After a brutal beatdown, Swagger shows its sensitive side [Apple TV+ recap]

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Swagger review: COVID-19 and a beatdown make for a heavy week.
COVID-19 and a beatdown make for a heavy week in the basketball drama.
Photo: Apple TV+

COVID-19 makes its debut in this week’s Swagger, the Baltimore-based Apple TV+ basketball drama inspired by the experiences of Kevin Durant in the junior leagues.

In the episode, titled “All on the Line,” Jace and his teammates cover up a crime. Crystal exhales and figures out how she feels. And Jackie and Jenna have it out. Everyone’s at the top of their game in one of the best episodes of the season so far.

Swagger review: ‘All on the Line’

Jace Carson (played by Isaiah R. Hill), Phil (Solomon Irama), Musa (Caleel Harris) and Drew (James Bingham) have beaten the hell out of coach Warrick (Al Mitchell). Jace did it to retaliate after Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis) confessed that the coach had been molesting her.

Jace can’t tell his friends that he had a pretty good reason for the beating but Musa and Drew are racked with guilt about it. Phil is a little more magnanimous. He even offers to take the blame if the cops find out they were responsible. But Jace shows them some leadership and reminds them it was his idea, so he’ll take the fall if there’s one to take.

Crystal is furious at first because he fears that if it gets out that Jace was responsible, they’ll trace the incident back to her. And that could mean exposing the secret she kept for so long.

Another of her teammates alleviates some of Crystal’s guilt by confessing that she also was molested by the coach. The violence Jace resorted to isn’t the most elegant solution to the problem, but clearly something had to be done. Otherwise, this guy was just getting away with it. Jace and Crystal reconcile in a beautiful scene near the end of the episode that finally makes it clear what these two really mean to each other.

More problems on the home front

Meanwhile, it finally comes out that Phil’s dad (Michael Beasley) has been beating him up some nights, which explains why he’s keener than usual to spend his time at Drew’s house. His dad comes around to Ike (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Tonya’s (Christina Jackson) house looking for Phil, who hasn’t been home for a day or two, and they decide to confront him.

Ike’s straightforward approach doesn’t get Phil to open up, but Tonya’s softer touch lets him speak his mind finally. This is a tremendously moving scene — and a terrific showcase for both Jackson and Irama, two soft-spoken but essential components of this show. A lot of the performances on Swagger have to be louder to showcase the seething pride so many of these characters live by, but it’s a pleasure to see the two quietest performers get to share a scene like this.

The confession works out for everyone because Ike thinks that’s the reason Jace and the others are off their game — they’ve been covering for Phil to save him from his dad, not worrying they’ll go to jail for beating up the coach. Ike’s happy to have the reason because he doesn’t need to be worrying about more things right now.

Meg (Tessa Ferrer) lets him know that because Brett (Miles Mussenden) is now housing Nick Mendez (Jason Rivera), he’s stopped helping the team pay its bills. She decides to reach out to Alonzo (Tristan Mack Wilds) at Gladiator shoes to see if he’d consider sponsoring their team instead of Nick’s old team. Alonzo doesn’t think it would show much character from the brand to switch horses midstream, but he can’t say he isn’t more interested in being behind a team with both Jace and Nick in its starting lineup.

I’m the only one looking out for you

Swagger review: The Apple TV+ show is not all about basketball.
It’s not all about basketball.
Photo: Apple TV+

Jace’s mom (Shinelle Azoroh) makes a massive blunder this week when she leaves Jackie’s (Jordan Rice) step-dancing finals before her performance to get to a meeting with her cosmetics sales group. Jackie shows up and makes a huge scene, possibly blowing a big promotion in front of the district brand manager. She complains that if this were one of Jace’s games, she would have made time for it. They scream at each other and both go to bed crying.

I like that Swagger makes as much time for Jackie as it does. The sting of being the child who gets less attention is keen. And though Jackie is a supportive figure for her family, she has limits. It was great to see Jordan Rice handle the scene so well (to say nothing of performing the hell out of the step choreography).

Also this week, COVID-19 finally moves out of the background. The basketball season is getting truncated. Hardly anyone shows up to the step-dancing finals or team Swagger’s game. And, most heartbreaking of all, Musa’s grandfather dies. Musa flies out to California to see him before he goes, meaning he misses the game and scares Jace, Drew and Phil for a minute because it seems like he was ditching them in anticipation of their crime being found out.

This was one of the most sensitively performed, directed, written and edited episodes of the season, and I love that Swagger makes so much out of the precarious emotional states of every one of its players. Writer/director Nijla Mumin nails every lynchpin interaction.

Watch Swagger on Apple TV+

New episodes of Swagger land on Apple TV+ every Friday.

Rated: TV-14

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.