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A transitional Ted Lasso finale understands the show’s future better than it reckons with its past

The second season was ambitious but messy, and this finale only further muddled its intentions.

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Ted Lasso
Ted Lasso
Photo: Apple TV+

Ted Lasso’s second season began with a penalty kick, as Dani Rojas looked to give AFC Richmond its first win of the season and ended up ending Earl the greyhound’s life. And so it’s fitting that Richmond’s season comes down to another penalty kick in “Inverting The Pyramid Of Success,” and that Jamie—even though he hasn’t missed a penalty all season— decides that Dani should be the one to seal the draw that would earn the team promotion back to the Premier League on their first attempt following their relegation.

But while these moments are clear narrative bookends for this season of television, I was deeply perplexed by the suggestion of this moment as a climax for this finale. Dani’s story functionally disappeared after he was cured of the yips, and outside of some quips and a battle with dress shoes we never got any clear sense of how his onfield performance or off-field life were unfolding. And while Jamie being willing to give up the ball during a key moment is certainly related to his maturing as a player since his return to Richmond, it does nothing to connect with his relationship with his father, or his more recent self-insertion into Roy and Keeley’s relationship that causes some tension throughout the episode. The scenes may be bookends, but there’s no meaningful connection to the stories being told in between them.

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This is, unfortunately, a common theme across “Inverting The Pyramid Of Success,” which is a logical transition point in the series’ larger narrative but makes a collection of very strange choices in how it resolves or escalates the season’s storylines in order to reach that transition. If you were to go back to the beginning of the season and say that Rupert would purchase West Ham United and poach Nate from the coaching staff to become the Cobra Kai to Richmond’s Miyagi-Do, that would feel like a logical evolution of the series’ storytelling.

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But what confused me most about this finale is that so much of the work the season did to place Ted’s philosophy under a microscope and consider the limitations of a culture of positivity was effectively unwritten by how the show chose to resolve those stories, creating almost no accountability for the lapses in personal and professional conduct that we saw unfold. The core truth of the season of television I’ve been writing about is that AFC Richmond was promoted in spite of—and not because of—Ted Lasso’s leadership, and yet this finale undercuts even the parts of the season that worked the best by refusing to explore this reality.

This is most prominent in the circumstances of Nate’s departure, which was foregrounded by last week’s cliffhanger when Ted learned that it was his own assistant coach who told Trent Crimm (The Independent) about his panic attack. It’s perfectly in character that Ted has no desire to lash out at Nate, and that he plans to go about his day ignoring that everyone is staring at him, there’s paparazzi outside his door, and he mixed up the salt and sugar in the previous night’s batch of biscuits. Ted is hoping that Nate will apologize, but it’s quickly clear he’s too cowardly to do that, and that isn’t helped by how quickly the team rallies around the idea of hunting the culprit down. Beard pushes him to confront Nate to help get closure over what happened, but avoidance is Ted’s instinct, and so it’s no surprise that it takes Nate losing his cool in the midst of the match with Brentford before they’re able to have an honest conversation about it.

However, there’s not a whole lot of honesty in that conversation from Nate’s perspective, and it took a storyline that I thought was working pretty well and muddled it considerably. Up until that point, the episode does a great job of poking the bear when it comes to Nate’s situation, and Beard’s growing anger at Nate’s cowardice. During the Diamond Dogs scene where Roy asks for advice, the moment where Nate says he has to admit something is a terrific swerve, and Beard’s reaction to discovering he kissed Keeley has such a joyous contempt to it. The episode was building to the moment when Nate’s anger would boil over, and where Ted would be able to see the ways he failed to recognize his loss of perspective, and a deeper reckoning seemed to be on the horizon.

But then, mid-match, Nate’s breakdown—while well-rendered by Nick Mohammed—was delusional in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. There are kernels of truth about how Nate has far more knowledge about football than Ted, who still doesn’t understand the basics of the game despite having had a lot of time to do so, but most of what he complains about is juvenile and self-centered.

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He effectively lays into Ted for not getting enough attention, explaining that he had made him feel special and then didn’t offer him enough positive affirmation afterwards. It’s his Daddy Issues jumping to the forefront, but it turns into the whole emotional core of his frustration, and frankly if I were Ted I would feel as though there was nothing I could have done to keep this from happening. If Nate needed that level of babysitting, he was always going to lose touch with reality such that he perceived Ted agreeing to go along with the “False Nine” strategy as a plot to blame him for a loss as opposed to a vote of confidence.

