Saturday Night Live season finale recap: Dwayne Johnson
The Rock makes a 2020 presidential bid with special guests for a jam-packed season finale
The Rock returns for his fifth time hosting SNL, and with this being the season finale, special guests are probably on tap for the night. Will it be his Baywatch costar Zac Efron? Will it be his Moana costar Auli’i Cravalho? Will it be his Fate of the Furious costar Vin Diesel?! (Probably not.)
Anyway, the real question is: Will the Rock sink or swim? (That’s a rock joke, you see, because rocks can’t float. I bet I’m the first recapper ever to mention this.) After all, this isn’t just the capper on SNL‘s strongest season ratings-wise in years, but also the final episode for both Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer. (She announced her departure earlier in the day.) Still, Dwayne Johnson has never disappointed before as the emcee for the hallowed Studio 8H — and I’m happy to report that with his fifth turn, he did exactly as he was asked, shining in his spotlight sketches while keeping other, shakier material afloat and letting it all work for the leaving cast. Even without enough time to do dedicated goodbyes to Moynihan and Bayer, Johnson did what he had to do. And that’s the mark of a true leader, isn’t it?
Speaking of which, that was the entire point of his monologue. The Rock got to cheekily pitch himself as POTUS after a cold open lamenting the current administration’s myriad scandals — and got to do so with his “running mate” Tom Hanks and his Five Timers Club inductor Alec Baldwin.
A couple of things of note from this monologue: One, I’m so glad NBC made a smoking jacket that fit the Rock well without looking like it was ripping apart at the seams. Good for them, and glad their tailor is the vigilante Scorpio. Second, I’m not opposed to the Rock running for president at all, so I was behind his and Hanks’ facetious jokes about how much America needs them. Honestly, who cares at this point? SNL doesn’t. In fact, the venerable comedy institution knows it’s being watched by the man in the country’s highest office, and so it’s happily been punching below the belt ever since it figured that out. If having the Rock declare himself as a candidate alongside Sully/Forrest Gump/NY152/David S. Pumpkins for 2020 is a way for them to twist that knife before next season starts in September, then by all means, do it. The celebrity cameos pleased the audience, and the glib message that anybody can win now — Hanks’ll get the senior, veteran vote; Johnson the minority vote — gets delivered in fine form. Sure, the Rock admits it’s all a joke, but you almost believe him, and that’s the point. Let’s do this more often. Have the Rock kiss some babies. Have Hanks eat some ice cream, two whole scoops of his favorite flavor. Why. The. F—. Not.
Best Political Moment
Ah yes. Let’s talk about that cold open, shall we? On the one hand, it makes so much sense. It’s a retread of the show’s response to Hillary’s loss way back when, when Kate McKinnon both nodded toward Clinton’s concession and honored Leonard Cohen’s passing that week with a heartfelt rendition of “Hallelujah.” This time around, it’s the heavy-hitters of the Republican party standing around the piano while Baldwin’s Trump plays, singing the sad song about the sad, sad scandals that have hit the administration so soon into his tenure.
Baldwin’s Trump, McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway (there she is!), Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence, Mikey Day and Alex Moffat’s Donald Jr. and Eric, Aidy Bryant’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Pete Davidson’s (?) Grim Reaper Steve Bannon, Scarlett Johansson’s complicit Ivanka, and Cecily Strong’s Melania all gathered to lament the downward spiral of the Trump presidency and the loss of… what? Sense? That’s my one qualm with this cold open: It recasts the power players as self-aware enough to know that their efforts to save themselves are only draining them of energy and that even Trump himself is ready to pass the torch. From SNL’s writers’ perspective, everything has gone wrong, but the fact that the cast members look apologetic and uncomfortable about it reads as much more intuitive than what the current administration has proven itself to be. In other words, the cast looks far too sad about the mistakes and scandals that have occurred barely 150 days into the presidency, when the administration hasn’t owned up to anything at all.
Still, that’s one way to end SNL‘s political run for now. By the time season 43 begins in September, who knows what will have changed? The show’s banking on a continued flurry of cringe-worthy headlines that would match the mood of this cold open. We’ll see.
Colin Jost and Michael Che dove into another crazy week by following the same tactic they’ve used for a few episodes now: Take the low-hanging fruit and then tear it to shreds with easy jabs because the man they’re mocking is probably watching. Rapid-fire early jokes include: “Who are you gonna believe, the head of the FBI or the guy who’s definitely lying?” and “If he really wanted to avoid interacting with Trump, he should have just married him” and “A nut job didn’t happen to Trump in a Russian hotel room.” They’re all low blows, but it’s the season finale, and they know this is going to reach You-Know-Who. So, cap it all off with a slideshow of the people the administration’s screwed over in their party, because, again… Why. The. F—. Not.
The rest of the segment went to, first, Dawn Lazarus, basking in cheers from the audience for Bayer’s last show, and delivering “Hap” with the same demented enthusiasm she had the first time around. Moynihan then took his final bow as Drunk Uncle, who sped through topics like gender-fluid pomegranate juice, La La Land being robbed at the Oscars, and his lack of a Baywatch beach bod or identity as Groot in the span of a few quick minutes, all of which left Jost cracking up at Moynihan’s expert drunken cadence. Oh, Drunk Uncle. We’ll miss you, too.
