Kenny Powers: an American tragedy

          In one of the most simultaneously beautiful and ridiculous endings to a story arc, we see Kenny Powers fake his own death in order to fulfil both the romantic and heroic elements of his life. To turn away from his major league baseball dreams, to commit himself to his true love. For what I’m sure is the majority, this is in reference to the Jody Hill and Danny McBride conceived HBO show, Eastbound and Down. A show that arguably captures the struggle of contemporary society more so than any of its contempories. A show that tells us the story of one both fulfilling and subsequently  rejected from typical definitions of achievement and success, only to be confronted with deeper questions on what it means to achieve one’s dreams. Kenny Powers is by no means an honourable man. He is not intended to be idolized. Yet what is beautiful about the creation of Hill and McBride is the balance they are able to strike – Powers is both insufferable and relatable. He is the epitome of everything that is wrong with American society, yet everything that is redeemable in the national character. A perfect storm of ambition and arrogance; of selfishness and self-loathing; of beauty and disgust.

            We see Kenny fake his death (way before the actual end of the show), purely because he thinks it is the right, smart and easy thing to do. Powers is an idiot. Yet this act, now typical of his reckless and extreme personality, is the perfect summary of everything Kenny represents. His attempt typifies the escapism he has longed for his entire life. The acknowledgement of the easy way out. The very black-comedy nature of the show would have you believe that Powers actually commits suicide – what else is there to do after one fulfils one’s dream? The bleach-blonde shock of his return fulfils everything his suicide fails to, the golden resurrection emblematic of his self-obsession. Yet amidst the awful arrogance, the ignorance of his stupidity, we are met with the reactions of those closest to him. Do Kenny’s failures deprive his brother Dustin’s tears of meaning? Here is the significant point – Kenny’s celebrity does not change those around him. Even Stevie, in whom we see a gross transformation symbolic of many of the horrors of a glamorous American/Western culture, remains the loyal, obsessive and overall good-natured being we are first introduced to him as.

                It is the reactions of those around him that truly define Kenny Powers. That which truly makes him a tragedy. I can not emphasise this enough: Kenny is not a good man. Admittedly, this is nothing new. We live in the world of Don Draper, Walter White, Frank Underwood, Bojack Horseman… fuck, even Michael Scott. Yet Kenny’s compromise is seen more so than any of those mentioned above (save Bojack, whose story we are yet to truly know). Kenny is determined to have it all, in almost a Liz-Lemon-esque parody of the driving forces of American society. Kenny is extreme, crude, at times despicable. And yet we pity him more than any of those mentioned above. Kenny is ignorant, a Trump-supporter for sure, and god knows what else. Who the fuck thought I would ever be writing in support of such an ardent American nationalist, a seemingly racist, sexist figure, symbolic of so much of what I hate politically. Even Draper et al generally represent some aspect of society and culture one cannot help but find appealing. Yet Powers achieves the impossible – he makes such a character (crude, ignorant, generally disgusting) forgivable, likeable, even heroic.

          This is obviously aided by a persistently hilarious comedic force led by McBride and Steve Little (Stevie), but the beauty of the show is so much more than that. Yet what really make the show so perfect is the rounded view we get of Kenny. We see his failing, and we see his triumphs. We see who he fucks over, and who fucks over him – (Don Johnson as Kenny’s father is a particularly memorable character). When we are introduced to Kenny in present day (“several shitty years” after his initial baseball career), we are under no pretense that this is anything other than a result of Kenny’s immense hubris. We are consistently reminded of his failures, incapable of showing April (the wonderful Katy Mixon) at best the truest expressions of his love, at worst the bare minimum of respect as a woman and as a person. Yet even then, we pity him. With April, as with his son, we see he loves them. Few shows could make a 10 minute segment of a protagonist’s supposed suicide both a shocking example of his obliviousness and a perfect comedic display of his belief in his own story; a simultaneously unique and typical representation of American/individual exceptionalism. Kenny exemplifies that historic belief: that we are simultaneously invincible and yet doomed – the knowledge that we must die, and our desperation to live forever.

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