The Last Dance
For as long as people have been telling stories, they have told them about gods. Most of these stories imagine them as being more or less like people—sometimes generous and often casually sadistic but mostly caught up in their own petty affairs. They squabble and feud and take stuff that isn’t theirs and wreck things out of spite, behaving with the absolute abandon of beings that believe themselves to exist beyond consequence. The people below, who make these stories up, live not just with but quite literally in the results of all this. The world we inhabit is built from the mess that gods make and leave behind while blithely or fumingly doing what they do. Anyway, it’s fun to think about.
It is safe to say that Jason Hehir’s The Last Dance, after five weeks and nearly ten hours, did not really do much to illuminate either the actual person or the cultural deity named Michael Jordan, whose name the whole world knows because he willed and wanted and worked himself into something like godhood over the course of the most singularly dominant decade of basketball that any human being has yet played. It also seems safe to say that this was not a task that even a more artful bit of filmmaking would have failed in that regard, let alone one as rushed as The Last Dance, the last two episodes of which were completed so recently that prerelease screeners were not made available before Sunday’s final two hours aired.
None of this is to say that The Last Dance failed, really. On its own peculiar advertorial terms, it did what it set out to do. As a rare bit of bright sports strangeness standing alone on an otherwise unbroken plane of ominous and ugly news, it was a mercy; when it consented to showing as opposed to telling, as it mostly did in “Episode IX” and “Episode X,” The Last Dance was a totally riveting bit of sports storytelling. It might have been more focused had Hehir been given more time to focus it — the series was not supposed to begin airing until June — but it’s hard to imagine it being much different.
These last two are among the more overtly fun episodes in the series, as it happens, and devote most of their running time to Jordan’s last two championships, both of which came in six games against the Utah Jazz in ’96–’97 and the Last Dance season of ’97–’98 and which feature some of Jordan’s most memorable individual performances. When Hehir lets those great moments play out onscreen, as he does much more generously than in any of the episodes that came before, it’s both unsurprisingly thrilling and unusually artful. Watching Jordan labor through The Flu Game — Jordan here reframes it as “the food-poisoning game,” blaming it on a sketchy pizza he ate in Salt Lake City — brings home how astonishing and bizarre that performance was. Instead of relying on brief surges and spikes, as he generally has during The Last Dance’s basketball interludes, Hehir’s editing slows down and lets us watch the plays develop, laboriously and with no great grace. When Jordan somehow summons a game-winner from all that, the moment feels as woozy and improbable and wondrous as it did decades ago. The Last Dance has often felt weirdly short on actual basketball and prioritized the grim beefs and bespoke grudges of its star over the brutal and brilliant moments that he made out of them. It’s hard not to wonder how the series might have played out had the balance been different.
That was likely never going to happen, though. There are a number of reasons for this, some having to do with Hehir’s unshakable reverence toward Jordan and Jordan’s narrow, wary, and vengeful worldview. There are also the restrictive realities of partnering with a major global brand in telling a story and the general impossibility of telling a story that is anything but the one that the brand wants told under those circumstances. Michael Jordan is both The Last Dance’s central and essential character and the brand whose demands often warps it all into stiltedness. The Last Dance quite literally could not have been made without Michael Jordan’s participation given that only he could release the behind-the-scenes footage that NBA Entertainment shot during his last championship season, but his sour and singular presence and the careful curatorial demands of his brand also limit The Last Dance in some important ways.
To tell Jordan’s story, Jordan’s way, is mostly to retell a familiar, self-flattering fable about focus and strength and ruthlessness. To see and hear Jordan telling the story of his triumphs, always in the same ways and along the same beats but with new villains to vanquish and new offenses to avenge, is to understand how fully he has come into communion with the brand he has built over the course of his life. The most interesting thing about The Last Dance, beyond the reliably great bits of basketball studded throughout each episode, have been the uncanny moments when Jordan’s heated self-justifications slip out of sync with what we can see with our own eyes. The most thrilling and moving moments are when something more unruly and off-brand and human slips through — think of Jordan heaving with sobs at the end “Episode VIII”, undeniably triumphant and utterly emptied out.
There are only so many of these, both because they’re not really a part of the story that Michael Jordan wants to tell — that one is about the time that someone said or maybe just thought that Jordan wouldn’t be able to do something and how he said “okay, that’s your opinion” and then went out and fucking did it — and because there really may not be that many of them to find. Jordan gave himself entirely to his pursuit, and everything he had went into the furnace to fuel it. That’s the story of his life, and while there are many moments in The Last Dance when this seems plainly tragic — moments in which Jordan’s life seems empty and cold and joyless — it’s not at all clear that Jordan sees it that way. He wanted to win, and he won. Now he gets to tell all those stories again, as he wants them told, so that they prove the points and deliver the lessons that he wants them to prove and deliver. Jordan has lived his life as a battle of wills against the whole world, conscripting everyone and everything he encountered in his long war against the word “no” and anyone he thought might take from him what he’d won. It would be foolish to expect him to surrender creative control now.
All of which is fine, provided you know what it is. People restage ancient Greek plays, too, when they think they’ve found some new way to make the old story meaningful or when they think they’ve found something new to show to a new audience. Everything in The Last Dance happened within relatively recent memory, and the outcome of the NBA Finals that the series weirdly treated as a sort of cliffhanger could be confirmed with a simple web search, given that it all happened, very much in public, just 22 years ago. Not every story needs to be new, and anyway, it’s always up to the audience to decide not just what it means but what they want to do with it.
Jordan could do things as a basketball player that no other person has ever been able to do and achieved a degree and kind of fame that no athlete ever really has. He has made a lot of money for himself and many other people along the way, and The Last Dance once again puts him at the center of a world that’s otherwise suspended in a queasy and unsettled pause. The response has been more or less what you might expect — some people arguing that Jordan was a bully and therefore bad or that Jordan was a bully and therefore strong and good; many other people genuflecting on principle; Jalen Rose filling airtime on ESPN by arguing that Jordan would average 47.5 points per game in today’s NBA; TV recappers who remember Jordan shredding their hapless hometown team struggling to remain passably objective. Now, as always, Jordan inspires both awe and a certain pity. He can do things that humans are frankly not supposed to be able to do, he can fucking fly, but also there is and has long been something unfinished about him.
This is the deal that Jordan made, knowingly or unknowingly — that he would trade everything he had for everything he wanted. And then, when he won all those things, he found that he had nothing but that. The Last Dance does not and cannot answer the question of how that deal worked out for Jordan. He doesn’t exactly seem happy or even really satisfied, but it’s hard to imagine him making any other choice. He has the memories he sought and made; he still has the resentments he nurtured for so long to keep him occupied. That seems more or less to be what he wants.
At the end of the Last Dance season, after that last Finals win, Phil Jackson led his team in a ritual in which each member of the squad wrote down what the season meant for them on a piece of paper and then set them on fire in a coffee can. Steve Kerr, who fought Jordan in practice and won three championships with him on the floor, remembers that Jordan wrote a poem for the ritual. “It was a depth of emotion you never thought he had,” Jackson said of it. “I’m not a poet,” Jordan says of the poem near the end of “Episode X,” and if he remembers more about it than that, he doesn’t share it. At any rate, he burned it. It’s gone.