Normally, the simple pleasure of watching Danny Huston chew the opulent-looking scenery of Magic City is enough to get me through most episodes. In fact, the scenery Huston is so fond of gnawing on and his explosive delivery as Ben 'The Butcher' Diamond are often the two best things this occasionally languid series has to offer. And as single episodes go, 'Sitting on Top of the World' is in no short supply of wholly amazing Danny Huston line readings and the kind of intricate '60s scenery that likely sold the show in the first place.
But aside from the sheer pleasure that can be derived from hearing Danny Huston utter the phrase "Thank you, Mr. Butterball" and "Tell that to the Geneva Convention" with complete conviction, the episode simply stands out as a superb instance of the kind of breakneck storytelling the series should be accomplishing on a week-to-week basis.
Say what you will about procedurals, but they specialize in boiling down a complete story into the framework of a single, hour-long episode. I only mention this because so much of what's difficult about Magic City is how over-serialized the show feels sometimes. Here, though, the larger series-level elements like Ben and the developments with Cuba, and then smaller season plot points like the DJ conventions Stevie helped bring to the Playa, are inserted perfectly into the smaller frame of this one episode, which manages to have a distinct and mostly fulfilling beginning, middle and end - and yet still leaves the viewer intrigued about what will happen next.
'Sitting on Top of the World' not only sounds like the inevitable follow-up to last week's 'World in Changes,' it actually takes the stakes that have been raised over the course of the last five episodes (and more, as much of the narrative is not so much a progression from the first season, but a continuation of many, many elements started there) and delivers a small, but important pay off from Ike's rigging of the Cuban lottery. It's nasty, brutish and occasionally vile, and manages to take the story into a more interesting and convincing place of discord – especially amongst the Evans boys.
The whole episode spins like a top (right down to the subplots and the musical cues), and becomes a prime example of how a program's shortcomings can sometimes be excused for 50 some-odd minutes, so long as it is able to maintain the notion that what is transpiring on-screen is truly meaningful to the overall story, and stands the chance of coloring not only the world around these characters, but also (and more importantly) the characters themselves.
Now, to be fair, you could count the number of Magic City episodes that successfully worked this much story into a single episode on one hand – and still have a few fingers left over – so when the series pulls the proverbial trigger, it's definitely worth mentioning, and it's nice to be able to find enough working within the episode that's worthy of praise.
However, 'Sitting on Top of the World' is not a perfect episode by any means. Certain characters make brief appearances here that are intended to have ramifications for their relationships elsewhere, but this only causes the lack of development of those elements to be put under the spotlight. Most notably, this refers to the underserved female characters of the show like Vera, Mercedes and Meg.
While Meg seemed to be an exciting addition and possible romantic obstacle for Ike Evans, she's been relegated to an Agent Coulson role (provided Jeffrey Dean Morgan is Nick Fury) in regard to the assembling of the Secret Six. Meanwhile, Vera's troubles with B-12 shots (i.e., amphetamines), her aching knees and dreams of reliving past dancing glory seem to have been completely put aside, as her only worry here is whether or not Ike can find the time to watch The Diary of Anne Frank and whether Lauren and her friends will be suitably impressed with her skills applying make-up.
Mercedes, however, speaks to a larger issue of 'El Tiburon' and his men; namely, Antonio Rivas, who it seemed was poised to whisk her off her feet in search of revolution and romance. Instead, Tiburon and Rivas – like Mercedes – have been relegated to a smaller role off in the periphery, so when she finally approaches Vera about an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy, it comes off feeling shoehorned in – especially since she's only been in the presence of Danny a handful of times this season and none of the scenes illustrated much beyond them growing apart.
Underdeveloped characters aside, 'Sitting on Top of the World' does a great job of setting up the final two episodes this season, and creating the sense that there's actually something at stake in the games these characters are all playing in the name of money and the Miramar Playa.
Magic City continues next Friday with '…And Your Enemies Closer' @9pm on Starz.