Everything is not in its right place as Ted Lasso nears the end of its second season – The A.V. Club

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Image for article titled Everything is not in its right place as Ted Lasso nears the end of its second season

Photo: Apple TV+

In the opening moments of “Midnight Train to Royston,” we see the results of the penultimate game of AFC Richmond’s season, as Sam basks in the glory of his first career hat trick and another win for the surging Richmond. Through the voiceover, commentators Arlo White and Chris Powell reveal through exposition that Richmond has been playing spectacular football, and are a win away from securing promotion back to the Premier League.

I have to admit that I found this a bit surprising (and not just because y’all in the comments explained that the promotion structure of the Championship is more complicated than this episode implies). After starting the season with a long string of draws, Ted Lasso has mostly had Richmond’s regular season play out off-screen, and the few games we did see were part of the FA Cup and that ended with an embarrassing loss to Man City that one could have imagined as a real momentum killer. Instead, the team appears to have gone on an impressive winning streak, and are now on the verge of achieving the goal that Rebecca and Ted set out for this year at the end of the first season.

Some of you in the comments have tried to do the math on what type of unprecedented performance would have allowed the team to be in such an advantageous position given their weak start, but it’s clear that Ted Lasso isn’t interested in the math. Instead, “Midnight Train to Royston” presents such a rosy picture of Richmond’s performance on the pitch to draw as stark a contrast as possible with the tension bubbling to the surface amongst the team’s employees. At the same time as Richmond is on the brink of promotion, Ted’s panic attacks are a day away from becoming tabloid fodder at the hands of a disgruntled Nate, Sam’s on the verge of a career-changing decision on his playing career and his relationship with Rebecca, and Roy and Keeley are facing down the biggest challenge to their relationship to date.

However, to say these tensions fail to register equally would be an understatement. Built as it is around a pivotal turning point and an uncertain future for the team, this is meant to be the climax for the season’s story arcs, and yet half of them remain illegible and struggle to hold up against much scrutiny. The result is an episode that mostly reaffirms my frustrations with the season thus far, clarifying once and for all which stories have worked as slow-burn developments to fuel character dynamics, and which ones just feel like the show was either missing the mark from the beginning or is missing the pieces necessary to make it work in context of the story being told.

It’s no coincidence that the two stories in this episode that work the best are also the ones that have been more consistently developed over the course of the season. Ted and Nate’s respective journeys have always been linked, even when they have never interacted this year outside of group scenes. That separation is used productively here, as Nate starts to be more comfortable voicing his frustration with Ted failing to give him proper credit around his fellow coaches, and he continues to be mostly shrugged off and lightly corrected by Roy and Beard. Unlike Nate, Roy and Beard are comfortable in their role as assistant coaches: they know what their job is, they know how to fulfill their roles, and they have no ambition to achieve something more if it means being forced to take on more authority or step out of their comfort zones. Nate wants more recognition of the work he’s doing, and is tired of Ted’s patronage—symbolized by the suit—effectively relegating him to a lackey in his own mind and the mind of everyone else (or so he believes). And that would seem to be why, at some point offscreen, Nate told Trent Crimm (The Independent) that Ted lied about his bout with food poisoning, and actually had a panic attack.

It’s a smart convergence of two stories that have been operating independent of one another, but have nonetheless always been in conversation. Nate’s storyline has been frustrating in productive ways for the show, as our issues with Nate’s behavior and the absence of any consequences for Nate’s behavior has emphasized Ted’s failure to recognize and take responsibility for what was happening while he was (understandably) distracted dealing with his own problems. Nate’s betrayal of Ted is going to cut deep, yes, but if there’s anything we’ve learned about Ted this season it’s that he sees the well-being of everyone on his team as his own problem to solve. Just look at how his confrontation with Sharon after she tries to ghost on him plays out: at the core of his anger is the idea that they shared a breakthrough, and thus created a bond that links their journeys together. The fact he didn’t realize how his similar bond with Nate had fallen apart will be as central to the pain he’s about to go through as the news cycle Trent Crimm has set in motion. Whatever hit Ted faces to his professional reputation or his coaching future seems like it will pale in comparison to the personal betrayal by someone he considered his friend, and also his personal failure to see the signs that this was on the horizon.

