"Well, that was a little on the bleak side."
That's how the supremely awesome Nathan Rabin began his recap of the fourth episode of Eastbound & Down's third season over at the AV Club. I'd call it poetic understatement. My feeling was, "How in the hell can the writers possibly redeem this guy?"
Let's recap Kenny Powers' descent, shall we? (SPOILERS AFTER THE JUMP)
As a continuation of the previous episode, Kenny turns around to find his "best friend" Shane (played spectacularly by Jason Sudeikis) dead from a cocaine-induced heart attack. Kenny responds by polishing off the cocaine, removing any evidence of his presence in Shane's apartment, and taking the keys to Shane's (admittedly sweet) truck. He does not call 911.
That's how the episodes starts. And it goes downhill from there. Like when...
...Kenny tries to channel his dead friend's soul through his straight-laced and reasonable twin brother (again, played spectacularly by Jason Sudeikis). Shane's twin acts as a surrogate for everything the audience should be feeling at this point: a complete revulsion at the depths of Kenny Powers' narcissistic, sociopathic depravity.
...Kenny plays a practical joke on Shane's grieving girlfriend by showing up with his twin in tow, as if Shane has come back to life. I'll let that sink in. Yeah.
...Kenny invades Shane's funeral with a boombox blasting Candlebox, claiming he has absorbed Shane's soul, making him twice as strong. Teammates, clergy, and distraught family members look on in horror.
I'm leaving quite a bit out, but my point is it was really dark. And not the sort of awkward-laugh inducing black humor our culture has come to value. I mean it was unrelentingly sad.
Of course, up and down beats are crucial to storytelling. Things have to go wrong before they go right again. But the reason HBO produces the best television in history hinges on the fact redemption isn't automatic. This was a network that ended its most iconic series by killing its main character. (If you don't believe me, read this. It's persuasive.) Granted, Eastbound & Down is a comedy, and comedies rarely end bad. But at HBO, anything is at least possible.
There were a few possible outcomes after that episode:
1) The writers (headed by show creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride) could find a way to redeem Kenny.
2) They could throw comedic convention out, ending the series with Kenny further descent, which I have to assume would end in death.
3) They could try to redeem him and fail.
Anyone who watched that fourth episode had to at least consider that things wouldn't work out, for Kenny or the show as a whole. Could E&B's showrunners take a character to those depths and come back to the surface again?
One of the keys to empathy is understanding where a person comes from. I don't mean to infer our upbringing absolves us of individual responsibility, but the reality is we all start on uneven playing ground. Kenny Powers may be a horrible human being, but if he's at all managed to improve on the lot he was dealt...well, that's something, right?
So, two episodes later, Eastbound takes us back to Kenny's family, to his selfish, deadbeat father (played joyously by Don Johnson), and his drug-abusing, loving-but-tough mother (Lily Tomlin, who nails the role). As screwed up as this broken family is, there's a lived-in comfort. Maybe it's the way Kenny's mother calls out bullshit, while tempering it with love. Maybe it's Don Johnson's rogue-ish charm. Maybe it's Kenny's resolve not to leave his son the way his father left him, even if it means his son's nursery is a black-lit tribute to breasts. Maybe it's that things were so low that any hope at all seemed like a step up. I'm not sure. It's hard to stay objective in shows like this, because we're wired to root for protagonists like Tony Soprano and Walter White and Kenny Powers. They're the characters we know best, and we want to believe they will get better.
Eastbound & Down isn't over. There have been more up and down beats in the two latest installments, and there's still at least one episode left in the series. But Eastbound & Down may pull this off. Considering they started with a delusional, bigoted, egotistic jackass as a main character, it'll be quite a feat.