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Just because Ted Lasso is a positive show doesn't mean its characters can't be dicks

A heel turn headlines an episode about failing to recognize the right moment to intervene

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Image for article titled Just because Ted Lasso is a positive show doesn't mean its characters can't be dicks
Photo: Apple TV+

Writing about a show week-to-week, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between a critique that a show anticipates and one that it doesn’t.

For instance, I feel confident now that Ted Lasso’s writers didn’t think Sam’s protest was as consequential as I did. At the time, I wrote a review that treated the loss of Dubai Air’s sponsorship like a seismic shift in the world of Ted Lasso, but two episodes later the team had jerseys with “bantr” on them instead, and the show has never circled back to Sam’s activism and the public’s reaction to it. As I’ve said previously, I consider that a missed opportunity, and an example of the show introducing something complicated and choosing to largely “resolve” it instead of embedding it into the show’s world. But as far as I knew, the show was simply biding its time to bring it up, and I suppose technically speaking it’s possible that there will be repercussions before the season is done (even if that seems unlikely at this stage). All I can do is capture my impression at this particular moment, aware that the show could make me look silly in multiple ways by the time the season ends. That’s the nature of writing in this format.

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However, “Headspace” provides some assurance that the show intended me to have a problem with one of the show’s characters. From the beginning of the season, Nate’s behavior has felt off, and despite the fact that Ted and Coach Beard seemed to notice it too, no one was saying anything about it. The show just kept going on as though the way he was treating his replacement Will was acceptable, and that his demeaning comments about the players—his reaction to Dani’s yips stood out to me—weren’t a point of concern. In fact, the last few episodes have still ostensibly treated Nate’s journey as an aspirational one, with Rebecca and Keely teaching him to “make himself big” to get a table at a restaurant, which he used in order to take control of the FA Cup quarter-final in Ted’s absence and assert his skill as a coach. And while I didn’t make it the focus of either review, I found the show’s willingness to frame Nate’s actions as heroic disconcerting, and worried—in part because of the recent issue with Sam’s protest—that the show was sweeping the consequences of his behavior under the rug.

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There’s a reason I framed this as worrisome instead of damning, though, as “Headspace” strongly suggests that Ted Lasso was aware I might be feeling this way. Nate, believing his own press in the wake of his “Wonder Kid” triumph, crosses a line in his conversation with Colin, and Coach Beard calls him out for it. Although Beard has witnessed Nate’s mean streak on numerous occasions, it has never been so targeted, and so personal, and even if we acknowledge that Colin was among those who bullied Nate back when he was the equipment manager, he didn’t deserve to be singled out when other players were also ribbing Nate a bit. Nate also doesn’t actually make that distinction himself in his comments, choosing entirely to belittle Colin’s talent compared to Dani and Jamie, who was actually the one who incited most of that bullying. And so Beard is right to step in, and Nate quickly expresses regret, and—in the spirit of the show’s positivity—takes a moment during practice to apologize to Colin. With the apology accepted, the team joins in a giant group hug, and then they all present him with his very own “Wonder Kid” jersey. It’s a tidy narrative arc that acknowledges Nate’s behavior, creates a conflict that forces action, and then presents a proto-typical Ted Lasso resolution now that Nate has learned his lesson.

Image for article titled Just because Ted Lasso is a positive show doesn't mean its characters can't be dicks
Photo: Apple TV+

Except that it never feels like it’s going to stick. Throughout the episode, there is too much tension in Nate’s desire to bask in the afterglow of his moment. He revels in the headlines about his triumph, but his father barely even notices them, and preaches humility instead. The players all seem to respect him, but they tease him in a way they would never tease Roy, and you can sense that Nate no longer sees being “one of the guys” as enough of a victory. He won’t stop reading the positive social media posts about his coaching, but when he finds a single “mean tweet” buried within them, he can only focus on how the team’s “Wonder Kid” jokes humiliate him. And so he unloads on poor Will, who organized the jersey in an effort to do something nice for Nate much as Nate once tried so hard to do nice things for the team. That final moment shatters the notion that the show is unaware of Nate’s toxicity, but the entire episode highlights the tension in Nate’s grasp on his position, making it clear that everything they’ve seeded thus far this season has had him on a knife’s edge of threatening to make Will’s life a “fucking misery” simply for a kind gesture.

It’s hard to say exactly how Ted Lasso intends to address the fallout of Nate’s actions, but based on what we see here Ted himself will hold himself responsible for not stepping in sooner. When Nate makes his big apology, Ted asks Beard if he missed something, and the reality is that he did: he and Beard have shared looks on numerous occasions at things Nate has said and done, but neither of them stepped in. For all of the talk about belief and positivity, Ted didn’t want to make the necessary interventions, and failed to realize how the cumulative impact of Nate’s experience could spiral. And given that Nate’s escalation comes at the same time Ted is distracted with his own mental health struggles—which manifest here as a series of visits to Dr. Fieldstone where his desire for help, disdain for therapy, and refusal to quit converge—I can imagine that if/when Ted finds out about it he will think that he should have done more.

