Why was I nervous?
The moment I went from thinking “Eastbound & Down” was fun to thinking it was sort of fiendishly brilliant was at the end of the first season, when the emotional climax of the entire run of episodes consisted of Kenny Powers putting someone’s eye out with a baseball. It was played as a huge triumphant moment, complete with the best musical quote of the year, and it was so deeply unhinged that I couldn’t believe anyone had convinced a network to air it.
This year, I’ve been writing about “Eastbound & Down” each week as it’s been counting down to last night’s final episode, and I found myself getting more and more anxious about the eventual fate of Kenny Powers. I should have relaxed, though, because this has been as confident a final season of television as “Breaking Bad” was, although far fewer people seem to have been caught up in the excitement of watching Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green (along with the other great writers and performers involved this year) pitch a perfect game. After the way the third season resolved, it felt like anything was possible this year, and there was no way to predict what the guys would do to tie things up.
In the end, though, they struck exactly the right final note for Kenny and for the cast of characters around him. I’m glad they didn’t go as over-the-top insane as they could have, but they wisely let Kenny write that version of things. It’s the best possible way to handle it, because instead of showing us how things will work out for Kenny, they gave us a moment to see what his perfect world looks like, to show us what sort of life he imagines for himself, and it is enormously revealing. Rocket hovercycles aside, Kenny’s yearnings are all about being loved and appreciated and having a long-lasting impact on people. Here’s the stuff that’s constantly simmering under the surface of his legendary narcissism, the drives that make him human and not just a caricature. The one thing that truly seemed to change for Kenny this week is that he’s no longer just paying lip service to wanting a better life. He has been genuinely transformed now, and he understands just how important it is to have family and community and love.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s entire storyline pushes the “ick” factor into the red this week, but I would expect nothing less. While I admire the way they’ve shown us Kenny’s emotional evolution, I didn’t want a final episode that was all hugging and crying and a betrayal of the dark and degenerate nature of the series, and Cohen’s character made sure there was plenty of “there is no way I just saw that” left for this conclusion. The horrifying mystery of the matching cold sores aside, Cohen gave voice to the very subtext of the episode. Is Kenny going to be the savage asshole who will do anything for success? Or is he going to show us something more human, betraying that deranged energy that made us watch him in the first place? By making Cohen’s character as disgusting as he is from the moment he’s introduced, Kenny’s having to deal with an external representation of how other people see him. The mere idea that this guy flew over because he loved the Christmas episode should be indicator enough of just how poorly calibrated his moral compass is, and I don’t think Kenny would have even noticed two years ago. Now, though, he’s at a low enough point that he’s finally seeing clearly. He can’t help but understand now, and it’s humbling.
That is ultimately the arc of this series. Kenny Powers was never truly a bad person, but he was born without even a hint of humility, and that’s been his downfall. His addiction to fame was destructive, yes, but if there had been any humility about him, he never would have grappled with it in the same way. Kenny has been the walking, talking, cursing embodiment of entitlement since his introduction, and while he still seems to believe that the world needs and wants more of his wisdom, he no longer seems to feel like the world is owed to him. He is grateful for something, and that’s a life-altering step for him. It’s not just about how much he can snort or shoot or smoke or spend. Instead, there is a goal, and there is something that can finally be enough, and that recalibration may save his life.
McBride keeps getting better as an actor, and it drives me crazy when I hear people dismiss him or his work. There are well-regarded dramatic actors that have never even come close to the self-laceration of the work that McBride regularly does, and his willingness to play characters who are not conventionally easy to like is fascinating. He is so charismatic that it feels almost perverse when he plays a character like Kenny, daring you to see past the bluster and the bullshit. He never oversells the emotional stuff, but he also isn’t afraid of it. When it’s time to drop the jokes, McBride will go dark. He will make the punches hurt. He knows that there’s no value to a character like this if you don’t at least try to make it all matter. His scenes with Ken Marino this week, his scenes with Steve Little… we’re seeing real growth from Kenny, and McBride has charted that with grace and skill. It’s his work with Katy Mixon in this final week that feels like some sort of breakthrough, though. Mixon doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work she did as April, but when she says, “I’m afraid you’re going to break my heart again,” there’s not a hint of cliche to what she’s saying. She has expressed heartbreak in such an immediate and powerful fashion, over and over again this season, tempered with love that she can’t shake even if she wants to, that I almost feel bad calling the work she does on this show “comedy.”
That is ultimately what I love most about “Eastbound & Down.” While I certainly spend my fair share of time writing about genre, it is a trap. The work that resonates most deeply for me is the work by people who know genre inside and out and who consciously break free from the constraints of it. There is no single genre that can define the accomplishments in character and storytelling and humor and heart that “Eastbound & Down” aspired to over the course of its run, and in this final stretch of eight episodes, I’d say they earned their place in the pantheon of transcendent television. Kenny Powers is not done with his journey, but we’ve seen a genuine evolutionary step for him. The distance he’s come between the opening of the first episode and the conclusion of this one is staggering, and it has been both an honor and a pleasure to watch it unfold.
“Eastbound & Down” will be missed, and I certainly hope it endures. If you never gave it a chance, you have something special waiting for you when you’re ready, and if you were with it week to week, then I suspect you know just how bittersweet it is to see it go.