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tv Ted Lasso Has Lots to Say About Mental Health, If the Discourse Calms Down Enough For Us to Hear It

"The Signal" may not resolve all the season's issues, but it commits to its central character study

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, Photo: Apple TV+

It feels necessary to begin this review with a disclaimer that I have absolutely no desire to be part of the ongoing Ted Lasso discourse whipping its way across the internet like a wildfire (if you’ve missed it, spare yourself). Initially, I worried that my headline calling last week’s episode “worrisome” would inspire aggressive defensiveness from the show’s fans who would read concern as condemnation. However, while there was a bit of that, by the time the weekend was over the bigger problem was people who actually were condemning the show based on less than half of the entire season. It’s as if we have collectively forgotten how to watch television, and while Kathryn VanArendonk is not wrong that the show’s use of serialization is partly to blame, I would argue we are now past the point where we’re having a rational conversation about this show. And all I can do personally is say that I have no desire to categorize “The Signal” or any episode of the show as either a symbol of greatness or a harbinger of collapse, and I can only hope those reading this will resist the temptation to do the same.

One kernel from the ongoing discourse, though, has been related to the absence of stories focused on AFC Richmond’s on-field performance, and “The Signal” is definitely a return to the pitch. With Roy Kent on the coaching staff, Richmond is on a winning streak heading into an FA Cup quarter-final, but the team still has some issues to iron out. Colin’s struggling with his self-worth, but he gets a mantra from Dr. Fieldstone, and some advice on his form from Roy, and feels confident about how to move forward. And while Roy’s refusal to coach Jamie nearly blows up into a fist fight, they resolve things by coming to an agreement that there are actually times when being a prick work in the team’s favor, and Jamie manages to channel it into a crucial goal that puts them ahead of the heavily favored Tottenham Hotspur at the half.

It’s the most football the show has dealt with so far this season, where the writers have largely had the team’s games play out off-screen in favor of exploring the dynamic happening behind-the-scenes. As always, Ted Lasso resists becoming a show about the ins-and-outs of football, such that people will continue to recommend it to friends with the promise that no knowledge of the sport is necessary. However, the show is very good at giving you enough information that even if you didn’t know the FA Cup existed (I had to Google it), and have no idea how the tournament is structured (Googling it barely helped), we know that the idea of a Championship League team knocking out a Premier League team is a significant accomplishment, and that the team’s celebration after Nate’s bold offensive strategy pays off is plenty justified.

But one of the things that made Ted Lasso stand out in its first season was how the show controlled our relationship to its world. When it wants to pull us into football, it will pull us into football, much in the way that Friday Night Lights—which is now on Netflix, for anyone who hasn’t seen it—did for the other football. But Ted Lasso is also inherently invested in the idea that its narrative transcends the game itself, and that the story will shift away from the pitch whenever it needs to. When Richmond is scoring the game-winning goal, we’re not with the players, or even with the crowd in the stands. We’re in the locker room as Rebecca searches for Ted, who she saw leave his coaching position in a state that the world reads as sudden onset diarrhea, but that she and she alone recognizes as the onset of a panic attack. As she searches in vain, the excitement on the pitch echoes, and by the time she realizes that he has seemingly disappeared the team’s celebration disrupts her moment of realization, pulling us back into the world of underdog sports triumphs but under very different circumstances.

So far, none of the central storylines in Ted Lasso’s second season have been “surprising” (unless we count the fact that Sam’s protest carried zero consequences, but I can’t harp on that forever). Jamie came back! Roy’s a coach now! These are story developments that were both fairly easy to anticipate and also clearly choreographed by the show itself. That doesn’t make them bad stories, to be clear, because the fact that these developments took place is only the start of those stories. Jamie’s return to the team was about his dynamic with his teammates and—in this case—former teammates, and how Ted and the coaching staff would handle that. Similarly, Roy’s return was a very logical story for him, but it creates new dynamics between the coaches, and inspires Nate’s “Wonder Kid” moment here that will continue to be unpacked in the weeks that follow. The fact you could predict those developments doesn’t take away their value to the show and its storytelling, even if they haven’t necessarily manifested as the kind of major conflicts that Ted was wrestling with in the fish-out-of-water first season.

Similarly, it was no secret that Ted was on a collision course with Dr. Fieldstone’s couch, even if we didn’t know exactly when he was going to end up there. His initial discomfort with her arrival and subsequent stubbornness about insisting his methods remained the solution to the team’s problems was always barely hiding the truth about his own mental health, although it was often easy to forget that we have insight into this that few others have. The veneer of optimism that defines Ted Lasso to the world is an incredibly effective smokescreen, and while Higgins is quick to intervene with Coach Beard’s latest reunion with Jane, no one other than Rebecca seems to even be concerned about Ted’s emotional well-being.

It sort of makes everyone else seem like they’re being bad friends, but that’s just because we were in that hotel room during the finalization of his divorce. The truth is that he lives his life expressly to keep the people around him from understanding the depths of his pain, and the one time he slipped was the only reason that Rebecca knew he wasn’t shuffling to the bathroom with a bout of food poisoning. And so even if it would be a surprise to others, it was hardly a shock to us that Dr. Fieldstone found Ted in rough shape on her couch when she went to grab something from her office after the win.

