A review of the Season Two finale of Ted Lasso, “Inverting the Pyramid of Success,” coming up just as soon as I give you a cool nod…
It is halftime of Richmond’s final game of the season, and the club’s last chance to gain promotion back to the EPL(*). Nate’s false-nine strategy has thus far been an utter failure, leaving Richmond down 2-0 to Brentford. Nate’s paranoia and narcissism are at full boil, and he insists on abandoning the false nine because the players aren’t smart enough to do it right. Ted wants to stick with it. Roy, only a hot second removed from his own playing days, suggests that the ones to decide this should be the guys on the team. With Beard’s approval, Ted takes the question out to the locker room, where the blunt Jan Maas insists that the strategy is sound, and that it is the players’ job to execute it. Merely being given the choice seems to fire up the whole squad, and soon Isaac the captain has led them all to put their hands on the homemade “Believe” poster that hangs over the doorway, before they charge out to the pitch to play for their professional lives.
(*) My extremely limited understanding of this process suggests the show is taking dramatic license, in that the top two Championship teams are automatically promoted, but then the next four teams in the standings compete in a tournament whose winner is also promoted. So Dani Rojas missing the penalty kick would not have doomed Richmond to another season stuck in the minor leagues.
Nate, meanwhile, goes to his office in a huff, once again twisting events so that everything that anyone else does is both about him and an affront to him. He is a master of X’s and O’s, he feels, doomed to work in the long shadow of a yokel who doesn’t understand the finer points of the game, and whose approach to the job rests entirely on touchy-feely ephemera. Nate thinks the players should just be able to follow his tactics from beginning to end; Ted thinks the believing is the most important part.
Ted happens to be the title character of the show. And this finale seems designed to be best enjoyed by people for whom the feelings Ted Lasso elicits are more important than how we arrive there. Parts of the episode — particularly anything to do with the team itself — work exceptionally well. But a lot of it leans more on our belief in the idea of Ted Lasso than in showing us why various things are happening. Nate would not approve. But then, Nate is now an insufferable megalomaniac, so should his opinion matter?
Give or take some stray running gags, like Higgins auditioning greyhound puppies to be Richmond’s new mascot (and even that has a payoff), there are four matters to be dealt with in the finale: 1) whether Richmond will earn promotion and set up the “win the whole fucking thing” payoff Ted promised to Rebecca in the Season One finale; 2) the fallout from Nate telling Trent Crimm of The Independent about Ted’s panic attack; 3) whether Sam will leave Richmond — and Rebecca — to join Edwin’s team in Ghana; and 4) the state of Roy and Keeley’s relationship, which seemed oh-so-precarious in the closing moments of last week’s episode.
The first is resolved relatively cleanly, but not entirely without head-scratching choices. The halftime sequence is the episode’s highlight, particularly the way Kola Bokinni plays Isaac’s resolve as he hangs back from the initial attempt at an all-hands-in and marches right to the Believe poster. Though Isaac is Richmond’s captain, he has not gotten as much screen time as Roy did last season. But there’s been just enough of his leadership sprinkled throughout the year — most recently when he ordered everyone to dress up for the funeral — that it felt potent for him to step up and understand the exact symbolic gesture his guys needed in that moment.
On the other hand, the game, and season, coming down to Dani Rojas making a penalty kick was a mixed bag. Yes, it’s a callback to the season premiere and the emotional trauma Dani felt after accidentally killing Earl the greyhound. But Dani has barely had anything to do in between, other than the running gag in the funeral episode about his difficulty wearing dress shoes. It seemed as if Dr. Sharon had long since helped him work past his guilt about Earl. The concept that he still needed redemption required more setup. So, for that matter, did the idea of Jamie giving up the penalty kick in favor of Dani. Other than perhaps Ted himself (and Ted was still prominent in almost every episode), it felt like Jamie sacrificed the most screen time this year as the show expanded its ensemble storytelling. In many episodes this season, he barely did or said anything of note, and what little character evolution he had came in his first couple of episodes back with the team after the reality show fiasco. Sharon fixed his personality, and that was that. He had minimal interaction with Dani, and there was no suggestion that he was still being too selfish a player; if anything, one of the season’s few Jamie spotlights had Roy arguing, correctly, that Jamie needed to be more selfish on the pitch. It’s clear why Jamie would feel in this moment that the right thing to do is to let Dani atone for Earl’s death by taking this huge kick, but the season did not put any of the work in to showing that journey for either guy. It’s still a nice moment in spite of this flaw, because the actors are good and the replacement Earl in his helmet was just that adorable. But why bother doing supersized episodes every week if you’re not going to use some of that bonus time to properly set up the biggest thing that happens to the team all year?
The Ted-versus-Nate conflict was mostly effective, in that care was taken to show how we got here. That said, this subplot went from simmer to boil in a real hurry over these last two episodes. That could be read as Nate spiraling once every choice he made — kissing Keeley, revealing Ted’s private medical information to the world, instituting this bold false-nine strategy so late in the season — backfired on him. He won’t confess his betrayal on his own(*), so when Ted approaches him at the end of halftime, Nate explodes. He claims that Ted “made me feel like I was the most important person in the whole world, and then you abandoned me.” You can look at this idea in one of two ways. In one, Nate is delusional, and his neuroses have convinced him that he is entitled to more of Ted’s attention than he’s been given, while blinding him to the notion that Ted trusts him enough as an assistant coach to not have to hold his hand. In the other, Nate’s meltdown and betrayal are evidence that there are limits to Ted’s powers — that his kindness may raise up most of the people he meets to where they can continue to be great without his constant reassurance, while in others it may create a hunger for more attention that can’t be satiated. Ted is not a mental health professional himself, though he is now friends with one, and while he did not intend to make a monster out of Nate, he also wasn’t really built to stop it from happening. The false-nine strategy succeeds, but now it has been poisoned for Nate, who views the victory less a result of his tactical brilliance than of Ted emotionally connecting with the players. While everyone else is celebrating Dani’s kick, Nate storms off, rips up the Believe poster, and eventually winds up coaching Rupert’s new club, West Ham United. And if you don’t assume that the EPL title will eventually come down to Richmond vs. West Ham United, well… this may not be the show for you.
