“Chapter 19” is about as sentimental and family-centered as Eastbound & Down gets, but goddamned if the show doesn’t undercut its sentimentality at every turn. It’s an episode about the ties that bind and assholes whose self-centeredness and rampant egotism destroy the families they create, as well as the damage they leave in their wake. But it’s also about the resiliency of family and the eternal power of forgiveness.
The episode begins with Kenny Powers’ badass mom (Lily Tomlin) punching a rival bowler when she dares to impugn the good name of her “famous baseball player son,” solely because of some steroid and prostitution scandals in his distant past. It’s a sign, as if any were needed, that Powers family values are much, much different from the kind generally found on television.
Kenny’s mom is exhilarated to be reunited with her son and her grandbaby, but she is considerably less enthused to be reunited with Eddie Powers (a career-best Don Johnson), who, in the classic tradition of deadbeat dads, went out to grab a pack of smokes 27 years ago, then disappeared, seemingly for good.
Decades later, Eddie reappears as part of Kenny’s mutant posse: baby son Toby, tragicomic Uncle Fester-looking sidekick Stevie, and Eddie’s miscreant other son. Kenny presents them as a mere fraction of the “elite entourage” he has as part of his “Hollywood dream life,” a motley crew that includes a “personal hygienicist,” “obstetricionist,” and, most impressively, a “magicianist” (what elite entourage is complete without at least one magicianist?), in addition to a “man made of skin,” who serves as his“nanny/assistant,” and a “disabled mouth-breather minority,” who toils as his “personal chef.”
Kenny’s mom is too delighted to be in her son’s presence to poke holes in the impregnable wall of self-delusion he’s created around himself, though she’s nowhere as happy to see Eddie, to whom she delivers a swift kick to the nuts as a greeting. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so Kenny’s mom invites him to check out her “trophy room” as a pretext to exchange pharmaceuticals.
In a thoroughly uncharacteristic act of chivalry, Eddie volunteers to sleep in the RV, but Kenny’s mom won’t hear of it. Eddie may be a Kenny Powers-level prick, but he’s still family. She, of course, pays a terrible price for her generosity and capacity to forgive when Eddie repays her generosity by trying to steal expensive silverware while she sleeps.
As Kenny articulates in his closing narration, “Most people have things like feelings and sentimental attachments.” Eddie is no different, but those feelings and sentimental attachments generally fight a losing battle against greed and self-interest. The same is true of Kenny. Kenny’s mom is psyched to see him and meet her grandson, but, like Eddie, he’s made the exodus to her home with a sleazy ulterior motive: Eddie wants to steal her shit, but Kenny plans to leave Toby with her permanently. It seems the Powers men cannot make one step forward morally speaking without shimmying at least two steps back.
But before we’re reminded that on a fundamental level, the Powers men are despicable human beings, we’re reminded that they’re also a whole lot of fun in a bowling montage that illustrates yet again why Eastbound & Down makes the savviest use of music in all of television. Nobody does a musical montage quite like Eastbound & Down. The show elevates it to the level of shit-kicking redneck art.
Stevie tries to reassure a dispirited Kenny that they are, in his accidentally eloquent turn of phrase, “two broken men,” but Kenny wants to be something more. In the words of his similarly loquacious father, he and Kenny are “both just tragic heroes in the book of life,” who seize upon an opportunity for redemption by interrupting Kenny’s mom’s bowling tournament by appearing spontaneously and delivering dueling yet complementary pleas for forgiveness for the crimes they’ve committed. Eddie wants to be forgiven for trying to steal her shit, then disappearing, while Kenny wants to prove himself as a father, at least until April reappears.
“Chapter 19” is spectacularly funny, but thanks largely to Tomlin’s simultaneously fire-breathing and incongruously tender performance, it’s also one of the most poignant and emotionally resonant episodes to date. Johnson and Tomlin have a gloriously lived-in relationship. Their relationship may have died a horrible death decades earlier, but they nevertheless have fantastic chemistry. It’s easy to imagine that these damaged, broken people could have loved each other and created Kenny Powers, and it’s equally easy to imagine that they could have driven each other crazy.
“Chapter 19” ends with Kenny nutting up and accepting the responsibility his own father callously shirked, but I sincerely hope we haven’t seen the last of Tomlin. She was a motherfucking force of nature in tonight’s episode. If she doesn’t pick up an Emmy nomination for her performance, then there is no justice in the world. Then again, Eastbound & Down is entirely too awesome for the Emmys: It deserves a motherfucking Peabody at the very least.
In its own raunchy, profane, fucked-up way, “Chapter 19” is a stirring affirmation of family. It’s enormously satisfying and even sweet at times without sacrificing its admirable dedication to badassery.
- I would so buy a coffee table book called Kenny Powers On Vehicles.
- “Looks like your dad’s gonna go balls deep in your mom tonight!” declares Stevie in just one of the episode’s many cringe-inducing yet hilarious references to Johnson-on-Tomlin fucking.
- Like Kenny, Eddie is a charming asshole despite himself.
- “Kenny Powers is strong enough to be a woman.” Oh yes he is. Perhaps that is the most important take-away from the episode.