The Real Hero of Ted Lasso

The Real Hero of Ted Lasso

Ted Lasso, like an athlete meeting the moment, peaked at the right time. The show premiered during the waning months of Donald Trump’s presidency; against that backdrop, its positivity felt like catharsis, its soft morals a rebuke. Soon, Ted Lasso was winning fans and Emmys. Articles were heralding it as an answer to our ills. The accolades recognized the brilliance of a show that weaves Dickensian plots with postmodern wit. But they were also concessions. Kindness should not be radical. Empathy should not be an argument. Here we were, though, as so much was falling apart, turning a wacky comedy about British soccer into a plea for American politics.

The show embraced its sunny reputation, and started clouding it. It built story lines around suicide, trauma, guilt, anxiety, the slow pain of age and decline. It began its second season with … the violent death of a dog. And then Ted Lasso made its most daring and long-running play against its own brand of corrective optimism: The show turned one of its sweetest characters, the kit man turned coach Nathan Shelley, into a villain. It made him bitter. It made him mean. It transformed him into an avatar of regressions that have shaped this moment: selfishness, incuriosity, individualism gone from rugged to rogue.

[Read: The new comedy of American decline]

For many viewers—myself, at first, included—the twist seemed an error: A show known for its subtle character development seemed to be reshaping this one with a sledgehammer. But I’ve come to see Nate’s turn as crucial to the story Ted Lasso is telling. It led, for one thing, to the latest episode’s satisfying showdown: Nate and Ted, now coaches for rival teams, clashing on the field in epic fashion. But Nate’s villainy is also necessary, I think, to Ted Lasso’s broader argument—the one that keeps giving this “massive hug” of a show its uncanny edge. Empathy and cruelty are rarely as distant from each other as we’d like to believe; good guys, under the wrong circumstances, can all too easily go bad. Nate’s descent bears that out. His transformation is jarring and confusing and maddening and a little bit heartbreaking. It turns the show’s fantasies into battlegrounds. If Ted Lasso has argued for earnestness in a time of cynicism, and empathy in a time of cruelty, then Nate is the show’s rejoinder to itself: Speak up for kindness, by all means. But more important, fight for it.

When we first meet Nate, he is a member of AFC Richmond’s support staff. He launders the players’ jerseys, cleans their muddy cleats, gives them drinks when they’re thirsty. He is a man doing the stereotypical support work of a woman, and his character matches his job description: Nate is meek. He is uncomfortable, not in certain settings but in all of them. He is written—and performed, excellently, by Nick Mohammed—as the kind of person who, when he stumbles, might apologize to the ground. When he meets Ted, Nate is shocked that the new coach asks his name. He is shocked again when Ted remembers it.

In those early episodes, Nate serves as kit man for the series too. As Ted Lasso introduced its characters and story lines, Nate did basic work that allowed the show to run its plays and make its points. His first interactions with Ted help establish one of Ted Lasso’s essential premises: that the twangy American who has come into the Greyhounds’ lives is not merely theatrically chipper but also genuinely kind. Nate is a litmus test for other people’s goodness. Jamie, the team’s young phenom, bullies him; this is how audiences learn that the guy who’s great at being a striker is bad at being a person. Roy, the aging star, defends Nate—an early hint that the man who speaks in grunts and growls is also unusually caring.

Nate, in those early episodes, also endures a more passive form of disrespect: When he is not being bullied, he is being ignored. His vaguely feminized role and vaguely childish outlook, the show suggests, exclude him from a team that treats swagger as its currency. (When Ted needs a box that will allow players to submit team-improvement suggestions, Nate brings in a craft project made by his niece: a pink-paper receptacle decorated with stickers and googly eyes.) Nate, as a result, moves through Richmond’s headquarters both omnipresent and unseen.

