Apple TV+ teen basketball drama Swagger faces its first COVID-19-era game — and its second brush with police brutality — in a tense and shocking episode this week. Crystal finally confesses, while team Swagger faces a couple of real and metaphorical foes.
This week’s episode of the stellar new show, which was created by NBA star Kevin Durant and director Reggie Rock Bythewood, is the crowning achievement of the season. It must be seen.
Swagger recap: ‘#Radicals’
The team hits the road this week for its first big game since COVID-19 scuttled the basketball season. They’re playing the Dominion Ballers, Nick Mendez’s (played by Jason Rivera) old team. It’s a big game for them, a chance to show up their flashiest rivals. The last thing they need is a distraction. So that’s exactly what they get.
While stopped at a diner for lunch, someone calls the cops because a group of rowdy, mostly black teens is inside. The two officers almost shoot Phil (Solomon Irama) when he comes back unexpectedly from the bathroom. They leave without further incident but violence seems likely for a minute.
Jace (Isaiah R. Hill) and Drew (James Bingham) are furious. They want to challenge the cops and get mad when Ike (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) stops them from acting out. Jace wants to make this about him and his reaction, but Ike is quick to remind him he’d rather be hated by a teenager than responsible for his death.
Still time for a laugh
A deftly handled comic beat here shocked me. Jace says they should have made a statement. “We shoulda made it one of those sit-outs like in the ’60s,” he says.
“Sit-ins?” asks Ike, bemused.
“Yeah…those,” Jace says. It’s risky to joke so soon after their lives were in danger but damn if it doesn’t pay off.
Tensions don’t cool when they get inside the arena, either. They find the school gym they play in festooned with Confederate flags. Jace decides to do something that gets everyone in trouble: He kneels during the anthem.
His teammate Phil rolls his eyes. “This is so played out,” he says. But he won’t let Jace take the fall by himself, so he kneels, too. And then Drew does. The crowd turns on them like a bull seeing red. The spectators yell racist invective at the team and one of them almost gets in a fist fight with Phil. They’re ready to call the game but Jace insists on a player’s meeting.
We gotta be together on this, family
The halftime scene with the players talking everything out is a powerhouse. Nick didn’t kneel because he saw Royale (Ozie Nzeribe) standing, and Royale didn’t kneel because he doesn’t feel like he’s part of the team. The other kids ostracize him because they think he can’t play, but he knows how to watch and learn.
In fact, he’s got the other team’s whole playbook memorized — and his lessons give Swagger the knowledge they need to beat their opponents in the second half. Or anyway they would, except the referee turns on them because of Jace taking a knee. So the ref gives the game to Dominion, even though Nick gets the game-winning point.
The team leaves in a dreadful mood, thoroughly beaten, but they understand each other a little better than they did that morning. On the way back home, they happen upon a rally. They all jump out and join it, and at once they get to exhale, feeling finally like they have clarity after such a disastrous day. Ike knows they’ll be filing this away to use as fuel for later, and Jace tells him he’s redoubling his efforts to get to the championship game in Florida.
Meanwhile, off the court …
In the margins this week, Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis) finally tells her family about Coach Warrick and how she wants to testify against him at an upcoming hearing. Jace supports her decision. Meg (Tessa Ferrer)’s ailing father (Matt Riedy) shows up to support her during the game. He’s not super-cool with the kids kneeling during the anthem — he’s a veteran — but he nevertheless encourages her. His cancer treatments are going poorly and he know he’s only got a little time left with her.
And after the game, Dominion Ballers’ sponsor Alonzo (Tristan Mack Wilds) finds out that team Swagger was held at gunpoint earlier. He goes through a moment of beautifully played regret at the way he behaved.
I can’t breathe
Series creator Reggie Rock Bythewood directs this week, and his electric touch is felt. He gives his all to this episode. He lets every moment breathe the way it’s supposed to, from the way he shoots plays in unbroken Steadicam shots on the court, to the slow-motion final seconds of the game with the clock over Jace’s shoulder, to the diner scene in the episode’s early going; a terrifying few minutes of television.
Director of photography Cliff Charles and Steadicam/MoVi operator Bodie Orman sweated through their clothes this week getting us close enough to the players to feel their energy and mood, while also letting the action read clearly on-screen. It’s no mean feat, but I found myself cheering along with the game like it was really happening because it is.
The playing here is the real deal. And because it’s done in long takes, you can’t fake the momentum or the thrill of seeing a ball go into the hoop from half court.
Everything just works this week on Swagger, and this has to stand as the series highlight. It presents an intelligent conversation about the horrifying politics of survival in a knowing and exhausted fashion, while also showcasing the action that defines these young men’s lives. I think Bythewood knew he had something special on his hands here (there are no opening credits, but instead a gorgeous montage set to “Little Boy” by Sault of people living during COVID-19). And he was right.
Watch Swagger on Apple TV+
New episodes of Swagger land on Apple TV+ every Friday. (This week’s episode arrived early due to the Thanksgiving holiday.)
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.