Essentially, the only way Nate’s story really works for me is if it forces self-reflection from Ted, Beard, and the rest of the coaching staff about their responsibility for Nate’s heel turn. However, that never materializes here. Beard knew that he was inappropriate with Colin, but no one has clued into the way he was treating Will, and Beard never accepts responsibility for failing to realize his initial intervention didn’t pan out. Ted, meanwhile, completely missed how his inability to take Nate seriously—like when he thinks he’s a “big dog” and Ted laughs at him—was accumulating in his psyche, or how the hiring of Roy would have added to this. But for these realities to sink in, Nate’s exit would have to be seen as a preventable occurrence, and as something that they would have wanted to avoid.

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However, the way Nate salts the earth by literally tearing the “Believe” sign in half after storming off during the team’s celebration makes it hard to imagine anyone being sad to see him leave, and the sight of him in full Cobra Kai mode with Rupert at West Ham turns him into such a villain that you can’t come back to that. We never see a scene equivalent to when Ted found out that Rebecca let Jamie return to Man City in season one, and he laments his missed opportunity to get through to him. There’s never a moment where Nate’s absence is read as anything other than “good riddance,” robbing the show of a chance to assess how his story punctured the idea that Ted’s positive culture carried only positive consequences.

Image for article titled A transitional Ted Lasso finale understands the show’s future better than it reckons with its past
Photo: Apple TV+
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It’s clear that we haven’t seen the last of Nate, and it’s likely the show will explore his path to redemption once Rupert’s whispers turn into the type of judgment and ridicule that Ted never actually directed toward him. But it’s a bizarre way to move into that story because it cuts off the actual implications of his descent into darkness, as Ted simply sips champagne with Rebecca and toasts to their future in the Premier League as though this chapter of the show is over.

It’s a bizarre tone for the episode to set at its conclusion, and takes what should have been a moment of reckoning and turns it into an awkward encounter that Ted just sets aside for next season. And while it’s true Ted didn’t yet know at that time that Nate would be joining Rupert at West Ham, it’s bizarre that we don’t get an epilogue scene for Ted reacting to that development: his last scene is his farewell to Trent Crimm (Independent), which doesn’t accomplish much of anything. The choice to instead end on the “stinger” of Nate’s Villain Hair as a teaser for the third season certainly clarifies the narrative arc moving forward, but it misses an opportunity to solidify how the events of this season will carry forward in Ted’s coaching philosophy.

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I know Game Of Thrones has become something of a joke after the response to the final season, but one thing it modeled very effectively was using the penultimate episode of each season as a climax, allowing for a finale that would simultaneously reflect on the season that came before it and gesture toward the future. And that’s what Ted Lasso really needed, because across the board the actual resolution that comes after Richmond’s promotion is rushed and frankly confounding.

This is perhaps most true with Roy and Keeley, whose story in this episode is a bit chaotic throughout this episode but reaches a new level of confusion in the epilogue. Last week, many argued that the show wasn’t actually setting up a love triangle for the characters, and that it was just testing their connection. And sure enough, despite leaving them in a very tense moment on the sofa during the photo shoot, they’re basically operating as normal when the episode starts, which really underlined how much the pileup of complications was a narrative ploy more than an organic character development.

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The seeming lack of continuity is jarring, but once Jamie comes clean to Roy about his mistake and Roy forgives him, the story settles into a moment of uncertainty about their future, and whether Roy believes that he is the right person for Keeley as she takes the next step in her career and starts a P.R. firm. It’s not the worst place for the story to land, even if it does raise the question of why any of the bullshit with Jamie or Phoebe’s teacher was necessary to get there (the Nate kiss is honestly most justified as a way to escalate his anger that no one takes him seriously during the Diamond Dogs meeting, which is very effective).

But then the epilogue scene makes no sense. Why is Keeley suddenly convinced that she has to focus so much on her career that she can’t work remotely? Wouldn’t they have communicated about this previously? The season was already set to place their relationship in a murky place given the changes ahead, but why did they need to create this forced separation as Roy goes on vacation with his paper tickets (although he does leave them behind)? We either needed an additional scene of Keeley facing pressure related to her firm or the scene itself needed to be longer and have them actually discuss where her anxiety was coming from. And all of this could have been facilitated if they had used one of their extra episodes to take the cascading epilogues they felt were necessary and let them breathe, exploring the aftermath of their promotion to consider the consequences that might not have been as clear when the dust hadn’t settled.