Ted’s arrival changes that. An outgrowth of the coach’s sometimes cartoonish Americanness is his blithe indifference to hierarchies; he keeps soliciting advice from Nate and keeps getting genius in return. Invisibility, in life as in comic books, can be a superpower, and Nate’s version of it has given him deep insight into the team. Midway through the show’s first season, Nate—pushed by Ted—delivers a locker-room speech assessing individual players in wincing detail. (“You’re more concerned about looking tough than actually being tough,” he tells one. “You’re indecisive,” he tells another—“you second-guess more than a shitty psychic.”) The Greyhounds are initially indignant at being diagnosed in this way by the guy who washes their socks. Their shock, though, quickly becomes appreciation. Nate is right, for one thing, about each of them. And for another, they all know what it’s like to be an underdog.

Nate’s story, in that first season, is one of meekness overcome. He gets promoted. He gets respected. He gets included. Nate himself doesn’t change, really; rather, the person who was there all along—shrewd, funny, insightful, worthy—comes into focus for everyone else. And the club, in the process, benefits from his talents. The message is not subtle: Only when Nate truly joins the team does AFC Richmond start winning its games.

And then: Nate loses himself. He becomes petty, bitter, resentful, cruel. He belittles sweet, hardworking Will, who replaces him in Richmond’s locker room. He betrays Ted in hurtful, maximally public terms. As an assistant coach for Richmond—and then as a full-fledged coach for its rival, West Ham United—Nate imposes autocratic rule. When a play he suggests doesn’t work, he blames the players, and castigates them. The transition is totalizing. Suddenly, the guy who shuffled through life is striding menacingly, each step a territorial claim. His face hardens into a perma-scowl. His hair grays. He dresses in head-to-toe black. Like a superhero sucked into the wrong vortex, Nate negates himself. He is now, halfway through Ted Lasso’s third season, the show’s established antihero. More specifically, he is the anti-Ted.

[Read: When a show about kindness gets darker]

Twists of character, written well, can be even more compelling than traditional plot twists. But Nate’s descent into villainy has read less as a controlled decline than a hurtling nosedive. It has seemed at once too simple and too complex: the show embracing its comic-book undertones and compromising one of its characters in the process. Part of what has made Ted Lasso work, as a series and as a metaphor, has been its ability to play its cartoonishness against its complexity: Its characters begin as tropes and then soften, over time, into real people. That movement supports the show’s lessons about kindness—stereotype is often a direct barrier to empathy—but it also simply saves Ted Lasso from itself. Without that remedial humanity, the series’ sunniness could easily tip over into smarm.

Nate’s heel turn has relied on a different alchemy. It has taken a complex character—one beloved for his complexity—and hardened him back into a trope. Ted Lasso, its co-creator and star Jason Sudeikis has said, is a show about “good and evil.” Nate’s transformation reflects those epic ambitions. It also whiffs of a character being retconned to serve as a foil for someone else. Nate, to his credit and to the show’s, was never purely good or purely meek (his locker-room speech to Richmond’s players was a pep talk that doubled as trash talk). But his embrace of badness has been speedy and stark, playing out less as an arc than as a series of hastily jotted bullet points. His relationship with his domineering father, his sexual frustration, his desire for fame, his fear of fame, his drive to be “a boss,” his disinterest in being a leader, his need to take credit, his inability to take blame, his feeling that Ted was insufficiently appreciative of the gift Nate gave him in a Secret Santa swap—these are among the many reasons the show has offered for Nate’s dramatic descent.

The explanations don’t contradict one another; nor, though, do they fully cohere. They have made Nate’s transformation read, at times, like an essay in search of a story, a heady blend of cultural anxieties—masculinity, meritocracy, the effects of toxic individuality, the fickleness of fame—appended, with more frenzy than focus, to the former kit man. Each idea, applied to Nate, might have been explored with tender specificity; Nate, after all, is someone who has been marginalized, within his team and beyond it. He is working class; he is a man of color; he is physically unimposing. These things have made life harder for him in ways that are indictments not of Nate, but of the society that has failed to see him. He is resentful, and he has a right to be. No amount of success will give him what Ted can take for granted: the ability to walk around with a perennial smile, confident that the world will smile back. As Nate reminds Rebecca, the Greyhounds’ owner, when she tells him how easy it is to own a room: “With all due respect, it’s different for me, Ms. Welton.”

