Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In a cringey offscreen moment of Ted Lasso Season Two, assistant coach Nate Shelley berates kit boy Will for embarrassing him in front of the team. Will’s “crime”? Commissioning a jersey for Nate with “Wonder Kid” emblazoned on it to celebrate Nate’s success in coaching the team to a miraculous victory. It’s a celebration of Nate’s talent and also a light poking of fun at him, because Nate slipped up and said the wrong thing while talking with the press after the game. Nate intended to use the term “Wunderkind,” but called himself a “wonder kid” instead. Everyone can laugh about the malapropism—except Nate whose insecurities, season two slowly reveals, rule both his head and his heart. What’s perhaps most uncomfortable about the way he dehumanizes Will after the team has left the locker room, however, is that Nate used to be the team’s kit boy and used to suffer the sort of abuses he now heaps upon Will.
In Matthew 18: 23–35, Jesus tells his disciples a parable of a servant who cannot pay a large debt. The servant’s master is going to throw him in jail and sell his family into slavery, but when the servant begs for mercy, the master forgives his debt. The servant then leaves his master, finds a man who owes him a small debt, and attacks him—demanding payment. When the man cannot pay, the servant refuses to forgive the man’s debt and has the man thrown into prison.
The parable is about forgiveness, but it is also about undeserved mercy, and it came to mind as I watched this offscreen moment in Ted Lasso Season Two because I was watching a character (Nate) unravel who had been shown a great deal of kindness, love, and mercy by a man in a position of authority over him (Ted Lasso).
Ted Lasso is a show that dealt in wish fulfillment perhaps a little too much in season one, but I think it worked for 2020. We all needed that level of happiness last year, even though I wrote then and I maintain now that it wasn’t shallow or superficial. Ted’s goodness was sincere, genuine, and refreshing. Everyone he met was “on his team,” and because he cared for all his people, he took care to, well, take care of them to the best of his ability. That included AFC Richmond “kit boy” Nathan (Nate) Shelley (played by Nick Mohammed). Seeing the knowledge Nate had about the sport (football/soccer), and acknowledging he needed more expertise on his coaching staff, Ted—at the end of season one—hired Nate on as one of his assistant coaches, elevating him far above his former station. The promotion was not anything Nate could ever have hoped to achieve on his own or by simply working hard, and it was certainly not a natural career leap. In season one of Ted Lasso, Ted looked out for Nate, called him “Nate the Great,” got the team to stop heaping abuses on him, and gave him a job he arguably wasn’t qualified for—and that put him in a position of power over athletes who used to look down on him. Ted Lasso gave Nate Shelley everything he could have ever hoped for or dreamed of.
That’s why it was so hard to see Nate take a more villainous turn in season two. We want Nate to be good! He’s an underdog, and he’s lovable, and he should be so, so grateful to Ted, shouldn’t he? But just because a person has been saved by someone doesn’t mean they will feel indebted to them forever—in fact, sometimes that expectation leads to feelings of resentment and inadequacy. Nate’s character trajectory from underdog to the person who betrays Ted and the team at the end of this season is not only predictable, it’s realistic. Nate is a well-drawn picture of the servant in the parable—he’s an example of how just because a person has been given much mercy does not mean they will turn around and show mercy to others in return.
Sometimes the temptation to power is too great, and that’s what we see in “Nate the Great.” In season two, Nate begins to elevate himself, and the first direction he punches is down. It’s telling that Nate’s first real target when he feels threatened is the new kit boy, Will (Charlie Hiscock). Nate isn’t really mad at Will, though, or at Ted, against whom he lashes out the most infamously as the season progresses. Nate’s issues can only be directly understood in the context of Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein).
Nate is consumed with jealousy of the former AFC Richmond captain, and his marked downturn this season really starts when Roy quits his job as a sports anchor and returns to be an assistant coach alongside Nate for the team. Everyone is ecstatic to see Roy return, except for Nate. It’s the first big, “Wait, what?” moment of the season, but it’s also a signal to pay attention to what’s coming. Because while Ted and Beard are going to be off fighting mental battles and inner demons, Roy and Nate are about to engage in a silent war that will tear the coaching staff apart.
Nate and Roy are foil characters, but in a fascinating way. They aren’t foils because they are equal and opposite; they are foils because Nate wishes they were equal, but they aren’t, although they are of markedly opposite character.
Everybody Loves Roy Kent, but there are very few real Roy Kents in the world. Roy is a fantasy; he’s stubborn, profane, and narrow-minded, but he takes correction with little more than a loudly issued “f—!” when his faults are laid clear before him. He may storm off, but he always comes back, and he comes back better. Roy is a constantly growing character who is gruff on the outside, but buttery soft on the inside. He is the “bad boy” who’s not really bad, who is deferential to his lady love, and who wants everyone else around him to succeed. This season he became the moral core of the team while Ted battled his inner demons. Everyone loves Roy Kent because we all want, a little bit, to be like him.
