tones at once.
Raf: I concur- like happiness and pobody, nothing is ever nerfect. The Jason subplot they literally talked about in the after-episode wrap-up was thrown in there because they “hadn’t seen what was going on with him.” I’m enjoying seeing this show plummet into those depths- it takes a deft hand to explore something as grave as the loss of friendship. The moment between Spencer “The Grieving Friend” Strassmore and his teammate’s wife was the right sort of macabre. On another network, with another writer, it would have been A Serious Talk About Life And Death. But Ballers is a sitcom.
Mark: Nah, man, like Entourage before it this is a, *sigh*, dramedy. But we’re not here to discuss genre labels. Since we’ve already brought it up, let’s dive into what’s going on around the urn that Spencer is carrying around. The way Rod’s (the deceased) wife hands his ashes off to Spencer is brutal, a final way for her to reject the man that disrespected her and their marriage in a way that eventually led to his untimely death. There’s a small exchange between her and Spencer where they talk about her son that struck me as poignant. Her son is dealing with the trauma of his father’s death by pouring himself into football pretty much all day, every day. She remarks that it’s probably the closest he’ll ever feel to his father and, after Spencer’s prodding, she emphasizes that she is making sure he stays safe by having his coaches learn up on how to prevent head injuries. Right there, in this kid that we don’t even see, we have a convergence of everything that’s going on with Spencer and everything that made Ricky who he currently is.
Raf: You know it’s funny how that scene didn’t hit me as hard as it did you until I thought about it right now- what a moment. And what a great transition to talk about RMFJ, who every week trades a spot with Charles as my favorite part of the show. This week we see a despondent Ricky. We also get to spend time with Bella, who otherwise had only had one poignant scene. While Ricky’s attempt to bunk down at her house with some popcorn, liquor and the remote was one of my favorite RMFJ moments of the series, that scene in the club with him and Bella was dynamite. Annabelle Acosta slays the whole “betrayed and angry thing-” when she’s suddenly interrupted from hanging with DA GAWD Birdman (the white, non-embezzling one from the Miami Heat) she resists skewing into cliche- Ricky does way more shouting and scene-causing than she does. It’s a striking variation on how other relationships are handled, like Charles and Julie Greene or even Spencer and Tracy Legette.
Mark: Ricky really has developed into the most realized character of the bunch, hasn’t he? With last episode’s explosive speech about how his abandonment issues and performance on the field while wearing #18 plays directly into his self-worth coupled with the small scene about Rod’s kid being on his way to becoming a future RMFJ, we’re really getting to understand what makes him tick. It didn’t hit me until this episode that Ricky isn’t just perpetuating this system of lying and cheating, he’s absolutely a product of it and every bit a victim as that poor kid. His entire identity is tied into being a big star off and on the field that he can’t even reconcile his own emotions over Bella deservedly dumping his ass. We get a short but funny scene of him contemplating calling her to apologize but once he gets on the phone it’s like he’s on the field, all hypermasculine performance aimed at selling himself rather than humbling himself as he should. The same thing that makes Ricky such a great athlete makes him an absolutely terrible person.
Raf: I loved that scene. Where his chill plummets into the negative and he purges his guilt into anger by asking Bella how she dares to leave him? But Mark, remember as previously discussed in this column about personal responsibility. I see the system as an enabler more than a causer. If he didn’t have money it’s likely Ricky Jerret would still act the same but because of his personal upbringing. Anyway I’m mining here. Truly I wish I could recant my negative comments about John David Washington (the actual son of Denzel Motherfucking Washington). He’s proven that he is a capable and adaptive leading man and I look forward to see where he takes Ricky Jerret’s inevitable season-end burnout. And for what he does in the future. This kid’s about to get white hot.
Mark: I felt for Spencer when he tried to hit Ricky with a reality check in the bar by handing him Rod’s urn. I thought it might calm Ricky down but was clearly wrong because, c’mon, when has anything ever calmed him down? It actually makes sense for a guy like him to effectively say, “Nah, I’m not going out like that guy because I’m RMFJ.” But all this talk about Ricky is getting kind of heavy so let’s move on to checking in on Vernon and the Shit-Weasel Formerly Known as Reggie’s blackmail troubles.
