Swagger plays a high-stakes emotional game [Apple TV+ recap]

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Swagger recap: The team faces new challenges this week.
The team faces new challenges this week.
Photo: Apple TV+

Team Swagger goes to the nationals this week on the Apple TV+ show about the star players of Baltimore’s youth basketball league. Trust is put to the test. Bodies and minds are injured. And, at the center of it all, Jace flails around when he should be flourishing.

This show heads into its final matches with a strong dramatic game.

Swagger recap: Episode 9, ‘Follow-Through’

In the episode, titled “Follow-Through,” Jace (played by Isaiah Hill) and Jackie (Jordan Rice) finally get a letter back from their dad. Turns out he had another daughter after he abandoned them, and the news bruises them both. Jace, as is his way, wants to confront his dad face to face, but Jackie is so hurt she isn’t sure what the best option is.

Jace now has two father figures to sort through his feelings about. On that score, Ike (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) seeks out Jace to go over their last talk, during which the teen accused him of deliberately throwing the championship that could have made his name. Jace is very reluctant to talk to Ike again. However, Ike thinks he can break down his defenses again. It means Ike will have to open up about his big-time meltdown, which he isn’t ready to do. But if he’s gonna be honest for anyone, it’s gonna be Jace.

When the team has a rematch with the team coached by Felicia “Snoop” Pearson (hell yeah), they win — and they get her blessing. Swagger is a sensation now. It’s good business to lose to them.

A twist

Musa (Caleel Harris) has a date with his middle-school sweetheart, Tamika (Nadej K. Bailey), over Zoom with her family. He calls his dad, Coach Naim Rahaim (Sean Baker), Ike’s second in command, for advice on how to handle the evening. Naim’s world-weary response to realizing his son’s old enough to date is priceless.

I haven’t had much cause to mention Naim because he’s been a sort of textural element of Swagger for the most part. Anything he does aligns with the stories of Ike and Meg (Tessa Ferrer). But Baker’s been an incredible presence all season long. The actor is one of those guys who just lives his part, un-showy and dependable in every situation. It’s been such fun watching him next to Jackson.

Ironically, Tamika’s dad is a violent crimes detective whose been assigned the case of the Coach Warrick beating which, of course, Musa was in on. When Musa tells Jace, Drew (James Bingham) and Phil (Solomon Irama), they want him to stop seeing her, believing in their teenage brains that she’s out to get them.

… and an emotional prison visit

Phil’s got prison on the brain anyway. He goes to visit his mom (Monique Grant), serving time on a drug charge and on her way possibly to a halfway house. The scene, them talking to each other through masks and through glass, tugs at the heartstrings like it’s gripping the hoop after a dunk. Fantastic stuff.

Swagger’s anthropological view of Baltimore is superb. Phil cries to Tonya (Christina Jackson) afterward that he lied to her and said that it was his dad (Michael Beasley) that forbade him from visitation. But in truth it was because he couldn’t bear to see his mom in jail. Irama’s done stupendous work all season, and every close-up the show gives him pays off handsomely.

Phil then plays like a demon during their next game against Dominion, a fierce rematch after the game at the confederate school. Alonzo (Tristan Mack Wilds) watches from the stands with interest. He’s secretly supporting Swagger and publicly supporting Dominion.

You got this

Nick (Jason Rivera) and Royale (Ozie Nzeribe) have been watching Jace, Phil and Drew quietly conference about their crime for days now. They think they’re hiding something different, and it’s driving a wedge between them. Ike tries to talk to Jace’s mom (Shinelle Azoroh) about the upcoming game against their first opponents. He knows that the team will get in Jace’s head if they can, but maybe Jenna can talk to Jace and remind him to overcome. Ike needs this, needs Jace to succeed. And if Jace won’t listen to him anymore, maybe he’ll listen to his mother.

At halftime, the game changes considerably. Meg has to leave the game halfway through because her father (Matt Riedy) is in the ICU, finally dying of the cancer that’s been eating at him all season. And Jace gets a leg injury that sends him to the bench. Royale subs in, and Jace watches helplessly as his chance to prove himself dwindles. Swagger wins, but Jace feels deflated. He wants to go to the championship in Florida, but he won’t be able to if his leg doesn’t heal in time.

So much has been lost by now that there’s an ocean of resolution needed (loosely speaking) for Swagger’s final episode. I am very anxious to see it, but I have to say that this episode’s high-stakes emotional work was prize enough. The whole team showing up for Meg after her father flatlines was a beautiful cap to that arc, and to Meg’s storyline this season. If the writers can top this in next week’s season finale, I can only imagine how high a note this season will go out on.

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.