Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The McMillions finale proves you can't make this stuff up

Frank and Heather Colombo
Frank and Heather Colombo
Screenshot: HBO
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Who is the informant? And how did Jerome Jacobson actually steal those pieces? After the drama and excitement of the mass takedown in the penultimate episode of McMillions, there are two threads left to unravel, and, as has been the case throughout the entire investigation, things aren’t as they seem. The conclusion of the wild ride that is McMillions is heart-wrenching, mystifying, and as satisfying as an order of McDonald’s french fries.

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If not for a state of national emergency, perhaps these two questions would have been further pressed in the media at the time—this episode shows that immediately following the arrests, the folks who were indicted couldn’t leave their house without being ambushed by reporters or curious passers by. But once 9/11 happened, the story was all but wiped from public consciousness, with any updates, no matter how juicy, relegated to small items in the back of the paper and barely mentioned on TV news. And the large group of FBI agents looking into the McDonald’s scandal also disbanded, turning their focus now to matters of terrorism.

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Though no longer in the public eye, the loose ends still needed to be wrapped up, and a total of 53 people were indicted, seven of whom went to trial, including George Chandler. He chose to plead not guilty because he had no idea that he committed a crime—turns out that defense just wasn’t good enough. Diving into the legal weeds introduces an interesting argument about the difference between breaking the rules of a board game and breaking the law, continuing the juxtaposition between the silliest details of the case and the very real, harmful consequences it resulted in. The biggest takeaway from this discussion: be careful what you mail. Because everyone with a stolen game piece who claimed their prize by mailing it in committed mail fraud.

The tone of this episode is more somber than most as those indicted reflect on everything they lost in the process: money, jobs, homes, family, respect, freedom, and, in one particularly tragic moment, the will to live. It’s a final, sobering reminder that though McDonald’s was the major target of the scam, there were far more vulnerable victims involved.

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Largely absent from the entire series is the ringmaster himself, Jacobson, though in this final installment we finally find out how he did it. Once again, the mail is more important than we thought. Jacobson accidentally received a shipment of the holographic stickers used to seal envelopes containing winning game pieces. With these in his possession, all he had to do was get alone with the game pieces. Another voice noticeably absent from the series in this episode is that of Jacobson’s handler, a woman named Hilda who chose to hang out in the frequent flier lounge at the airport instead of accompanying Jacobson to the bathroom with the game pieces to thwart any funny business. In the end, the explanation is so simple it erases the image of “Uncle Jerry” as this diabolical evil mastermind and in its place leaves the image of a guy who got lucky and became a villain along the way.

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So who spilled the beans? Flight attendant Lee Cassano certainly seems to think she put the whole investigation into motion when she told the IRS her side of the story to try to avoid paying $50,000 in taxes. But then why haven’t we heard about the IRS being involved until this point? Special agent Doug Mathews, still a star in this final episode, verifies there is no way they were involved, and it’s easy to believe he would never let another government body steal the spotlight of his case, of an FBI career case.

As with every episode along the way, the biggest bombshell is saved for the final moments, a commendable storytelling approach throughout. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, it’s one of the most meek and silent people in the cast of larger-than-life characters who offers up the final piece of the puzzle: Heather Colombo. And just moments after revealing the whistleblower who started it all, in walks her son, dressed in his McDonald’s uniform. That final sting of humor emphasizes what McMillions proved to us every step of the way—you cannot make this stuff up.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Loves David Bowie and flamingos more than everything else.

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