For Nate, meanwhile, this really is his villain arc, but I appreciate the show’s willingness to let his heel turn play out the way it has. While I thought roping him into the Roy and Keeley nonsense—more on that in a bit—was unnecessary, his story remains one of someone who spent so long getting spit on that a brief taste of notoriety has him spitting indiscriminately hoping it will give him the recognition he feels he deserves. It’s a depressing insight into how the culture of toxic masculinity is so pervasive that someone like Nate is destined to replicate the same behavior that tormented him, and unable to imagine success or authority through a lens other than the one he was under for the rest of his life. It echoes a conversation I once had with a TV writer about the culture of writers’ rooms, and how the abusive behavior of showrunners is so easily passed down to other writers as they gain authority over the course of their careers. It’s not a pleasant story to watch, but that’s what makes it work: we want to believe the culture Ted created within the team would be enough to overcome the scars of Nate’s past, but it wasn’t, and now everyone has to reckon with that.

The success of these two stories is built on the fact we’ve seen those scars develop over the course of both the first and second seasons, and as the story takes this turn we have enough information to understand Nate’s decision even if we don’t agree with it. The rest of this episode, though, struggles to accomplish the same, rushing to deliver comparable climaxes for stories that are just plain not working. This has been particularly true for Roy and Keeley’s relationship, which the show has decided to turn into two love triangles at the last minute. After last week’s declaration of love from Jamie, this week sees Keeley end up a victim of Nate’s shotgun masculinity while a miscommunication about Phoebe’s pick-up from school finds Roy hanging classroom decorations with her teacher and notably not mentioning Keeley when she asks if he’s married. As they sit down for a photoshoot for Keeley’s first magazine spread attached to her career and not her looks, these details spill out, and they’re left hanging in the uncertainty of the moment while the camera flashes.

Image for article titled Everything is not in its right place as Ted Lasso nears the end of its second season

Photo: Apple TV+

And look, I won’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy the chemistry that Roy has had with Phoebe’s teacher in their couple of scenes from throughout the season, but I truly do not have a grasp on what this accelerated conflict is trying to accomplish. I understand the broad purpose of the story: the season as a whole has been about testing the limits of Ted’s idealistic philosophy, and Roy and Keeley’s relationship is the show’s closest romantic equivalent of that. But the show already did an episode where they took off the rose-colored glasses on their relationship, and there we saw them learn lessons about clear communication that seemingly brought them closer together. At this point, nothing that’s happening to the characters is emerging from the characters themselves: it is the show’s contrivance pulling Jamie’s declaration out of thin air, exaggerating their funeral argument in ways that lacked motivation, and now tossing in Phoebe’s teacher and Nate’s kiss—which Roy is admittedly rightfully unconcerned about—to pile up so many potential vulnerabilities that even the show’s most ideal relationship is on the verge of collapsing.

But rather than being legitimately concerned about their relationship, I’m distracted by the overloading of story by the writers, whose machinations have disconnected the plot from any clear character motivations, and pulled me out of a story at a time when the show wants to be pulling me in. The scene that precedes the revelations, as Roy sits down with Keeley as she worries about the pressure of finally being seen as herself and not just as a body, is such a clear depiction of the core of their supportive relationship, so why couldn’t that have just been the story? I still do not understand what the show is gaining from layering these contrivances on top of this relationship that couldn’t have been achieved by the two characters on their own terms, especially given that Jamie’s point of view is entirely absent here, further reinforcing how arbitrary that revelation was.

It’s probably less surprising, if you’re been reading these reviews consistently, that I feel much the same about Sam and Rebecca’s storyline. In an episode searching for conflicts to complicate relationships, the most bizarre choice is to introduce an entirely new one for Sam and Rebecca instead of using the ones that already existed in their story thus far. I know I’ve complained a lot about the lack of consequences from Sam’s Dubai Air protest, but there was always the possibility it might come back to complicate their lives later on, especially once he and Rebecca became romantically involved. And the messy power dynamics of their relationship seemed like they would be a natural source of later conflict, should more people become aware of their connection. So it’s strange to see the show drop in Sam Richardson playing Edwin Akufoz—an African billionaire who wants to buy Sam to play for a team in Africa he doesn’t even own yet—out of its hat to generate the threat of Sam leaving the team, completely bypassing existing conflicts to tell a far less interesting story about Sam and Rebecca facing rote dilemmas of deciding whether a relationship is important enough to disrupt other parts of their life.

