Shortly after the final episode of Ted Lasso aired, Brendan Hunt, who played Coach Beard, hosted a Reddit AMA to answer fan questions about the show, the finale, and the rumored plans for the future of AFC Richmond’s coaching staff. One of the questions he was asked concerned something I had noticed and long wondered about myself:
The musical theater references throughout the run of Ted were plentiful, and frequently significant parts of the story. Notably, in the finale, the team says goodbye to Ted and Coach Beard after their last team practice, by breaking into a fully choreographed rendition of “So Long, Farewell” from the Sound of Music. This itself is a call back to an early practice where Ted and the coaching staff were drilling a slightly more incredulous team through the dance steps of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye,” to say goodbye to the departing Dr. Sharon, the team’s sports psychologist.
The performance of “So Long, Farewell” is mostly filmed as a direct address to the camera, so it perfectly doubles as both a story point and as the show itself singing farewell to its audience. That said, as fun and fitting as this rendition of “So Long, Farewell” may be, I think what may actually be the real capstone musical reference for the show comes one episode earlier, in the penultimate episode of the series, in a scene between Coach Beard and Nate that I think is the culmination of one of the most important themes the show was trying to develop.
Part of the arc of the show’s last season, a point that audience and critic response seemed to struggle with, was the gradual reclamation of Nate after his heel turn to end season two. Nate began the series as the team’s equipment manager - their kit man - before being elevated by Ted to become part of the coaching staff, but Nate’s jealousy and insecurity got the better of him, and he finished the second season by taking the head coach job with a rival team.
The dynamics of Nate’s story were always a little odd in the context of the show to that point. We were introduced to one clear-seeming villain in the pilot of the show - philandering billionaire Rupert Mannion, whose high-profile divorce led to his wife taking control of his beloved team, AFC Richmond. Rupert was presented as an unambiguous bad guy, and he largely stays the same bad guy throughout the run of the show. In terms of storytelling, a major benefit of Nate joining up with Rupert’s rival team is that it allows one of the show’s core characters to be able to interact with Rupert on a regular basis. In the lead-up to the end of the series, this gives the writers a way to spend more time getting to know Rupert, ahead of the inevitable comeuppance he’s to receive in the series finale.
This development for Nate always felt odd, though, because it was a bit out of step with almost all of Ted’s other relationships with people during the early run of the show. The first season of the series is all about people who seem like rivals or antagonists to Ted, gradually being won over by his earnest open-heartedness. In the first season, he wins over the new head of AFC Richmond, Rebecca Welton, even though she had only hired Ted with the hope that he would make a laughingstock of her ex-husband’s favorite team. By the series' end, Ted and Rebecca will have grown so close that she questions whether or not she would even want to own the team without Ted as its coach.
Ted works this same magic with journalist Trent Crimm of The Independent, who initially wants to take down Ted as a foreign interloper, but by the series end, Trent has become a member of Ted and the team's inner circle, writing a book about the team’s culture. Again and again, Ted does the same with skeptical players, fans, and broadcasters; and even with his therapist. Ted approaches antagonism with openness and curiosity, so it feels discordant to see Nate’s heel turn in the face of Ted’s kindness. Why would a show so rooted in winning people over, have such a prominent character go in the other direction, despite Ted’s obvious continued affection and approval?
What becomes clear though, having seen how the rest of the series played out, Nate was never really meant to be a villain. And for that matter, it’s not entirely clear that Rupert is even a villain in the show’s eyes either. Ted Lasso, both the show and the person, are not interested in carving the world up into heroes and villains. Ted says repeatedly about coaching that it’s not about wins and losses for him, and that bears out in the series with the team winning their last match, while still falling short of the league title. Winning would be nice, but Ted always saw his job as making the players on his teams the best people they can be. And the finale of the series lands as well as it does, despite the team falling short of the league title, because the players, along with everyone involved with the team, wind up as better versions of themselves thanks to Ted’s influence; and this seems especially so with Nate.
Nate’s character arc also becomes especially important in the series once you realize that Ted doesn’t really have one. It ends up being fairly core to what the show is trying to say, that, aside from having made some new friends and collected new experiences, Ted ends the series largely the same person he began it. We see him struggle with panic attacks, become better about examining his own feelings and make some peace with the divorce that prompted him to take a job so far from home, to begin with, but Ted is basically the same person in the finale that he was in the pilot.
For the show, Ted, as a character, represents something larger about the possibility of just being a good and open-hearted person, regardless of what life throws your way. The characters around him in the show go through major life changes, guided for the better by Ted’s influence, while Ted just stays a steadfastly good person. Continued goodness and strength of character are hard to dramatize, though, which finally brings us to the scene between Nate and Coach Beard that I wanted to discuss.