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Image for article titled A transitional Ted Lasso finale understands the show’s future better than it reckons with its past
Photo: Apple TV+

It would have also allowed the show more space to consider the power dynamics of Sam and Rebecca’s relationship, which resolves in an agreeable fashion but reinforces the mess leading up to that point. Where Sam ends up—choosing to stay in Richmond to continue making a difference for young people and committing to engaging with his diasporic identity by turning the empty storefront from the previous episode into an actual Nigerian restaurant—is totally fine.

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While I’d have preferred an emphasis on the messed up power dynamics of their relationship, his choice to sever his decision from it was at least a positive development. But it is again frustrating that Rebecca’s arc in the season more or less boiled down to waiting for Sam to make a decision: we get the nice emotional moment with Keeley, but their relationship never really changed much as the season went on, once again putting Rebecca into a contingent place in the narrative without much to show for an entire season of storytelling.

And while I know I’ve harped on the Dubai Air storyline being dropped to the point I’m getting subtweeted about it, it does strike me as strange that Sam’s decision-making is so narrowly drawn given what he’s gone through this season. The choice to introduce Edwin Akufo last week and then turn him into a joke so swiftly after Sam rejects his offer makes the whole thing seem trivial, despite the fact that there are elements in his speech—like the threat Sam will never play for the Nigerian national team—that feel like they should have been part of Sam’s consideration to begin with.

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It’s an example where Sam’s story would have been far better if the fallout from Dubai Air had been more prominent, and if the show had been able to introduce his agent—which he surely has—to work through the negotiations, but the show has too many stories to serve for it to commit the time necessary to do so. The result is a story that has a basic kernel of truth but struggles to feel like a culmination of a narrative arc, which is a problem across the board here.

It’s particularly a problem because this was the single biggest strength of the first season. In general, the show’s sense of humor and its strong performances have been as strong in the second season, and there are moments here—Ted’s speech to the team about honesty, Roy warming up to the Diamond Dogs—that capture the energy that served the show so well. For this reason, I completely understand how there are some people who are mostly unconcerned about the storytelling issues I’m detailing here.

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But by choice, the writers chose to muddle the story being told, which on paper I’m more or less in support of. There’s something very dramatically effective, for example, in placing an increasingly begrudging Nate in the midst of those types of scenes where he was once a willing participant to underline his character arc. But in every story but Ted’s, the show’s plotting became far more imprecise than it had been in season one, regularly struggling to articulate character motivations and ground the stories being told in the trajectory of the team, their season, and the world they operate in.

“Inverting The Pyramid Of Success”—and the second season as a whole—was going for complicated and landed on confused. For every story being told, there were a collection of open questions as to why characters behaved in a certain way, but the show generally ignored these questions, or answered them offscreen in unsatisfying ways.

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With so many stories to address, the on-field play was sidelined, and the writers struggled to keep player stories like Isaac and Jamie afloat when their priorities were elsewhere. Moments like the lack of consequences from the Dubai Air protest were emblematic of a larger dramaturgical struggle, as the writers were unable to place stories in relation to one another and to the world those characters occupy. And while no one of these stories was a dealbreaker—yes, even for me, the person who keeps harping on one of them—the accumulation of odd decisions was too significant for this finale to address while also setting up where the story is headed moving forward.

The optimistic view for Ted Lasso’s future is that these growing pains were inevitable given the specificity of the first season’s fish-out-of-water narrative, and that a combination of reflection from the writers and the natural progression of the story will help the show get back on track next year. The cynical view is that the show’s first season energy was fundamentally unsustainable, and that no amount of adjustment can ever fully balance this collection of tones and stories. And while these last couple of episodes made the case for the latter stronger than I would have anticipated even while frustrated with the show earlier in the season, in the end there’s too much potential in these characters and this world for me to embrace cynicism at this time. However, I remain curious to better understand how and why this season lost its focus, and what might change in the future to try to gain it back.