Raf: Man oh Manischevitz! We got gaffled by Maximo! I was starting to like that dude, and then he tried to welch on the deal! My heart broke for Joe, who thought he had a new best bro through life. But we did get an amazing scene prior where Spencer has Reggie and Vernon over for breakfast. Honestly I mostly see red when Reggie is on screen but Mark, you and the readers should be aware of my wandering eye for breakfast foods. If we’re judging this scene strictly by the spread (and I think we are) it was the strongest offering Ballers had yet. Everything was so deliciously looking. Oh and yeah R.A.T. rides again. But this scene was my least favorite of any of the interactions with Vernon and Dickhead. I’d rather see Reggie Mantle than this Reggie but this one just felt so formulaic. Spencer agreeing to foot the bill for the photos felt like an episode one thing. His reconciliation with Vernon does speak to his professionalism but something about it rang untrue. I felt like he could have pressed harder, especially when Vernon was clearly taking it for granted. First he wants those pictures because they’ll ruin him and then when he gets the deal of a lifetime on them, he’s now concerned it’s his money! What an ingrate!
Mark: Vernon is and will always be a fucking child, something I think Spencer is coming to terms with. It does feel like he’s gone back on his declaration to cut off ties with him and Reggie far too soon but I’m willing to give him some credit because it appears that he’s at least succeeded in calming Reggie down a little bit. The whole thing about the deal changing so that Spencer would have to hand deliver the check to this mysterious woman he knows was weird in how hard it’s trying to set something up with this character. After teasing her for so many episodes, I’m expecting a big casting coup. Maybe a Carla Gugino, perhaps?
Raf: I’m sorry all the blood left my body as you typed those words. Oh that would be amazing. Also I’ve been speculating on who they will get to be the mysterious #81, because sure as those too-cold Jordans are still frostbitten, that man is showing up either at the end of this season or beginning of the next. And I can’t wait. If they get Denzel to play Mr. Jerret I will probably do a standing moonsault or a Kevin Owens cannonball from excitement. If we’ve seen Ricky blow his stack now, I can only imagine how raw it’s going to be when he confronts the man he eviscerated for being less than one on television.
Mark: The show is really establishing that these characters have legs. Not that they have leg legs (which they also do!) but those metaphorical legs that have to do with the ability to survive as a long-running television show. For as long as it lasted, Entourage really ran out of steam early on because the characters were not set up in a way that would allow them to change in a meaningful way without ending the show as we knew it. This show’s already setting up and paying off longterm character arcs which indicates that, if things go well, this will be a show about people and not just what these people do. We know Charles is going to return to football in some way (possibly as a coach of some sort given how he helps Ricky with interpreting his new playbook in this episode) and Spencer, serving as the voice of the viewers, says as much in their heart-to-heart that ends the episode. The only thing that isn’t really clear is why this show got all Oedipal again this week.
Raf: I was thinking that too! The second that he explained the play to Ricky without batting an eyelash I thought “YES. BRING HIM BACK.” What I’m afraid of is that after his session with Ricky it’s going to be a career-ending injury that sidelines him into a coaching position. This show has been sharpening its teeth but I don’t want to see that happen. There’s already the hanging axe of Spencer having brain damage, which based on how they’ve strung it along is almost a guarantee! And because it had to, I guess- it needed to take one step back to leap forward. I’m sure the missteps from this week will eventually be rectified in a satisfactory manner. I don’t think this show is headed to the level of Playmakers (not worth looking up) but I admire the drive it’s taking not only with dealing with the all-too-prescient issue of injuries and even subtly taking snipes at the NFL and its permissive, victim-blaming culture.
Mark: Oh, you just know there’s going to be a Roger Goodell stand-in getting involved at some point. I don’t think it’ll spin out of what happened with the pictures that were leaked to the head of Spencer and Joe’s firm/agency/whateverthefuckyoucallit, but it’s definitely coming down the line. Before we sign off, you got any last things you want to bring up?
Raf: Fuck Reggie. See you all next week!
To read Mark and Raf’s thoughts on previous Ballers: