We Need to Talk About Nate

It would have been so easy for Ted Lasso to lean all the way into the likability of its characters in season two, but it chose instead to do something messy and complicated. Photo: Apple TV+

Spoilers for season two of Ted Lasso are everywhere in this essay. You have been warned.

The second season of Ted Lasso has been critiqued and criticized as much as it has been praised. While I stand by my early positive review, it’s true that not everything ultimately worked across the season’s 12 episodes. As much as I love Coach Beard, his stand-alone episode wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. Other moments in the season finale that dropped today on Apple TV+, particularly the choppy time jumps at the end, were a tad clumsy. But Nate’s arc, slowly deployed by the writers throughout the season, was a master stroke.

The very end of the Ted Lasso season-two finale reveals that Nate Shelley, the shy former kit man turned assistant coach, has fully moved to the dark side of the Premier League. In the last scene, Nate stands on the field overseeing the players of West Ham United, a team now owned by Rupert Mannion, former owner of AFC Richmond as well as ex-husband and nemesis of Rebecca. At first, only the back of Nate’s head, now covered in completely shock-white hair, is visible as Rupert whispers something into his ear. Then Nate turns and walks toward the camera until his face completely occupies the frame. Finally, in what has always been Ted Lasso’s show, Nate — the assertive, mirror-spitting, boss-man version of Nate — has commanded the focus. It’s a jarring moment that provides payoff to the finesse with which his character has been drawn. It also further complicates the “niceness” that is allegedly Ted Lasso’s raison d’être and provides sly commentary on the complaints some people have voiced about the show.

Before getting into that, though, obviously we need to talk about Nate’s hair. On a first watch, it seems as though Nate, played by Nick Mohammed, went noticeably gray in the last couple of episodes of the season. But the transformation is much slower and more subtle than that. The first hints of gray peek out from his temples and sideburns in “Rainbow,” the fifth episode of the season. By episode seven, the one where he verbally abuses both Colin and Will, the silver streaks have crept into his bangs. By episodes ten and 11, he’s got the full Clooney salt-and-pepper treatment. Then, in that last scene, it’s all salt, which, not coincidentally, makes for a perfect match with Rupert’s gray hair and goatee. (It’s worth noting that Nate’s dismissive, disapproving father also has gray locks.)

It’s odd that Nate’s colleagues never acknowledge the change in his appearance. But that’s the point: People tend to look right past Nate a lot of the time, which is what makes him so angry. To their credit, the writers have been dropping justifications for Nate’s anger throughout season two like bread crumbs leading to Nate’s betrayal of Ted and the team. In that outburst Nate unleashes on Ted in the finale, he notes that Ted shone all kinds of attention on him during the previous football season, but in this one, after promoting Nate to assistant coach, Ted has paid him little mind. And even when Ted has acknowledged him, by implementing Nate’s False Nine strategy, for example, from Nate’s perspective, he’s receiving credit only because something isn’t going well. (Nate doesn’t realize his approach will pay off in the latter portion of the game, and when it does, he has already worked up a full head of steam that drives him off the pitch while the rest of the team celebrates.)

Nate isn’t wrong to feel this way. Ted doesn’t make nearly as much of Nate’s “wonder kid” coaching skills as he would have the year prior. He hires Roy as an additional coach, blindsiding Nate and making him feel less valuable. Ted even belittles Nate. In episode five, when Nate offers to talk to Isaac after Ted says they need one of the “big dogs” to do it, Ted laughs at him. Nate is emasculated again in the finale when he confesses to Roy, in front of the rest of the so-called Diamond Dogs, that he kissed Keeley. Roy, who already knows about it, immediately forgives him and assures him he’s not concerned. Why would he be? A guy like Nate could never legitimately steal Keeley from him the way that, in theory, someone like Jamie might.

Even at the funeral for Rebecca’s father, after Keeley notes that Nate is wearing the suit Ted bought for him, Nate is taken down a peg when Jan says, “Another man buying you clothes is infantilizing, no?” Each indignity on its own is minor, but when piled one on top of the other, they cement Nate’s insecurity about not being taken seriously. Once he starts reading headlines suggesting that maybe he should be a head coach, as well as tweets that (mostly) sing his praises, it’s inevitable that the contrast between how he’s treated inside AFC Richmond and how he perceives he’s regarded outside of it will turn combustible.

Nate believes he deserves better, a feeling Keeley and Rebecca have encouraged in him. That’s not wrong. But he makes the classic mistake of believing that because he deserves more, others must have less. Which is why he leaks the panic-attack story to the press, says fuck you to Ted, and defects to West Ham.

What’s wonderful about all these dynamics is that they complicate the accepted narrative about Ted Lasso, which is that it’s a show about kindness and uplift and a man who teaches everyone else to become better versions of themselves. Except that’s not entirely true, and it wasn’t even totally the case in season one. As Mohammed pointed out in this interview, there were signs even in season one that Nate is capable of selfish and nasty behavior. While Ted might have softened Rebecca’s edges and made his players more considerate toward one another, he ultimately brought out the worst in Nate, albeit unwittingly. The fact that Nate could feel rightfully mistreated throws a whole bucket of cold water on the notion that Ted Lasso is a show about a nice man with a nice mustache who makes other people nicer. If we were surprised to see Nate turn into a “bad guy” at the end of this finale, it’s because we weren’t looking hard enough at Nate and fully considering him. Which makes us as guilty of neglect and dismissiveness as Ted and everyone else who has condescended to Nate.

The other neat trick of the Nate arc is that his issues with Ted make him the human embodiment of a lot of the criticisms about the show. Nate is angry because he feels as if Ted has lost his focus on coaching, which is exactly what has bugged a lot of Ted Lasso fans who wish the show had stayed more engaged with the actual football this season. A key reason Ted’s eye has gotten off the ball, so to speak, is that he has been struggling with panic attacks. Now, part of the point of the whole season is that mental-health issues should be discussed openly and not perceived as weaknesses, but Nate exploits Ted’s anxiety as if it were a weakness, perhaps because he feels that’s how people have responded to him when he came across as uncertain or scared. Why does Ted deserve a pass when Nate has never gotten one?

Nate tells Ted he doesn’t “belong” at AFC Richmond because he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and you know what? That is fair! He’s constantly looking to other people for answers and still doesn’t seem to understand certain things about the sport; he’s a white middle-aged American dude who thinks he can coast by on folksy charm and, most of the time, actually does. It’s one of the things people who don’t like Ted Lasso cite as an issue with the series, and it would probably be infuriating to deal with in real life.

Nate also has the guts to say something to Ted that no one else has had the guts to, not even Dr. Fieldstone, who certainly should have: that Ted should be back in Kansas with his son. He can do all the FaceTiming he wants, but being in England means he’s not with his own child. Certainly, there’s a connection between Ted’s loss of his own father and his repetition of that history in a different context, but the show never explicitly connected those dots until Nate does. Ted can’t be a great guy who has also totally ditched his son. By putting those words in Nate’s mouth, the series is calling itself out on one of its own flaws.

This is what I have appreciated most about Ted Lasso, especially in season two: When it would have been so easy to embrace its reputation as comfort food and lean all the way into the likability of its characters, it chose instead to do something messy and complicated. Season one closes with a touching montage set to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the confirmation of an alliance between Rebecca and Ted. Which was nice. But season two ends with a fuck-you. And that’s more interesting.

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We Need to Talk About Nate