If you aren’t watching Ted Lasso, you should be. This excellent Apple TV+ series is funny, heartwarming, and genuinely incisive in its politics. I want to dissect Nate’s arc in the most recent episode to examine his toxic behaviour and his experience of racism in this episode, the latter a topic critically under discussed.
To begin, a brief recap of the character and his plot in this episode. Nate is a man of colour who is an assistant coach to the British soccer team AFC Richmond; previously, he was the kit-man (aka an equipment manager). In this episode, Nate wants to celebrate his parent’s 35th anniversary at “A Taste of Athens,” a local, mid-tier restaurant. His initial attempts to get the window table at the restaurant is denied. He seeks advice on projecting strength in public spaces from his white female colleagues, Rebecca and Keeley. That evening, his parents arrive at the restaurant, and are seated in the back. Nate takes a moment to psyche himself up in the bathroom, before firmly demanding he and his parents be seated at the window table, which has sat empty this whole time. The server concedes, and Nate and his parents have a nice dinner at the window table.
This episode is quite revealing to Nate’s anxieties around his role in life: in public society, with his parents, and on his team. Nate’s moment of solitude in the bathroom is quite revealing in how he fights to re-situate himself in all three contexts. Looking in the mirror, Nate initially tried to embody his the psyche up move Rebecca uses, which is to make yourself as big as possible, as if trying to scare away a bear. Nate tries this, but ultimately this does not work for him. He instead stares himself in the mirror, and spits in his reflection.
Film Crit Hulk writes that this moment is an expression of anger, that Nate can feel big by finally releasing some buried emotions. I agree, but I also want to look closer at this moment through the lens of his arc this season. Throughout this season, Nate is worried about his place in the clubhouse, and takes up some elements of toxic masculinity in an attempt to secure his place. He is mean to his replacement kit-man, replicating the exact kind of treatment Nate received in the locker room. I think Nate believes that his replacement needs to go through the same derision and be put in his place, because that’s how it’s always been. Again, this is the logic of toxic masculinity, that you must secure respect through dominance of others. In this private moment in the bathroom, Nate agains puts someone in his place, spitting in the face of his (shadow) self. In the aggressive spit, he puts someone down to assert control. In other words, Nate steadied himself and made himself “big” by psychologically putting down someone else. That Nate spat in his own face in the reflection does perhaps trouble this reading a little bit–how can he both put himself down and make himself big at the same time? That it is a reflection, however, not the true self, put perhaps a reflection of the old self, the old Nate who was disrespected in the locker room, is why I think the spit functions as a means of a put down. For Nate, who’s been expressing traits of toxic masculinity here and there throughout the season in an attempt to be “one of the guys,” he may only truly understand power through the domination of others. This is something I expect will be challenged and ultimately broken in this season by Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, the teams’ sports psychologist.
From my search on recaps of this episode, it appears that no one is talking about race with this episode. Make no mistake, racism is a key reason why Nate doesn’t initially get the window table at the restaurant. I think the series plays its cards here very close to its chest, creating a situation emblematic of what many BIPOC individuals face in their lives. Were there really no more reservations, or does the restaurant not want people of colour at their establishment? Did they really not take reservations for the window table, or did “A Taste of Athens” not want people of colour at the street view window? That the server went back to management to check on window reservations is, I believe, a surface gesture to hide the true purpose: to deny BIPOC guests the best seating at the restaurant.
Further interactions in this episode support this interpretation. Rebecca is surprised, for example, that Nate can’t get a table for a restaurant as pedestrian as “A Taste of Athens.” This is the not the expensive posh restaurant that she anticipated. That the server sprays what appears to be cleaning fluid in the air when Nate enters the restaurant is an inconsiderate move that arguably indicates how Nate is unwelcome in the space. That Nate even promises his family will be out of the restaurant in a timely manner if they get the window table suggests he is aware of how unwelcome he is in the space. That the server Jade says “I’m Picky” in rejection of Nate asking for her phone number is again the series playing close to its chest—is she really “picky” or is she using this as an excuse to not consider a man of colour? In avoiding explicit racism, the kinds we are use to seeing on the screen, I think the series plays well to invite audiences to consider how racism manifests subtly and obliquely in common life.
I understand if the reader is skeptical here, thinking I’m being too paranoid with this analysis. Indeed, I am doing a paranoid reading here. As Eve Sedgewick writes, the paranoid reading is an important interpretive tool. We live in a fundamentally inequitable world, one structured by the imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, as bell hooks notes. A paranoid reading is one that looks towards hegemony and this affects, one that sheds light on issues of inequity.
Potential Spoilers: My Predictions for Ted’s arc this season:
I’m listing out my predictions for the series major emotional arc with Ted not as easter egg sleuthing that many a Marvel fan does when dissecting trailers, for example. Rather I want to put these thoughts to digital paper to fight back against the comments that season 2 of Ted Lasso has “no conflict.” The conflict is there, it’s less visible because it is the conflict of repression and anxiety.
I predict that Ted’s father will be revealed to have committed suicide. We know that his father died when Ted was 16. Ted mentions in an early episode this season that his father took on and was burdened with a lot of hurt, perhaps too much. This is also foreshadowed with Dr. Sharon’s mention that her favourite book is The Prince of Tides which is a football coach moving to a new town, dealing with a suicidal sister, and unearthing family trauma and its current effects. Sounds a lot like Ted’s situation now!
Ted lost his father early; as a result, he wants everyone to like him to ensure people won’t leave him. I believe his behaviour ultimately stems from a fear of abandonment. Now, Ted does genuinely care for others, and makes for a great coach in terms of motivation and team-building. But it’s clear the limits to toxic positivity and perhaps also his worldview of “rom-communism” (i.e. think of your life as a rom-com.) Yes, everything will work out, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t confront your trauma, Ted!
This is why Dr. Sharon is so important this season. It’s clear she recognizes Ted’s issues; her keen observations lead her invite Ted to talk with her. She recognizes his behaviour for what it is. He hasn’t accepted her invitation…yet.
Anyway, thanks for coming to my Ted Talk. I hope this motivates you to watch this gem of a series.