Danny McBride has recently hedged a little bit about whether or not this is the last season of Eastbound & Down. That was once the plan, and you can tell, based on how many characters have reappeared this year. Because society just couldn’t bear not getting one last tiny taste of Will Ferrell’s weird Ric Flair impersonation.
“Chapter 20” sees the return of Reg Mackworthy (Craig Robinson), the former big league slugger who ended the career of Kenny Powers (McBride) and later paid for it with his left eye. Robinson (who’s one of maybe three reasons to watch The Office these days) is always a welcome sight, combining an imposing physical presence with sensitivity and insecurity in a way perfectly suited for awkward comedies like Eastbound. I was excited when I realized the skull-helmeted leader of the biker gang rolling into Myrtle for “Black Bike Week” was Mackworthy, although that quickly turned to concern over how they were going to shoehorn his reemergence into the larger familial storyline that this season was developing. That concern turned to outright frustration when Ferrell reappeared as Ashley Schaeffer and ordered Mackworthy to break Kenny’s arms.
I think Will Ferrell is something of a genius. The movies he makes with Adam McKay are absurdist classics and projects like Casa de Mi Padre or his Old Milwaukee ads are about as close as any major comedian today gets to the weird playfulness of Andy Kaufman. Ashley Schaeffer was a perfectly acceptable part of the Eastbound universe in the first season, but after fatally derailing what was shaping up as a classic episode earlier this season, Schaeffer’s character is now nothing but a fiction-shattering distraction. The world of Eastbound is extremely exaggerated, but it’s still recognizable as the world we live in, until Schaeffer shows up. At least his appearance here is short; after kidnapping Kenny’s son Toby, Schaeffer gets a little too passionate while ordering Mackworthy’s men to beat up Kenny, letting his inner slave master out and calling Mackworthy his “possession”. That immediately redirects the beatdown upon himself. A few seconds later we see Schaeffer in the background, engulfed in flames, running to his presumable (hopeful) death.
Mackworthy serves a slightly bigger purpose in the story. If last episode was Kenny getting right with his parents, “Chapter 20” finds Kenny making good with his Mermen teammates and, through Mackworthy, the larger community of washed-up former major leaguers. Mackworthy goes from trying to kill Kenny to having an oddly tender heart-to-heart with him, eventually telling Kenny that he’s not just playing for his own legacy but for all the players like Mackworthy who can no longer go. Kenny also apologizes as earnestly as he can to his fellow Myrtle Beach Mermen and then personally to his Russian rival Ivan Dochenko (Ike Barinholtz). Dochenko brutally refuses Kenny’s apology, and it looks like for once Kenny’s teammates might actually have his back in this feud. Later on the whole team sans Ivan fully embraces Kenny after he nails down a save that Ivan couldn’t finish off. It’s highly unusual to see an entire team mob the mound after a normal minor league game, but if this season is leading up to Kenny’s redemption it’s important to show his teammates accepting him.
Now that he’s made peace with his family and his team, there’s only one person Kenny needs to reconnect with. April (Katy Mixon) returns at the end of the episode, explaining her stress-based disappearance and asking to reclaim their infant son Toby. McBride’s acting might be the best it’s ever been here, as Kenny is clearly lying and heartbroken as he tries to put up his standard tough guy front and act like Toby is a nuisance that he’s glad to be rid of. Moments like these are why we still care about Kenny and hope to see him grow up despite being an absolutely horrible human being pretty much all the time. He’s such a transparently damaged and emotionally stunted fool that you feel sorry for him outside of his greatest transgressions.
Stevie (Steve Little) is still emotionally devastated after cheating on Maria (Elizabeth de Razzo) and their subsequent break-up. He gives a big moving speech to her about how he had never loved nor been loved until he met Maria, and despite his freakish wig and fake eyebrows she seems genuinely touched. And then Stevie realizes somebody stole Toby out of his car, leading to the Kenny-Schaeffer-Mackworthy confrontation mentioned above. Stevie’s speech and Toby’s plight convinces Maria to return, hopefully with more respect from Kenny and Stevie.
McBride is clearly the engine that keeps this show running, but Little’s commitment and willingness to do anything, no matter how pathetic or embarrassing, might be its greatest strength. Constantly grieving and with an entirely hairless head, Stevie is as painfully disturbed as Kenny. Whereas Kenny hides it behind redneck bluster, Stevie has never been able to hide his emotions at all, and that’s partially why their symbiotic relationship works. Sure, it’s an extremely unhealthy relationship for both for the most part, but whenever Kenny does make a breakthrough and realize the proper and mature way to address a problem, Stevie is usually the person he’s talking to. They enable the worst in each other, but they also dredge up the best, rarely but memorably.
Thankfully this isn’t the last episode of the season (and, thus, probably the show). I thought it was at first, and found it spectacularly unfulfilling. And then the “on the next Eastbound & Down” clip montage ran and I realized I was an idiot. If this season truly is the end of Eastbound, hopefully next week’s finale will be a fitting conclusion.