Eastbound & Down: Chapter 18

I’d like to start this off with a thank-you to Erick Chavarria.

That name probably doesn’t mean anything to you. But it should. Throughout season two of Eastbound and Down, and once again in “Chapter 18,” Erick Chavarria does an unbelievable job in what’s probably the most thankless role on TV- Kenny Powers’ half-brother Casper.

Think about it. That mix of childlike wonder and sheer, unrelenting horror that creeps into you every time Casper’s shows up on screen. The way he lurks in the background, barely even noticeable until he throws out something profoundly upsetting like “I gotta empty my butt.” And those with keen eyes probably spotted him being serviced by a prostitute in this most recent episode. Also creepy.

So here’s to you, Mr. Chavarria. Thanks for some great laughs, and for having the guts to wear some of the least flattering clothing I’ve ever seen on a television show.

At the outset, “Chapter 18” felt a lot like “Chapter 17.” They both deal with a growing darkness that slowly envelops more and more of Kenny’s life. But while “17” felt like set-up, like the means that will eventually bring us to an end, “18” feels like the ending we’ve been waiting for. Kenny’s not just doing dickish things and screwing things up for other people- by the end of this episode, Kenny’s facing his own disappointments head on. And it’s not pretty.

Now, we’ve got three big developments all at the tail end of this episode. Let’s dive in.

1. Kenny crashing Ivan’s Fourth of July rave. 

Almost anyone could have predicted that nobody would show up at Kenny’s Independence Day drug-and-dance-athon (although it was a great touch to have a couple of misplaced seniors dancing there later on). Director Jody Hill makes the smart move of not lingering too long at Kenny’s party, giving us just enough time to watch Kenny huff some kind of party gas before storming out.

And like the absence of guests at Kenny’s party, it was clear that Kenny was gonna get up on stage at the rave and make a big speech that wouldn’t stir a single soul in the audience. That much was obvious. But this moment marks a turning point in Kenny’s downward spiral- before this, he never had to admit to himself or to anyone else that Ivan was a better pitcher, or was more popular. Once that audience cheers at the cry of “fuck Kenny Powers,” there’s no turning back. Kenny can’t delude himself any longer after that.

Which is exactly where the unexpected starts to happen. Like a twisted, backwards version his season one victory at Ashley Schaeffer BMW, Kenny turns his Fourth of July fireworks on those who scorned him. Both times, wanton destruction serves as an incredibly cathartic moment, but now it’s for all the wrong reasons. The trashing of Ashley Schaeffer BMW was a final hurrah to seal away old disappointments and start anew. But here, the remnants of Kenny’s waning popularity (the leftover fireworks) are used to desperately lash one last time before he gives up completely.

Here’s one quick point before I move on- I know we’re already supposed to hate Ivan for all that he’s done to Kenny, but the mere fact that Ike Barinholtz (the actor playing Ivan) was a cast member on MADtv for five years, and appeared in not one, but three Friedberg/Seltzer films (you may know them as the geniuses behind Meet the Spartans) just makes me despise Ivan even more. So with that out of the way, it’s on to:

2. Kenny becomes his father.

No matter how the show actually ends, one thing’s for sure- it’s headed to some weird, dark places before that final hurrah. And now we might be seeing one of the weirdest, darkest places of them all- Kenny giving up Toby to his mother and becoming a carbon copy of his own deadbeat dad. I’m sure that Mr. Powers has some sinister reason for engineering all of this, but we’ll have to wait to find out just what he’s really planning.

But the great thing about Eastbound & Down is that this could potentially go in either direction. Kenny could do the right thing and raise his child, or he could just as easily abandon the poor kid (just like he did with April at a gas station so long ago). Little Toby’s life hangs in the balance- either he suffers through the same childhood Kenny had and grows up to be the mirror image of his father, or he could be raised by that same well-meaning (if bafflingly stupid) father.

I’d have to say that the latter option seems like the lesser of two evils. And finally:

3. Kenny has a mom.

This is the kind of thing that seemingly no other comedy on TV will do- put actual artistry into the camerawork. The reveal of Lily Tomlin as Kenny’s mother isn’t just exciting because “hey, it’s Lily Tomlin,” or because of her personality (that Powers lewdness mixed with a polite Christian sensibility), but because her reveal is filmed in a genuinely suspenseful manner.

When we first hit the bowling alley, the camera takes its time, lingering on a succession of female bowlers, one after another in a single thirty second-long dolly shot . We get just enough time with each bowler to ask “could this really be her?” before moving on to the next, and to the next, and then blammo-

A garish red, white and blue bowling ball. Obviously this is Mrs. P.

Or so you’d think, until the camera jerks away to a bowling team huddled around a table, cheering someone on.

But that’s just misdirection, because we then cut to Tomlin, American flag ball in hand. She rolls a gutter ball before cursing a blue streak and subsequently apologizing for taking the Lord’s name in vain.

This kind of technical prowess is rare on television as it is (and almost always restricted to either HBO or AMC), but it’s completely nonexistent in comedy.  The same goes for Kenny’s assault on the dance club- the subtle uses of slow motion and the droning, static-y tones in the soundtrack that accompanies Kenny’s entrance give these moments real weight and suspense.

Oh, and I should probably mention Stevie before I go. I don’t think anyone really believed he’d actually kill himself (this show isn’t that dark people- come on), but I’m interested to see where he goes from here. Will he pick himself up? Will his crumbling marriage break him to the point where he gains his own sense of Powers-esque bravado? Could he end up dead by the series’ end?

You never know. The last two finales certainly ended on some unexpected notes, didn’t they?


6 responses to “Eastbound & Down: Chapter 18

  1. Agree on the amazing reveal of Lily Tomlin. I watched the last thirty seconds a few times, laughing each time. She’s a very clever choice.

  2. You know, I would like to suggest that the true turnaround in the great-speech-that-flopped-at-the-rave was KP dumping the disloyal Andrea. Not her dumping him, mind you, but the other way around. And from her demeanour at the rave, she felt guilty about being there rather than at his party. Once he’s shucked Andrea, he’s free to return to April permanently.

  3. Of course she’ll show up; we wouldn’t have got that teaser hint when she phones him at the end of episode 4.

    Okay: my prediction: he does learn the knuckleball pitch (see Wikipedia’s entry for details) but has a hard time persuading the coach to let him use it. Finally he gets the chance, he’s nervous, looks over in the stands again and sees – April holding Toby and waving at him. He goes full out and strikes everyone out with his new pitch – which means that he’ll be the starter pitcher from now on and no longer Ivan’s rival. Knuckleball pitchers apparently can last in the majors a long time and are highly sought by teams. New skills, new family, same old attitude – one last shot at glory.

    • Ok I totally forgot about the phone call. That one’s my mistake.

      And that’s a pretty good prediction with the knuckleball pitch- good enough that I can actually see that being the real ending. Nice!

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