This alone would have made a worthy origin story for Nate’s villainy. (In comics, few figures are as rich as the sidekick who longs to be the hero.) Nate becomes known as the “Wonder Kid”; the nickname—the result of a pronunciation mistake Nate made during a press conference—celebrates his rise and, at the same time, puts him in his place. Nate hates it. The show might have explored that dynamic in the same way it has explored Roy’s relationship with his age, Sam’s relationship with his brand, and Jamie’s relationship with his father. Instead, Nate’s fraught relationship with fame becomes merely one more explanation for his free-fall. His villainy is epic: big, broad, conveyed through dramatic set pieces. There Nate is, his sweetness gone sour, spitting at himself in a mirror. There he is, taking down Ted’s runic BELIEVE poster and ripping it, defiantly, in half.

Villains can be uniquely compelling characters: delicious, deviant, fun. But Nate’s villainy has been hard to watch—in part because it could read, in its extremes, as one of the show’s own acts of defiance. Ted Lasso may well have been an answer to a president who turned bullying into branding and spent his days finding new loopholes in the social contract. The show, though, also responded to a broader reality. The culture that elevated Trump is the same one that has associated empathy with femininity, fragility, weakness—that has spent decades insisting that nice guy, like wonder kid, is an insult in the guise of a compliment. It is the same one that associates cynicism with intelligence. Ted Lasso defied all that. Still, the show’s remaking of its gentlest character into its biggest threat made it easy to wonder whether Ted Lasso had become a little bit embarrassed by its own nice-guy reputation. Had the show, in spite of itself, come to see empathy as a liability?    

[Read: Ted Lasso is no longer trying to feel good]

But there are lessons, I think, in Nate’s addled antiheroism. His transformation is sudden and gaudy and sad. Nobody, Nate included, seems in full control of it. That in itself, in this age of unruly villainy, is poignant. Nate’s transformation, for all its bulky stitching, allows Ted Lasso to make a crucial pivot: from celebrating kindness to questioning it. Through Nate—and the direct opposition he presents to Ted—the show reframes kindness not as an easy slogan but as a complicated, inherently political value. The Trump era brought with it the In This House yard sign and the tote bag advertising EMPATHY. Target is currently selling a T-shirt with Be Kind silk-screened on the chest; this development is both exactly what you’d expect and a reason for pause. Slogans can be tools of political action; they can also preclude it. They can herald progress while doubling as omens. (THE FUTURE IS FEMALE, an earlier era’s T-shirt announced, all but predicting this moment’s brutal backlash.)

Ted himself, that avatar of good, is in many ways an extension of the slogans. (“Believe in ‘believe,’” he tells his team, as a matter of strategy.) His version of kindness is well meaning, simple, tautological; he embodies empathy so effortlessly that he can’t understand, in visceral terms, what a lack of empathy might look like. Even as his show added some hard edges to that ease—Ted’s cheerfulness, it suggested, is a coping mechanism, his friendliness an extension of his fears—it stopped short of complicating the basic premise. It never suggested that Ted could be anything other than a thoroughly good guy. Which is also to say that the show never, through Ted, conveyed the anxieties that underscore its talk of teamwork: Kindness is unstable. It is vulnerable. And when it goes away, everything else falls apart.

It’s Nate, instead, who expresses that threat. In him, kindness becomes something deeper and richer and more reflective of the moment’s political stakes. Ted Lasso, mimicking the sport at its center—with its expansive field and plays that wind and stretch—typically takes its time. The show, as it has moved toward its goal, has all but guaranteed that Nate’s villainy is temporary. He will go good again, clue after clue suggests, and he will in that way live out one of the show’s abiding convictions: Anyone can be redeemed. If so, Nate will embody one of the timeliest morals of Ted Lasso’s modern-day fable: Kindness is best understood not as a trait but as a choice. It is something people are, yes; it is, much more crucially, something people do. And it is something, as such, we can fail to do. That shirt Target is selling, with Be Kind emblazoned on the chest, looks nice from a distance. But it is poorly rated. After the first  wash, disappointed reviews have noted, the words begin rinsing away.

Previous post The daily risks taken by Afghanistan’s female journalists
It’s Okay to Like Good Art by Bad People Next post It’s Okay to Like Good Art by Bad People