(*) The funniest moment in the whole episode, if not the whole season: Beard already rightly assumes Nate was Trent Crimm of The Indepdendent‘s source, so when Nate instead tells Roy about what he did to Keeley, Brendan Hunt lets out a spectacular “Again with this fucking guy?!?!” look of disbelief. Though Beard and Ted’s silently giddy reaction to learning that Roy has unofficially joined the Diamond Dogs is almost as good.
At the same time, I’m not sure this may be the show to handle complex romantic relationships, given how the Rebecca-Sam and Keeley-Roy pairings played out over the season, particularly here at the end. It felt like the creative team gave a half-hearted effort in setting up the former couple as one we might want to root for and latter as one in trouble. Big steps were skipped in both cases, on top of the show outright ducking questions like, “Would it be an ethical nightmare for the incredibly wealthy and powerful owner of a team to date one of the players on said team, particularly when this player is being offered a life-changing opportunity to play on another team that would take him away from the lovestruck owner?”
Ultimately, the finale also punts on Sam’s decision to stay with Richmond, with his father telling him to wait for a sign from the universe — which instantly materializes in the form of a young man wearing Sam’s jersey while playing football with friends at a nearby park. Sam will later tell Rebecca (using an initially bewildered Ted as a proxy) that he has chosen to stay to further his own journey, rather than because of his feelings for his boss. But it felt more like plot mechanics rather than an explanation of what makes Sam tick and why he would decline Edwin’s offer. (Also, the show sells out Edwin as a character for the sake of a comedy bit. Fortunately, it is an excellent comedy bit, played by a master in Sam Richardson, who goes to town on the tantrum Edwin throws after Sam politely declines.)
Meanwhile, where last week’s episode seemed to be ending with Roy and Keeley’s relationship on precarious footing, we return to find them more or less OK. Any anger Roy has about the Jamie incident at the funeral is correctly pointed at Jamie, and even that doesn’t work out for him, since Jamie delivers a full and thorough apology before Roy has an excuse to hit him(*). Instead, the show’s most prominent couple gets into trouble due to Keeley’s success. The money people behind Bantr are impressed enough with Keeley to back her own PR firm. At first, this is presented as a Keeley-Rebecca issue, and Juno Temple and Hannah Waddingham each demonstrate the useful ability to cry in funny ways as the best friends talk through this great opportunity and the fact that they’ll no longer be working together every day(**). But over the course of the finale, the new job is part of a larger issue: Roy’s insecurity about Keeley’s increasing success and independence.
(*) In one final Major League homage for the season, Roy head butts Jamie in the aftermath of the win over Brentford, then jumps up and down in celebration with him, much as Roger Dorn did to Wild Thing Vaughn (who had unwittingly slept with Dorn’s wife) at the end of the movie.
(**) Keeley’s firm will almost certainly take on Richmond as a key client. As we saw with Roy as a TV commentator, outside jobs on a workplace show like this either don’t last long or eventually have to tie more directly to the other characters.
Roy Kent is a wonderful dichotomy of a character, defined at once by seething rage and an almost Zen-like sense of assurance about himself and the people he cares about. That latter aspect does not negate the idea of Roy worrying that Keeley is slipping away from him. After all, some of this season’s best material involved Roy’s usual defenses failing him, whether his “Headspace” response to realizing how much he was annoying Keeley, or his realization that he might be a bad influence on Phoebe. But it needed a lot more build-up than we got over these last two episodes. The finale plays a bit with this conflict between the two sides of Roy, with him struggling to admit to the Diamond Dogs that being left out of Keeley’s Vanity Fair spread bothers him. (It’s almost surprising that Seventies pop-culture obsessive Ted wouldn’t compare Roy in that moment to Happy Days‘ Fonzie, who always had difficulty saying he was wrong about anything.) Yet it still feels like this particular difficulty is coming out of nowhere, to the point where Keeley seems to be speaking for the audience when she’s flabbergasted to hear Roy ask if they’re breaking up. There is a good story to be told about two strong personalities who otherwise dearly love each other having challenges with emotional boundaries, work-life balance, etc. This version of it was just underfed.
And that’s the main issue with Ted Lasso Season Two as a whole. The creative team’s wanted to expand its focus beyond the Ted-Rebecca core, and to dig deep into both the impact Ted’s positivity was having on the team and the limits of that positivity. That’s admirable ambition, and a lot of it worked very well. But despite two additional episodes (albeit ones inserted very late in the process, and largely disconnected from everything else) and longer running times every week, there wasn’t always enough room to successfully execute those goals. And that struggle was palpable in these last few episodes. The believing is great, and vital to the experience of watching and loving Ted Lasso. But having a sound strategy mapped out in advance helps a lot, too. Nate’s an ass, but he’s not wrong about everything.
Some other thoughts:
* There’s a nice early moment, via text, between Ted and his ex-wife, where he realizes he has overstepped his boundaries in asking Michelle about her love life, and quietly accepts that she has moved on. Maybe Andrea Anders can return for Season Three so Michelle can meet Sassy?
* Finally, Higgins held two greyhound puppies at one time. That is all.