In his debut as Donald Trump, Alec Baldwin captured the pouty Republican nominee’s performance at the first debate, amplifying his most bizarre and ill-tempered moments and expounding on them. Unlike Darrell Hammond’s more aurally impressive take on Trump from last season (and years prior), Baldwin’s version feels genuinely unhinged. There’s no detached coolness to it, just pomposity, annoyance, and anger. To match the attention-generating cultural impact that Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers have had with their commentary on this most peculiar and vital election, SNL needed to turn their debate parody into an event and they accomplished that by adding Baldwin. It’s another brilliant bit of stunt casting orchestrated by SNL producer Lorne Michaels in the same vein as Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin and Larry David playing Bernie Sanders. (That’s not a knock, by the way. SNL‘s survival is as impressive as it is fascinating, specifically in the political satire arena when there are so many competitors.) Baldwin more than matched the expectations he’d deliver a larger-than-life Trump. He’s understandably been lauded, so much so that he’s threatened to overshadow Kate McKinnon’s subtler and no less brilliant take on Hillary Clinton.
It’s been hard for SNL to seem like the master of the political satire universe since The Daily Show started taking Weekend Update’s lunch in the early 2000s. That’s been especially true since Jim Downey permanently retired in 2013. Downey — who wrote or co-wrote classic skits like “President Reagan, Mastermind” and helped establish SNL‘s position as a leader in comedic political commentary in the late ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s — didn’t always lacerate his subjects (like The Daily Show tends to do). But he had a flair for crafting moments that found their place in the zeitgeist. Without Downey, the show’s efforts have felt somewhat rudderless, with performers mugging for the camera and writers applying a comic filter over the people and events that they deemed mockable. They’ve essentially been doing what Baldwin did so brilliantly on Saturday night — create a broad caricature.
Effective as it’s been, McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton impression used to fit that description as well, focusing almost entirely on Clinton’s single-minded pursuit of the Oval Office. On Saturday night, however, McKinnon found another level by playing off of the ridiculousness that Baldwin’s Trump was spewing, much in the same way that Jay Pharoah’s impression of President Obama seemed like it was at its best when he had someone to play off. But there was more to it than that.
Impressions like Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush (and Ross Perot), Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton, and Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush are among the show’s most loved, so much so that they tend to obscure equally worthy work elsewhere. I could write a love letter about Phil Hartman’s James Stockdale, or Jon Lovitz’s Michael Dukakis, which, like the former Massachusetts governor, has been mostly mothballed. In a sketch following the 1988 presidential debate opposite Carvey’s initially-more-muted Bush, Lovitz uttered the line, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy,” echoing not what Dukakis said, but what audiences sensed that he wanted to say and what many of them felt as well. Bush was a boring and unimaginative continuation of the previous eight years, but also stunningly persistent in his ability to garner support (a description that might be applied to the real Hillary Clinton by Trump supporters, no doubt). SNL zeroed in on that sentiment and surprised and delighted its audience by being so direct. And that’s exactly what McKinnon’s impression accomplished on Saturday night, though she had a much easier target than a droning George H. W. Bush.
With a combination of jaw drops, tears of joy, pantomimed fishing lures, and the lines, “I think I’m gonna be president” and “Can America vote right now?” McKinnon rose above the caricature and seized control of her Hillary Clinton character, making her feel more alive, authentic, and relatable than ever before.
SNL needed the attention that Baldwin’s hire brought and he did as well as could have been expected, but there was no way he could outpace Donald Trump following the slow burn public relations disaster that his campaign devolved into from the start of the debate on Monday to Saturday’s SNL broadcast. Only McKinnon had the ability to recenter the sketch and clarify, to the audience, how far away from normality everything had shifted on Monday night by embodying our collective “OMFG” face.
At this point, SNL has acknowledged the absurdity of this election numerous times (even allowing itself to become a part of it at one point), but through Kate McKinnon, and Donald Trump’s very bad week, the show found a way to finally disarm it by laughing in its face. And at this point, with five weeks left until election day, a little bit of that may be our last, best chance at getting through this.
Jason Tabrys is the features editor for Uproxx. You can engage with him directly on Twitter.