When a Saturday Night Live parody song begins, there’s usually a moment of anticipation where you wonder what the punch line is going to be. That was the case last night as a group of female cast members began a ballad about their aloof spouses, one wondering, “Is he dreaming of another woman he wants more than me?”
Then the sketch cut to what the men were thinking. What was on their mind: The Roman empire, of course. Yes, it was maybe a couple of months delayed, but the rap song that ensued was about the meme that men are almost always pondering the details of the Roman empire. The night’s host, Jason Momoa, took the lead: “Five times a day it pops into my dome, which reminds me: They invented the dome. Just one of the reasons that I think about Rome.”
With the burly Momoa, there to promote his latest turn as the DC superhero Aquaman, SNL’s writers had a paragon of muscle-bulging masculinity to deploy. The “Rome Song” sketch was just one of many where they used Momoa’s quintessential dudeness to offer some—sometimes amusing, sometimes overly simplistic—comedy on gender tropes.
The Roman empire bit was the first one of the night that leaned into this theme. Momoa’s broad shoulders fit perfectly into a Roman warrior costume, but he was ultimately joined by the cast members Mikey Day and Kenan Thompson, who also spat out facts about gladiators and marble statues.
The sketch had some other commentary on fixations. When it peeked into the brain of a little kid playing the son of Momoa and Ego Nwodim, the boy began to rap about dinosaurs. And as for the women? Well, women are always dwelling on astrology, which led Momoa to point out that “the Romans were actually into astrology too.”
As a whole, the sketch was well executed—the “dinosaur” interlude was a particularly cute addition—but it offered nothing new by way of commentary on the meme, which at this point has already been played out across social media. Plus, there’s nothing really subversive about saying, essentially, that men obsess over history while women look at their horoscopes. In fact, it’s a little reductive.
The episode did not get all that more insightful as it went on. Later, Momoa played the hunky ex-fiancé of a woman portrayed by Chloe Fineman. She had thought him dead after a plane explosion, but he returned from being stranded on an island sexier than ever, much to the dismay of her new spouse (Andrew Dismukes). She was smitten, and it was an easy gag, a showcase of Momoa’s strong, wild-man persona and not much more.
But perhaps the night’s strangest take on gender came near the end of the show. In a riff on Netflix’s Untold documentary series, Sarah Sherman appeared as the fictional tennis player Charna Lee Diamond, who, in this version, had a battle-of-the-sexes tournament before Billie Jean King did. Except Charna wasn’t so successful. She challenged a man to a match and got paired up with Momoa as Ronnie Dunster, who “at the time was the largest man to ever play tennis.”
That’s where it verged into absurdism. When Ronnie served, the ball literally went through Charna, leaving a bleeding hole in the center of her stomach. She screamed, “Did I ruin it for women?” She pressed on. Her head came off with his second serve. Charna tried to change history and died doing it.
The gross-out gruesomeness of the sketch distinguished it, but it was ultimately just another reminder of how big Momoa is, and, in turn, how manly. The underlying sentiment: Come on, a girl can’t beat that guy.
Many hosts arrive on SNL eager to subvert their public persona and show their comedic range. Momoa threw himself into the sketches with verve, but he didn’t take a lot of risks to challenge his image, and neither did the writers. With Momoa as an emblem of huge male energy, they dove headfirst into tired binaries.