Football, false prophets and forgiveness in the ‘Ted Lasso’ finale
“Ted Lasso,” which concluded last week, arrived on screens in August 2020, the depths of the pandemic. As most people worldwide remained distanced from anyone outside their household, this show about contact sports and togetherness was an immediate hit.
Though it portrays intensely of-the-moment, recognizable scenarios, it’s also a parallel universe. Masks and rapid tests never materialize in this world, among this “happy breed of men”—“happy” in the sense of fortunate, rather than necessarily untroubled. It’s precisely because of the choices the show makes about what to airbrush and what not to that“Ted Lasso” is such a potent vision of a better human condition.
A pivotal episode of Season 3 is “Sunflowers,” in which members of AFC Richmond spend a night out in Amsterdam following a friendly match. Leslie takes kit boy Will to a jazz club, and thanks him for his company: “One pilgrim alone is merely a zealot, but two pilgrims together, that’s a pilgrimage.”
For three seasons, ‘Ted Lasso’ has offered a potent vision of a better human condition.
Jesus’ declaration in Matthew 18 that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” is central to the importance we place on the Mass, and to our faith generally. Yet it’s easy to treat our relationship with God as a private matter, to silo prayer and contemplation away from our interactions with fellow humans. Given the psychological and temperamental (not to mention political) differences we have with other people, it’s certainly easier to feel virtuous in the airless space of our own minds.
If “Ted Lasso” offers one takeaway, it’s this: Unless we risk rejection, humiliation and all other negative experiences that can result from opening ourselves up to others, we have no chance at the unparalleled joy that love and communion promise.
Tending to your poop network
As Season 3 begins, Richmond has ascended to the Premier League, but neither the public nor the players believe they can perform there. Owner Rebecca manages to sign Zava, a legend who considers himself a god; Richmond sees in him their salvation. The theme from “Jesus Christ Superstar”plays when he scores, removes his shirt to adulation, and reveals a self-glorifying tattoo that covers his back.
But Zava is a false prophet. He offers only himself, not a pathway to relationship among teammates. Neither his formidable skill nor his showboat spirituality can rescue a lost, stuck team. Only after Ted’s discovery of “Total Football”—an approach that teaches players to wear their on-field positions and even their identities lightly, to prioritize responding to the needs of their teammates in the moment—does the tide turn for Richmond. This method, as it dawns on journalist Trent Crimm, is no departure for Ted, but the culmination of three seasons “slowly but surely building a club-wide culture of trust and support through thousands of imperceptible moments.”
Ted’s field trip with the team into the London sewer offers an explicit metaphor for his prevailing ethos. “If you ask me, we’re surrounded by a whole bunch of poopy up there as well,” he tells the players, pointing to street level.
To drive home the point, the episode toggles between their subterranean expedition and the West Ham press conference where Nate, Ted’s protégé-turned-rival, slings “poopy” in Richmond’s direction. He makes fun of them for going into the sewers—something he’s aware of in real time because paparazzi shots can travel from the street to everyone’s phones within seconds.
“Ted Lasso” frequently incorporates texting and Internet communication into storytelling, but this scene points to other networks. London’s 1200 miles of interconnected sewers were constructed following a massive 19th-century cholera outbreak. This infrastructure keeps waste underground—in the words of the team’s spiritually seeking bus driver, it allows us to give the earth our burdens. But the virtual social networks we plug into today are often exactly the opposite of the sewer system: They pump the worst of ourselves back toward us.
Ted advises his players that their brains are “blocked up by other people’s dookie. Y’all need to make an internal sewer system within yourself, and then connect to other people’s tunnels, to help each other keep that flow.” He might be leaning hard on the metaphor, but his point is simple: Draw from others’ strengths, and lend them some of yours.
Football is life
All emotional waste management systems are prone to glitches, though. The series’ portrayal of constant moral failure and regrouping will be familiar to anyone who has contemplated the sacrament of reconciliation. While a strong feel-good vibe abides in “Lasso,” we also see characters returning to their old emotional battlegrounds, struggling to let go of persistent memories and resentments.
When Ted tells Rebecca that she’s “won” because she got ex-husband Rupert out of her life, he’s wrong; her desire for revenge still controls her. Ted is haunted by his own marital break; Jamie and Roy can’t get over Keeley. In the penultimate episode we learn that Ted’s relationship with his mother Dottie is strained; though he’s courteous, even dutiful, his almost-unfailing sunniness dims the moment she arrives, impatience just under the surface.
