From the beginning, the Netflix docuseries Last Chance U has been many things: beautifully made, occasionally uplifting, often tragic, and thoughtful about race, poverty, masculinity, mentorship, and opportunity. It’s also always been a series about community college sports (mostly football, although it will be pivoting to basketball in future seasons). Although the show has always encompassed a fairly broad view of the sources of trauma in many of its subjects’ lives, that trauma tends to get woven back pretty quickly to the main topic at hand. Which, again, is sports.
So it was with some initial surprise and dawning sadness that I watched the fourth episode of Last Chance U’s new fifth season, an episode called “Greyhaven.” It’s still about football, sure. But mostly it’s about the incredible and nightmarish generational trauma still reverberating through the family of well-known fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley, told through the experience of her grandson, Laney College wide receiver RJ Stern.
Bradley is the author of the monumentally influential 1983 novel The Mists of Avalon, a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of its female characters that has been widely recognized as an important feminist text. I read it in middle school; I also watched a TNT adaptation of it starring Julianna Margulies as Morgaine and Anjelica Huston as the Lady of the Lake. So when the episode begins and RJ leads the camera into the house where he’s staying, I was initially delighted when I realized it was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s home, now the home of fantasy author and co-founder of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, Diana Paxson.
It feels so charming at first. The series had already introduced RJ as a hard-working, bro-y football player, doing his best to transfer from community college to a football program at a bigger school. Then you get to watch him with Paxson and her husband Jon DeCles, also an author. RJ is so into football and so apparently uninterested in the strange rambling house owned by his great-aunt and uncle. The house is full of the paraphernalia of fantasy authors and harpists who practice paganism and also hold regular meetings of poets and druids. There are walls full of framed book covers and artwork featuring mythical beings. RJ’s bedroom, meanwhile, has a mini-fridge and a lot of football stuff. “It’s hard to relate to the people who I live with,” RJ says, “just based on personalities and how we’re different and whatnot.”
The initial scene feels so out of place on Last Chance U, such an unexpected detour from its typical settings, which tend to be locker rooms, football fields, student housing, and community college classrooms. As much as anything else, though, Last Chance U is about the kinds of trauma these football players often experience, and the way football gets cast as a potential way out for them. In that sense, RJ’s background fits right in.
Bradley and her husband Walter Breen have been accused of child sexual abuse and rape by several parties including their two children, Moira and Mark Greyland. Both Bradley and Breen are now deceased; Breen died in prison after being charged with eight felony counts of child molestation. But Last Chance U includes interviews with RJ, his mother Moira, and Paxson about this horrible part of their family history, and it’s clear that the legacy of Bradley and Breen’s actions are still painfully present in their lives. RJ hates thinking about it, and is resentful of his own mother’s behavior toward him while also trying to be understanding about how much pain she’s lived through. Paxson seems saddened and horrified by it all, but also struggles to fully distance herself from Bradley’s work; several of her own novels were written in the Mists of Avalon universe. “If we only had perfect people writing,” Paxon says, “there would be no one left to write. What we should be doing is honoring what people manage to achieve despite their flaws.” Paxson’s language falls depressingly short of a firm denunciation.
The whole chapter feels like a swerve away from the series’ usual framework, and the entire Bradley story is so outsized and upsetting that you can feel it threatening to pull focus away from the rest of the season’s narrative. What makes it work, though, is that at its basic level, it is the same kind of story Last Chance U has always tried to tell: here’s a football player doing his best to play the game well and use his abilities to make a better life for himself, and here are all the pressures and traumas in his life that have turned football into the only avenue for success he can imagine.