Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon where, in the midst of falling asleep, one experiences terrifying hallucinations, along with an inability to move. I’ve never personally endured this physiological punishment before, but over the weekend I did re-watch the penultimate pre-election Saturday Night Live, which aired in place of a new episode, and it seems like pretty much the same deal.
It’s heartbreaking to look back, knowing what we know now, as America’s flagship political satire machine takes a distorted snapshot of that moment. To watch the Tom Hanks-hosted episode now is to feel trapped without motor function, no way to warn everybody involved that they will regret all of this. No way to tell Kate McKinnon that in a few short weeks, she’ll be back on this stage, singing “Hallelujah” in somber elegy. No way to tell them all that the future they don’t seem to bother fearing anymore is even worse than they probably imagined.
The fact that the instant classic David S. Pumpkins sketch holds up is little balm from the mental trauma of watching the cold open debate sketch again–a relic from an alternate timeline.
Could this certainty really have been the prevailing sentiment last fall? Did we all really assume that the Access Hollywood tape had finally defanged Donald Trump for keeps, and that election night itself was just a formality? Those attitudes are on full display in the opening gambit, a rehashing of the third and final presidential debate. (It was the one in which Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman,” prompting an immediate sea change in countless Twitter handles.)
While there are some sharp jabs at the way Clinton deflects questions about her emails to bring the conversation back to Trump’s many glaring deficiencies, overall the vibe here is: premature victory lap. Kate McKinnon smiles and mugs like she can’t believe her luck at how outlandish and unpresidential her opponent behaves, and the extent to which this whole thing is in the bag. We at home are supposed to laugh and breathe a sigh of relief, soaking up all the righteous self-congratulations in a way the show would end up parodying later on.
“Now we have to turn to the big story of the week,” Tom Hanks as moderator Chris Wallace says at one point. “Mr. Trump, it’s becoming very clear: you’re probably going to lose.”
“Correct,” Alec Baldwin as Trump admits.
If it seems impossibly naive now for the show to double down so hard on its forecast, though, it’s important to keep in mind that the Comey letter had not yet happened, a harbinger of the sudden re-opening of the FBI’s fruitless yet devastating investigation of Clinton. For all the writers knew, the next couple weeks would be a sweat-free cakewalk across the finish line.
The good news for anyone rewatching in 2017 is that this opening sketch is by far the most difficult part to watch. The bad news is that the monologue that immediately follows is almost as painful.
Tom Hanks has gradually developed a reputation as America’s Dad, and his monologue here takes that honor literally. The venerable star speaks to all of America in a father-son style aimed at healing the divide wrought by the most contentious election in modern times. The writers take a funny and thoughtful approach to this gimmick–“Remember when you went through that Depression? This is nothing!”–and Hanks, the consummate pro delivers the hell out of it. The only problem is that the speech feels even more sure of the eventual outcome of the election than the cold open did. Everything about it seems designed to reassure everyone on both sides, after the fact, that we can indeed come back stronger than ever from this narrowly averted apocalypse. The calming, reconciliatory tone doesn’t exactly play so well now, six months into that apocalypse.
There’s only one more politically tinged sketch in this episode, and as retroactively tone deaf as the preceding ones were, “Black Jeopardy” remains insightful, funny, and fearless.
Saturday Night Live had used Black Jeopardy a few times before, in the wake of its newly diverse writing staff. This time, however, the writers set out on what must have sounded like an impossible mission: to survey the common ground between MAGA-hatted Trumpsters and certain aspects of black culture. They succeeded to a highly improbable degree, finding the overlapping parts on the Venn diagram where, say, both groups distrust the government. Even now, after many of us have read Trumpgrets stories, and been asked to empathize with the president’s newly disenchanted flock, the sketch continues to be illuminating. It also retains its punch in the end, when both sides realizes the Venn Diagram does not stretch far enough to cover the concept of Black Lives Mattering.
Of course, the most brutal part of this episode to watch now is what’s out there beyond the frame, unknown at the time. While the world of late-October 2016 was about to turn its attention back on the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton, puncturing the giddy smugness that undergirds some of this episode, Trump’s campaign was also under federal investigation for possibly colluding with a foreign government. Not being able to reach back through space and time to let Tom Hanks in on that little secret feels like being trapped in a nightmare, unable to move.