Television can be an awfully ephemeral medium. Television shows and characters can change radically from week to week but a series finale possesses a sense of permanency that sets it apart from everything that came before and ups the stakes dramatically. Finales matter in a way that other episodes don’t. They’re picked apart and debated by fans years after a show has come to an end.
With “Chapter 21” the often glorious, generally ribald and wildly entertaining three-year saga of fire-balling anti-hero Kenny Powers comes to a close. That’s inherently bittersweet. A show about a closer has come to a close with an episode alternately driven by swagger and sensitivity, callousness and sentimentality.
Eastbound & Down’s final begins with an ending. In this case it’s the end of obnoxious Texas closer Seth Rogen’s life when he wanders drunkenly into the middle of the street to deliver an ostensibly heartfelt speech to a girl he’s been hitting on in a bar. It has been my experience that people in television and movies do not deliver speeches in the middle of seemingly empty streets unless they are about to be killed by large, fast-moving vehicles of some sort, which is exactly what happens to Rogen.
Rogen’s death clears the way for Kenny’s ascent to big-league glory when he’s called up to the majors. But first Kenny has some personal business to attend to. In a gloriously misplaced display of bravado, Kenny once again busts into Andrea’s college classroom and interrupts one of her courses. Only this time he’s not there to win Andrea back: no, this time he descends upon her class to break up with a woman whom, it should be noted, he’s no longer actually dating and deliver a giant fuck you to her and her generation. “Sure, your bodies might be tight. You might like to have sex in amazing, cool, intricate positions but besides that shit, y’all don’t have a fucking clue.” Kenny taunts before adding, “Youth can suck my dick.”
That goodbye pales in significance, however, to his goodbye to Stevie. Kenny understandably imagines that Stevie will happily follow him to the majors like a loyal little puppy and is disheartened to learn that Stevie has manned the fuck up and decided that being Kenny’s hopelessly devoted bitch isn’t as important to him as trying to make things work with Maria and being a father to their unborn child.
Kenny initially sees this news through the filter of shameless self-interest. That’s how he sees everything. To Kenny, Maria and her unborn child are just more roadblocks and impediments in a comeback full of them. But, in a preview of what’s to come, Kenny betrays some emotional growth when he lets Stevie embrace his newfound desire to be a family man.
Stevie isn’t the only one feeling the unmistakable pull of family life. After delivering news of his call-up to April and giving the mother of his child the pot pipe that houses Toby’s beloved crab, Kenny learns that April didn’t just come back for Toby: she also came back for him. April was hurt, deeply, by Kenny’s various betrayals and lashed out in a devastating way but she never stopped caring for Kenny and hoping that he might live up to his potential as a partner and a human being as well as a baseball player.
In Texas, meanwhile, Kenny receives a wildly homoerotic re-introduction to the majors when Matthew McConaughey’s Roy McDaniel leads Kenny in a prayer that deals more graphically and extensively with the details of performing oral sex than I would imagine any other prayer in the history of Christendom.
Kenny takes the mound and is throwing nothing but heat until he dramatically drops the ball and walks away from both the game and the dream he’s been working towards all comeback long. Why? Is he terrified of actually having to live up to the legend he’s created in his mind? Or is it enough to simply make it to the majors? Or, alternately, has Kenny finally fucking figured out that what’s important in life is being a good partner to the woman of his dreams and his beautiful baby son? Has the most self-centered man in the history of the universe figured out that the world is bigger than him and his ego?
Having achieved his dream, Kenny appears eminently ready to throw it all away so that he can come back to April and finally be the man she deserves. “I’m in a fucking Cameron Crowe movie!” Kenny yells exuberantly while driving drunkenly back to April before he takes an unfortunate turn, his car hurtles off a cliff and Kenny apparently plummets to his death in a fiery car crash.
Nothing lends gravity to a finale quite like the death of a lead character, especially when that character is as beloved and larger than life than Kenny fucking Powers. As I’ve written earlier, Eastbound & Down is one of the best and most directed shows on television and the way director Jody Hill handles the other characters in the show reacting to the news of Kenny’s apparent death is lovely, elegant, moving and underscores just how many lives Kenny has touched, for better or worse.
I had a powerfully mixed reaction to much of “Chapter 21.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about Eastbound & Down killing off Kenny Powers, just as I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the big reveal that Kenny didn’t die after all, that he faked his death so that he could start over again with April and Toby without the oppressive weight of being Kenny Powers.
As the show more or less acknowledges, from a logical perspective it doesn’t really make sense for Kenny to fake his own death in order to commit to April. As April points out after Kenny reveals that he’s not dead, if Kenny really wanted to be a good partner, provider and father he could have just brought April and Toby with him to Texas. And, you know, he could have provided for Toby and April’s future with the money he would have made as a big league baseball player.
On a symbolic, metaphorical level, however, the gesture makes more sense. For “Kenny Powers” is a myth as much as he’s a man. Kenny Powers the badass superstar rock star ballplayer is a drugged-up monster of id and ego, a larger-than-life persona incompatible with being a good, humble human being and loving and devoted father. In that respect, the show’s unforgettable anti-hero had to dramatically and very publicly kill off the myth of Kenny Powers, the ultimate winner and incorrigible pussy-hound, so that Kenny Powers the man could have a shot at leading a good, substantive life as a humble father and partner.
“Chapter 21” ends on an unmistakably sentimental note, but it’s telling that even when Kenny does the right thing—being there for April and Toby—he does so in the most flamboyant, spectacular and misguided manner imaginable. Kenny can’t do anything in half measures. It’s not enough to simply quit at the apex of his comeback. No, that motherfucker has to out-do 2Pac and Elvis and Andy Kaufman and fake his own death.
By this point, Kenny Powers deserve to breathe that rarified air. He’s a goddamned icon and an American treasure. It seems a little premature to give this episode a grade at this point. I’m still processing "Chapter 21" in my mind but my first and second impression (I watch every episode twice before writing a review) is one of mild disappointment. Eastbound & Down was (oh fuck is it ever depressing to think of the show in the past tense) a great fucking show, even if it ended with a finale that was merely good.
Season grade: A-
Series grade: A
- Goddamned did Stevie look creepy tonight. He was disturbing-looking before shaving his head and eyebrows but that process turned him into a fucking Gollum
- Some great Stevie lines tonight, particularly, “He’s got some new shit to get baby-hard to!” and “He lives in a fucking bowl! He must be getting high as fuck!”
- “This isn’t a school shooting. It’s something far more fantastic.” Oh Kenny Powers, you charmer you.
- Tonight we got some more great bittersweet jet-ski action, this time featuring Stevie
- “I hope this inspirational novel-story helps to give you inspiration in your attempts to stop being a regular normal person and to start being a champion instead.” Words to live by, though in the end it appears being a regular normal person has its appeal to Kenny as well
- I will miss you a fuck-ton, Kenny Powers. Thanks for the memories.