Best Sketch: “WWE Promo Shoot 2”
The Wrestlemania promo is back! I mean, of course it is. With Moynihan leaving, a sketch between his Trashyard Mutt and the Rock’s Koko Watchout was inevitable — and this time, despite being even more ludicrous than the original sketch, both delivered and nearly broke toward the end. Koko’s schemes against Mutt, revealed with a straight face for takes on a “normal, 30-second promo,” grew increasingly absurd, from telling viewers Mutt is sterile to saying he’s on the No-Fly List to saying, ultimately, that they’re twins, products of a government experiment to make the perfect human being, with Koko as the successful output and Mutt the shameful, mom-doesn’t-want-to-meet-you sideshow.
Wow. Ouch, Koko. You kooked up a lot since the last time you showed up. SNL kicked it up a notch with a strong character without making the material feel stale, and much of that was thanks to Johnson’s unerring devotion to the script — though, just like last time, he started covering his face when he laughed — and to Moynihan’s perpetually hilarious reaction shots.
Weakest Sketch: “RKO Movie Set”
Even Bayer’s signature glassy-eyed earnestness couldn’t make this sketch anything other than an extended fart joke. SNL has done these before (remember January Jones’ Rear Window spoof?), and maybe it’s just me, but every time it leans heavily into sound effects, I start playing a game I like to call “What does Lorne think of this?” Look, I know it’s silly fun to have two characters so determined on doing their job force their way through smelly doom, but it’s still a one-joke sketch, ending explosion and all. A bit unfinished… like the film they were trying to make.
Best Short: “Cartier Ad”
Yes, David S. Pumpkins returned as David S. Pimpkins in Big Chris’ failed music video, but I have to go with the Bayer spotlight on the Cartier fidget spinner ad. With fidget spinners making up such a niche portion of the hip-to-the-tech-of-today market, the reveal that it’s not only an ad for a tiny gadget that helps erase anxiety but also a luxury ad drives the layered joke home. Bayer’s fidget-happy character may be overly feisty, a litterer, and reading The Goldfinch for two years, but this is a niche product for a niche person. Maybe they would want to spend exorbitant amounts just to have something to use that would distract them from saying inappropriate things to fellow one percenters.
Best Thinkpiece Bait: “The World’s Most Evil Invention”
“The World’s Most Evil Invention,” to put it simply, went there. Johnson starred as a mad scientist deadpanning his way through his presentation of the most evil invention he could think of: a robot that molests children. It’s a gag that had enough power to fuel the rest of the sketch, and then it pulled a last, fast one on the audience by turning it into a shameless plug for White Castle. A child-molesting robot and White Castle ad in a single sketch? That’s… subversive, to say the least.
Best Use of the Rock’s Physique: “Scorpio”
Scorpio would save the city, if it were not for Strong’s Linda (hey, does she work in HR? Anyone watching season 3 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? I digress), who marvels at Steve-I-mean-Scorpio’s beautifully crafted costume. The Rock as a superhero with a name that nods at The Scorpion King is a no-brainer, as is putting him in a tight outfit with an exposed back.
Worst Use of the Rock’s Physique: “Wingman”
It was amusing to see Johnson grow increasingly irritated at Bennett’s wingman bartender telling him what he didn’t want to hear, but this sketch was not only one of the more formulaic ones of the night (it felt unfinished, as was the case with many sketches this season), but also left Johnson playing the straight man, trapped at the bar while Bennett flitted back and forth.
Honorable Mention: “Gemma With Dwayne Johnson 2”
It’s the epic Jurassic Park ride from Universal Studios! There’s a baby pig! It’s Bayer doing her best physical comedy! The Rock got a crazy wig! And have I mentioned the baby pig?! Enough said.
Best Musical Moment: “Bon Appétit”
Katy Perry brought her trademark flamboyance to Studio 8H, and between the two flashy performances, “Bon Appétit” had more flair and more pizzazz to match the stakes of a season finale. “Swish Swish” was admirable (though it lacked a surprise guest in the form of Nicki Minaj) but Perry sidelined herself to judge a runway of colorfully costumed drag queens, performance artists, and… a dancer with a backpack? (Backpack dance parties are fun, though. Lookin’ at you, Chris Pine.) Also, Katy, if you’re the one putting another one in the basket, shouldn’t you be dressed as a player, not a ref? Am I missing something? Am I overthinking musical performances because I’m writing this at 3 a.m.? Wow, look at that foofaraw on the table. Her tour’s gonna be insane.
Well, it’s two for the road: Bayer and Moynihan both turned in some of their best performances on their last show. Bayer’s unhinged enthusiasm and crazy eyes made a final appearance through Dawn, while Moynihan played his last devilish grin through sex-crazed Carlos in the wingman sketch. Both have been strong players through the years — Bayer’s Miley has entered SNL‘s pantheon of best impressions, while Moynihan’s Chris Christie buoyed recent seasons and Drunk Uncle will never not be a messy, welcome presence on Weekend Update. Cheers to both. Hap!
Odds and Ends
– A title card for Brad Grey appeared midway through the episode. Grey, who was chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, died over the weekend at 59 of cancer. And though he never worked with SNL, he likely had a hand in launching many cast members’ careers through his studio. This was a touching, quiet tribute.
– Though the episode overall was strong, several sketches felt, again, unfinished, with the high school seniors presentation being the most underwritten. It was clever in its premise — the cast got to look back on and lightly spoof some of the year’s wildest moments — but ended without a punchline.
– Xentrex: It’ll send you into fits of rage, give you whooping cough, hallucinations, decrease and increase in semen, let you read minds, and give you frequent nosebleeds, but at least your erections will be fantastic. So threaten your doctor!
– Big Chris dealing with new collaborators on his track almost felt like meta commentary on 14-season cast member Kenan Thompson’s own experience watching costars come and go.
And that’s all, folks. Time to look forward to Rock/Hanks 2020. Who knew David S. Pumpkins would have this much staying power?