The Shadow in “Ted Lasso”

Several years ago, I wrote about how the more we try to deny the shadow side of life, the stronger it becomes. The shadow is all the things we try to pretend aren’t part of us, that we want to think we are better than or innocent of. But the harder we try to push it away, the more likely it is to come right back in our faces. The ancient Greek playwrights, Shakespeare, Monty Python, and modern-day comics know that the best thing we can do is to defuse the shadow is through the deliberate application of “rude, crude, or lewd” energy (https://jodybower.com/2016/05/03/monty-python-and-the-holy-fart/).

Groups that can’t do that are far more likely to have the shadow erupt in devastating ways, like the churches that get rocked by sex scandals. I belonged for a while to a spiritual center where the focus was always on positive thinking, being “in the light,” being kind and forgiving. Inevitably, one of the congregation would become problematic, accusing the minister or the board or others of some kind of nefarious or duplicitous action. The person would make their accusations, the rest of the group would essentially close ranks against them, and they would depart in anger. Everyone would breathe a sigh of relief . . . until it happened again. A similar thing has happened in most of the choirs I’ve been in. People join choirs to have the joy of singing together, but sooner or later, the joy gets tarnished by competitiveness or people feeling slighted or overlooked.

There will always be people in any group who are prone, for their own reasons, to thinking that others are against them, and these are the people who will unconsciously “volunteer” to be the voice of the shadow. Because they do have personal issues, the group usually decides that they are the problem. So when those people finally slam out of the room, everyone feels better. There is a sense that yes, there was a problem, but it’s solved now because it was that person. It’s not us, it’s not the group. We’re fine! No shadow here! Until it happens again.

In the television show “Ted Lasso,” an American football coach finds himself hired as the lead coach of a British football (soccer, to Americans) club. The new owner of the club is a woman who got her husband’s beloved football club as part of a nasty divorce; her goal is to destroy the club to get back at her philandering ex. Ted, the lead character, is a fish out of water, but he is unfailingly upbeat and kind and understanding. His example inspires others to become kind and understanding as well. The team, the coaches, and the owner grow over time to respect and like each other. The team loses badly most of the first season, causing it to be relegated to the second-tier league, but finds its groove and gets reinstated into the premier league in the second. Ted’s empathy helps people with their personal problems as well. Relationships thrive, people find their purpose in life, and many of the kinks in individuals’ souls get ironed out.

Yet the shadow grows. Nate, the “kit man” for the team who takes care of the equipment and uniforms, is nonplussed when Ted learns his name and starts asking him for his opinion. Before Ted, the players made fun of Nate, often physically pushing him around. Ted puts a stop to that. Nate responds positively, as everyone does to Ted, and eventually impresses the coaches with his observations. He is promoted to assistant coach and the players begin to respect him as well.

Over the course of the second season, we watch Nate devolve emotionally even as he prospers. Nate is ripe for taking on the shadow. Nothing he does, we find out, can win the respect of his father, so all the time there is a voice in his head telling him this is all false. Jamie, one of the star players, also has a father who cannot be impressed and is in fact abusive, but Jamie breaks free and turns to Ted and to Roy, the former star player-turned-coach, as his new father figures instead. Nate can’t bring himself to do that. Instead, he focuses his resentment on Ted himself. He looks for Ted’s feet of clay and finds them (Ted suffers from anxiety and panic attacks). Then he betrays Ted in an act that should have been unforgiveable.

Instead of getting angry, Ted, who always wants to understand people, only asks “what did I do to make you so mad at me?” Nate snaps back that Ted made him feel special at first, but didn’t keep it up. In fact Ted has been consistently supportive and positive, but that hasn’t been enough for Nate. His own self-hatred is more powerful than any positive reinforcement he gets from others. Instead of looking into the real reasons why he can’t like himself (his dad’s rejection), he turns that feeling outward and has to make Ted and the team at fault. This allows him to betray the team itself by taking on a new job as coach for one of their rivals.

As ever I wonder if the writers understand the true implications of the story they are telling. Will the shadow surface in season 3 in a new form, or will Nate continue to serve as the scapegoat that allows everyone to pretend that no no, we’re fine, it was all him?

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