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“Nate Shelley is never seeing Heaven.”
That was one of many Twitter hot takes on the betrayal of Ted Lasso at the end of season two by his assistant coach and socially awkward apprentice Nate Shelley.
I was a bit surprised to see the outpouring of hate directed towards the character online, but not totally shocked (it is Twitter after all). Ted Lasso - both the show and the character - have provided viewers the antidote to a particularly rough and tumble couple of years. Lasso is beaming with optimism, principled, and fiercely loyal to his friends and team, the fictional AFC Richmond. But he is not perfect. He is broken and carrying burdens that we can all see in ourselves.
The show starts with the most gimmicky of premises: Ted Lasso is an American football coach who takes over coaching duties for a Premier league team in England. It caused my chest to swell with emotions in the last half of this season’s finale as I begged that the team score on their extra time penalty kick so the series could give me a win during a year when we continue to languish with the seemingly endless pandemic.
But it wasn’t anger I felt when Ted walked back to his desk to see Nate had torn his “Believe” sign in half. It was sadness. Nate’s fall is a familiar story about the ugliest side of human nature.
It’s the story of the first sons written in the Bible in the book of Genesis, Cain and Abel.
The two brothers offer their sacrifices to God. Abel’s sacrifice is looked upon with favour, while Cain’s is not. The text is never clear as to why Cain’s sacrifice is seen with no regard. Could it be the sacrifice was not genuine; that it did not come from a place of love but rather obligation? The text is also not entirely clear what the consequences of God not looking upon the sacrifice with regard meant. Did it provide material benefit to Abel and not Cain? Did Cain’s life as a tiller of the land become more difficult? Did he somehow experience more hardship?
What is clear is how Cain did not look inward to affix blame. He blamed God and Abel. The problem wasn’t him. It was everyone else. He let anger consume him instead of engaging in self examination, correction, and forgiveness. The New American Standard translation says that Cain became angry and his face was gloomy. Sound familiar to how anyone else has felt lately?
God penetrates Cain with the question “Why are you angry? And why is your face gloomy? If you do well, will your face not be cheerful? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Cain has choices. He can choose to persevere. He can find love. He can choose the high road. He can master his temptation. Or he can let sin consume him and lose himself.
He walks through door number two. He kills his brother in anger and when God asks him what happened to Abel, he responds: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Cain’s anger, his sin, his obsession with resentment and power should be hauntingly familiar to everyone who takes a few moments to examine their own hearts.
And it is in Cain’s story we see Nate’s story. We’re introduced to him as the kit man for AFC Richmond who has taken on abuse and bullying from the club for likely years. He has sacrificed significant time around the game of football, is an expert in tactics and of the game itself, but God, or the Universe, at least metaphorically speaking, has not seen his sacrifices with favour.
That is until Ted Lasso arrives. Ted sees value in him. He calls him by his name. He accepts his ideas. He buys him a suit and promotes him to assistant coach. He gives him the dignity he craved.
But as Ted descends into his own Hell in his panic attacks, wrestling with the abandonment he felt from his father as a child, Nate loses that connection, that intimacy, that mentorship. He laments that his Christmas gift is not hanging in Ted’s office which he sees as a personal slight (it’s actually at Lasso’s home in front of a photo of his own son which makes it even more tragic). He rages that his kissing Keeley Jones, girlfriend of his fellow assistant coach Roy Kent, does not inspire anger. Nate doesn’t persevere. He does not choose joy. His sin lurks at the door and his desire to usurp Ted consumes him.
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At the final game at half time, he sees the team once again rally behind Ted Lasso. The players are inspired by Ted, whose sacrifice is looked upon with favour, and again, Nate’s is not. As Nate says to Ted: “Everybody loves you…but I think you’re a joke.”
Christ asks in the Gospel of Mark, “For what does it benefit a person to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”
In Nate, we can see the cost.
The closing scene of the finale is Nate staring into the camera with the light going out of his eye. He has betrayed the person, his friend, who believed in him, and has walked off to manage the new team, owned by the ex-husband of AFC Richmond’s owner Rebecca Welton. Is it worth it?
It’s a powerful moment. While it’s easy to look at Nate with anger, I see it as a tragedy. He’s cast out love from his life. He has all the power he’s ever wanted, but the spark of “Nate the great” has gone out.
We have the choice each day to find joy, to find meaning in our sacrifice, or we can be angry and gloomy. We can either drag those around us closer to Heaven, or Closer to hell. The choice can quite literally make a world of difference.
Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!