Kenny Powers gone straight isn’t funny. Kenny Powers trying to go straight is, but even then only for about fifteen minutes or so. Anybody who wanted to see Kenny grow up after walking off the pitcher’s mound and faking his own death last season found what they were looking for in the first half of “Chapter 22”. The rest of us, who knew there could be no Eastbound & Down with a responsible Kenny Powers, enjoyed his inevitable return to disgrace.
Kenny could pose as hard as he wanted as a clean-living, NPR-loving, non-drag racing clockpuncher, but it was clear from his first interaction with a Mustang-driving alpha male at the start of “Chapter 22” that the real KP was still burning up inside. He could barely contain his disgust at his own responsibility, and the only question after the first few minutes was if the real Kenny would return this week or next.
Not that Kenny was truly living responsibly, though, despite the quick montage that shows him establishing his new identity as a gainfully employed family man. Again, this is a guy who thought he had to fake his own death in order to start a new life with the mother of his son back in his hometown. He might have finally cut the truck nuts off his pick-up, but Kenny is still the type of dad who lets his elementary-aged kids watch Human Centipede and make fun of his son for finding it scary. He’s settled down, and he’s trying, but he’s still a horrible person without even realizing it.
He does start to realize how emasculated he is, though. The episode actually overdoes this a bit, with a friend at an awkward dinner party comparing Kenny to a bra after his wife April brags about how greatly he supports her. When April wins a real estate sales award and gives a speech about how Kenny’s always there behind her to change diapers and cook dinner, Kenny snaps, saying he feels like Tim Robbins. April’s speech feels a little tone-deaf for a character who’s normally fairly level-headed and who knows how fragile Kenny’s ego can be more than anybody else. Plus Kenny’s pride being wounded is most funny when his offense is entirely unjustified, but it’s almost possible to empathize with him after April unwittingly belittles him so.
It’s roughly halfway through the episode when an insulted and disgruntled Kenny hears the siren’s call of fame and fortune once again. After a chance run-in with a former Atlanta teammate turned host of a local TV sports talk show (played by the always awesome Ken Marino), Kenny winds up partying with a group of loaded ex-athletes. They toss money around like it’s nothing at a nightclub, bragging about the fast food franchises and movie theaters they own. All Kenny can crow about is his family and the swimming pool he can’t actually afford.
That’s the final indignity that makes Kenny snap. When a hungover Kenny sees the same drag racer as before on the way to work the next morning, he repeatedly rams a rental Sebring into the guy’s Mustang, achieving yet another violent and insane personal triumph. After punching out his boss he pulls out the secret stash of drugs in his garage and gets properly fucked up in classic Eastbound fashion.
Eastbound has always ridiculed masculinity. Kenny Powers is the comic reflection of the violent antiheroes that have defined TV drama since The Sopranos, a dark parody of the same delusional egomania that makes Tony Soprano or Walter White seem like badasses to some viewers. Instead of murder and drug-dealing the strong-willed men of Eastbound have tension-riddled stand-offs over passive aggressive donut mushing. “Chapter 22” might strip too much self-respect away from Kenny, but it leads to a thrilling climax when his true nature returns, and sets up an exciting new season while also wrapping up the loose ends of season three.