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But will he realize this confirms that despite everyone acknowledging the broad good that Ted has done for AFC Richmond, the Ted Lasso philosophy is highly fallible? “Headspace” firmly positions Nate as Exhibit A for how the show’s feel-good attitude wasn’t just hiding Ted’s depression: it also allowed Nate’s inferiority complex to fester and turn into something far more toxic, and that should force everyone involved to reassess their choices. We know there’s a self-serving purpose behind Ted’s suggestion to Keeley that it might be good to “bottle things up,” even if everyone else doesn’t, but how much has his desire to avoid more emotionally complicated conflicts—whether in his marriage or among his coaching staff—created undesirable outcomes? As Ted combines “fight and flight” to avoid the answer to that question, and continues the lie about what happened at the game when asked by Trent Crimm (The Independent) directly, the show gets to dig deeper into the costs of hiding their issues behind the veneer of positivity that Ted’s philosophy has provided all of AFC Richmond.

Image for article titled Just because Ted Lasso is a positive show doesn't mean its characters can't be dicks
Photo: Apple TV+
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While Nate’s story goes to a dark place, and Ted’s one-on-ones with Dr. Fieldstone carry a lot of raw emotion, the rest of the episode is fairly light—maybe a bit too light—by comparison. I was literally just thinking about how the show wasn’t injecting much conflict into Roy and Keeley’s relationship, so her starting to feel smothered was well-timed, and provides a lower stakes investigation of what happens when you struggle to communicate and hide your true feelings. Returning to a comparison I made earlier, it reminded me a fair bit of Dr. Cox stories on Scrubs in its resolution, with Roy’s workplace conversation about on-field strategy waking him up to his mistake, and inspiring his romantic gesture of giving Keeley space to herself. If it’s not clear, I consider this a solid source of inspiration for the show, even if I sort of agree with Keeley that I found Roy’s storyline stronger when he wasn’t part of the show’s workplace dynamic, and was never entirely sure I understood why Roy was so unaware that his constant Dan Brown reading sessions and clinginess might be a problem.

But then again, he completely misread how to handle the situation when they first started connecting last season, so I suppose it’s just a reminder that more than being a show about inherently “good” characters, Ted Lasso works because it’s about inherently human characters, and the deeper we get into the second season the more the show is exploring the nuance of that quality. This might mean that a character like Nate starts to fall in our estimation, but that’s a natural extension of what we knew about the character thus far, and despite my initial reservations has evolved into a rich vein of storytelling for the back half of the season.

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Stray observations

  • I liked seeing the entire team wrapped up in Sam’s bantr drama, but I have to admit that after sitting on it I don’t like the idea of Sam and Rebecca together at all, and maybe that means I hate love but this wouldn’t be the first time that’s been proven true by my reaction to a relationship story. We’ve still got at least a week to go before we learn what the show intends for this, but my position for the time being is that no amount of charming run-ins are going to convince me otherwise.
  • “So stop your dithering and go fuck your cartoon rat”—this, however, was the closest I came to getting onboard with this story.
  • Quite an appearance by the drinking bird, although I think it’s safe to say The Simpsons will remain the featured credit on its IMDB page.
  • The show doesn’t always draw parallels between on-field activity and other storylines, but in addition to Roy’s epiphany we also have Ted expressing how his number one rule is that you never show the other team you’re tired, much as he doesn’t show the people around him when he’s hurting.
  • In terms of corporate synergy this week, we have Roy using Siri to start Keeley’s playlist, and then the Warner Bros.-owned Sex and the City as Keeley’s TV choice with the carefully chosen scene of Aidan and Carrie’s move-in fight.
  • “Why are you jazz scatting?”—Roy being unfazed by everyone gossiping about him was fun, and paid off when he got angry when he realized it wasn’t idle gossip but rather an actual situation he had to deal with.
  • Jan’s inability to be anything other than blunt remains a very productive character trait, as we see when his refusal to let Nate continue his “I said Wunderkind” lie becomes part of his anger bubbling over shortly after.
  • I really loved how right before Nate’s apology, they worked in a little moment of Will juggling water bottles to remind us of his innocence. We also got a glimpse of Nate’s past innocence in the same job with the “Box with a Face” he moves from his chair at his parents’ place. Nice way to seed the aggression of the final moments, which also notably takes place off-camera as though it was an act of violence.
  • Speaking of things we were protected from, I admittedly am kind of curious just how much of Roy’s hair came out of the drains. Is that weird? I think it’s weird.
  • “I told you: my lips are sensitive to impure metals, and whistles give me mouth hives”—Roy yelling “whistle” instead of using a whistle is a chef’s kiss of a choice.
  • I have to say that while I understand Ted is very angry about his divorce and in part blames couples counseling for “failing” him, the fact he remains convinced that Sharon doesn’t actually care about him after presumably many months of her being part of the team and helping the players and coming to all the games does strike me as particularly offensive, and almost too mean? Like, I get that he’s in a bad place, but it was a bit shocking to me that he didn’t even offer a caveat that he wasn’t necessarily painting her with the same brush. But, in the spirit of Nate’s story, I have to trust that the show is being purposeful, and that this just speaks to how bleak Ted’s worldview is right now.