And yes, my core problem with this story is that I do not buy their relationship: they flirted anonymously for at most a couple of months, spent a few weeks in a secret relationship, and now it’s true love? We needed to see more of those bantr messages if they wanted us to understand that depth of connection, and we also needed more time spent in Sam’s point-of-view: it’s weird to show the start of his conversation with his father here, for example, but not show us how the conversation played out before his final moment with Rebecca. It’s just a fundamentally unbalanced storyline, and to rob us of the chance to see Sam debriefing his experience with Edwin is a missed opportunity to start the process of rectifying that.

But even if I imagine a scenario where I was all in on the relationship itself, nothing about how this story plays out makes sense to me. Why do we never see a conversation where the team’s coaches/management have a meeting to discuss the on-field ramifications of losing a star player, and what it might do to team morale? The show chooses to boil the story down to “Rebecca has to decide if she loves Sam enough to tell him not to follow his dream home to Africa,” but there are clear financial and professional obligations central to this story that the show just sweeps under the rug in the process, and it’s a disservice to the world the writers spent two seasons creating. This is especially true when the show goes so far as to draw a parallel between Rebecca’s admission to Ted that she had been trying to sabotage him from season one with her admission that she and Sam were having an affair, as though those were two equally significant moments in the show’s story arcs.

As soon as I realized what the show was suggesting, it galvanized my frustration with how this story has played out, and the disconnect it’s created between me and the show as a whole. Ted’s message in that scene is that nothing he says matters, and that Rebecca just needs to listen to her heart and her gut, but that is profoundly not true. The choice to have all of these characters collectively ignore the power dynamics of this relationship and the potential workplace implications is incredibly confusing, as is Ted’s complete lack of concern for how Sam’s potential exit would impact his team and their future. Charitably, one could argue we’re meant to judge Ted for this, and see it as another sign of his inability to focus his energy in the right place when it comes to balancing the team and his relationship with his coworkers. But the show has failed to present anyone—Higgins, for example—making a more pragmatic case for handling this situation, and the sweeping romanticism of Sam and Rebecca’s relationship has never wavered or really even been questioned to date. And while there is one remaining episode for all of these consequences to come to the surface, I have reached the point where I frankly do not trust the show when it comes to handling the fallout from this and other story elements that have popped up this season.

I realize with one episode remaining in the season it is possible that whatever Rupert was seeding at the funeral will reshape our understanding of this season, and clarify the writers’ intentions for how we’re meant to see its place in the three-season arc that Sudeikis has talked about having planned for the show and its characters. And as is always the case, as the writers are reconvening to break that third season, they’re going to be exploring the stories from a fresh perspective, meaning that criticisms of a given season may be naturally addressed by self-reflection or the injection of new voices. As such, I want to emphasize—because it apparently needs to be said—that my evaluation of this episode or even the season as a whole is not a wholesale dismissal of Ted Lasso, its philosophy, or those who are enjoying the show more than I am right now.

But given how much trust I held in the show at the end of the first season, it’s deeply disappointing to leave “Midnight Train to Royston” feeling so at odds with the show’s priorities, and its understanding of the stories being told. For me, it’s not as simple as a lack of focus on the football elements of the series, or the tonal swings as we dig deeper into the characters’ pain, or the fiction that a Nigerian player who loses a game protesting a sponsor would only benefit from doing so (okay, you got me, that last one is still a sticking point). It’s the intangible feeling that there are dimensions to these stories that are being left behind or elided for reasons that I don’t understand, which is all the more distressing for a show that I was so in tune with last year.

I’ll be more than thrilled if I feel differently after next week’s finale, but I can’t pretend that I’m currently optimistic about that given what transpired here.