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Stray observations

  • I realize that British tabloids are trash, but in this day and age there would be a strong counter-narrative about mental health—particularly for men—that would emerge immediately after hogwash like the Soccer Saturday rant from Ted’s predecessor, and so it was weird for the show to pretend as though there was no discourse on that level until Ted’s press conference after the match the next day.
  • As much as I thought letting Sam Richardson turn Edwin into a slapstick routine undercut the seriousness of that story in ways that do a disservice to Sam’s arc, I did laugh at the handshake surrogate leaving Sam hanging.
  • One thing the season never really had a clear grasp on is the state of Ted and Rebecca’s friendship: they rarely interacted alone, and despite the fact she was one of the only people who knows about Ted’s anxiety she still only texts him when the story breaks even after their big emotional moment last week? It just doesn’t add up.
  • I expect many folks will be using the Masculine Melancholy Renaissance painting as their cover photos. Fun shot.
  • I enjoyed Beard’s reaction when Ted uses the name “John Obi-Wan Gandalf” while making up an inspirational quote during his speech to the team.
  • So not only are the venture capitalists behind bantr able to step in to replace Dubai Air, but they’re also handing out money for P.R. firms, apparently. (I can’t nitpick money storylines because money is not actually real, but did anyone else find it weird that Keeley would get that news in an email?)
  • It makes absolutely no sense that we never saw the team speculating about Edwin’s arrival—especially given his helicopter is somehow still on the field—and/or quizzing Sam about what was going on. You would think that would trigger a lot of anxiety, and yet there’s Sam casually opening the gift of another team’s jersey in the locker room in clear view of everyone else? Just a few episodes ago they were all gathered around tracking his love life, and now no one even seems to know he might be leaving? It just doesn’t add up.
  • “I’d be happy to headbutt you, Nate”—using Beard as the audience surrogate in these scenes was an important dimension, albeit one that really does seal the deal on Nate being irredeemable.
  • So after that long journey into Beard’s personal life, we get one final “we broke up, wait it’s back on” with Jane and that’s pretty much it? In retrospect, it remains confounding that the writers would look at the season they broke and think that episode was a good use of narrative oxygen. Even if I had liked the episode more than I did, the choice not to see an extra episode as a solution to the problem of an overstuffed narrative strikes me as weirder now even than it did while watching “Beard After Hours.”
  • Not enough Higgins here, necessarily, but I liked how it took him a few tries to get in sync with Keeley as he works to give her advice. It’s actually really hard to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, and there was a nice rhythm to her efforts to articulate her anxiety and his adjustments therein.
  • As with Jamie and Dani, I don’t know if Isaac had enough characterization for his moment with the Believe sign to register as anything close to a character beat, but it was still a nice moment albeit one that—like most in the episode—has Nate’s non-participation hanging over it.
  • Colin Corner: More than a concern about not following up on a throwaway line about Grindr (which, again, might have never been meant to mean anything), I think in general it’s disappointing that despite two episodes where the team gathered outside of work, we really didn’t get much of a deeper understanding of individual players and it’s Jan’s one-joke personality that gets the big moment at halftime. I hope we get more focus on the team next year, regardless of whether we wishfully thought Colin’s queerness into existence.
  • So if you are unaware, commenters pointed out early in the season that the Championship’s promotion scheme puts the top two teams through automatically but then includes a playoff for the final spot. And so technically, per the claims made by the commentators, Richmond earned the second-place position and thus promotion, but this was technically not a do-or-die game despite it being presented as one, provided that the rules around the Championship are the same in this universe (which next season will have Premier League licensing, per a recent deal).
  • Always happy for puppy content, but can anyone explain a reason for the lesbian dog breeder coming on to Keeley being a thing that took up time in this episode of television?
  • “Advice for being a boss: hire your best friend”—I mean, I would argue that hiring a P.R. person who might have warned you about the potential risks associated with dating one of your players instead of celebrating it might have actually been preferable given how that could have blown up in your face, but hey, you do you. (This really was a lovely scene, though).
  • Like, are they giving Trent Crimm his own spinoff? I feel like there wasn’t nearly enough information to understand why he would purposefully burn Nate, resign from his job, and go off in search of himself.
  • They never quite circled back to whether Roy kept up his reality TV habit with his yoga ladies, but we do learn that he shares in the national schadenfreude when the U.K. earns zero points at Eurovision, so he’s still got his appetite for it.
  • I want to take a brief moment to thank everyone—and I do mean everyone—who’s been reading and commenting on these reviews. I realize that invariably my critical approach to a show that had such a distinct connection with audiences generated some disconnect, but from that disconnect came some really productive conversation, and a dialogue that I feel helped us all collectively better understand the somewhat surprising divergence of views on the season as a whole. As I said on Twitter, writing criticism on a weekly basis like this is not an effort to persuade people who love something that it’s flawed, or bad; it’s about expressing your point of view such that people who care about a show can better understand their own reaction to it, either by helping to clarify concerns or galvanizing one’s appreciation. For all of our ups and downs and the comments claiming I hated a show I ranked as my top show of 2020, y’all’s contributions to these reviews really did become a critical part of my experience of the season, and I’m hopeful we’ll be back together next year for the next phase of Ted Lasso’s journey.