But what I appreciate about Ted’s particular struggle is that I really don’t know how their conversation, and indeed Ted’s future, is going to play out. This season has been exploring the limits of Ted’s philosophy, which works as a way to get people to be the best version of themselves but proved ineffective at actually winning football matches, and took Jamie Tartt from a superstar to “average.” To his credit, Ted hasn’t resisted changing things up when necessary, but every time Ted has to acknowledge that maybe his “belief” isn’t enough, it’s a trigger to the fact that his marriage failed in exactly the same circumstances. Ted was told that his marriage wasn’t working, and he just believed he had to try harder, not realizing that his eternal optimism wasn’t going to be enough. And now he’s harboring guilt over the fact he’s not doing enough for his son, whose forgotten lunch is beyond his reach across the Atlantic, and suddenly he’s standing on the sidelines on the verge of a panic attack. And the truth is there’s no easy solution to that, because Ted’s discussion with Dr. Fieldstone will have to chart a new path forward, and it’s clear that he really doesn’t know how to redefine himself and his life philosophy without losing the core of his identity.

If the first season was about the ticking time bomb of the revelation that Rebecca was sabotaging Ted from the beginning, this season has been building to this moment, and it’s better for the fact that “The Signal” doesn’t introduce a particular trauma to get Ted to the point where he realizes he needs help. The phone call he gets from his son’s school is entirely mundane, and there was no actual crisis: his ex-wife was driving up with his lunch as the call was arriving. But it was enough to bring Ted’s guilt to the surface, and during the game it breaks through his defenses simply—it would seem—due to the energy of the moment. Whatever sense memory brought Jamie’s father to Ted also brought his son’s excitement about Jamie, and once his son entered into his mind he was already gone. And because everyone in his life has been tricked into believing that he’s peachy keen, none of them think something is seriously wrong when he leaves, or when he isn’t there to celebrate the team’s win. It’s the perfect way to transition into this next stage of Ted’s journey, because it was never that Ted was going to be triggered by another significant trauma. It was always going to be the pressure to keep up the facade of his persona reaching a breaking point. It’s a great way to build on what we learned last season, and I’m excited to see what comes next as—presumably—everyone around him realizes that there’s something more happening here.

The rest of the episode reinforces that the people around Ted have their own issues when it comes to their philosophy on helping those around them. When Higgins is the only one to suggest to Coach Beard that reuniting with Jane might not be healthy (even before he saw the hat she picked out for him), he’s confused, but everyone’s advice is the same: you never intervene. Everyone has a horror story about a time they got involved in someone else’s life and it went wrong, whether it’s Ted’s ill-advised best man speech or Rebecca becoming estranged from her mother during uni for failing to realize her parents’ separation wasn’t going to stick. But after Higgins confronts Coach Beard in a way that seems to deepen their relationship and help the latter gain some perspective, Rebecca wonders if maybe she got it wrong. But when she’s too late to avoid her mother returning to her father following yet another separation, she resigns herself to a meaningless night of sex with Hot Luca, unaware that her unknown paramour—who we learn here is Sam—is ready to take things to the next level.

“The Signal” has lots of great moments sprinkled throughout, but the central juxtaposition between a thrilling victory for AFC Richmond and an A.T.L. (“All time low, not Atlanta”) for Ted elevates the proceedings, and pushes the show into another gear at the halfway point in the season. And the most effective part of the episode is that although I have some lingering concerns stemming from the choices in last week’s episode, I don’t really know where things go from here: the team might be on an upward swing, but the show is descending into deeper emotional territory, and unpacking it has the potential to elevate the storytelling further. And sure, it could also mess everything up, but that’s how television works, and we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

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Stray observations

  • I am...unsure about Sam being revealed as Rebecca’s bantr paramour, but I’ll wait to see how the show wants to address that moving forward. I will say that I had never even considered it might be Ted (despite the clues that I found on rewatching and editing these reviews), and so I can at the very least say that I certainly prefer this to that alternative. But I’m curious how everyone is feeling, and I’ll have a take once the show gives me more context.
  • As I noted last week, I’m not really “Team Nate” on this one, and so I’m curious how the show handles his jealousy about the “Roy Kent Effect” given he now has his own moment of viral fame. Surely this will only worsen the behavior that’s made him a somewhat toxic presence, right?
  • Apologies for the nitpick, but would Ted still be using his American number such that his kid’s school would accidentally call him? Ted would surely be using a UK SIM card at this point, right?
  • One of my favorite things in rewatching the first season was often how the show paid off small recurring bits, so I was delighted when we met Liam with the annoying laugh and got the real version of it after hearing Higgins’ impression of it earlier in the season. Makes me wonder whether the actor had to match what Jeremy Swift went with in his performance.
  • “The stupid barking means it’s over, right?”—Roy’s disdain for the Diamond Dogs is important to his character, although I’m curious how his own arc continues to evolve now that he’s settling into the coaching job.
  • I love the show’s staging of scenes on the practice field with Rebecca yelling out the window, and am glad to see it return here with her mother. Not my favorite Rebecca storyline, necessarily, but I appreciated its connection to the overall themes.
  • “Ballroom Blitz” joins the rapidly growing list of “Songs I Presume Are Very Expensive And That Most Shows Wouldn’t Bother Licensing For An Opening Scene Where You Could Use Any Song.”
  • “I will channel my rage and enthusiasm into ways to help my community”—sure, it was weird they were at the pub watching Bake-Off in the middle of the afternoon, but still a fun episode for the barflies.
  • “You’re a great man—does Jane make you greater?”—Higgins really didn’t hold back here, and I’m going to have this stuck in my brain for a long time, I think.
  • “I don’t really know how to talk to you”—I appreciate any time a show acknowledges that two of its series regulars don’t really interact and realizes that it’s because it just wouldn’t make sense for them to do so, so nice little moment for Jamie and Coach Beard here.