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Jake Gyllenhaal Delivers The Season’s Strongest Episode At Saturday Night Live

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The last episode of Saturday Night Live’s 49th season opens with a message from ex-president Donald Trump and presidential candidate of the Republican Party (played by James Austin Johnson) from his new “home”: the barricades outside a Manhattan courthouse. The former president laments the possibility of a second term in the White House, admitting that it would be “much better to not win and say it was rigged, then get very rich raising money to stop the steal, and you never have to be president again.”

Trump didn’t mention who his vice-presidential candidate will be, although he has narrowed it down to a few candidates from his “short bus – I mean shortlist.” These include South Carolina senator Tim Scott (Devon Walker), who jumps for him; South Dakota governor Kristie Noem, whose history of dog murder Trump sees as both a negative and a positive; and finally, the “late, great” Hannibal Lecter (Michael Longfellow).

He ended by promising “the summer of Trump,” which includes another January 6th (“this time in July”). Johnson’s portrayal of the rambling ex-president is entertaining. While not exceptional, it’s an improvement against the lackluster cold opens of the past few episodes.

Jake Gyllenhaal came back as the host. He joked about how he wished he could have hosted the big 50th anniversary season, but he’s honored to host the finale nonetheless. This leads to a musical tribute to the season set to Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” with Gyllenhaal showing off his surprising voice talents.

In the first sketch of the night, Gyllenhaal plays a father meeting his daughter’s boyfriend (Andrew Dismukes), who wants his blessing to propose. However, the dad is more interested in sneaking a cookie before dinner against his wife’s orders. His gentle facade slips, revealing a deranged mob boss persona when he thinks his daughter’s beau might rat him out. Gyllenhaal shines in the role.

Next is a live-action version of Scooby-Doo, with Gyllenhaal as Fred, Sarah Sherman as Velma, Mikey Day as Shaggy, musical guest Sabrina Carpenter as Daphne, and Scooby as a CGI creation. The story follows the usual beats, with a terrorizing ghost revealed to be a greedy old man. However, things take a gruesome turn when Fred accidentally rips off the villain’s face, leading to a series of gory mayhem and murder. It’s fun but doesn’t get as wild as it could.

A 1920s nightclub review sketch features Gyllenhaal as the effete ringleader of a troupe of glammed-up dancing girls and “beautiful boys,” who are plain schlubs dressed in drab beige button-ups and khakis. The sketch is delightfully silly, with Gyllenhaal having a blast, especially with the running gag of misdirected penis jokes that garner huge laughs, while he again showcases his musical talents.

In another sketch, a couple on a hike have their serious conversation about their uncertain future interrupted by Gyllenhaal’s obnoxiously loud mountain biker. Gyllenhaal’s willingness to play the buffoon is endearing, but this one skirts the edge of being too obnoxious.

A commercial parody for a Shein-like clothing brand features models growing increasingly uncomfortable with the narrator’s shady pronouncements (“Not made with forced labor”, “No prisoners involved”, “All workers paid, even ones with wrong religion”) and the toxic materials of the outfits. Despite their discomfort, they continue buying the product. This sharp bit of social commentary on America’s addiction to exploitative fast fashion delivers well.

Sabrina Carpenter takes the stage to perform her hit “Espresso.” Next is Weekend Update, where Colin Jost interviews two cicadas (Kenan Thompson and Marcello Hernandez) about their plans for summer after spending 17 years underground. The cicadas reflect on the changes since then and look forward to living, loving, and laughing before “we hit car windshield so hard our ass goes through our brain.”

Later, Jost and Michael Che celebrate the end of the season with their yearly joke swap. Last time, Che hired an actor to play a civil rights hero to heap extra humiliation on Jost. This time, he brings on Rabbi Jill, “an actual, practicing rabbi.” The jokes Jost blindly reads offensively reference Harvey Weinstein and antisemitic conspiracy theories, including the use of a Hasidic hand puppet. Despite this, Jost wins the round by getting Che to insult Kendrick Lamar, hoping to start a new beef with the rapper. Che and Jost are at their funniest when trying to out-offend each other.

In another sketch, Gyllenhaal plays a frustrated traveler trying to change his flight plans through Southwest’s unhelpful customer support phone line. The representatives range from infuriatingly bubbly to pervy to drunk, putting Gyllenhaal through the wringer until he is finally connected to the godhead who runs the company/universe, who is also of no help. One of the writers had a bad experience with Southwest, which many who have flown the airline can relate to.

Gyllenhaal plays the head of the NYPD, delivering an important message following Steve Buscemi’s random assault on the streets of New York earlier this week, after similar attacks on Rick Moranis and Michael Stuhlbarg. He urges people to “stop punching character actors in the face.”

To prevent further assaults, they’ve assigned a security detail to Stephen Root and asked Paul Giamatti to shelter in place, leading to a funny argument over whether Giamatti is still a character actor. References to other great “Oh Him” actors like William Fichtner, Judy Greer, Walton Goggins, and Stephen Tobolowsky follow, with Jon Hamm interrupting to wonder if he’s at risk. A tribute to the recently departed Dabney Coleman continues this well-deserved salute to character actors.

The season wraps up with a sketch set in a country-western dive bar. Gyllenhaal plays a drunken dirtbag who makes the mistake of hitting on the local badass’s girl, only to discover the badass is a lanky doofus with a ridiculously effeminate Southern accent. What could have been a forgettable sketch is saved by Johnson’s great accent work.

After some particularly dire episodes, SNL managed to rebound for its finale. Gyllenhaal proved to be the strongest host of what turned out to be the strongest episode of the season. Hopefully, this bodes well for the upcoming historic 50th season.

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