Unlike Roy—who looks mean but is nice—Nate looks nice but is, it turns out, mean. Nate is what happens when an underdog finds himself suddenly with the power to do something to his tormentors, and he chooses to lash back. We’d all like to think that at the heart of every bullied child is a kind person waiting to forgive and forget. That everyone who’s ever been trod upon would refuse to tread on someone else if given the chance. That tortured people get beat up because they are meek or because they choose to turn the other cheek. Sometimes all of these things are true, but sometimes bullied people build hard shells around themselves because of the pain. Sometimes people who have been stepped on their whole lives are more apt to fight back when given the opportunity because they’ve been storing up rage and they’re ready to let it go. This is what Nate Shelley is like, unfortunately, and although his character development in season two isn’t what anyone was hoping for, it is realistic and well-drawn. We’ve all met a Nate; maybe a few of us are a little like Nate, if we search our hearts. Nate is happy to have the power Ted gave him, and he wants more—and more of it concentrated on him alone. He’s finally getting a taste of what it feels like to be on top, and he likes it.
Despite Nate feeling like he finally has respect out in the “real world,” in the Richmond locker rooms and on the sidelines, he still feels under- and un-appreciated. Much of this is due to the way in which he’s a foil to Roy Kent, as well. Roy unintentionally torments Nate by his very presence at AFC Richmond. Roy is everything Nate wishes he was. He commands a room without trying, he’s Keeley’s boyfriend, he’s a famous footballer, he’s athletic and handsome, and when he comes back to Richmond to be an assistant coach, it makes Nate feel like he has to share space and attention with someone who is impossibly cooler than he is.
To make things even worse, Roy doesn’t even care about being famous. He spends his time with old women at yoga and hanging out with his young niece, he’s grumpy when he has to shop or do photoshoots. And Roy is totally unthreatened by Nate, which drives Nate crazy. When Nate confesses to Roy that he kissed Keeley, Roy shrugs it off. Nate challenges him, asks him if he heard what he said, and Roy doubles down—it’s no big deal. Nate doesn’t confess his indiscretion out of moral compunction; he confesses because he’s desperate to get a rise out of Roy—a rise he fails to elicit. Likewise, Roy isn’t being benevolent to Nate by forgiving him, and Nate knows it. Roy simply doesn’t view Nate as competition, which causes Nate to feel emasculated.
All the ways in which Nate lashes out at Ted boil down to Nate and Roy—the underdog and the popular jock who doesn’t even realize he has anything to do with it. Which is, to Nate, a huge part of the problem. Nate’s character progression makes sense because Nate can’t share, and he definitely can’t share with someone like Roy because he’s simultaneously too jealous of Roy and cares too much about what Roy thinks of him. Nate has spent too much of his life being ignored, overlooked, and stepped on. Ted is blindsided by Nate’s betrayal because Ted gives out love and acceptance equally to all, but Nate has to be the “Wonder Kid,” or Nate feels undervalued. Maybe it’s more accurate to say, if Nate’s not the star of Ted’s coaching staff, Nate feels afraid that he will lose everything and become a nobody again.
Nate’s moral downturn in season two affects his appearance in a number of ways. By the final episode, he’s dour and unsmiling, and he puts off the clothes that Ted purchased for him in favor of an all black designer suit he purchases for himself. Setting aside the clothing of his mentor—and the man who raised him up and showed him undeserved favor—in preference of his own clothes is a significant mark of who Nate has decided to become. He’s no longer a member of AFC Richmond, and he’s definitely no longer on Ted’s team. Perhaps most interesting, though, is the fact that by the end of the season, Nate’s hair has gone completely grey. Anger, jealousy, betrayal—these things take a physical toll on a person. Nate self-identified as a “Wonder Kid” to the press, but he looks years older than a “kid” by the time he makes his move against Ted. There is no guilelessness to him anymore.
Will “Nate the Great” be brought back into the AFC Richmond fold in season three? I honestly don’t know. Ted Lasso is a show that understands redemption, and it certainly understands that people don’t have to earn love, respect, or value. Ted will forgive Nate for everything he’s done whether he deserves it or not, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Nate will return to coach with the rest of the team. Nate spent a lot of time this season trying to make himself bigger; if he’s going to come back to Richmond, he will have to practice exactly the opposite: humility instead of pride. Making himself smaller instead of trying so hard to be something great.