Whether the effect was intentional on the part of the series’s writers or not, the transition from the last episode — about Desiree Washington’s rape charges and the conviction that followed — and this episode about Mike Tyson’s roughly three years in an Indiana prison is more than a little jarring. “Desiree” was seemingly designed to exist on an island because it pulled away from Tyson’s perspective to center the 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant who persuasively accused him of rape. But it’s hard to settle back into business-as-usual for Mike, which now has to continue the device of Tyson chronicling his own life with all the candor he ostensibly can muster. He doesn’t use language like “slimy bitch” to describe Washington, but he doesn’t exactly square up to what he’s done, either. He only acknowledges that “some of y’all think I should be locked up.”
What Tyson does instead is continue a narrative of his own victimization — a narrative that’s a lot more compelling when he isn’t making victims of women far less powerful than he is. This isn’t necessarily a mistake on the show’s part because it wants us to hold a complicated view of a complicated man, and there’s no doubt that Tyson’s misjudgments are linked to a traumatic past that money and fame cannot help him entirely escape. As he puts it so eloquently in the opening monologue, as he’s being led to his prison cell, “Racing pigeons can fly 1,000 miles. But they always come back to the dirty box they call home.” He may not mention Desiree Washington or Robin Givens, but it’s not just his mother who felt he was destined to wind up behind bars. He feels he deserves to be there, too.
Among Tyson’s many contradictions exposed in this episode is his level of self-awareness, which can be acute in some respects and nonexistent in others. He’s smart enough and has learned enough about himself to engage in meaningful self-analysis, like linking the pigeons he loved so much as a youth to his own instinct to return to the “dirty box” of his worst, perhaps inescapable destiny. But such thoughts only feed a deep narcissism: He’s extremely sensitive to how his environment impacts him but thoughtless about how he treats others, too, other than assuming a blind loyalty to the father figures, benevolent (Cus) or duplicitous (Don King), that offer him protection and guidance. In that sense, he never stopped being like a child, reckless and pitiable.
One important thing “Jailbird” pulls off is making us believe that Tyson winds up feeling more comfortable and sure of himself in prison than he does in the outside world, which seems more imposing to him the longer he’s in the joint. It takes him for him to find his groove, however. His initial impulse is to project alpha-male toughness, which starts with him aggressively claiming the top bunk from his roommate Ray Ray and landing in solitary for assaulting an inmate who calls him a “tree jumper,” which is a prison term for “rapist.” (“I let him know he’d been misinformed.”) His misery deepens, too, as continued public protest and an expensive appeals process, led by Alan Dershowitz (“the albino Don King”), fails to get the results he wants.
Tyson’s fortunes shift, however, when he starts listening to Ray Ray’s pleas to educate himself and when a second cellmate, Lloyd Franklin, helps him turn his money into transactional power. At this point, “Jailbird” turns into the section of GoodFellas when all the Italian mobsters are making themselves at home by turning a cell into a kitchenette and slicing up garlic with a razor blade for the marinara sauce. With fans pumping thousands of dollars into his commissary account, Tyson turns himself into an entrepreneur, running smuggled goods to inmates for a price and living as princely a life as he can under the circumstances. He may not be able to leave this confinement, but he exercises more control over this domain than in the open chaos of the outside world. He even achieves some enlightenment from his association with Muslim prisoners, whose prayer room he’d been using to distribute XXX tapes, among other shady commodities.
“What I wanted to do was stay in prison and hide,” he narrates. “The outside felt like prison.” Mike makes sense of this observation, even as Tyson would be returning to his wealth, his fans, and all the privileges that are supposed to go along with them. He’s expected to be Mike Tyson, the fearsome boxing force who entered prison during his prime years and will now leave it three years later without any ring experience at all and nothing in the way of formal training. The assumption that he could simply reclaim the heavyweight title after a couple of tune-ups is as unrealistic as it is obligatory. Don King is ready to make millions off him again, and he’s been busy setting the table for Tyson’s comeback. And Tyson will not be able to say “no” because boxing is the only thing he knows how to do and the only route to get people to care about him.
And so off he goes on the morning of March 25, 1996, embraced by King and a throng of screaming supporters. Now he has to stage a comeback please a parasitic manager, a fanbase with unrealistic expectations, and no one he actually loves and trusts in his corner. What could possibly go wrong?
• In the opening, Tyson says, “Prison steals everything it can from you. Every hope I have had is all fucked up now. Who will I be when I get out of here?” In the end, he doesn’t seem to have learned much. Who he’ll be is a worse boxer.
• Tyson pivots quickly out of his own sense of injustice by telling the truth about the “War on Drugs” and mandatory minimums as they stretched into the ’90s: “You wanna know why there’s so many brothers in here? In an Indiana cornfield? ’Cause white boys selling coke got suspended sentences while brothas selling crack got 20 years.”
• In addition to the Mao tattoo he gets in prison, Tyson also has Che Guevara and Arthur Ashe tattoos. Lately, he’s talked about getting more conservative with age. Not a lot of ideological consistency there.