Saturday Night Live: Jake Gyllenhaal delivers the season’s strongest episode

<span>Jake Gyllenhaal during promos.</span><span>Photograph: NBC/Rosalind O'Connor/Getty Images</span>
Jake Gyllenhaal during promos.Photograph: NBC/Rosalind O'Connor/Getty Images

The final episode of Saturday Night Live’s 49th season begins with a message from former president Donald Trump (James Austin Johnson), from his new home: “The barricades outside a Manhattan courthouse.” Trump 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, and then get very rich raising money to stop the steal and you never have to do president again.”

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He also holds off announcing his Veep, although he’s narrowed the choice down to a few names from his “short bus – I mean short list”, including the South Carolina senator Tim Scott (Devon Walker), who literally jumps for him; the 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 wraps things up by promising “the summer of Trump,” which includes another January 6th (“this time in July”). As always, Johnson turns in an entertaining performance as the rambling ex-Prez. While this is nothing special, it’s still miles above the dreadful cold opens of the last couple of episodes.

Jake Gyllenhaal returns to host. He’s a little put out that they couldn’t wait one more episode to bring him on so he could kick off the big 50th anniversary season, but he’s still honored to be hosting the finale. This leads to a musical tribute to the season to the tune of Boz II Men’s End of the Road, with Gyllenhaal showing off some surprising pipes.

In the first sketch of the night, Gyllenhaal plays a father meeting his daughter’s boyfriend (Andrew Dismukes). The young man wants to ask his blessing to propose, but all the dad is interested in is stealing a cookie before dinner in defiance of his wife’s orders. His facade of gentleness slips away as he starts acting like a deranged mob boss when he thinks his daughter’s beau intends to rat him out. Gyllenhaal makes the most of the role.

Next up is a live action version of Scooby Doo (Gyllenhaal plays Freddie, Sarah Sherman is Velma, Mikey Day is Shaggy, musical guest Sabrina Carpenter is Daphne, and Scooby is a CGI creation). The story follows its regular beats, with a terrorizing ghost revealed to be a greedy old man, before Fred accidently rips off the villain’s face, which leads to a series of gruesome mayhem and murder. A good bit of gory fun, but it doesn’t get quite as crazy as it should.

A new review at a 1920s nightclub sees Gyllenhaal playing the effete ringleader of a troupe of glammed up dancing girls, as well as his “beautiful boys”, all of them plain schlubs dressed in drab beige button-ups and khakis. Delightfully silly, with Gyllenhaal having a blast (the running gag of misdirected penis jokes get some huge laughs) and once more displaying his musical skills.

A couple on a hike have their serious conversation about their uncertain future interrupted by Gyllenhaal’s extremely loud and obnoxious mountain biker. Gyllenhaal’s willingness to play the buffoon is endearing, but this one edges a little too far into obnoxiousness.

Models in a commercial for a Shein-like clothing brand grow 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 outfits’ toxic materials, although not enough to stop buying the product. It’s been a minute since SNL has delivered a sharp bit of social commentary, but this takedown of America’s addiction to exploitative fast fashion delivers.

Carpenter takes the stage to perform her hit Espresso, then it’s on to Weekend Update. Colin Jost invites the first guests, two cicadas (Kenan Thompson, Marcello Hernandez), to speak about their plans for summer following 17 years spent underground. The winged nuisances reflect on the changes since that time and look forward to living, loving, and laughing before “we hit car windshield so hard our ass goes through our brain.”

Later on, Jost and Michael Che celebrate the end of the season with their yearly joke-swap. Last time around, Che hired an actor to play a civil rights hero in order to heap an extra dose of humiliation upon his co-host. This time out, he rings on Rabbi Jill, “an actual, practicing rabbi.” The jokes Jost blind reads offensively reference Harvey Weinstein and antisemitic conspiracy theories and include the use of a Hasidic hand puppet. Despite all of this, Jost, manages to win this round by getting Che to insult Kendrick Lamar in the hopes of starting a new beef with the rapper. As ever, Che and Jost are at their best and funniest when trying to out-offend one another.

Then, Gyllenhaal plays a frustrated traveler attempting to change his flight plans through Southwest’s extremely unhelpful customer support phone line. The representatives he speaks to run the gamut from infuriatingly bubbly, to pervy, to drunk. They put Gyllenhaal through the ringer until finally connecting him to the godhead who runs the company/universe (also of no help). Clearly, one of the writers recently had a bad experience with Southwest, which, as anyone who’s ever flown the airline knows, is par for the course.

Gyllenhaal plays the head of the NYPD, delivering an important message in the wake of Steve Buscemi’s random assault on the streets of New York earlier this week (which followed similar attacks on Rick Moranis and Michael Stulberg): “Stop punching character actors in the face.” In order to prevent further assaults, he reveals that they’ve assigned a security detail to Stephen Root and have asked Paul Giamatti to shelter in place (this leads to a funny argument over whether Giamatti counts as a character actor in this stage of his career). References to other great “Oh Hims” like William Fichtner, Judy Greer, Walton Goggins, and Stephen Tobolowsky follow, before Jon Hamm interrupts the proceedings to wonder whether he’s at risk. A later tribute to the recently departed Dabney Coleman continues this well-deserved salute to character actors.

The season then wraps up with a sketch set in a country western dive bar. Gyllenhaal plays a drunken dirtbag who commits the grave error of making a pass at the local badass’s girl, only for it to be revealed that said badass is a lanky doofus talks with a ridiculously effeminate Southern accent. What would otherwise make for a forgettable sketch is saved by Johnson’s great accent work.

After some particularly dire episodes, SNL managed to rebound for its finale. Gyllenhaal made for the strongest host of what turned out to be the strongest episode of the season. Hopefully, this is a good omen for the forthcoming historic Season 50.