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In its latest episode, Kingdom’s not playing to its strengths

C+
Screenshot: Kingdom
Screenshot: Kingdom
C+

Kingdom

"Head Hunter"

Season 3 , Episode 4

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I’ve been doing my best to avoid reading too much into the fact that this is the final season of Kingdom. Creator and writer Byron Balasco didn’t know for certain that this batch of 10 episodes would be the show’s last, though he did say that he writes every season with some sense of finality. And this bears out when you consider the finales of the previous seasons: The first ended with Jay and Ryan mounting successful comebacks, while the second season wrapped on an optimistic note (all things considered), even after shattering the relative calm. Just four episodes into season three, it’s hard to tell where this is all going. The possibilities are there, though. We have Alvey’s big fight, Ryan losing—and maybe finding—his way again, Lisa recommitting to the business to fill the void in her personal life (the Kulinas have been there), not to mention Jay struggling to live a “normal life” and Nate still keeping up the appearance of a heteronormative one. Christina’s also found a way to channel her destructive and maternal instincts at a kind of brothel.

With or without the knowledge this season would be the last, Balasco could have found a way to reach a satisfactory conclusion for any and all of those storylines, while avoiding wrapping things up too neatly (one of his strengths, really). He still might—it’s early yet—but things aren’t looking good as we approach the midseason mark. There’s enough story, tension, and resentment left over from previous seasons—Jay and Ryan, round three, for example—that new antagonist Dom feels superfluous. As a commenter pointed out a couple weeks ago, Dom was mixing steroids (which I rather incorrectly assumed were actually some kind of homeopathic remedy) with his whey. Now it’s clear that his excitement at landing the coaching job at Navy Street has more to do with some kind of revenge plot. He’s hitting on Lisa (and then some), doping Ryan, and trying to usurp Alvey’s position. And although he’s now aware that Ryan was playing him, Dom isn’t giving up... whatever it is he’s trying to accomplish.

Screenshot: Kingdom

My apologies to Kirk Acevedo, but this storyline is just doing nothing for me. The Kulinas and Ryan, and hell, even Lisa and Christina, don’t need anyone else to help them fuck up. Jay barely talked to the guy, but in “Head Hunter,” he managed to get fired from his real estate job. As much as Kingdom likes to pummel its players, it‘s rarely ever just to make a point that life will beat you up. Sometimes the blows—relapsing, getting fired, etc.—build the characters’ resistance. Other times, they’re the shots our protagonists are taking. There have been many tough lessons, but the drama’s never felt manufactured. Until now, anyway. Now, Dom’s machinations feel shoehorned in. There are enough threats to Jay’s domestic bliss, Ryan’s rehabilitation, Alvey’s legacy, and Lisa’s recovery that we don’t need a Snidely Whiplash mixing up chocolate-flavored ’roid shakes. Those wheels are already in motion. Alvey going off the Lexapro again isn’t going to end well; Lisa hasn’t really addressed her grief, and nor has Ryan; and again, Jay will do just fine on his own, ruining his chance at a family.

It’s not that new additions aren’t welcome. They’ve worked out before—Alicia (Natalie Martinez) scraping her way to the top was compelling last season, and although she moved on, she managed to disrupt the order of things. But the writing there was more thoughtful; Balasco took the time to flesh out Alicia’s character, so she was never in danger of being merely a distraction. Meanwhile, Dom’s telegraphing that he’s here to stir some shit. There could be some huge development in the second half that justifies Dom’s existence, but is that really the best use of the remaining time? Even if this weren’t the final season, it would still feel like a wasted opportunity.

Screenshot: Kingdom

Speaking of which, we have to talk about Keith. I have, admittedly, never been a fan of this character. He’s ostensibly comic relief, but even if we could set aside the “hierarchy of sex offenders” bit that follows him wherever he goes, the laughs have just never really been there. And he’s gone from weird to potentially dangerous; remember when he stood over a sleeping Alicia with a knife? After being officially placed on the sex registry this season, he’s started losing his already tenuous grip on reality, and hiding knives all around the house. Now he’s just gone out and murdered someone after cutting off his ankle monitor, and involved Ryan, to boot.

If Keith has some kind of symbolic presence, it’s been lost in the wacky tone that usually accompanies his scenes, as well as the heavy-handed manner in which he went from laughingstock to predator. Keith’s always been a potential time-bomb, and while that did feel a bit redundant early on—just about everyone in Kingdom is a couple bad days away from a meltdown—it wasn’t nearly as unsettling as it is now. And the question still remains: what’s the point of all of this? Keith was the loaded gun placed center stage in the first season, which has finally been fired. Fine. But what’s the payoff? If Keith represents Ryan’s darker urges, he needn’t have bothered; they’re rarely ever far from the surface.

If it seems like I’m venting, maybe I am, but Keith being a loose end makes Dom’s presence all the more egregious. These sad sacks certainly fit into the show’s themes of self-destructive behavior and loneliness, but they haven’t been integrated into the story. The former outlived his usefulness long ago, while the latter has a lot to prove, and in a relatively short time. “Head Hunter” just feels like Kingdom’s spinning its wheels. There’s so much more to Alvey’s desire and fear to return to the ring to explore, so much left in Ryan’s journey. Lisa’s killing it as a manager, but she admits tonight that she cries over things she has no control over. She has significant guilt over miscarrying, in part because she didn’t want to have the baby. Or if Kingdom wants to focus on new characters, how about making Amy more than a one-dimensional nag?We know what’s preventing Jay from making things work at home, but we haven’t heard much of her side, beyond some potential class issues. Kingdom could do justice to any one of those stories, but instead, it’s just adding more fights to the card. And this late in the game, that’s just not playing to its strengths.

Stray observations

  • I apologize for not posting a review of episode three, “Thank You, Boys.” I could tell you I was swamped, but who isn’t these days? Anyway, I’m especially sorry in light of the fact that I enjoyed it much more than I did “Head Hunter.” Ryan as Alvey’s bogeyman brings us back to season one, which is actually fitting. Jay and Ryan’s scuffle, which cost Jay his job, was also needed to clear the air.
  • Speaking of season one, it stands out more than ever for its powerful yet economic storytelling.
  • Happy to have Nate back, and opening up to Christina, who assumes the role of “cool mom” by encouraging her son to see “what’s out there” before settling down with his British boyfriend (who I still have a problem with).
  • As frustrating as the overall story was this episode, the cast did its damnedest to sell me on it. Shout-outs to Frank Grillo, for being able to turn on the charm when needed, and force everyone around him to cut the shit, and Jonathan Tucker, who took Jay from garrulous barfly to self-loathing partner and dad so effortlessly.
  • Having watched so many crime procedurals, I have to wonder if Ryan puking at the murder scene is going to bite him in the ass.