Stray observations

  • So, it’s incredibly dumb that a week before that a game that would determine the team’s promotion to the Premier League Ted would have the team learning the dance to “Bye Bye Bye.” I know it’s a fun bit, and we love the show having fun bits, but there is a time and a place for them. But then I realized that part of the point of the scene is that Nate spends the whole time seething at how dumb it is, which is both good subtle storytelling but also deeply conflicting since it means I’m relating most to Nate’s perspective, and Nate is being a right git. We could read this as the show being consciously ambiguous, but instead it just reads as wanting to have its cake and eat it too based on the aforementioned lack of trust.
  • Note the clear contrast between Nate and Will, who’s swaying his hips to the music as he holds the speaker.
  • Sam Richardson doesn’t get a lot of “comedy” to play with Akufo, but I really enjoyed the physicality of his run from the helicopter.
  • “Congratulations, you both just met a cool person”—the “middle-aged man is Banksy” joke was a dud, but I thought it was interesting to see Akufo use one of Ted’s own lines (albeit one he used with Trent during his interview) as a way of making Sam feel more comfortable with the idea of leaving Richmond.
  • It would appear that Sam has picked up “Full name sung to the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army’” as his chant.
  • We spent all that time speculating in the comments that they would end the season with the team in the Championship play-offs to determine the third promotion spot, but the show has entirely erased any of those distinctions, now just saying they’re one win away. Does this mean they’re in the final playoff game? Because if not, the implication that the next game is “do or die” would be misleading, although they’re also not treating it as very “do or die” given Nate’s the only one discussing strategy. Just very strange all around.
  • “Your eyebrows aren’t crazy. They’re psychotic”—this Beard line is fine and all, but I preferred the little moment when he checks his own eyebrows as Roy’s ranting about the photo shoot being picky about his.
  • “Unnervingly accurate charcoal sketches of breasts”—It’s Roy’s “nice” when he gets to one he likes that really sells his reaction to these.
  • I suppose it makes sense to have Ted be too giddy to resist bringing up the Cheers connection with another “Sam and Rebecca,” but seemed a bit on-the-nose after it’s been discussed online for weeks, y’know?
  • Speaking of subtle moments with Nate, on rewatching it you can see the moment where he starts to cross wires between his desire to be in charge and whatever energy he was channeling toward Keeley as she talks about how Roy never wants to go shopping with her. We’ve seen him cross these wires before when he asked out the host at the restaurant after securing the window table, too, so it’s a natural extension.
  • “Don’t let-ter get away with it, Ted”—as the dust on the season settles, I’m pretty convinced that the “standalone” episode would have been better spent on Higgins, both because he’s delightful and we could have gained some insight into how the business operations of the club and the team’s performance were weighing on him.
  • As a general rule, if I don’t know a character’s name going into the penultimate episode of a season, you can’t successfully insert them into a love triangle. (It’s Ms. Bowen, we learn here.)
  • I’m looking forward to flipping through the episode once it goes live to see what the Nigerian painting Sam and Edwin are looking at looks like, since it was just a green screen in the screener.
  • So, Edwin’s plan—he claims—is to buy Raja Casablanca and turn the Moroccan team into a powerhouse alongside the major European clubs. I was curious, though, if there is any precedent to an individual buying rights to a player before they’ve actually bought the team in question? I was confused by the reasons he would be doing things in that order, and it made me suspicious that he’s lying. Surely Sam shouldn’t make any kind of decision until the ink is dry on the sale of the team, right?
  • I enjoyed Roy’s callback to the “Independent Woman” scene from the first season, which might be part of why I reacted so violently to the “Is this the end of Roy and Keeley?!” nonsense right after it.
  • Colin Corner: Feels like the chances of them circling back to that random Grindr line are getting pretty thin, but they did close the loop on his Lambo being way too much car for him, so I’m not giving up hope yet.
  • “Karma Police” was much too on the nose, but I’ll never be mad at OK Computer needle drops.
  • The episode’s title appears to be a play on Sam’s potential departure and the idea that Royston is both an actual location in Georgia and in the U.K.? I think?

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