For the entirety of its first season, Ballers has been teasing a deeper angst lurking within Spencer Strasmore. The show has been hinting at neurological and psychological issues. There have been scattered flashbacks to Spencer laying a huge hit on an opposing player, the whole context of the hit and its consequences only implied, never truly discussed or presented visually. That moment, that one big hit in Strasmore’s career, has loomed like a dark cloud since the very first episode. It’s been one of the few sources of promise on the show. For every underdeveloped character, sexist bit of dialogue, and horrifically paced plot, there’s been the promise of Ballers eventually deconstructing it all, showing how Strasmore’s life, and perhaps the life of a Baller, is constructed to distract from the physical and emotional scars caused by the game they love so dearly.
“Head-On,” the penultimate episode of the first season, makes a big statement in terms of the storyline regarding Spencer’s health: Don’t worry about it. Excuse the sports metaphor, but tonight’s episode takes one of the season’s most complex and potentially meaningful bits of character information and fumbles it before getting to the goal line. Let’s back up, though, because there’s a whole lot of exposition that needs to happen before Ballers can allow Spencer Strasmore to walk through the world worry-free.
While his business is up in the air at the moment, Spencer is still riding high after being given the neurological all-clear by his doctor in last week’s episode. He’s happy to visit Vernon and tell him he got the photos back from Angie, and he even takes pleasure in knocking Reggie down a few pegs after finding out that Reggie drove Angie home and, in no uncertain terms, took his dick out and offered to pay her for sex. All is well and good in the life of Spencer Strasmore. Sure, his friend and colleague Joe might lose his job, and Ricky is still off doing who knows what, but hey, what’s left to worry about?
For Spencer, there’s still one more thing that’s lingering, and it’s been there all season. That one hit, that single moment that seemingly changed Spencer forever. It’s something he’s been reflecting on all season, but that feeling is amplified lately, as the guy he hit, Dan Balsamo, now owns an auto collision center and his ads are all over television. Spencer admits to his doctor that Dan never played again—and Spencer hasn’t really dealt with the emotional toll of that yet. She tells him to seek Dan out and have a chat, and that’s exactly what Spencer does. He purposely wrecks the tires on his car and has Dan show up not knowing he’ll be helping out the man who ended his career.
When Dan shows up, he wants nothing to do with Spencer, but Spencer uses that big smile and a heavy dose of charm to get a ride back to the auto collision center. Once there, he offers Miami Marlins tickets to Dan’s son, an offer that’s meant to give Spencer more time to talk to Dan. Once at the game, he finally comes clean. He tells Dan how bad he’s felt about that hit, about how his intentions were to hurt him. He says that despite football players knowing the risks they’re taking, Spencer’s still had many sleepless nights thinking about that hit.
That’s when Ballers reveals that Spencer’s reckoning with that hit is just fodder for a feel-good moment, where Spencer takes Dan and his son to meet Giancarlo Stanton and then throw out the first pitch. Now, there’s a chance that Ballers does something more with this in the future, peeling back this moment of triumph to reveal the moral decay underneath. That’s all fine and well, but for now there’s one predominant reading of the scene: The show spent the entirety of its first season building up the emotional and physical consequences of this hit, only to “resolve” the issue by having Dan shrug off the consequences (he says he wasn’t much of a pro football player anyway) and get a laugh by throwing a wild first pitch and hitting a photographer.
The optimistic side of me wants to read that final scene as something subversive. I want to see it as Spencer standing on the field as a photographer is hurt and hearing the crowd laugh and cheer, as him recognizing the twisted culture of violence that’s permitted in the sports world. Even if such a reading turns out to be true, though, the build and execution in the final scene in “Head-On” rings false. It reveals an emptiness at the core of Ballers, suggesting that all along, this has been a show with nothing meaningful to say about athletes, their demons, their triumphs, and the pressures they face both on and off the field.
- In other storylines this week, Charles’ comeback tryout doesn’t go so well because his season-long character arc is amounting to nothing.
- Tonight’s episode actually contains this line of revelatory dialogue: “a gold medal for being a pain in my ass.”
- Ricky is still trying to win back Annabella, this time by hanging up paintings of fruit.
- Ballers has slipped from outright sexism to the more casual kind. The use of “chick-ish” is just one example.
- Joe lovingly calling Spencer a “bald, multicultural motherfucker” is one of the episode’s lone bright spots. Their bromance still survives.
- Julie is pregnant, and I guess Charles has realized family is more important than an NFL return? That sure would be neat and tidy.
- This week in the Ballers soundtrack:
Or, the greatest scene in the history of cinema, and also a Dwayne Johnson project: