The modus operandi of this Mike Tyson miniseries is to cover a lot of ground in a little time, but to do it in discrete half-hour pieces: Tyson’s hardscrabble upbringing in Brownsville, Tyson’s relationship with Cus D’Amato, and, tonight, Tyson’s disastrous marriage to actor Robin Givens. Covering too much territory in too little time is the most common biopic trap, but Mike had largely found its way around it until now, thanks to Craig Gillespie’s energized directorial style and episodes that were reasonably digestible in short bursts. It would have been a challenge for any show, no matter how skilled the writing and directing, to handle Tyson’s relationship with Givens and with women in general, given the he-said/she-said accounts of their brief courtship and stormy eight-month marriage. As it stands, this show simply doesn’t have the space to give it a full accounting, so it hastily patches together a take.
That take is rooted, like everything else in Mike, to Tyson’s stage performance in Indiana, during which he has professed to tell the unvarnished truth about his life. And so naturally, his account of his year with Givens becomes the one the show seems to favor, even though it has already been established that Tyson is an unreliable narrator. But Tyson’s willingness to confess some of the bad things he’s done in his life does not necessarily mean he’s telling the full truth when it comes to the bad things that actually matter. It’s one thing for him to give the camera an “Ain’t I a stinker?” shrug and own up to robbing Cus’s assistant after swearing he didn’t. It’s another to say a violent incident against Ruth and Robin Givens in Russia was merely their version of the story. Some truths are easier to confess than others.
One truth Tyson admits up front is that he was a “pig” with women. In an interview with Wide World of Sports, he tells a reporter that women “just want the cash,” since his heavyweight title, and the prize purses and Pay-Per-View that go along with it, has quickly made him a multimillionaire. “I wish I could find a girl who knew me when I was broke,” he continues, “and just thought I was a nice guy. I’ve probably cheated on everyone I’ve ever been with. I’ll probably never respect them because I don’t respect myself. I don’t think I’ve loved any woman I’ve ever been with.” There’s a lot to unpack in that interview — if nothing else, Tyson certainly gave good quote to reporters — but the basic thrust of it seems authentic: Tyson grew up a liar and a thief, seething with self-hatred, so it’s only natural for him to suspect that a woman’s interest in him might be purely transactional. Why else would she want to spend time with an ugly boxer with a lisp if not to take his money?
When Tyson started dating Givens in 1987, she was a 22-year-old cast member of Head of the Class, a hit ABC comedy starring WKRP in Cincinnati’s Howard Hesseman as a history teacher at a high school for New York’s most academically gifted. Givens’s character on the show was a spoiled rich girl, and it seems like that reputation helped to color public perception of her, particularly in the aftermath of their marriage. Nevertheless, the Tyson of Mike spots her on Soul Train while in flagrante with another woman — wearing his championship belt, no less — and he’s immediately smitten. From the start, however, their relationship is mediated by Robin’s mother, Ruth, who looks after her like a stage mom who cannot stop monitoring her child from the footlights. As Ruth tells Tyson on their first date, “You hit people for a living.” (Honestly? Totally reasonable.)
The two share important common ground: Both were let down by their fathers and it has affected their ability to trust other people and achieve true intimacy. But their awareness of this shared quality isn’t the same thing as their ability to transcend it, especially when marriage tangles up and intensifies everything. Tyson is a serial cheater from the start, which Gillespie reveals in a quick comic montage in which Tyson buys Robin flowers and jewelry, and has casual sex with the florist and jeweler. Their relationship takes a turn when Tyson learns of Robin’s pregnancy and hastily arranges a wedding ceremony. (The timing around the NBA All-Star game is real, except they were married after the game in Chicago, which Tyson had attended.) Tyson moves Robin (and Ruth) into a new $4.3 million mansion in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and trouble starts brewing in short order.
“She wrote her book and I wrote mine,” Tyson tells the audience in Indiana. From his perspective, Robin and Ruth were laying the groundwork to take his money, which wasn’t protected by a prenuptial agreement. Robin faked the pregnancy to rope him into marriage, then conveniently had a “miscarriage” afterward. The notorious 20/20 interview with Barbara Walters was a public kneecapping, where she could talk about being afraid of his “extremely volatile temper” and semi-abusive behavior (“He shakes, he pushes, he swings”). From her perspective, he was a serial adulterer who terrorized her and her mother, most notably in that hotel incident in Russia, and his car accident was a sign of an erratic, suicidal man who wasn’t capable of sustaining a stable home environment. Givens filed for divorce a month after the Walters interview.
At the end of “Lover,” we learn that the public mostly sided with Tyson’s version of events, with the press tagging the gold-digging Givens as “the most hated woman in the world” and late-night talk-show hosts such as Jay Leno feasting on news like the $125 million civil suit Givens filed against Tyson. (“Since it involves her reputation, I’m sure it will just wind up in small claims court.”) The Leno connection is particularly sticky because Gillespie’s last series, Pam & Tommy, retroactively condemned Leno’s all-male writers’ room for pumping out misogynist jokes about the Pamela Anderson–Tommy Lee sex tape. Mike is cagey at best about which side it wants the viewer to believe — though Tyson, by nature of the show’s structure, gets the edge — but it seems conspicuous to retroactively side with an unfairly villainized woman in one instance and yadda-yadda past another one here.
Mike falls back on Tyson as a wounded soul. “When you hate yourself, you can’t love someone else,” he concludes. “It’s a very empty feeling when the only thing you can rely on is the fighting.” All of that is certainly true. But it’s not implausible that a sensitive, self-hating man like Tyson was also capable of domestic abuse, and that Givens was right to feel unsafe around him. As Ruth says, he hits people for a living. He admits to having an explosive temper. Can he really be trusted to draw the line?
• The notion of Tyson and Givens’s marriage as a kind of long con to separate Tyson from his money is undercut here by Robin’s reluctance to be Tyson’s girlfriend, much less his bride. She tells him there’s not a lot of opportunities for black actresses in Hollywood and now is the “small window” for her to achieve her own ambitions.
• Interesting psychology from Tyson about his perception from sports fans: “I always feel if I win, people hate me. Like, I really have to get beat up for somebody to like me.” That feels true to Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull too, who felt he deserved to be punished and would do it to himself if other fighters failed to do it for him.
• This episode brings Don King (Russell Hornsby) into the picture, and it’s amusing to see King slagging fellow sports grifter Donald Trump: “That Trump is a tender-handed white boy. Never had a callus in his life. Got his money from his daddy.”
• The most fully aligned this episode gets with Tyson is the scene where he, Robin, and Ruth visit Cus’s wife, Camille (played by the great Grace Zabriskie), and Robin complains about all the money he’s been sending her. We know that Tyson feels a debt to Cus and Camille for taking care of him, and it feels heartless of Robin to suggest that the woman is ripping him off. “You’re so desperate to be loved that you’ll rewrite the story just so you’ll feel loved” is a great line from Robin, but she’s speaking out of school.