“Stevie, you weak mother—-er, you listen to me right now. You have made an ass-ton of stupid choices in Myrtle Beach; this is the moment of truth. Now is not the time to lay on the ground like a bald f—ing baby. Now is the time to be a f—ing man.”
That was Kenny Powers on last Sunday’s penultimate episode of “Eastbound & Down,” moments after learning that recently shorn sycophant Stevie Janowski had lost his son (which would lead to Powers subsequently decking him in the face, hence the reason Stevie was laying on the ground like a bald f—ing baby), and I took the time to transcribe it for two reasons: One, because I love the phrase “an ass-ton of stupid choices.” And two, because it was unquestionably the most important scene in the show’s three-season history.
Why? Well, for starters, it kicked off a series of events that included Powers and Janowski setting off to rescue KP’s kidnapped son (while dressed as Rambo and Freddy Krueger, respectively), a near street-fight, a heartwarming détente between two former foes, a racist “Old South” KIA dealer being immolated and, ultimately, Powers’ triumphant return to glory. Secondly, though Powers was giving the speech to Janowski, you got the feeling he was also giving it to himself; after all, he’s made “an ass-ton” of poor decisions too — in Myrtle Beach and pretty much everywhere else — and was actually determined to do something about it for once. Thirdly, the speech represented not just the moment when Powers moved from brutish buffoon to genuine hero, but when the show segued into the third and final act of its story, moving from “confrontation” to “resolution.”
And finally, it’s because the speech marked the exact moment when “Eastbound & Down” became the greatest show on HBO.
Of course, in a typically Kenny Powers-ian move, “Eastbound” waited until midway through its second-to-last episode to make the leap (it all comes to a close this Sunday — at least that’s what its creators have said in the past), but rest assured, it’s finally done it. Long considered the odd program out at HBO — or certainly the least-discussed (except for maybe “How to Make It in America,” though the less said about that show, the better) — thanks to a sweeping third season, it’s no longer just the goofy comedy about the dude with the mullet. It has quietly, almost secretly, become a genuinely excellent show: funny, fabulously acted (seriously, both Danny McBride and Steve Little deserve Emmys for their work this year), fantastically shot and edited and scored, unafraid to veer off into decidedly dark territory. It is brave and bold and basically everything you could ask for from a show that started off as a sort of piss-take on former MLB reliever John Rocker’s epic fall from grace.
It’s less ponderous than “Boardwalk Empire” or “Treme,” doesn’t contain one ounce of the import “Game of Thrones” carries with it, and is certainly funnier than “Life’s Too Short” (even in those aforementioned dark moments). Oh, and it has definitely killed fewer horses than “Luck.”
To be fair, “Eastbound” took a while to find its legs. There were standout moments in the first season — Powers’ pro-level meltdown (“Get me paid, bitch!”); his slo-mo stroll through the halls of his former middle school, the Black Keys’ “Your Touch” blaring in the background; his ecstasy-fueled dance-off, the harrowing and heartbreaking backyard BBQ scene in episode four — though, for the most part, you weren’t sure if you were supposed to laugh or wince. Season two, which picked up after Powers left his former flame at a gas station and hightailed it to Mexico, was largely viewed as a disappointment, though we did meet his deadbeat father (played by none other than Don Johnson), and really, as is the case with all great three-act productions, we couldn’t appreciate all that had happened until we reached the conclusion. Kenny needed to go Down South, it would now seem, because he needed to bottom out.
And now, finally, we’re entering the home stretch. The third season of “Eastbound” has unquestionably been its best, full of shudder-inducing dark comedy (Powers storming into a college classroom to win back the affections of his sorta-girlfriend, a boom-box-aided funeral scene, and a memorable sequence in which he attacks a crowd with bottle rockets while dressed as Uncle Sam) and actually dark moments (Janowski has certainly been through the wringer, to say the very least). Through it all, Powers has only grown as a character, becoming a father to his son Toby, putting the demons of his past to rest, settling scores, and, as of last week, recapturing that old fire. I’m not gonna lie, when he finally uncorked his “You’re f—in’ out!” on Sunday, I actually leapt off the sofa.
It’s a testament to the creative team behind the show — McBride, Jody Hill, Ben Best and David Gordon Green chief among them — that they’ve managed to craft a story line that has ebbed and flowed but, really, always remained on track. With all the ephemera “Eastbound” tosses our way, they’ve managed to keep their grand designs hidden, though on Sunday, it became apparent that this show is, at it’s very heart, nothing more than a classic bildungsroman, a tale of a protagonist’s psychological and moral growth (my good pal Andy Greenwald once referred to it as a “bil-dongs-roman,” which, given the show’s proclivity for dick jokes, is spot-on).
Through three seasons of topless Jet Ski rides, frat-guy-pleasing quotables and more profanity than Al Swearengen on a bender, “Eastbound” has somehow become an actual show, one with heart and soul and a cast of characters that are cartoonish, to be sure, but unquestionably real. They make terrible decisions, they hurt those closest to them, and yet, redemption is ultimately still within their reach. And in that regard, it has succeeded where any and all its HBO brethren have failed. Which is why it’s the best.
With one episode left, I’m not sure how “Eastbound” is going to end. Will Kenny finally put his dreams of a return to MLB glory to bed and become the man (seemingly) everyone knows he should be? Or will he head off into the sunset, ever the gunslinger, looking for one final duel? Either way, it’s been a heck of a ride — not to mention an improbable rise, both for Kenny Powers and the show itself. It’ll always be an underdog — no one’s ever going to put it in the same class as “The Wire” or “The Sopranos” or even “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — but maybe it deserves to be in the discussion.
And to think: It all started with a man with a mind for victory and an arm like a f—ing cannon. How it ends, and how it will be remembered, is anybody’s guess.
How do you think “Eastbound & Down” will end? Share your predictions in the comments!