My friends will know that I am a great fan of Shakespeare’s plays, which I do allude to from time to time in this blog. I believe that in them, particularly the various tragedies, you can find the questions which comprise most of the great dilemmas which we as humans face.
The great villains are of course my favourite characters: Iago, the passed-over-for-promotion army officer on his trail of vengeance and personal advancement; Richard III, the stunted hunchback who seizes the kingdom in a frenzy of fratricide and nepoticide; and Macbeth, who starts off as a decent and honourable man, but who is seduced by three witches and his ambitious wife to start on the road to royalty and perdition.
There are others of course, but these three, in their villainy, are the ones which stand out most, and whose motives are easiest to understand. For all that they are rotten to the core, Goneril and Reagan and their confederates are such from the start, with no real character development or explanation (although a vain and selfish father like King Lear perhaps explains how they turned out). And in Hamlet, I would argue that the ghost of his father is the real villain, seeking to destroy the living and the innocent in an orgy of vengeance.
What has all this got to do with Ted Lasso, the amiable sports comedy on Apple TV+ which features an American college gridiron coach hired to manage an underachieving English Premier League team (and which just finished streaming Season 2 on Friday)? Well, I would say that one of the main story arcs in Season 2 is very much a Shakespearean tragedy.
Ted Lasso is intended to be a play in three acts, as it is not going to go beyond Season 3. Season 1 was where Ted arrives, faced by a wall of skepticism and hostility, and gradually wins over the players, supporters, and the team owner, with his boundless optimism and humanity. The relegation at the end of Season 1 was inevitable. Season 2 is where they embark on a campaign to be promoted back to the premier league, and to build into a team that can win championship titles (something which the AFC Richmond of the series has never done). Season 3 will tell us what happens next, when AFC Richmond is back in the Premier League with all but one of its key pieces on the right side of the board.
And that is where the tragedy comes in. Nate was introduced to us in Season 1 as the team’s kit boy, bullied and treated with contempt by the team, insecure in his tenure in his humble role, but with a mad keen brain for soccer tactics. Ted, who treats everyone with kindness and seeks to bring out the best in people, sees Nate’s keen intellect and makes use of it. By season’s end, he has been promoted by Ted to assistant coach.
In Season 2, Coach Nate comes into his own. His growing confidence in his abilities and ego, stroked by his tactical brilliance in the FA Cup quarter final where he takes charge when Ted has a panic attack, sees him go from a victim to a bully. He is first admonished when he humiliates one of the junior players, and apologises, but his discreet victimisation of the new kit boy, goes unseen and unchecked.
His growing ambition then leads him to the ultimate betrayal – leaking to the press the secret of Ted Lasso’s panic attack in the quarter final – motivated by a misguided rage at Ted for abandonment and a snowballing belief that he is the real brains behind the team’s successes. At the end, after he storms out after having torn up the BELIEVE sign which has hung over the locker room for two years, we see him in his own senior coaching role, at the team which Richmond’s owner Rebecca’s ex-husband Rupert has bought.
What are the motives in Nate, and in his transformation from loveable supporting character into villain, in a show where every character until now has grown into the best version of themselves?
Like Richard III (whose transformation does not occur onstage, but rather is explained to us in the soliloquies at the end of Henry VI part III and at the start of Richard III), Nate has a degree of self-loathing. Richard has his hunchback to remind him of his limitations. Nate has a father who seems impossible to impress, and the recent memory of the contempt with which he was formerly treated by the team in his more humble prior role.
There is also some Iago in there. Nate expresses his desire for promotion and his belief that he can do the job better than Ted. He then does his betrayal.
And of course there is some Macbeth in there. Nate starts out as good, and does get prodded, partly by Rebecca’s ex-husband as we see, and partly by the lack of appreciation shown by his father at his moment in the sun in the FA Cup Quarter Final, to start seeing himself as more fit for the role of king (or senior coach) than the incumbent. He starts out as Thane of Glamis, and when he becomes Thane of Cawdor, he sees himself as King hereafter.
Which sets things up for an interesting season three, or third Act, if you will. We have to wait til next July for it. Ted Lasso and AFC Richmond now are back in the Premier League, desperately chasing their first ever major trophy. But up against them is the Rupert owned West Ham United, now coached by tactical prodigy Nate. Rupert always has a motive to needle his long suffering ex-wife, and Nate wants to prove that he is the better coach, and avenge his perceived slights.
I hope for a happy ending, the way that only a supporter of a historically underachieving football team can hope. I hope that Birnam Wood does come to Dunsinane, or rather, to Selhurst Park, and that the fictional AFC Richmond gets its EPL fairytale. But it is going to be a greater, more thrilling, story to watch, with the twin villains of Rupert and Nate seeking to thwart Ted at every turn.