In the 2009 pilot of Eastbound & Down, as John Rocker–style pitcher Kenny Powers geared up to substitute-teach gym at an elementary school in his hometown of Shelby, North Carolina — after getting kicked out of the baseball majors for launching a Humvee-size self-sabotage campaign involving steroids, alcohol, racism, homophobia, and general unlikability — he recalled for us life in the big leagues: “Everyone wanted a piece of my shit.”
And, for the next three years, we watched Kenny trying to get everyone to want a piece of his shit again — first for a cut rate, then for free, and, by the final season, basically paying people to take a piece of his shit off his hands. Metaphorically speaking.
The brainchild of star Danny McBride, creator Jody Hill, filmmaker David Gordon Green, and a spinning Chinese buffet plate of ubiquitous comic actors (Will Ferrell, Adam Scott, Matthew McConaughey, Jason Sudeikis, Lily Tomlin, Craig Robinson, Michael Peña), this Drakkar Noir–drenched bildungsroman was fun as fuck to watch for a variety of reasons. First of all, the stylized dialogue had the ring of a blunt, zesty, redneck-y David Mamet play. Secondly, the supporting characters were rarely the straight men to Kenny’s delusions, although that would have been the most obvious creative choice. Nope! For a former high school sweetheart and perpetual love interest, we have a big-haired, Victoria Jackson–voiced woman who curses like a sailor and does coke on a golf course. Kenny’s devoted sidekick? A bizarre, slow-talking, virgin-well-into-his-thirties band teacher. For a villain? The Frankenresult of what would happen if Will Ferrell and Ric Flair ran into each other really fast. And so on.
In season one — which I also suspect may have featured the least marijuana-laden writers’ room — Kenny was all edge, a traditional antihero. There were three primary goals dangling in front of his face that first year in Shelby: his comeback, April’s tit, and April’s other tit.
He enlists an STD-riddled local floozy to make April jealous at social events and occasionally service him orally. “One of us has a personal stylist, and the other one shoplifts her shit from Fashion Bug,” he tells the floozy. “Honey, I love you, but you dress like a dickhead.” Just when he gets his dream job and April back, a cruel twist of fate snatches back Kenny’s return to greatness. He dumps April at a convenience store and flees the country.
The next season, which took place almost entirely in Mexico, was the traditional hero’s origin story. Kenny’s existential lost weekend — featuring cockfights, violent midget Deep Roy (the Oompa-Loompa in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), a sultry Mexican lounge singer who only covers Bob Seger songs — culminates in a showdown with his estranged father (Don Johnson). His dad’s delusions trigger a hair fracture in Kenny’s, who is briefly self-aware enough to know he does not, not want to end up like his pops. By the end of the season, both Kenny and Stevie are drifting toward the traditional domicile; Stevie has married the first woman he slept with, sweet Mexican Maria, and Kenny takes responsibility for a pregnant April as Kurt Vile’s “He’s Alright” jizzes pathos all over us.
Now the third, final, and arguably most mature season of the HBO show comes to an end. This episode, ostensibly the series finale, clearly illustrates that Eastbound turns out to have been a surprisingly traditional story all along, as chock-full of morals and family values as it is full of finger-banging and the wanton recreational use of prescription medication.
We open with a closer for a Major League Texas team (Seth Rogen, another one of Hill’s convincingly bizarro antiheroes in Observe and Report) hitting on girls at a club and conveniently getting hit by a truck. Back at the condo, Kenny still refuses to admit that he misses Toby, but jumps at the opportunity to visit his son when he finds Sturgeon the pet hermit crab hiding in an empty bowl. (“A marijuana pipe?” April asks later on. “I technically use this to smoke DMT,” clarifies Kenny.)
That afternoon, the Myrtle Beach Mermaids’ weary manager informs Kenny that he’s been traded to Texas:
“Fuck you, you fat fucking honky.”
“Fuck you, too, you black dicklicker.”
“I hope you get AIDS.”
Not for the first time, Kenny storms into ex-girlfriend Andrea’s college lecture to break up with her officially. Again. “Everybody be cool, this isn’t a school shooting. This is something far more fantastic.” He proceeds to deliver one of the more spectacular monologues in Eastbound history because it indicates emotional progression from Kenny (who, at the start of the season, would be psyched to hang out with college students) and actually contains something like wisdom:
“I know you are all looking at me and thinking like, ‘That guy is exactly my same age.’ But I’m not. I’m a grown-up, real person. Y’all don’t have a fucking clue. Y’all are doing Facebook shit, the Internets, the DVDs? That’s all bullshit. That shit isn’t real. But from where I’m standing, a full-grown man who’s achieved his dreams. My shit is about as real as it gets. Besides, I can out-party, out-drink, and out-fuck all of you.”
