Dwayne Johnson Is Back in the Game for the Final Season of HBO’s ‘Ballers’

In HBO’s “Ballers” money is just a means to an end. That’s how it all operates in the fifth and final season, as characters make big business moves, contract pitches and real estate investments as ways to reach personal heights or brush away their faults. If there is any artistic justice in this world Dwayne Johnson would be remembered more for this show than the “Fast & the Furious” franchise. He’s the anchor of the whole enterprise, exploring comedy and drama with zen-like focus.

Sports financial manager Spencer Strasmore (Johnson) had retired at the end of last season, which of course means he will come out of it for this one. But the offer dangled before him, while reading Elizabeth Warren’s book on the beach, is a bit too difficult to ignore, namely owning the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s made some enemies around the football world with his battles to get players the pay they deserve. But making the deal and putting a roster together is more challenging than expected. A major player gets caught in an incident out of Jack in the Box that goes viral, while Ricky (John David Washington) is wandering around, slightly aimless and harboring some resentment against Spencer. On the other side of the line Joe (Rob Corddry) tries to get business partner Lance (Russell Brand) to look into real estate, including the building of a mega training center. But one of their own star players, Vernon (Donovan W. Carter) becomes obsessed with the world of professional video gamers. Another would-be baller, Charles (Omar Benson Miller) is grappling with mounting debts, trying to get players and it will all eventually take a toll on his health.

Structured around an interview where Spencer recounts his youth and the hard process of learning as you grow, “Ballers” comes to an end with a reflective tone even as it still has room for a few plot twists. But “plot twists” in the world of this show feel like events that could very well take place (and have) in the terrain of pro sports. Julie (Jazmyn Simon) lures Spencer into buying the Chiefs as a way for her to ascend in the corporate sports environment, Vernon’s obsession with video games is no mere hobby and he truly considers abandoning the field to train sitting in front of a computer screen. There’s a brilliantly-written moment where he sits down with actual gamers who try to explain that a craft is a craft, you can’t just excel in this field in the same way someone who’s never played ball would die on the yard line. This is a series where the smartest win and obtaining status is also about getting back at others. Spencer tries to get Jason (Troy Garity) over to his corner as general manager of the chiefs, but Joe offers him even more money to stay in his company as an agent. What’s worth more? Advancing in life or getting a fatter check? “Ballers” addresses these themes with vicious satire and cutthroat humor, particularly Joe’s office rants about the size of people’s balls. 

Mighty empires are made by the workers and so this last round pays more attention to the players, balancing their own trials against Spencer’s corporate maneuvering. Ricky is essentially trying to find himself for most of this season, partying and inspiring resentment from teammates after he calls out Spencer during a radio show. When he tests positive for juicing it causes even more friction. Poor TTD (Carl McDowell) has to babysit the stubborn athlete, trying to keep him out of fights (and the wrong girls). A storyline best not to spoil involves another player getting involved in a shootout, which then throws a wrench in Spencer’s roster for the Chiefs. It is not a cheap plot twist however, and the narrative turns into an insightful look at how you can give someone a second chance, but they won’t always make the best of it. 

Sometimes the mark of a good TV show is that it can turn a subject confined to a particular fan base into a more universally relevant story. “Ballers” looks tailored for the sports crowd, but the game itself always took a backseat. Football, like Hollywood or music, is an industry where talent and craft combine with intense commerce. Vernon finds a new passion but Joe sees no monetary value, a phone conference between Jason and Mr. Anderson (Richard Schiff) can end with Anderson asking someone in the room if they still have the number of an Israeli hitman. When Charles makes moves to try and rise above Spencer, he never actually speaks with malice to the players or other associates, but with the cold focus of a cold, capitalist competitor. More than anyone this season, Spencer is the one who becomes a more relaxed player, proving that you can indeed learn from experience. Even when he gets bad news about a death, etc., he knows how to stay collected and simply move forward. This is Dwayne Johnson at his best, proving again why he’s the real deal as an actor, not just as an action star.

In a sense “Ballers” was always more commentary than straight forward drama. We were given a tour of a specific world and business, without the need of exaggerated cliffhangers. That may come as a surprise when still listed as producers are actor Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, a duo known for their explosive, action-oriented movies. Yet this always played a good game with sharp wits, and showed us another side of The Rock rarely appreciated.

Ballers” season five premieres Aug. 25 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.