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We Need to Talk About Nate One Last Time

The third (and presumably last) season of Ted Lasso chickened out on its heel turn. What was the point? Photo: Colin Hutton/Apple TV+

The last frame of the season-two finale of Ted Lasso is the seething face of Nate Shelley. In one simple shot, the former assistant coach at AFC Richmond, heretofore regarded by his colleagues as nonthreatening, is transformed into a real threat, a man so angered by the indignities he endured to this point that his hair has turned white, he has leaked information about Ted’s panic attacks to the press, quit his position working under the coach, and taken a job as head of rival squad West Ham.

Given that season-two snapshot, it was natural to assume that season three, seemingly the show’s last, would deconstruct this aggressive version of Nate as well as the role Ted and his teammates played in making him feel so disrespected. It didn’t. The writers, juggling way too many story lines and inflating run times to accommodate them, lost their focus and, more important, their nerve. Rather than make a meaningful effort to examine Nate’s nastiness (an effort they definitely expended on Ted while exploring his panic attacks), the show backpedaled away from darker notions and returned Nate to the gentleness he’d demonstrated in season one — all in the interest of a happy ending. It’s Ted Lasso succumbing to its worst impulses.

At its best — and it was at its best in its first season and most of its second — Ted Lasso celebrated the ways humanity is better served, as a community and collection of individuals, when we recognize that all of us are fallible and everyone deserves some grace. Affording someone grace is not the same thing as being nice, an adjective that, understandably, has stuck to Ted Lasso, because it so blatantly seeks to uplift its audience. Being nice means being agreeable, polite, pleasant. It can be surface-level behavior and, too often, what people fall back on when they face confrontation. Niceness is not the same as kindness, which more regularly involves selflessness as evidence of care. Kindness requires work. In this season of Ted Lasso, and with Nate’s story line in particular, the writers forgot this. They did what they thought would seem nice for Nate and the show’s audience.

In season two, the micro- and macro-aggressions that led to Nate’s blowup were planted deftly over multiple episodes. Ted no longer showers Nate with the kind of praise he did in season one, and he hires Roy as another assistant coach, making Nate feel less valuable. When a guilt-ridden Nate confesses to Roy that he kissed Keeley, Roy laughs him off, because he believes Nate could never be a rival for his girlfriend’s affections. At the funeral for Rebecca’s father, Nate shows up in a suit Ted picked out for him, prompting Jan, a player for AFC Richmond, to say, “Another man buying you clothes is infantilizing, no?”

Nate’s colleagues do not treat him like an authority figure, let alone an esteemed member of their team, which the show makes clear is especially bruising in a work environment that consists of only male colleagues. That may not justify all of Nate’s behavior, but it certainly explains why he explodes at the end of season two, unloads his grievances about Ted, and seizes another job opportunity — all of which is well within his rights as an adult. The fact that Ted Lasso so transparently spelled this out last season, yet goes on to cast Nate in a villainous spiral that simply stops spiraling when the writers ran out of episodes, is more an indictment of the show itself than it is of Nate. Over the course of 12 episodes, he struggles to reconcile his new job at West Ham, and the hypermasculine perks it affords him (access to wealth, cars, and women), with the magnetic pull of Richmond and his former ambitions (namely, to manage the modest Greek restaurant that’s so important to his family and maybe even date the hostess), seemingly sinking deeper into the former, until, suddenly, he doesn’t.

By the end of the series, Nate is back with his old team in an even lower-level role than he had when he started — he’s hired back as assistant to the kit man — and seemingly grateful just to be there, sorting dirty jerseys and jockstraps again. In another abasement, shortly after Nate’s return, Rebecca chooses Roy to be the new head coach, even though Nate, who held a similar position and notably beat AFC Richmond while doing it, is right there on the staff. If this bothers Nate at all, the show does not tell us. When Nate and Ted finally share their big reconciliation scene, Nate breaks down, sobbing while begging for Ted’s forgiveness. Nick Mohammed, who plays Nate, gives a believable and touching performance during that scene. But it’s impossible to watch it without wondering, Wait, what happened in the script to make Nate this wracked with guilt?

And at no point in this exchange does Ted say, “I’m sorry too” or “Hey, I thought a lot about what you said to me the day you quit, and I apologize for making you feel unappreciated. You were right to call me out on that.” He just tells Nate that he, too, has ripped up the “Believe” sign before, so Nate’s already forgiven for doing the same thing. There’s a whole ocean of other tumultuous emotions that Nate described last season to Ted that Ted and the series pretend never existed.