Out on the beach, Kenny, Maria, and Stevie (in a different wig for each scene) ceremonially toss out toward the sea an assortment of their Myrtle Beach memorabilia. As he torches his Confederate-flag-painted boogie board, Kenny tells Maria that she’ll like Texas because it has a similar climate to Mexico, “except it doesn’t stink like buttholes and donkeys.” At which point Stevie reveals that he and Maria plan to stay in Myrtle and raise their own child — Maria is pregnant. Kenny is incredulous, but Stevie insists: “She pissed on one of those sticks; I held it under her pussy myself.” He’s one of those guys, he adds, who actually wants a family.
“Are you really ready to give up all the status you’ll have as my associate?” asks Kenny. “Give up your co-starring role in the reality series I’m developing?”
Stevie pauses for a moment, then nods. “Yes. We’re staying in Myrtle.”
Kenny silently regards Stevie with more respect than we’ve seen from him in all three seasons, hands him the keys to the Panty Dropper, and officially relieves him of his assistant duties, adding, “I give you the right to name your child after me, regardless of gender.”
At April’s house, a choked-up Kenny explains to Toby that he has to go away because he has a great opportunity, but “all the wealth I acquire, all the fame and fortunes and women I will bed, I’ll be doing all that stuff so you’ll be proud of me. So you can be proud of your dad.” Touched, April apologizes to Kenny for disappearing at the beginning of the season and gently hints that she came back to start up their relationship again.
“Your timing sucks, I’m getting ready to move to Texas and shit,” Kenny mumbles.
Next thing you know, Kenny’s in uniform in the Texas locker room, praying to Jesus with a mustached Matthew McConaughey. (“Relax his throat to allow him to accept this bulging opportunity, oh Lord.”) Out on the field, Kenny throws two strikes and prepares for a third, but suddenly, the knowledge that he can do it is enough. “For the first time in so many moons, I felt like I was in control. I held my destiny in my hands as sure as I held that baseball.” And then he drops the ball. As the crowd boos, he walks briskly off the field.
“Where the fuck you going?” asks a fellow player.
In his truck on a foggy back road, night having fallen, Kenny chugs beer and yells at the top of his lungs, “I’m in a fucking Cameron Crowe movie!” Riding high on the adrenaline that came with his newfound need to be with April and Toby, he careens off the side of the road in a devastating accident. The truck explodes. It fucking explodes.
We hear a news anchor: “One of baseball’s greats, Kenny Powers, has perished in an automobile accident.” Kenny’s brother Dusty gets the first call, and, one by one, we see the characters’ reacting to Kenny’s demise: Dusty and Cassie’s pudgy sons, a crying Caspar and pensive Eduardo, Jason Sudeikis trying on Shane’s baseball cap, Reg Macworthy, Ashley Schaeffer, Mr. Cutler the principal at Shelby putting You’re F*cking Out on the school bookshelf (inscription: “Cutler: Suck a bag of dicks. [dick picture.] —Kenny Powers”), mom Lily Tomlin at the bowling alley, Andrea ecstatically getting finger-banged in her dorm room. April in mourning. And, best of all, Stevie riding shirtless on the Panty Dropper, hearkening back to the “Black Betty” montage in the pilot.
“I hope this inspirational novel-story helps to inspire you to stop being a normal average person and start being a champion instead,” Kenny’s voice-over says as they tow the remains of his truck. “Dreams do come true for some people. Like me. Kenny Powers. I’m out. The end. Of the book.”
Except not, because the following day a bleach-blonde Kenny surprises April outside her house. She is, understandably, shaken. “What in the fuck?” Kenny explains that the press would be all over him if he hadn’t faked his own death, and that his values have changed. “It used to be that all I cared about was winning. But now I think losing can be cool, too. I mean, not that having a family is losing, kind of, but I wanna be there for you, April. I wanna be there for Toby. I wanna be there for our fucking family.”
April points out: “You coulda just stayed in the majors and me and Toby coulda come with you.” Kenny clearly hadn’t considered this, but it’s too late now, so he just plays it off. “Um. Uh-uh. No. I don’t … I don’t think that would have worked.” They kiss.
“Come inside, you son of a bitch,” says April. And finally, appropriately enough, in a crystal-clear closer, we have the door slammed in our faces. There’s no voice-over because Kenny’s got nothing left to say — he’s a man at peace.
For all its silliness and darkness and C-section jokes, Eastbound & Down was the laughing side of the tragedy-comedy masks represented by the antihero stories of these last few years, mostly found on hour-long dramas: Don Draper, Walter White, and Kenny Powers. And although Kenny’s arguably the most homophobic, sexist, racist, hateful, uneducated, and generally reprehensible confection of the three (it’s a close race), he’s also the most harmless and lovable. It’s not even that he means well. He doesn’t. He just doesn’t not mean well. Or, like, at least not all the time.
And at the end of the series, he hasn’t gone through one of those magical, transformative, 180-degree haircut-and-briefcase kind of changes that would happen on more conventional shows. He doesn’t magically become a Jedi or James Marsden or anything. He’s still Kenny Powers, but a version of Kenny Powers that actually kind of seems like a decent guy. And maybe that’s all we can ask of people. Deuces.