Incarceration hits hard this week on Swagger [Apple TV+ recaps] ★★★★★

TV+ ReviewSwagger takes a hard look at incarceration this week in a season-best episode of the Apple TV+ basketball drama.

With the eyes of their community on them, Jace and Team Swagger head to a juvenile detention center to learn and to play as they sweat their futures. Entitled “Are We Free?,” it’s a terrific episode filled with great performance notes and stunning direction.

Swagger recap: ‘Are We Free?’

Season 2, episode 5: This week’s Swagger opens with a roll call of talented basketball players who, rather than going to college and fulfilling their potential in the NBA or international leagues, went to juvenile hall instead. This is meant as both a heartbreaking survey of how often young Black men have their futures taken from them by a carceral state, but also how easily Jace (played by Isaiah R. Hill), Musa (Caleel Harris), Phil (Solomon Irama) and Drew (James Bingham) could wind up just like them.

It became national news that the four young men beat up their friend Crystal’s (Quvenzhané Wallis) coach Warrick (Al Mitchell) after it came out that he was sexually abusing his players. Crystal’s been catatonic lately, but Jace has been there for her. He and Crystal have an amazingly mature and touching moment where they discuss their relationship. I’m very excited to have five episodes left to see this develop once again.

A charged match at the juvenile detention center

Meanwhile, Alonzo Powers (Tristan Mack Wilds) from Gladiator Sneakers agrees to get the four boys a lawyer. That’s great, but he’s nervous because coach Ike Edwards (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) set up a game for them to play against some kids at the nearest juvenile detention center for community service. The goal: to scare some sense into the boys as they stare down the rest of their lives.

The rest of the team is on the fence about the upcoming game. School board members and parents Diane (Vinessa Shaw) and Camden Ryder Sr. (Christopher B. Duncan) don’t want their boys playing with the Swagger starting five due to all the negative attention on them.

Unsurprisingly, only Royale (Ozie Nzeribe) and Nick Mendez (Jason Rivera) show up to play alongside the guys accused of the beating. Ike, Naim (Sean Baker) and Meg (Tessa Ferrer) try to stay in good spirits, knowing there’s only so much they can do now that the story’s broken and the world has passed judgment on the team. Emery Price (Orlando Jones) is livid, and Ike knows he’s flirting with getting fired, but he won’t abandon his kids.

A stellar episode of Swagger

Very excitingly — on top of drug-sniffing dogs and armed guards — waiting for Team Swagger at the detention center is none of than John Carlos! It’s really him! Playing himself! You gotta hand it to this show. The famous civil rights leader and athlete has been coaching the team inside, and he sets the stage for the boys’ visit. Phil impresses with his knowledge of Langston Hughes. Royale makes a heck of a showing for himself in a debate class. And Ike, Jace and Drew run into Vince (Javen Lewis), a player who used to run with them back when. Ike’s taken aback by the sight of him. It really can happen just like that. But all this simply serves as set dressing for the game, the moment of truth.

Swagger creator Reggie Rock Bythewood directs this week, as he tends to when he’s got something to say, a real classic of a script on his hands. From the appearance of John Carlos, to the bravura single-take basketball game that starts off the second half of the episode, to the impromptu rap Caleel Harris performs afterward (what a beautiful performance he gives this week), Bythewood is in his element.

He’s making a point bigger than any one player’s ego as he binds the Swagger team and the kids in detention rather than separating them. Like last season’s episode involving the police jamming up the team, this is just magnificent stuff, as exciting as it is incredibly moving and upsetting. The episode accomplishes everything it sets out to, and risks heavy-handedness to do it. That’s a risk worth taking. This is excellent stuff.


Watch Swagger on Apple TV+

New episodes of Swagger season two arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Watch on Apple TV

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper and But God Made Him A Poet: Watching John Ford in the 21st Century, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at