Review: ‘Eastbound & Down’ wraps up season three with triumph and tragedy

After the events of the last few weeks, I’m wrestling with the knowledge that “Eastbound and Down” may well be finished forever next Sunday night.

If you haven’t seen the show this season, then this post probably isn’t for you.  There’s no way to talk about what’s happened and what might happen on Sunday without spoiling things, and this has been a season full of major moments.  What’s strange is how completely it felt like they wrapped things up in the penultimate episode this past week.  It was such a triumphant note to reach for Kenny Powers that I feel like they’re setting him up, and for the first time in the series, I actually am invested in seeing Kenny succeed.  He’s never going to be a great person, but at this moment in the series, he’s as close as he’s ever going to get, and I wish there was a pause button I could hit to keep him from screwing it up.

When “Eastbound” first went on the air, it had a very basic sitcom premise.  “Disgraced baseball player returns to his hometown and starts teaching gym at the high school he attended.”  That doesn’t begin to describe the actual dramatic arc that was followed by that first batch of six episodes, though, and I still think one of the great TV moments I’ve ever witnessed is the way that whole first season builds to Kenny Powers triumphantly putting out Craig Robinson’s eye with a baseball, then walking out to the tune of the main theme from the Kenny Rogers movie “Six Pack.”  There are so many things about that moment that make me happy that I can’t even fully break it down or analyze it.  That’s sort of a signature of the work by Jody Hill, Ben Best, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green on this show.  The more I try to explain exactly why it speaks to me, the less successful I feel at doing so.  Comedy’s like that, though.  The stuff we get the most protective about is the stuff that speaks to us on some private level, and when I see this journey that Kenny Powers has been on, I find it resonates with me in a surprisingly emotional way.

Powers is the modern Man Baby archetype taken to its logical conclusion, one big live-wire bundle of raw nerve and poor impulse control and hedonistic desire.  When they ended the first episode of this final season by having April (Katy Mixon) leave Kenny’s one-year-old son Toby with him, disappearing without a trace, it set some pretty high stakes for the season.  Kenny has proven himself almost completely incapable of responsibility on any level, so leaving him in charge of an infant seems criminal.  And to the show’s credit, he did not rise to the challenge.

Not immediately, anyway.  It’s only been in the last few episodes that the show has even acknowledged the idea that growth may be possible for Kenny Powers.  He may actually redeem himself.  For eighteen episodes, this guy has been an overcompensating jackass with no moral compass, and suddenly, there’s a stirring, signs of life, and the suggestion of a conscience and the seeds of accountability.

The end of the July 4th episode is probably the most directly we’ve ever seen Powers humbled, and the way he handles himself in the wake of his confrontation with Ivan (Ike Barinholtz) has to be one of the defining moments for him as a character.  He shows real self-awareness, and that’s got to be what leads to the final three episodes, where we finally meet Tammy Powers, Kenny’s mom, a force of nature played by Lily Tomlin.  Introducing her and bringing back Kenny’s dad, played by Don Johnson, was a perfect way of explaining volumes about who Kenny is and why without an over-reliance on exposition.  Episode six ended with both Kenny and his father experiencing a true change of heart lightning bolt to the forehead moment, and that momentum carried into Sunday’s episode seven, where Kenny’s adversaries Ashley Schaeffer (Will Ferrell) and Reg Macworthy (Craig Robinson) show up to extract some vengeance from him, with Black Biker Week in Myrtle Beach serving as the backdrop for what looked like it was going to be a brutal punishment.  Robinson’s entrance is a winner, too.  I find Ferrell’s character to be the most disturbing thing he’s ever done, genuinely repellent, and it makes perfect sense that he’d show up with Macworthy, ready to punish Powers in some fresh way.

When the episode starts, Kenny’s team hates him, he’s in direct danger, and Stevie is a truly disturbing mess.  I am amazed at how dark Steve Little’s gone with his work as Stevie Janowski this year.  By the time he’s laying on the floor of Kenny’s apartment, weeping, sure he’s lost Kenny’s baby, there’s nothing funny about it.  He’s just pathetic.  He’s just broken.  And at that moment, for the first time, Kenny offers him real guidance instead of just using and abusing him, and it’s the moment that makes all the difference for Stevie.  It pays off everything that’s happened between Kenny and Stevie since the start of the series, and leads to one of the show’s first triumphant payoffs, with Stevie finally finding some balance.

First, though, they show up for a street fight with Stevie in Freddy Kruger gloves and Kenny wielding nunchucks.  Which is just awesome.

Just as the show prepares to do something so dark and permanent that there would be no way to come back from it, the tide turns.  Ashley Schaeffer’s “Old South” sensibilities catch up to him, Kenny makes peace with Reg, and from that point on, it’s straight up.  One redemption after another.  By the time Kenny yells from the mound, “You’re f**king out!” for the first time in what must feel like forever, he is a complete person, and instead of the perverse triumph of the first year, where it was enough for Kenny to hurt someone on his own deranged terms, this is a real triumph.  This is a classic sports story of rebirth, and it feels genuine.

The only question still standing at the end of things is how he’s going to deal with April.  When she shows back up, he closes down, afraid to admit how much he wants her and Toby to be part of his life, and she hasn’t been around to see this new change, so she’s not sure what to make of him.  In this coming Sunday’s episode, everything will be resolved, and while I know HBO wants more episodes, the creative team behind the show has always had an endgame in mind.  This feels like they’ve reached a natural conclusion to the story they’re telling, and I find myself fully satisfied by what they’ve done with Kenny, by where they’ve taken him, and by what he says about us.  “Eastbound and Down” isn’t just a great dark character comedy, it’s also a great x-ray of our culture and the worst parts of our nature.  I will be sad that it is over, if it truly is, but I am thrilled that it exists.  I cannot think of any other TV series that has mined this territory or that has ever dared us to love such a terrible person.

“Eastbound and Down” debuts its final episode on Sunday, April 15, at 10:00 PM