Since the vapid and offensive “Machete Charge,” Ballers has found some of its charm again by focusing on the toned-down, low-key drama that made its first few episodes engaging, if not exactly riveting television. The show is at its best when it balances an exploration of the struggles that are specific to athletes and the more universal struggles of everyday people. Spencer is the embodiment of both of those things, his lingering health issues courtesy of his time in the NFL continually affecting his life off the field, seeping into his relationship with Tracy and influencing how he interacts with potential and committed clients.

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“Ends,” for the most part, is a good example of Ballers striking that balance. It’s not only the funniest episode of the season, in large part due to the reliably manic performances of Rob Corddry and John David Washington, but also one filled with charm and insight. The driving force behind this episode’s more heartfelt tone is the return of Rodney, or his ashes at least, which are unceremoniously tossed over the gate by a delivery driver in a hurry. “Mom, dad’s home” shouts Rodney’s son, clearly not too broken up about the fact that his (admittedly, often-absent) father was just thrown in the driveway. The episode’s plot doesn’t really revolve around Rodney’s ashes so much as it provides an image that reminds us of why Spencer is doing what he does, and how so many of these characters could end up in the same spot, being handed off to a friend by a jaded widow and barely remembered by a son.

Spencer is given the ashes by Rodney’s widow and tasked with spreading them somewhere. This is an urn full of ashes, so of course there’s a gag involving them spilling and Spencer having to clean them up, but other than that bit of contrived comedy, the urn acts as a nice thematic throughline for the episode. That’s because Spencer is also tasked with finishing off the deal to get the incriminating pictures of Vernon back while also keeping an eye on Ricky, who’s not handling Annabella’s departure too well. He’s sitting on the couch with his phone, telling himself that she needs space and that he needs to chill. Ricky doesn’t know chill though, so he calls her and leaves a heated message about how blasphemous it is to leave Ricky Jerret.

That scene is not only hilarious in its relatability, but also sets the stage for Ricky’s blowup later on. It deepens his characterization as a man who can’t get a grip on his impulses, who feels entitled and invincible. They’re the same characteristics that got him in trouble with Alonzo, and now they’re ruining his relationship. When Ricky finds Annabella at a club, hanging out with Julie and dancing with Chris “Birdman” Andersen, he loses it and nearly fights the NBA player. Then, when Annabella confronts him about his “funhouse,” he yells at Julie and Charles for ratting him out. He shirks responsibility whenever he can, and it’s finally catching up with him.

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Spencer recognizes this pattern all too well. He pulls Ricky aside and reminds him that Rodney, the man who’s ashes they’re going to spread, was entitled and shirking his responsibilities too. And as Harold Weir would say, “you know what happened to him? He died.” Rodney, however limited his presence in the series, is integral to the guys. He’s a lesson that they can choose to learn from. It’s something Spencer has taken to heart–he’s consistently making references to his rowdy behavior in the past–but that Ricky is still navigating. Or, as he says while stubbornly sitting in Annabella’s friend’s apartment, he’s working on not being an asshole.

Considering that lost careers and lost lives pervade “Ends,” it’s weird to see the episode end on the note that it does. After turning down Maximo’s offer for a sit-down meeting with Angie, and after Ricky bounces from the club and refuses to re-live the passing of Rodney, Spencer takes Charles to Sun Life Stadium to spread Rodney’s ashes. Charles opens up to Spencer about missing the game, about not feeling whole without it. Spencer tells him that he got out in one piece though, which is great. Despite that sage advice, he then tells Charles that he should make a comeback, that he should get back in the game. “Leave it all out on the field,” he says, which is not only cliché writing, but goes against everything Spencer has stood for all season. He’s supposed to be the man of rational decisions; the man who has wisdom about the toll football can take on the body. Having that initial reaction, where he tells Charles how lucky he is to be retired and healthy, isn’t enough to justify his support of Charles returning to football, especially with the results of that MRI looming. It rings false and undercuts much of the more thoughtful thematic and character work present in “Ends.”

Stray observations

  • “Meet you there after Tae Bo!” Dwayne Johnson and Rob Corddry continue to be the best part of this show.
  • Corddry with the best moment of the episode when he realizes that Spencer won’t agree to the sit-down: “No, he won’t do it,” he says emphatically before taking a shot as quickly as possible.
  • Mr. Anderson has the pictures of Vernon now. I’m sure he’ll be totally cool with what he saw.
  • Charles gives Ricky relationship advice at the gym, which, you know, maybe isn’t the best idea considering his current situation.
  • Don’t really know what to say about Jason’s meeting with his mom and her new boyfriend, the young, aspiring pro golfer David. A pretty meaningless storyline with all the predictable age difference jokes you can imagine.
  • Ricky may not win a fight against Birdman, but he gets a solid burn in: “Lebron did the right thing by going back to Cleveland!”
  • This week in the Ballers soundtrack:

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