Review: Kenny Powers struggles to see who is alpha on this week’s ‘Eastbound & Down’

One of the things I want to emphasize about this year’s “Eastbound & Down” episodes is how thematically strong the writing’s been. This week’s rumination on the idea of how to be an alpha is a great standalone piece of work, regardless of where it fits into the larger arc of Kenny Powers. Written by Jody Hill & Danny McBride & Justin Nowell, there’s so much meat to what they did this week that it’s hard to believe they packed it all into a mere 28 minutes.

Who is the alpha this season? Guy Young (Ken Marino) has stepped up to play a huge role in the life of Kenny Powers (Danny McBride), basically plucking him out of a life that was threatening to destroy Kenny completely and giving him not one but two chances to prove himself. Kenny knows full well how much he owes Guy, and yet he seems determined to cast their relationship as a friendship because that way they are equals. Kenny isn’t built to be someone else’s sidekick. Stevie (Steve Little) is about as far from being the alpha even in his own house as he can be, and it’s obviously impacting him. Watching how Guy Young handles anyone at work who shows him up in any way, it’s obvious that he doubts his own status as alpha, and he’ll destroy anybody who threatens to change that perception. Within his neighborhood’s cloistered social circle, it’s obvious that Kenny sees himself as alpha, but he’s worried that Gene (Tim Heidecker) might somehow take that from him. And even Kenny’s son Toby (Steele Gagnon, so good in last year’s “Looper”) is having to grapple with his own place in the food chain thanks to Kenny’s purchase of a wolf named Dakota.

By the way, if they keep the wolf and the robot in the series all the way to the end of the season, I’ll be a very happy man.

“Guy Young has AIDS! Why can’t I get AIDS? I want f**king AIDS!”

The entire episode this week pivots around Ken Marino’s character, and Marino is doing stellar work as Guy. He’s able to play massive egomania and blatant narcissism in a way that seems real and not like a cartoon. The way his insecurities color everything while he somehow constantly rewrites reality even as it’s happening to make himself the good guy is impressive. Guy has built this thing for himself and any threat to it sends him into overdrive. He was shrewd in the way he sent Kenny after Dontel (Omar J. Dorsey) on the air, because not only did it destroy Dontel on the show, but it also made Kenny owe him, and it left Guy’s hands clean. Brilliant, really.

Steve Little is also doing some heavy lifting, and I had a conversation last week about how sometimes it’s easy to overlook just how good Little is on the show. People make that very simple mistake of thinking that he is the character, which is both a testament to how well he plays Stevie but also horrifying because of what a deranged and damaged character Stevie can be. Stevie’s dedication to Kenny is at a pathological level, but he always manages to find the grace notes to play that make Stevie real. Pathetic, but real.

The relationship between April and Kenny has been developing this season in some fascinating ways. The two of them have never been a team on this level before, and they’re determined to keep things together. But Kenny’s default setting is self-sabotage, and his lies to April are starting to get terrifying. If this blows up, he may not survive it. I think he could take the loss of his job and the loss of the fame again, maybe, but the loss of April would be too much for him. If they ever do end up splitting permanently, I’m not sure I could sit through that scene. These guys always go for the most painful and raw and real version of a beat, and if April every truly went nuclear on Kenny, it might be too much to take. Right now, April is so happy, and I think that’s what makes the show scary this year. It’s taken a long time for her to reach this place with Kenny, and it feels like a tightrope that he’s walking, trying to keep himself together so he doesn’t destroy this one great thing in his life.

Kenny’s “Dangerous Minds” moment is remarkable. It is every horrifying, cringe-worthy “white teacher saving black kids” cliche that Hollywood has ever hard-sold, all wrapped into one grotesque monologue. The entire idea of doing charity work is alien to Kenny, and watching him struggle to do the right thing no matter what the reason is mesmerizing.

Perhaps the biggest reaction I had to the episode was, to my eternal shame, when the clip from “Heartbeeps” came up on the screen. The image of Kenny holding his robot like a baby is already insane enough, but the idea that he’s watching “Heartbeeps” with the robot is doubly insane. If you aren’t familiar with “Heartbeeps,” it’s the story of two robots who fall in love and run away, picking up an impromptu robot family en route. That sounds normal, but the film’s got the stink of crazy on it from top to bottom, and it’s one of those movies that sounds like a dream when you try to really describe it to someone.

Tim Heidecker finally goes off like a bomb in this one. He could easily destroy Kenny if he was able to see just how ready Kenny is to go to war, but he makes the mistake of telling Kenny what leverage he has over him and then not using it immediately, Kenny has enough time to make a strategy, and he’s damn near superhuman when it comes to bullshit. He doesn’t stand a chance against Kenny, and I think Heidecker’s performance this week is spot-on.

Kenny seems like he’s aware of who Guy Young really is, and in the next few episodes, we’ll see if Kenny is going to protect himself or if he’s going to let himself be run over by Guy. If nothing else, it appears that we see Toby make a choice this week to be the alpha, and considering the groundwork they’ve laid all season long, this might turn out to be a lesson Kenny regrets teaching his boy.

I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. “Eastbound & Down” is currently airing its fourth season on Sunday nights on HBO, and they are positively killing it.