At this point in the final season, we’ve seen Nate gradually coming to terms with his having been wrong to leave Ted and the team in the way that he did; prompted in part by Ted’s public goodwill towards him whenever he was asked a question about Nate during a press conference, and in part by seeing how much different being in the world of Rupert Mannion is from being in the world of Ted Lasso. Nate is ready to reconcile with Ted and ask forgiveness, but the resolution to that with Ted wouldn’t be that dramatically satisfying, because we never get the sense that Ted ever felt betrayed by Nate, to begin with. Ted seems at times confused, or disappointed, by Nate's behavior, but never really betrayed. Ted saw something in Nate when he promoted him, and Ted’s continued faith in Nate makes their eventual reconciliation feel inevitable.
In Coach Beard, we get someone who does actually feel betrayed by Nate, both personally and on behalf of his best friend, Ted. And, throughout the final season, we see Beard struggling to accept that Ted is not more angry with Nate for what he did. This (along with Coach Beard’s generally more volatile seeming nature) creates a great deal of tension when he unexpectedly shows up on Nate’s doorstep to confront him right before the series finale.
The scene we get between Nate and Coach Beard plays out like this:
Nate: Are you here to kill me?
Beard: Ted and I met playing college football. He was the backup punter and I was the backup kicker. We never got into a game, but we spent a lot of time together jogging; doing box jumps.
After school, we went our separate ways. He was dating Michelle and got into coaching, and I got into prison. When I got paroled, I had no money. Family didn’t want me. I had nowhere to go. I looked up Ted. He took me in. Fed me. Let me crash on his couch. And in return, I stole his car.
Now I didn’t get far, and I would have gone straight back to prison, if Ted didn’t come down there and convince those cops that he gave me the car.
Nate: Just like in Les Miz.
Beard: Our story is very similar to Les Miz, yes.
Nate: You went to prison?
Beard: Yes, for stealing a loaf of meth. And then I stole from my friend. Who forgave me. And gave me a job. And a life. So, to honor that, I forgive you. I offer you a job.
Nate: Thank you. You sure you don’t want to head-butt me? I think it might make us feel better.
Beard: (Turns his hat around, but rather than head butting him, he just touches his head to Nate’s head.) Monday. 9 AM. (Beard hugs Nate).
If you don’t know the story of Les Misérables, the musical that Nate and Coach Beard are referencing, or the original novel by Victor Hugo, it’s an expansive story: mostly centered on an ex-convict named Jean Valjean. Valjean’s story is very much like what Coach Beard described for himself; Valjean was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. And, thanks to his numerous attempts to escape, he ended up serving 19 years in prison before finally being paroled. Parole brings its own disappointments for Valjean, though, because the identification papers he was required to carry with him at all times identify him as an ex-convict, and Valjean discovers that nobody wants an ex-convict in their inn, tavern, or home.
Exhausted and starving after days of walking, someone does take enough pity on Valjean to tell him to try the house of the local clergyman, Bishop Bienvenu. Valjean is tired and angry when he knocks on the Bishop’s door, but he is readily taken in and offered dinner along with a bed for the night. The bishop treats Valjean like an honored guest, having the table set with the one luxury the Bishop still permits himself, his silver cutlery and candlesticks. And, that night, after the house had gone to bed, Valjean steals the silverware and attempts a getaway. Like with Coach Beard, Valjean didn’t get far before being apprehended. And, like with Ted, the Bishop not only convinces the police that he gave Valjean the silverware, but he also gives Valjean his silver candlesticks, too; instructing him, once the police leave, to use them to start a new life.
A point that the book takes more time than the musical to make clear is that the Bishop is an unusually saintly figure and a model for how everyone really ought to live in the world. Jean Valjean spends the rest of his life trying to live up to that example, and we see Coach Beard trying to live up to Ted’s saintly example in this scene with Nate. It’s harder for him to get there, but Coach Beard’s acceptance and forgiveness of Nate are unconditional because that’s what Ted would do. Coach Beard doesn’t tell Nate that he’s on probation, or has to earn his forgiveness, because, in the eyes of the show, that’s not what forgiveness is, or should be. For Ted Lasso, forgiveness is what we extend to anyone who sincerely wants to be better; and we do so both for the benefit of others, as well as for our own.
This is about more than just forgiveness but about the show’s general thesis about how we help one another be better. In a scene in the locker room during the finale, we see Ted’s inner circle discussing the idea of whether or not people can change. To which Leslie Higgins offers, “Human beings are never going to be perfect... The best we can do is keep asking for help and accepting it when we can. And if you keep on doing that, you’ll always be moving towards better.”
These ideas are all tied together. This is what coaching, and life, are about for Ted Lasso; Not the wins and losses, but helping people along who are trying to be better, aware that perfection isn’t on the table for anyone. Part of that means accepting people when they’re not better yet and forgiving them for their shortcomings as long as they’re trying. Ted, or the saintly Bishop Bienvenu, might be an impossible standard for anyone to actually live up to, but, like Jean Valjean, or Coach Beard with Nate, we can always try to be better, and do what we can to help others be the best versions of themselves, too.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.