‘Ted Lasso’ Has a Villain Problem

Every great sports story needs a rival.

From iconic films like “Rocky” or even “Dodgeball” to the real-life drama of trades, drafts, and geographic enmity, the opponent is essential to the underdog athlete odyssey. “Ted Lasso”s AFC Richmond is as underdog as it gets as an English football team with a sweet but minimally-experienced American coach — but that was poised to shift in Season 3. After two seasons of “rom-communism” and soft men, Richmond’s own “wonder kid” Nate Shelley (Nick Mohammed) quit in a fit of rage and went to work for West Ham — a juggernaut team run by Richmond owner Rebecca’s (Hannah Waddingham) evil ex Rupert (Anthony Head).

Yet even with the sky-high stakes of league drama and personal history, “Ted Lasso” missed the mark in cultivating a genuinely compelling rivalry. Season 3 flounders for multiple reasons — IndieWire’s Steve Greene wrote that Season 3 put the cast “into a giant plot casserole where the individual ingredients have gotten lost in the overall mix” — and this particular weakness could have anchored the entire story if given adequate attention.

The defense here is that Nate was arguably never a villain in the first place; his descent into darkness during Season 2 was driven by feelings of insecurity and abandonment, feelings that don’t disappear but shift and morph to fit his new surroundings in Season 3. Instead of leaning into and unpacking this, the show deploys its preferred method of dealing with mental health, which is for the character to have one solitary, nonsensical interaction with a figure from their past that functions as an epiphany (he plays the violin and yells at his dad).

The rest of Nate’s character development and screen time goes into giving him a girlfriend, so that viewers may mistake the love of Jade Nolastname for self actualization while circumstances push Nate back to Richmond. His desire for redemption and second chances makes perfect sense, but the team’s acceptance is a lot harder to believe. In Episode 10, Colin, Isaac, and Will visit Nate at the restaurant and say that the team discussed bringing him back, a conversation that is more than worthy of screen time but never gets it (“Ted Lasso” Season 3 is a lot of things, but it is not fearful of episode length). Only Ted and Beard get fleshed-out viewpoints, but the players who lost an Episode 4 match solely because of their hatred for Nate are now ostensibly ready to welcome him back with open arms.

Anthony Head in “Ted Lasso”Colin Hutton/Apple TV+

So Nate returns to Richmond, having arguably never been the true enemy and merely Rupert’s pawn. But “Ted Lasso” doesn’t know what to do with Rupert either — he’s strongest when he’s directly antagonizing Rebecca and Richmond, but in the back half of Season 3 there’s no allure to Rupert’s machinations; he’s just gross. He condescends to Jade (Edyta Budnik) and invites Nate for a night out with other women, both for reasons that never quite calcify. Their pivotal parting of ways takes place inexplicably off-screen, leaving the audience to ponder the specifics. Did Nate stand up to Rupert in person? Did he mention Jade, or Rupert’s implied affair with his assistant? Did they even speak, or did this man email a resignation to Human Resources?

In Episode 10, Trent Crimm (James Lance) says that he’s heard whispers of “inappropriate workplace behavior” at West Ham, which would include but certainly not be limited to the “boys night” Rupert had in mind with Nate. Rebecca meets with Rupert and the other old white men of the hypothetical Akufu League with this knowledge, tabling his misconduct in a professional setting even when she learns that it was disruptive enough for his assistant to either quit or be fired. They behave like old friends in this superfluous subplot, and it is rejecting Rupert’s kiss — not his lack of professionalism, infidelity, or general sliminess — that helps her finally let go of their animosity.

Ahead of the Season 3 finale, that leaves the series bereft of a baddie in its last hour(s??). Nate is back and Rupert moot; even Akufu (Sam Richardson) is out of the picture. It’s not unthinkable for a series peddling sincerity and kindness to want everyone riding happily off into the sunset, but to reiterate: this is football. As much as it should be about the friends we made along the way, sports are full of heroes and villains, allies and foes, wins and losses. For all its tenderness and humanity, “Ted Lasso”s failure to build an adequate villain arc makes it the most fantastical sports show out there.

The “Ted Lasso” Season 3 finale premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. PT on Apple TV+.

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