All these characters are trying—and trying again. As the sewer tour guide explains, waste isn’t bound for oblivion: After undergoing treatment at a plant, it’s dumped back into the ocean. In a best-case scenario, it doesn’t go away; it gets transformed, and the cycle repeats.
This process is nowhere as evident on the show as within families. Most characters have difficult relationships with their parents (the notable exception being Sam—and he is also notably even-tempered and well-adjusted). Mae the barkeep sagely intuits Ted’s difficulties with his mother, and surprises him with a recitation of Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” a bleak pronouncement that begins “They f*** you up, your mum and dad.” The first two stanzas can be distilled to the contemporary cliché Ted cites to Jamie later in the same episode: “Hurt people hurt people.” This insight is a huge driver of “Ted Lasso.”
But the whole series is also an impassioned rebuttal to Larkin’s unambiguously cynical closing lines: “Get out as early as you can,/ And don’t have any kids yourself.” (In the finale, Mae herself rejects the prescription, suggesting to her die-hard regulars that they start families.)
Through one lens,“Ted Lasso”is the story of a man’s sojourn away from his son—he lives, temporarily, almost as if childless—and his realization that such a life is not worthwhile at any price. Ted is haunted by his own father’s suicide and confesses to Dottie that his staying away is, in part, about his fear of loss.
Dottie, unable to offer the reassurance of safety, responds: “That’s the thing about being a parent: Sometimes you lose, and sometimes you win, but most of the time you just tie. All we can do is keep playing.” In “Ted Lasso,” football really is life: that intimidating arena where you must foray again and again to move the ball around, facing wins and losses, triumph and dejection, buffets and applause. There’s no finality, just good days and bad—with the chance to discover, each day anew, whether you’re really as above the poopy as you think you are.
While a strong feel-good vibe abides in “Lasso,” we also see characters returning to their old emotional battlegrounds.
If this sounds like drudgery, it’s elevated by hope that enters in moments of beauty and uplift. One such moment plays out to the breathtaking sound of “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt, performed on violin by Nate in his childhood bedroom as Rebecca gives an impassioned speech on the transcendent gift of soccer. An “inner child” theme runs through the scene and its lead-up: Rebecca, preparing to confront her fellow team-owners, sees the little girl within her staring back from the mirror. It is a kind of a regression (“Spiegel im Spiegel” means “Mirror in Mirror,” or infinite regress), but though she sticks her tongue out to perform haka-style fearlessness, her ability to imagine the men at the meeting as wide-eyed children themselves allows her to be tender, even toward Rupert.
This episode softens our view of the West Ham owner, who’s revealed to have a hardscrabble backstory and at least one good deed to his name. It’s hard to square such a conciliatory stroke with Rupert’s descent in the final two episodes to full villain, black Gestapo trench coat and all. It’s as though writers of this show that’s overtly concerned with moral choices felt obliged to insert a cartoon-devil image.
Child-like once more
For Nate and the other characters, however, what manifests in unpleasantness and spite is not innate evil but layers of corruption marring the children we once were, and still could be. Nate’s West Ham shirt reads “Betway”—a West Ham sponsor, but also the word “betray” in a child-like, Elmer Fudd pronunciation. In his time with that team, Nate betrays no one so much as himself, or the better version of himself he could and should be. “Ted Lasso”suggests that years of feeling unworthy can leave a layer of grime on the soul that obscures vision and allows for wrongful behavior to seem normal. All Rebecca does in the meeting is remind the men of what they already know very well, but have been blinded to by thick self-delusion.
The violin piece ends abruptly when Nate’s playing is interrupted by his father. In the conversation that ensues, Nate receives the validation he has long yearned for. Since his break with Ted, he has flailed. We see he regrets the rift, but whether out of cowardice, greed or pride, he continually chooses Rupert over his own conscience. In the regard he gets from his new girlfriend, Jade, he finds something he values more than Rupert’s temptations. But it’s only once his father apologizes for the harshness Nate felt from him in childhood that Nate begins to see clearly again. It takes an overture from team members and some prodding from Jade, but at last he sits down to pen Ted a novella-length apology letter.
Ted doesn’t need the letter; he’s already been working to convince Coach Beard that Nate should be given another chance. But Nate needs to say “I’m sorry” for his own peace of mind. He gets that chance when he returns to Richmond for the season-ending match, during which players reconstruct Ted’s “Believe” poster from the tatters they have been carrying like talismans.
Looking at the jagged result recalls Leonard Cohen’s lyric about the cracks where the light shines in—the happy faults and falls that allow us all the wonder of redemption.
“Ted Lasso” is streaming now on Apple TV+