‘Winning Time’ Season 2 Shocks Fans With Surprise Series Finale

Film

This post contains spoilers for the Season Two finale of HBO’s Winning Time, now streaming on Max.

Winning Time, the HBO drama about the Los Angeles Lakers’ Showtime dynasty in the Eighties, has been accused by members of those teams of rewriting history. With what unexpectedly turned out to be a series, and not season, finale, the show had to rewrite its own past, as well as its future.

Early in the summer, critics were given screeners of all seven episodes of this abbreviated second season. The version of the finale available at that time ended with Quincy Isaiah’s Magic Johnson sitting on the floor of a Boston Garden locker room shower, getting soaked in his uniform jersey and shorts, dejected over losing the 1984 NBA Finals to Larry Bird’s Celtics. The final version that debuted tonight was roughly the same up until that point, but Magic’s sad shower was followed by both a new scene and a montage.

In the added scene, Lakers owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and his twentysomething daughter Jeannie (Hadley Robinson) walk alone on the Lakers’ home court at the Great Western Forum. Jerry imagines a future where Jeannie will one day run the team and begin winning championships of her own after he has passed away. They lie down on the center court logo, as we’ve seen Jerry do previously, and Jerry leads Jeannie in a chant of, “We fucking own this!”

This leads into a photo montage (scored to Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night”) of everything significant that happened to the people depicted on the show in the years to come: the Lakers winning their next two Finals matchups with Boston, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) holding the NBA career scoring record for nearly 40 years, temperamental Jerry West (Jason Clarke) coming into his own as Lakers’ GM and eventually trading for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant, Magic being diagnosed with HIV, Magic and old flame Cookie (Tamera Tomakili) still being married today after 32 years, and, yes, the Jeannie Buss-run Lakers winning another title in 2020.

These versions represent two wildly different ways to end the season. The original cut concludes with the lowest moment of the Showtime era, and really only works if it’s meant to be followed by an additional season (if not more) depicting Magic’s revenge against Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) and all the other triumphs listed in that montage. (Without that, the shower would have been a terrible last scene.) The new version instead makes additional seasons besides the point, and plays as if the show’s creative team was told by HBO at a late hour that there would be no additional renewals, so they had best wrap things up as best they could.

This can’t have been the ending anyone planned. The series began with a flashforward to Magic’s HIV diagnosis in 1991, more or less promising that we would at least return to that moment, if not to Magic’s various comebacks as both Lakers player and coach. Instead, we don’t even get the full dramatization of Magic’s peak years and big moments, like the “junior junior skyhook” he used to defeat Boston in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals. But Winning Time never lived up to the hype of that cast, that subject matter, Adam McKay directing, etc. Season One received only one Emmy nomination, for cinematography. Online chatter about it seemed to subside within weeks of its debut, and the shift from 10 episodes in Season One to only seven this year suggested that HBO was only willing to pay so much to keep this project going.

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HBO has confirmed that this was the Winning Time series finale, and that the show has been canceled. Creator Matt Borenstein wrote on Twitter after it aired, “Not the ending that we had in mind. But nothing but gratitude and love.” Executive producer Kevin Messick told Vulture that the Jerry/Jeannie scene was filmed in January, and that before the writers and then actors went on strike, production delivered HBO two different versions of the finale — one in the event of a renewal, one not. If all this was done that early, then there aren’t issues with scabbing (writing captions for a montage is still writing), but the closing sequence had a slapped-together feel.

Leaving the labor relations question aside, it’s still a mess. “We fucking own this!” is a better tonal and thematic summation of the series — which began with Jerry Buss as its central character — than Magic in the shower. And the photo montage at least provides closure to whatever tiny slice of Winning Time viewership doesn’t know all about the rest of the Showtime dynasty, that Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) went on to win three more titles as Miami Heat coach and/or executive, etc. But it still, like so much of Season Two — which struggled to cover a much longer stretch of history than Season One, but with three fewer episodes — feels incredibly rushed. It’s not at all the triumphant closing night that everyone imagined when HBO was assembling what was assumed to be the pay cable channel’s next water cooler hit and awards juggernaut. Even the Showtime Lakers never moved as quickly as Winning Time had to at the finish.

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