Eastbound & Down: “Chapter 16”
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Eastbound & Down: “Chapter 16”

The world looks a whole lot more exciting when seen through Kenny Powers’ eyes. Along with his preternatural gift for twisting and contorting and making sweet love to the English language (he truly is a poet of profanity, a redneck shit-kicker David Mamet), that’s a big part of what makes Kenny so likable despite himself and the massive aggregation of character flaws that constitute his personality.

Everything is infinitely more magical and mythic and larger-than-life when filtered through Kenny’s genius for self-mythologizing and self-delusion. In Kenny’s world a run of the mill computer becomes a Computer Research Lab and a shitty old abandoned cement factory becomes a temple of learning and wisdom whose powers must be harnessed and its secrets learned.

The abandoned cement factory’s roof is no mere roof: it is, in Kenny’s glorious turn of phrase, it is the “yonder peaks of an ancient building.” In Kenny’s filter of awesomeness, murdering a rat becomes a sacred right of passage, a way for a questing young man to prove himself. In Kenny’s mind, he’s not some drugged-up middle-aged has-been trying desperately to hold on. No, he’s a shogun, a swami, a mystic, a goddamned mulleted Jedi.

Kenny holds onto this delusional image of himself as, to paraphrase Mr. Show, King Shit of Fuck Mountain by surrounding himself with a protective cocoon of people who hold him in nearly as high a regard as he holds himself, whether that’s Stevie, who worships him as a man-God, Shane, who does likewise, or Matthew McConaughey’s Texas scout Roy, who considers Kenny a selfless guru and “consummate professional” capable of passing his non-existent wisdom and life experience onto Ivan, a young stud of a Russian relief pitcher who sees right through Kenny because they have so much in common, mullets, fastballs and humungous ego included.

In “Chapter 16”, Kenny’s incredibly fragile self-regard and sense of self receive another blistering attack in the form of a cocky young Russian relief pitcher eager to take Kenny’s place as the closer in the Mermen bullpen.

Roy wants Kenny to mentor the brash young fireballer, to serve as a sagacious, wisdom-dispensing Mr. Miyagi to Ivan’s impressionable Daniel-San but Kenny very correctly perceives the young man as a sneering threat, especially when a would-be mentoring session at the aforementioned abandoned cement factory devolves into an open exchange of hostilities. Kenny and Ivan’s Cold War turns white-hot, in just one of the show’s many tributes to the 1980s.

Eastbound & Down is nearly as stuck in the Reagan era as its obliviously retro protagonist. Musically, cinematically and style-wise, Kenny never seems to have evolved beyond 1985 so it makes sense that he now finds himself pitted against a Bolshevik menace from a post-communist Russia.

Kenny isn’t the only Eastbound & Down fixture under fire from a crafty usurper. Even after Stevie and his bride essentially agree to raise Toby, Kenny still breaks his former sidekick’s heart by both ridiculing his baby boy’s lovingly appointed dojo-turned-playroom as something that looks “like the place where Cabbage Patch Kids come to fuck!” and loudly proclaiming Shane as his best friend.  In Kenny’s painfully adolescent conception of friendship, a best friend is someone you impress by hiding your insecurities around. As Kenny tells Stevie with impeccable anti-logic, “(Shane is) my best friend. He’s not someone I say things to!”

Eastbound & Down has always been ragingly homoerotic, but it’s never been more homoerotic than in this episode, whether a distraught Stevie is wearing a womanly apron while pouring his heart out to Kenny, Roy is invading Kenny’s personal space and purring softly enough that Kenny has to lean in to hear him or a threatened Shane is warning Stevie to stay away from his man.

When a desperate and tearful Stevie tells Kenny, “I come down here and you’re running around with some other guy!” he of course sounds more like a scorned lover than a pal worried a new buddy is horning in on his turf. I’m not even going to get into multiple acts of pantomimed sodomy or crude double entendres involving ball watching.

“My whole goddamned reign of power is being challenged here, Stevie!” Kenny tells Stevie in a moment of weakness and while Stevie says all the right things, Kenny’s bottomless need for validation requires much more than even the selfless and endlessly self-negating Stevie is able to give him so, in a veritable replay of numerous public outbursts involving April, Kenny bursts into his teenaged girlfriend Andrea’s college classroom and implores her to shore up his waning confidence in his hour of need.

Andrea is barely able to string a sentence together. “It’s whatever” is about as eloquent and incisive as she gets so Kenny ends up looking to his adoring male posse for the unflagging support the women in his life deny him. When baseball is cruel and women desert him, Kenny ends up looking for bro love in all the wrong places.

After a disastrous outing on the mound where he’s chewed out by his coach and Ivan saves the day and the game, Kenny ends up hoovering powder confidence and doing monster rails with his best friend and the devil on his shoulder Shane, though it’s Shane, not Kenny, who pays the price for his decadence when he ends a live-wire episode by clutching his heart and crashing to the ground while Kenny does a wonderfully retro little dance to “Walk Like An Egyptian.”

Last episode found Eastbound & Down absconding into a weird realm of cartoonish fantasy and make believe but “Chapter 16” marked a hell of a comeback. The tragicomic and richly developed relationship between Kenny and Stevie gives it a solid grounding in real emotion and the episode is filled with brilliant details and genius throwaway gags, like Toby absent-mindedly fondling a pill bottle on the couch while porn stars attack a pair of big pink dildos on a television in the background.

Ivan proves a worthy new adversary, a part-time DJ (of course) who is enough like Kenny to hold him in complete contempt and Kenny’s rage at Stevie for creating a perfect playroom for Toby is both hilarious and a little heartbreaking, as is his cavalier disregard for Stevie’s fragile feelings and an adorable son of whom he say, cruelly but perfectly, “Look how cute he is. I fucking hate him.”

At this point, the Kenny-Stevie relationship is as central to the show’s emotional core as the severed Kenny-April bond though unlike April, it’s doubtful Stevie will ever leave him. How could he? Kenny is his God, his hero, his homemade religion. So it’s altogether fitting that even when Stevie tries to lay down the law and stand up for himself, he ends his monologue with the exuberantly delivered words, “We must, by law, have the most coolest and amazing shit-awesome time in Myrtle fucking Beach and party like the fuu-uck!”

Words to live by, friend. Words to live by, from a show and a man that’s a veritable repository of the wisdom of the ancients and the shit-awesome.

Stray observations:

  • I love the devastatingly casual way Kenny tells Stevie, “This is Shane. He’s my best friend.”
  • Toby loves it when Shane pretends to dry-hump Stevie. Truly a chip off the old block.
  • How awesome is McConaughey here? Every detail rings true, from his granny glasses to his honeyed delivery of, “You’re down here squirting fire like a dragon’s pussy.”
  • Stevie’s pep talk to Kenny was both funny and poignant. He is a true believer, no matter how many times he gets hurt.

 

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