Perhaps this conclusion would have been easier to embrace if more of Nate’s internal journey had been made apparent to the audience throughout season three. But it wasn’t. In early episodes, we do see Nate abiding by his darker impulses. He makes catty comments about Ted at a press conference and fails to shake Ted’s hand after West Ham beats AFC Richmond. But in episode four, the same one that depicts that match, Nate is already aching to apologize to Ted — he just can’t find the gumption to do it. At the same time, the writers are trying to tell us that we’re seeing a new, ruthlessly ambitious Nate but insisting he’s still the same old Nate. You can’t redeem a “good character” when you never showed us what he looks like when he’s bad. It’s like giving a kid a lollipop at the beginning of a dentist’s appointment. You can do it, but it doesn’t make any sense.

The defining decision Nate makes in season three is to finally quit his job at West Ham, yet we never see him wrestle with that choice or discuss it with anyone — not even his girlfriend, A Taste of Athens hostess Jade, a woman who will no doubt be studied by scientists for her capacity to display zero discernible personality traits. In the ninth episode, “La Locker Room aux Folles,” Nate is obviously put-off when Rupert brings a woman to their guys’ night out and expects Nate to sleep with her, even though Rupert knows Nate and Jade are in a relationship. The next time we see Nate, in episode ten, he’s in bed and depressed, because at some point off-screen, he left his job, which paid him a fat salary and gave him a rare shot at coaching a professional football team. Ted Lasso does not actually show him quitting or how Rupert responds to his resignation. Just imagine if Ted had been scripted into a similar scenario. He’d make a profound speech to the sexist prick who discomforted him, reminding everyone that real men don’t treat women as company perks. Nate is deprived of the chance to demonstrate that he, too, can stand up for himself. Instead, he goes home to hide out with his parents.

During his brief stay with his parents, Nate has a heart-to-heart with his father, who admits he did not know how to properly parent Nate and pushed him too hard to be an achiever, particularly with regard to Nate’s pursuit of the violin. Yes, with just two more episodes left in the show’s run, we learn that Nate was an incredibly gifted violinist as a kid but gave up the instrument because of the pressure his dad imposed on him. At the 11th hour, Ted Lasso unlocks a whole other part of Nate’s backstory and personality — his dad calls him a genius, noting that he can see things in ways others cannot — only to use it as a weak springboard to explain why he goes back to Richmond rather than more deeply consider how this defines Nate. “Nathan, be successful, don’t be successful — I never cared about any of that,” his dad tells him. “I just want my son to be happy.”

That comment foreshadows what happens in the final two episodes: Nate is invited back to AFC Richmond, and he accepts. Nate’s return, in tandem with Ted’s departure for Kansas, is a double evocation of The Wizard of Oz. For both men, the show tells us, there’s no place like home. But Ted Lasso forgets that, a mere season ago, “home” was a very upsetting place for Nate. The writers imply that Nate has chosen happiness over success by coming back to the place where he truly belongs, but when is the choice between happiness and success such a binary one?

Mohammed explains Nate’s return to Richmond as a demotion that functions as relief. “He doesn’t have to pretend anymore,” he says. “He hasn’t got any points to prove. He became so self-obsessed in season two — so vain. It’s the realization that those things aren’t important anymore and self-worth counts for a lot more. You don’t need to shit on people to get ahead.” Perhaps it’s true that part of owning one’s self-worth is shedding vanity and pettiness. But a huge part of it is knowing what you are worth and not settling for less than that. At the end of the series, so many of the other characters seem to have a handle on their own equations and are moving forward with their lives. Ted embraces his family again, Roy gets Ted’s job, Beard gets married, Rebecca connects with her almost-lover from Amsterdam, and Sam finally gets to play on the Nigerian team. By comparison, it feels like Nate is sent back to the first space on the board in a game of Chutes and Ladders.

In the final Diamond Dogs meeting of Ted Lasso, Leslie makes the following declaration: “Human beings are never going to be perfect. The best we can do is to keep asking for help and accepting it when you can. And if you keep on doing that, you’ll always be moving toward better.” It’s the kind of wishy-washy platitude that Ted Lasso loves to pretend is more profound than it is, but it does emphasize a central tenet of the show: that everyone should be aiming for progress and evolution, personally and in all their endeavors — like, for example, football. Except for Nate. In the end, Ted Lasso punishes its wunderkind and asks us to believe that he’s perfectly content.

We Need to Talk About Nate One Last Time