Eastbound & Down: “Chapter 18”
B+

Eastbound & Down: “Chapter 18”

The last episode of Eastbound & Down was so unrelentingly bleak and uncompromising that whatever followed it had to be lighter by comparison. Sure enough, the show follows up one of the darkest installments to date with a party episode that finds Kenny Powers angling to regain his status as the uncontested team leader of The Mermen (never mind that his teammates barely tolerate Kenny, let alone treat him with the fawning reverence he angrily demands) by throwing the beach blast to end all beach blasts.

This is Eastbound & Down, however, so darkness crowds every frame. Even if Kenny’s Fourth of July blowout were a raging success and the rager he intended, Kenny would still be celebrating our nation’s anniversary with the vices and illicit substances that recently killed his best friend. At different intervals in tonight’s episode, Kenny and Stevie both seemed on the verge of destroying themselves.

Stevie is so wracked with guilt and shame over his recent infidelity that when he ominously carries around a straight razor it seems possible, if not inevitable, that he’ll use it to punish himself for cheating on his wife in the most brutal and permanent manner imaginable. And when Kenny snorts crushed-up Adderall and sucks on a gas mask full of Nitrous Oxide he looks less like a man out to enjoy himself than a self-loathing hedonist on a mission of total self-destruction. Sucking down nitrous in a fit of rage, Kenny looks positively satanic or at least like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.

Kenny’s stated goal is to “destroy Ivan” and “kill the playoffs” so Shane’s ghost “can take my fastballs and make them do loop-de-loops like Angels In The Outfield,” but a harsh world has some other ideas.

“Chapter 18” opens with another curveball in the return of Kenny’s good-for-nothing dad Eduardo (Don Johnson), who is first seen giddily shoplifting incredibly stupid tourist shit en route to a date with destiny with Kenny in Myrtle Beach. Eduardo, you see, wants to redeem himself for a lifetime of irresponsibility and terrible choices by turning back time and winning back the love of Kenny’s mother, whom we’re not introduced to until the very end of the episode.

Kenny’s mom gets the ultimate iconic treatment; the shot that introduces her creates a visceral sense of anticipation by withholding the big reveal until the last possible moment. The show gets a little fancy with the camerawork, but the revelation more than lives up to the elaborate build-up. Eastbound & Down is brilliant at roping in huge, iconic, perfectly cast stars for crucial supporting roles; the casting of Kenny’s mom here is no different.

Ah, but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Kenny’s dad isn’t the only one out to redeem himself. Kenny tries to finagle his way back into his college girlfriend Andrea’s good graces after the tasteless stunt he played last week involving Shane’s straight-laced identical twin brother by playing the dad card. Kenny might see Andrea as Toby’s “new mother figure,” but Andrea doesn’t seem interested in anything but having a good time. She’s no more interested in playing mom than Kenny is in playing dad. She’s a party girl through and through, and Kenny’s party grows sadder and more depressing by the day.

That’s true both literally and figuratively. Kenny wants to throw a kick-ass Fourth of July party to alienate Ivan and solidify his place as the team leader/franchise player/star, but Ivan steals his thunder by booking a sweet-ass gig to DJ on Independence Day at a trashy-fun club under his DJ moniker DJ Blu-Ray.

Kenny psychs himself up for the party by doing a fuck-ton of drugs and riding around on his jet-ski in a pimping Uncle Sam get-up, but when he makes a dramatic entrance at his beach party, he’s horrified to discover that his teammates, would-be friends, and girlfriend have all ditched him in favor of partying with his sworn enemy. Just about the only people who bothered to show up are some tragic-looking prostitutes, one with a black eye; a dispirited band; and some mysterious old people dancing some sad dance of the damned.

Our enraged antihero makes a beeline to Ivan’s awesome Fourth of July party where he indulges in one of Eastbound & Down’s most beloved and ubiquitous fixtures: the big monologue where Kenny makes a huge ass of himself while failing egregiously to win people over to his side with his self-aggrandizing, drug-addled anti-logic.

When Kenny fails to win back his team and his girlfriend with his words, he resorts to setting off fireworks in the tightly packed club in a sequence rich in dark visual poetry. David Gordon Green might be an auteur and aging cinematic wunderkind, but I find Jody Hill’s episodes more visually arresting, ambitious, and accomplished than Green’s episodes, especially in their use of music. That’s true of tonight’s episode as well.

We saw the worst of Stevie in last week’s episode. Like Kenny, Stevie often behaves in a selfish and self-absorbed fashion. Unlike Kenny, he’s often riddled with shame over his actions. So while he cheated on his wife last week, this week, he’s so filled with guilt that he both tells his wife what he’s done and shaves his head in a symbolic act of self-punishment and self-negation. Good lord does Stevie look creepy bald, like some sort of mutant Uncle Fester.

“Chapter 18” ends with Eduardo manipulating Kenny with honeyed words about how great his life and career would be if he were only able to pawn the responsibility of raising his child off on someone more constitutionally up to the task, someone like, say, Kenny’s mother, whom Eduardo coincidentally and conveniently desperately wants to get back together with for cryptic and undoubtedly self-serving reasons.

This episode couldn’t help but feel lighter and more disposable than last week’s misery-fest. It was funnier and more entertaining, if still unrelentingly dark in places. There’s no such thing as a typical episode of Eastbound & Down, but tonight found the show on more familiar footing, even if it opened and closed with curveballs. “Chapter 18” began by being about fathers and sons, but it looks like next week will be all about sons and mothers. I can’t wait.

Stray observations:

  • Kenny in an Uncle Sam get-up: always awesome.
  • Kenny on a jet ski: also always awesome
  • I enjoyed Kenny’s exquisitely condescending back-handed praise for Ivan, AKA DJ Blu-Ray: “no one spins that gay-ass rave music as good as him.”
  • How sad was Kenny’s party? I kind of wanted the episode to linger on some of its more pathetic aspects (which is to say all of it).
  • Lily Tomlin as Kenny’s mom: fucking perfect. Great stunt casting, and I really liked Don Johnson in this episode as well.  

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