Season 3, Episode 1: ‘Smells Like Mean Spirit’
The first episode of the third season of “Ted Lasso” — and I’m trying to summon my own inner Ted here — is a humdinger.
Savvy viewers of (or readers about) the show will know that one of its minor gimmicks is that each of its three seasons have begun and ended with close-ups on the character who will undergo the most substantial evolution.
The first season, it was Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), the newly divorced owner of her ex-husband’s football (i.e., soccer) team, the fictional AFC Richmond. In an effort to cause him very appropriate pain, she hired an apparent clown from Kansas—Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) — to come to the United Kingdom and coach a sport he scarcely comprehended. The point, obviously, was to have the team always lose and thus infuriate her grotesque ex, Rupert. But Ted’s extreme decency and generosity (he made her biscuits every day!) won her over, and she became fully Team Ted by the end of Season 1.
The second season had an opposite evolution, with the likable kit boy Nate (Nick Mohammed) getting promoted to assistant coach, growing a swollen head over his professional emergence and (in part because he has a horrible father), turning into an abominable jerk. He left the team to be the new coach for a different team, West Ham United (an actual team, unlike AFC Richmond), which has been purchased by the awful Rupert. (The fact that Rupert is played by Anthony Stewart Head, who played one of my half-dozen favorite characters ever, as Giles on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” has created more emotional confusion for me than I prefer to admit.)
The new season opens with a close-up of, of course, Ted Lasso. But his trajectory is far more unclear. Rebecca went from mostly evil to mostly good, and Nate took the opposite track. (Although it’s worth saying that both could still be up in the air.) Ted, by contrast, can’t become any more decent. And a show in which he turns into a villain? That might be the worst idea for a show in the history of television.
Two more final reminders: Ted is recently divorced, and that was a large part of his decision to move across the pond. And last season, which had a very strong emphasis on fathers and sons, we learned that Ted’s dad killed himself when Ted was 16. (If any of this isn’t ringing a bell, feel free to refer to my recaps of Season 2.)
So here we are: We see Ted in close-up at the airport. His teenage son, Henry (Gus Turner), has been over for a six-week visit and is now returning home to his mother in Kansas City. Ted is visibly bereft, squeezing out every last instant, to the point that Henry almost misses his flight. Underlining his sadness, Ted has Henry’s phone in his hand, and sees a text from his ex-wife, Michelle, saying “Have a safe flight! I love you!”
Most of the episode doesn’t have much to do with Ted, though, so as with last season, I’ll go through the individual story lines. But we’ll return to Ted by the end.
Now that AFC Richmond is back in the Premier League, after last season’s mild heroics — they got in via a tie — the team has been universally picked to land at the very bottom of the standings. With West Ham, her ex-husband’s new team, picked to potentially win it all, the Rebecca of Season 1 re-emerges. She repeatedly refers to West Ham as “he” (i.e., Rupert) and demands that Ted “fight.” Not to be unkind, but if your entire concept of owning a professional team revolves around your relationship with your ex, sports-franchise ownership might not be the healthiest thing for you.
Later, Rebecca goes further: “Everyone is laughing at us, Ted,” she berates him. “At you, at our team, at me. Rupert is laughing at me. And I am begging you, please, fight back.”
And yet, as she confides in Keeley, she believes she has made progress: “The now me doesn’t need to destroy Rupert’s life. It just needs to beat him. To win.” Will this season see good Rebecca or bad Rebecca? I’m betting on the former, eventually. But right now she is somewhere in the middle, a work in progress.
Nothing, really, on her and Sam’s last-season romance at all. Is that story line concluded? Time will tell.
Like Rebecca, Nate is showing signs of both his earlier and later selves, even if the evolution, as noted, is reversed. As the manager of West Ham, he behaves as a bully and a thug. He ignores co-workers or tells them bluntly to get out of his office. He puts his players on the “dumb-dumb line” when they screw up and tells an assistant coach to run them “ ’til they drop.”
He ridicules a reporter at his news conference and, learning that Ted has taken AFC Richmond on a metaphor-rich tour of the London sewers, explains that they had to do that because “their coach is so [expletive].”
And yet. While he has earned the admiration of Rupert (plus a new car!), he clearly knows that Rupert is a bad human being. And he is reminded that Ted is quite the opposite when, rather than take the bait and lash back at him — as Rebecca had explicitly requested — Ted instead praises him at his own news conference. Ted won, not by fighting but by refusing to fight.
And Nate’s “The King and I” reply at the news conference, when asked about his relationship with his players was remarkable: “Getting to know them. Getting to know all about them. Getting to like them, getting to hope they …” And he can’t finish the line. Because on some level, he knows what he has become.
There’s hope for Nate yet.
Roy and Keeley
The show did it, the one unforgivable thing: Roy (Brett Goldstein) and Keeley (Juno Temple) have broken up. More unforgivable — if such a thing is even possible — is that they did so little to set it up this episode. Yes, obviously, they were on the precipice last season. But the episode in which they actually break up should be a big Roy and Keeley episode, and instead they both had small roles this week and the explanation for their breakup goes no deeper than that they are both working too hard, especially as Keeley now has her own PR firm.
When Roy’s niece, Phoebe (Elodie Blomfield), asks why, they scarcely have an answer — for her or for viewers. This is narrative malpractice. And Phoebe’s response to the breakup, “One of my core beliefs is that nothing lasts forever” — what are you doing “Ted Lasso”? You’re supposed to be our feel-good show. We have “The Last of Us” for when we want to go the other way.
And then, having already pulverized us once, you close with Henry’s Thanos-gauntlet gift from “Mommy’s friend,” Jake. What are you trying to do to us, “Ted Lasso”?
Odds and Ends
It’s lovely to see that Sharon (Sarah Niles) and Ted are still in touch even after her departure from the team. And nice to see, too, that she seems to have found someone to make her happy.
Ted’s brief story about the time he was left at school “until my dad remembered to come pick me up” is a pretty strong suggestion that his father may not have been the most reliable parent. Given the show’s very strong emphasis last season on fathers and sons, this is worth keeping an eye on.
I don’t think I’d previously encountered the Goethe quote (which Sharon offers), “Doubt can only be removed by action.” What a tremendous line.
I enjoyed the sneaky quick reference to Rupert’s vacation with “the Sacklers” and the need to stay offshore.
Ted’s line about being “Ned Flanders doing cosplay as Ned Flanders” — also precious.
Any scene ever shot in a sewer anywhere in Europe is automatically a reference to “The Third Man,” one of the greatest films of all time. The last shot is probably my favorite in the history of cinema. If you haven’t seen it — or even if you have — do yourself a favor.
If you didn’t enjoy the gag about Keeley’s mascara ruining the shirts of everyone she’s ever hugged, well, that is where we part ways.