Kenny Powers bounces back in the dazzling second episode of this year’s ‘Eastbound & Down’

At the end of the first episode of the new season of “Eastbound & Down,” I was left unsure what to expect from the rest of the season, and I liked the feeling. Often, a season premiere sets up certain expectations and then we just watch whatever it is play out for the rest of the episodes. Here, I had no idea where they were headed. I feel like I have a slightly better handle on it at the end of episode two, but only in broad thematic terms. How they’re going to actually get there is still a mystery to me, and I feel like they are already doing such amazing things that anywhere they go is fine by me.

Kenny Powers has never been a hero. He’s the lead character of the series, certainly, but his egocentric worldview has always been something to be observed, not emulated. Until this year, I’ve never been particularly emotional about Kenny or what he’s been going through. The end of the second episode, directed by Jody Hill, left me in tears, though, and for the first time, I am genuinely rooting for Kenny to get what he wants, and the stakes have never felt higher.

To some degree, these first two episodes almost feel like a response to the reactions people had to the end of season three. Many people complained about the way things wrapped up, with Kenny walking away from baseball after working so hard to get back to it, faking his own death, and going back to his hometown to be with April (Katy Mixon). As we saw in last week’s episode, though, the life Kenny ended up living is not the one he expected, and he is unhappy, unable to pretend anymore. The episode ended with a spectacular flame-out, as Kenny quit his job, broke open his drug stash (a truly remarkable collection of items that looked like it would kill most mortal men), and started digging a pool single-handedly in his back yard.

As the second episode opens, he’s still working on that pool, and April learns about Kenny’s epiphany. She is not onboard at all, and who can blame her? The idea that their family just lost an entire income and now Kenny’s on drugs in front of the kids is, to say the least, upsetting. Kenny goes to Guy Young (Ken Marino), the old teammate who invited Kenny on the night out with the guys that led to his realization that he wanted back into his celebrity lifestyle. The difference this time is that Kenny may not have the ability to be the wild man who was famous before. He still wants April. He still wants that part of his life. He just wants fame and fortune to go with it, and those twin desires may not work together.

This episode also saw the return of Stevie Janowski (Steve Little), the long-suffering sidekick to Kenny, and at the start of the episode, Stevie is at an all-time low in many ways. He’s married to Maria (Elizabeth De Razzo) now, with four kids, and his kids all seem to bulldoze right over him. They’re also struggling with money troubles, and Stevie seems unsure how to turn things around. The first encounter they have in the episode is perhaps the first time Stevie actually says no to Kenny, and it ends with the two of them declaring that they are now officially enemies. When even Stevie seems like he can’t back Kenny’s play, it shakes Kenny’s confidence on a profound level, which probably does him no favors when he talks Guy Young into having him guest on “Sports Sesh,” the panel talk show that Guy hosts.

That appearance is a disaster, with one of the other panelists running over Kenny completely, and it looks like Kenny has reached the end of his short-lived comeback. No one can even pretend to him that it was good, and Kenny seems broken by it. He wants another chance, though, and Guy explains what it was that he wanted from Kenny. That other panelist has started to take over the show, and Guy hates him. He hates the tone of the guy’s comments, he hates the way he expresses himself, he hates the way he talks over everyone else. What Guy was hoping for was the old Kenny Powers, the one who absolutely won’t take shit from anyone, and he wanted Kenny to take the guy out.

The thing that ultimately knocked me flat about this episode is seeing how Old Kenny and New Kenny have to coexist if he’s really going to succeed, and that’s where the emotion came in. I am a big fan of seeing people redeem themselves, but up till now, I never really felt like Kenny Powers could be redeemed. The work that Danny McBride is doing this year is some of the best he’s ever done in anything. To show us real vulnerability from the character is an evolution, and yet he retains everything that made Kenny so funny in the first place. It’s an amazing performance, and when he finally comes roaring back to life during his second appearance on Guy’s show, it is so compelling, so emotionally rewarding, that this could easily have served as the show’s finale. Knowing that they’re still just getting started for the season makes it even more exciting.

I know they’re calling this the “final” season again. But can this be the second of about forty final seasons? If this is the new and improved Kenny Powers, then I don’t want to say goodbye.

“Eastbound & Down” airs Sunday nights on HBO.