‘Ted Lasso’ Looks for Hope On and Off the Pitch

[This story contains spoilers for “The Strings That Bind Us,” episode seven of Ted Lasso’s third season.]

Ted Lasso is a comedy, obviously, and occasionally a tearjerker, but it’s also something of a fantasy — a world where not only an American football coach initially hired as a revenge play can stick on for three seasons at the top levels of English football, but also one whose characters are almost always trying to become better people.

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That’s part of what makes the show so appealing, and also what makes for such a jolt in the times when the real world shoulders its way into the story. “The Strings That Bind Us” had a big dose of that, but the episode (which clocked in at nearly an hour after last week’s 62-minute outing) still left room to bring home its core belief that people working together is the best way forward, on or off a field of play.

The on- and off-pitch stories for AFC Richmond dovetailed via Sam (Toheeb Jimoh), who is eager to put the best possible presentation forward at Ola’s for when his father visits from Nigeria — down to wondering if they need better spoons. Chef Simi (Precious Mustapha) assures him everything will be fine, though she also makes a gallows-humor joke about Sam’s dad being allowed in the country due to a hard-line stance on immigration from Britain’s Home Secretary.

Sam tweets a fairly innocuous message at her, saying he hopes for better from the country’s leaders. The secretary responds by saying “Footballers should leave the politics to us and just shut up and dribble” — shades of Fox News host Laura Ingraham insulting LeBron James several years ago — and that “[Sam] should worry less about the safety of our nation and worry more about being a mediocre player on a mediocre team.”

Sam replies that he’d “rather be a mediocre footballer than a world-class bigot” and goes about his business — until arriving at the restaurant to find it trashed and “Shut up and dribble” spray-painted on a wall. It’s a devastating moment for usually unfailingly upbeat Sam, who rails at the world that builds him up for playing well, only to tear him down if he doesn’t, or if he dares to have an opinion about something other than football. It’s a powerful moment for Jimoh, made no less so when he collapses into the arms of his dad (Nonso Anozie, making his first on-screen appearance after a voice-only role last season) when he arrives.

(Even here, though, there’s an element of the Ted Lasso fantasy at play. Sam is nowhere near a LeBron James level of fame in the show’s world, but a Premier League player of any standing having a back and forth with a government official would likely dominate several news cycles in the U.K. See, for example, what happened earlier this year when beloved Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker was suspended by the BBC for voicing his opinions on U.K. refugee policy. That doesn’t happen in the episode, and Richmond goes about its training for the week’s match without being hounded by media.)

After said match, Sam agrees to let his dad see the restaurant, apologizing in advance for the state it’s in — but when they arrive, the entire team is there working to patch up and restore the restaurant, and Sam’s father, the restaurant’s namesake, cooks for everyone. That’s the kind of better-than-the-real-world story Ted Lasso does exceedingly well, and it plays wonderfully.

The theme of the ties that bind plays out more literally on the pitch, where Ted (Jason Sudeikis) opts to implement the free-flowing but intricate Total Football tactics in a week’s time, rather than gradually over the course of a couple months. How to emphasize the interconnectedness that’s key to the system working? By attaching lengths of red string to the team’s penises, naturally. The Roy (Brett Goldstein) brainstorm makes for by far the best comedy set piece of the episode, but his rethink of the idea afterward — “I’ve been giving this a lot of thought: Next time we do this drill, we tie multiple guys’ dicks to one guy’s dick, yeah?” — is even better.

The early returns on the rushed change in tactics are predictably bad: Richmond players literally run into one another during a match against Arsenal and go down 3-0 at halftime. Jamie (Phil Dunster) — who was notably nonplussed when he didn’t get to swap positions with someone during training — points out at halftime that rather than everyone trying to serve up the ball to him, he should drop back into midfield and serve as a facilitator and distributor: “Don’t play to me, play through me.”

Richmond still ends up losing 3-1, but that one goal comes after a beautiful sequence that suggests something has clicked and not all hope is lost for the Greyhounds’ season. The normally very cool Trent Crimm (James Lance) is so excited that he gushes like a fan, “It’s going to work!” (though he could just as well be talking about potentially having a hook for the book he’s writing). Though they’re still stuck in a bad losing streak, the wins Richmond piled up with Zava likely mean the club is still a little above the relegation zone in the Premier League standings. There are five episodes to save the season (or not, honestly, depending on how the writers choose to play it out).

Odds and ends

* Jack (Jodi Balfour) is all in with her relationship with Keeley (Juno Temple), buying her a first edition of Sense and Sensibility, comping a dinner out for Keeley and Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), filling Keeley’s office with daisies and hiding jewelry in baked goods. Rebecca cautions Keeley about Jack’s “love-bombing,” noting that Rupert did the same with her early on. Keeley feels a little uncomfortable as well and says as much to Jack, who admits she really wants Keeley to like her. They seem to rebalance the scales a little by the end of the episode, but for the first time (and not just because of Barbara’s (Katy Wix) evident jealousy of Keeley and Jack’s relationship), it feels like a signal of potential issues ahead.

* The show continues to make Nate — Nate! — a more sympathetic character again, and by god if it’s not working, thanks in large part to how likable Nick Mohammed is as an actor. His fundamental insecurity about who he is fueled his split with Ted and Richmond last season, but while he’s proven himself on the pitch with West Ham, he’s still a ball of nerves in the rest of his life. Case in point: He asks several women in his life — his mom, his sister, and Siri (who, incidentally, correctly refers to him as “wunderkind” instead of “Wonder Kid”) — how he can know whether a woman likes him or is just being nice, regarding A Taste of Athens hostess Jade (Edyta Budnik). You can’t unless you ask directly, is the correct answer they all give him.

After seeing the elaborate map his dad made to ask his mom out for the first time, Nate A) discovers that he’s not so unlike his father after all and B) gets inspired to make a pop-up box to ask Jade out. That box is promptly flattened when Nate trips and drops it in the street, but Jade says yes to his simple ask anyway. Nate’s growth in this part of his life has to be leading to some sort of moment with Ted, does it not?

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