A review of this week’s Ted Lasso, “The Signal,” coming up just as soon as I make a joke for people born in the early- to mid-Seventies…
Midway through “The Signal,” Roy Kent offers a characteristically blunt assessment of what Ted’s leadership has done for Jamie on the pitch: Ted has ruined him. “You’ve made him a team player,” Roy explains. “You got him to pass and shit, and in doing so, you’ve made him average.” This notion is interesting on a few levels. First, it’s another reminder that as good a man as Ted may be, his skills as a football coach remain very much in question. More importantly, Roy’s critique is a direct indictment of the ethos of Ted Lasso (both man and series). Ted’s default assumption is that making the players into better people will make them into better players. Often, this is the case: Spurred on by “the Roy Kent effect,” Richmond has been winning a lot lately, and in this episode becomes a very unlikely semi-finalist in the FA Cup(*) after beating Tottenham. But Roy is correct about most things, the state of Jamie’s game included. When he and the other coaches offer the titular signal — flipping Jamie the bird from the sidelines of the match against Tottenham — Jamie has permission to play like the insufferable ass he used to be, and it leads to an easy Richmond goal.
(*) For the series’ American viewers, Ted helpfully describes the FA Cup as a March Madness-style tournament in the middle of the season, where every club in the country is eligible to play at some point. It’s a very real thing, but also a clever device to allow Richmond to play with the big boys for a few episodes even while the team is still stuck in the Championship. .
Roy’s argument about Jamie — that making someone kinder can sometimes make them less effective — is worth considering with regard to Ted Lasso Season Two as a whole. Season One did not lack for conflict: Rebecca scheming against Ted (or, at least, using an unwitting Ted to scheme against Rupert), Jamie butting heads with both Ted and Roy, Nate enduring bullying from Jamie’s crew, and much more. Season Two has sanded away nearly all of those rough edges, putting everyone (even the previously hostile beat reporters) firmly on Ted’s side. For a while, the only major tension seemed to be coming between Ted and Dr. Sharon, and even that was presented more as a clash of incompatible personalities than a hero-villain situation, since Sharon is very good at what she does and obviously beloved by everyone in the building who is not Ted. It’s a credit to the creative team that Season Two has still been as lively and entertaining as it has despite a seeming lack of dramatic stakes, though I’ve heard from some Season One fans who feel the show has gotten high on its own supply. (Santa being real, or just the entirety of the Christmas episode, seems to have been the bridge too far for that faction.)
With “The Signal,” though, Season Two seems to be agreeing with Roy and deciding that, sometimes, things work out better when people don’t get along. The episode offers more conflict than this year’s previous episodes combined: Roy versus Jamie, Higgins versus Coach Beard and the other Diamond Dogs(*), Rebecca versus her mother, Nate versus his insecurities regarding his place on the coaching staff, and, most importantly, Ted Lasso versus himself.
(*) A nice comic touch: Roy is on the coaching staff now, but he is very much not one of the Diamond Dogs, having no patience for any of that barking foolishness.
The Higgins-Beard dustup speaks to some larger interpersonal issues this season. Leslie understandably wants to rescue his friend from the ring of fire in which Beard is trapped with Jane, but Ted thinks that “it’s bad business to get all up in anyone else’s business.” In some ways, this retreat into the rules of Guy Code seems very unlike our Ted, who so often shows curiosity and concern for his fellow man. But there’s also a fundamental Midwestern reserve to him, where he often can wait a very long time to intercede with problems he sees bubbling up around him, whether it’s Jamie’s relationship with his dad or Nate’s more recent treatment of Will. Ted knows the name and key life details of everyone who works for the team, yet he’s not always quite as heroic as he sometimes seems — in part because he’s battling demons of his own that materialize again during the game against Tottenham.
Ted suffered a panic attack last season in the middle of Rebecca’s karaoke performance of “Let It Go.” It was an important moment in his relationship with Rebecca — and she is the only one who recognizes what is happening to Ted when he abandons the team midmatch — and one that’s easy to forget while thinking back on all of Season One’s good vibes. But there’s something wrong with Ted that goes a lot deeper than sadness over his divorce and feeling distant from his son, unable to help out when Henry forgets to bring his lunch for a field trip. Seemingly happy people can be masking tremendous pain, and where the karaoke attack was something Ted could quickly brush off, this very public incident, when his team needed him most, requires addressing. Ted is notably absent in the aftermath of the underdog victory, and even Rebecca accepts that she’s not going to find him that night. But he turns up in Sharon’s office, looking like hell and admitting that he is finally ready to make an appointment with her. It’s a powerful moment, and one that raises the question of how therapy might alter Ted’s irrepressible geniality, and what impact that in turn might have on the club.
For now, though, it’s a mostly very good week for Richmond. The team is on a win streak that continues when Nate assumes command in Ted’s absence, ordering Isaac to “park the bus” — play conservatively — and trusting that their opponents would be the ones to make a mistake late in a tie game. This should feel like another great triumph from the club’s former equipment manager — especially given his clear anxiety about what the Roy Kent Effect means for his place in the coaching staff’s pecking order — but it instead seems to be fueling his ego, with him dubbing himself “the wonder kid” (mistaking the phrase for “wunderkind”) in a postgame interview. Higgins isn’t able to dissuade Beard from letting Jane move in with him, but Beard at least expresses appreciation for Leslie’s concern. Rebecca survives a visit from her mother (played by the esteemed British actor Dame Harriet Walter), has sex with another handsome (and often naked) guy, and keeps flirting with her Bantr mystery man, oblivious to the fact that he is none other than Sam Obisanya(*). And Roy’s new approach to Jamie doesn’t seem to have dismantled the emotional repair job Dr. Sharon did on the team’s star — he just knows now how to switch back into a-hole mode when necessary, then switch it back off afterwards.
(*) Much more to say about this in ensuing weeks, but for now I will just note that George Wendt’s nephew is co-creator of a show that now has set up some unresolved sexual tension between characters named Sam and Rebecca.
By sprinkling in more conflict — and repeatedly confronting the question of whether Ted’s smiling persona is actually doing harm to both himself and the team — “The Signal” was the season’s most satisfying episode yet.