When Breaking Bad came to a glorious (albeit somewhat controversial) conclusion in late September, I thought we'd never see anything quite like it on TV ever again. Sure, we'd see other shows try to replicate generalized 'anti-hero' stuff, but not the more specific things Breaking Bad explored during its time on the air: the 'suffering' of the severely egotistical, not-old-but-not-young white male who's dealing with the suffocating repetition of the suburbs, a lack of resources, and a somewhat secondary role in the household.
Clearly Breaking Bad was ultimately about a lot of different things, but the kind of frustrated masculinity it trafficked in with Walt was one of its greatest strengths, in every season. And although the anti-hero era is coming to an end, there will always be TV shows about angry white men. But Breaking Bad's angry white man was just so specific, so of-a-particular-late-aughts-time-period, that I didn't imagine that anything else would hit those same notes so closely, at least not anytime soon.
But as it turns out, Eastbound and Down's "final" season—it just doesn't seem responsible to believe that Kenny Powers could ever really die—is doing exactly that. The HBO comedy has always been much more interested in exploring the consequences of unchecked masculinity than people give it credit for, which I guess is a byproduct of masking those explorations in montages involving jet-skis or scenes that make for truly unbelievable .GIFs:
(Seriously is that not one of the most entrancing thing you've seen all year?)
When you think about it, Kenny Powers' journey from hotshot professional baseball player to all-world flameout to reclamation project to Dockers-clad family man is sort of like the reverse Walter White trajectory, and Kenny P. was at least unhinged enough to try some of the drugs in the room along the way (okay, he tried all the drugs). Ahem:
Kenny wants people to "remember his name," just like Heisenberg did
This season of Eastbound and Down has brought out a number of similarities in the two characters. Like Walt, Kenny is driven not just by success (and all the things that come with it, but mostly money), but recognition for that success. When Kenny returned home in Season 1, he was dejected to find that no one really cared about who he was, and that theme has continued to persist throughout Eastbound's run. Kenny is looking for a different kind of recognition than Walt—he wants to be famous, while Walt mostly wanted respect—but they share a desire for adulation.
Like Walt, Kenny refuses to ever be satisfied
And although Kenny made quite the sacrifice in giving away the professional baseball career he actually worked to get back so that he could finally make a run at real maturity and domestic bliss with April in Season 3, the final season has been all about Kenny pushing back against all of that. April is a successful career woman, doing great work to support the family's modest, middle-class lifestyle. But for Kenny, that's not good enough; it's never been good enough. Eastbound has already proved that Kenny couldn't have baseball and April at the same time, but now he's trying to find something to replace baseball. Shocking though it may seem, that something is not "working at a rental place and having to sign autographs for fans who probably hate him anyway." There's always something more for characters like Walt and Kenny. They're never satisfied with what they get, and perhaps more importantly, what they'd have to give up to get those things.
With both Kenny and Walt, once they had a taste of power, they couldn't get enough
Depending on your perspective on Walter White, he either was forced to turn to meth-making because of his illness, and that caused him to become a selfish monster, OR he was always an egomaniac and the cancer and the cooking were the catalysts that brought out his true nature. I can see both viewpoints, but in either case, once Walt got a taste of the empire business, he couldn't get enough. His battles against any number of foes, especially Gus in Season 4, were ultimately about Walt proving to both himself and others that he was the smartest, coolest, trickiest S.O.B. in the game. In this final Eastbound run, Kenny's gone through a lot of the same stuff. He desperately needed the gig on Sports Sesh to prove to himself that he could be relevant and famous again, but he also wanted to prove that he wasn't whipped by April and the kids. Once he'd had a taste of success, it immediately went to his head, and once things go to KP's head, all hell breaks loose. You think Walter White purchasing and blowing up a Dodge Charger was a gangster move? Kenny Powers shelled out $80,000 for a sports car after one successful stint on a probably regional sports-talk show and immediately begun building the giant backyard pool that he views as a symbol for success, despite the fact that it was still probably out his price range. Where Walt bought his teenage son a relatively nice car; Kenny bought his toddler son a 100-percent purebred WOLF.
Heisenberg had Gus Fring; Kenny Powers has Guy Young
And like Walt, Kenny's had to face off against anyone who challenges his rediscovered success. In Kenny's case, it's Sesh host Guy Young, a similarly selfish and childish ex-athlete who cannot imagine sharing the spotlight with anyone else. Although Kenny and Guy's battles aren't quite as high-stakes and thrilling Walt and Gus's were, Kenny and Guy did scream at each other while strapped to dueling jetpacks, so they're not that different. Heck, the end of "Chapter 27" saw Kenny triumph over Guy and say "I win," which is not unlike what Walt said in the aftermath of Gus's death.
Walt sort of found redemption—will Kenny?
In certain ways, Eastbound has made its lead character's decisions more complex than Walt's choices in BrBa because Kenny Powers is a guy who actually had it all and then pissed it all away out of hubris, addiction, and probably a handful of true psychological issues. Walt embraced his inner villain once he thought he'd lost it all. Kenny had it all, then actually gained what he said he wanted, only to eventually want the first thing all over again. And although Breaking Bad continuously asked its viewers to reconsider their feelings about Walt—is he redeemable or sympathetic? Does he care about his family?—Eastbound's approach to a similar situation is weirder because Kenny is in some ways more clearly an awful person. Breaking Bad has often shielded us from some of the true consequences of Walt's actions; we never saw a bunch of people dying on the street because of the meth. Eastbound has never been shy about emphasizing just how truly awful Kenny can be, both to those around him and to random strangers he comes into contact with. He's a hateful, racist, sexist, homophobic sociopath; there's very little, if anything, that's sympathetic about him. And yet, there have been moments this season where Kenny has suddenly remembered that he's an awful person, and that his actions have consequences on the few people he purports to love. He doesn't really rationalize it away like Walt and instead just dives further into wrongheadedness, but it's an interesting comparison nonetheless.
I would never try to convince you that Eastbound and Down is a better show than Breaking Bad; it's not (though it might be closer than you think). However, for a show that's nominally a comedy and that's also very funny, Eastbound has done quite the job of representing its lead character's egomaniacal tendencies. The stakes certainly aren't as high, but it I'm curious to see how Kenny's story ends. Will he earn redemption with his family and keep some level of fame, or will he give up one for the other again? Breaking Bad kind of let Walt have it both ways in its final episode. He didn't get full-on redemption by any means, but he went out on his terms. I shudder to think what that might look like for Kenny Powers.
AIRED ON 11/17/2013
Season 4 : Episode 8