If you’re a fan of boxing or mixed-martial arts, you’ve probably wondered what kind of person becomes a professional fighter. Not just what it takes to become one (the route to Carnegie Hall comes to mind)—but rather, what inspires or motivates them to do it. I suppose this is a line of thinking we could apply to any contact sport, but since MMA is more brutal than most—and is the one pertinent to this show!—I’m sticking with that here. Kingdom has posed this question about the nature (or nurture) of the beast, while suggesting a few answers. You’d have to be angry, self-centered (tell me Alvey’s not), possibly troubled, but also dedicated, athletic, and focused.

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These aren’t traits that are often found in a single individual, let alone enough of them to populate a sport, which means there must be some other option. Maybe you only need one, two, or three of these qualities. And anger seems like a pretty good place to start, right? But, if this show has taught me nothing else, fighters can’t fueled by fury alone (if they’re not the Hulk, anyway). Rage actually makes them sloppy, makes them tired. Rage has cost these characters—including Jay and Alvey, but especially Ryan—so much, which is why it’s so important to learn that they have other motivations to fight.

“Smoker” opens with Alvey back in therapy, but he’s no longer wondering if he’s one of the weak or the strong. He’s telling the therapist exactly what kind of man he is—half criminal, half “someone who hasn’t been caught.” And he could be describing his family life (with Christina and the boys or Lisa and their unborn child, take your pick), apologizing for all the things he was caught doing and bemoaning any behavior that’s so far gone unpunished. “I’m tired…I’m gonna fuck this up. That’s who I am,” Alvey says, but he doesn’t sound defeated. Even after acknowledging the likelihood of his failure, he gets up and gets back to work, which is training Alicia for her big fight.

We’ve gotten bits and pieces of Alicia’s backstory: She has a violent ex-boyfriend in her past, a son she doesn’t appear to be in regular contact with, and until recently, a car for a home. She’s got Lisa and Alvey pulling for her, and she’s even got a safer temporary home in the form of a Navy St. bunk. It looks like she’s got her basic necessities covered, so she should be able to focus on training for the exhibition fight that Lisa set up to boost Alicia’s profile (if not her record) and nab a sponsor or two.

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Alicia’s shaping up to be a contender, but as fight night draws near, she begins to crack. She complains of back spasms, though she’s not injured and refuses to take anything for the pain. Alvey notices her nervousness and asks her to take a walk. While they stroll, he asks her why she fights. She just shrugs and says she prefers to be on her own. And that means she’s been on her own, protecting herself from threats in and out of the MMA world. I didn’t comment on this when it came up earlier in the season, but that scene where her car was broken into while she slept in it was absolutely terrifying. It showed that she’s not just in danger when she’s fighting.

But, as sympathetic as I found her in that moment from weeks ago, I still feel like Alicia’s coming up short in the personality/character department. She’s ostensibly a kind of foil for Lisa—they have similar tastes in men, and they’re both bucking convention by immersing themselves in the world of MMA. Their names are also pretty damn similar. But if that’s the case—if Alicia is indeed Lisa’s competition—well, I’m afraid I don’t know what they’re competing for at the moment. After all, Lisa’s always preferred the business end of things, even though she has a deep appreciation and understanding of the sport. And she hasn’t displayed any conflicting emotions about Ryan recently. In fact, she’s had very little face time with him this season. Alicia did appear to be flirting with Alvey in “Happy Hour,” but she shows none of that here, and Lisa’s mostly checked out of that relationship anyway. So if they’re not romantic or professional rivals, then are they really in opposition?

Lisa has bigger problems right now, anyway—when she goes to see a doctor about some cramping, she’s told to get an amnio(centesis) because there could be something wrong with the fetus. And there’s no arguing her way out of it, as the doctor makes it clear that early discovery could be vital here. This means she won’t be able to counsel or cheer Alicia on in her fight, but that’s one of the few areas in which she trusts Alvey’s judgment.

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Back at the gym, Ryan’s sulking about Alicia’s big night, complaining to Jay that Alvey’s never understood “talent management.” Ryan notes that Alicia hasn’t brought in any money for Navy St. yet, but he certainly has (although it’s not clear if he’s referring to his pre-prison career, or the two fights he’s won post-parole). They decide to blow off the rest of their workout to have a pool party. But Ryan’s still pretty worked up, so he decides to let loose and enjoy some of Mac’s party favors, i.e., cocaine. Two of the guests record Ryan snorting his good time, but Keith notices them and the boys are ejected and their phone destroyed. Good job, Keith (finally).

Although he’s starving, Jay makes an excellent party host, even going out to procure some Patty Palace sandwiches for his guests, where he learns Christina’s quit her job. Distraught, h returns to the house and begs Ryan to get everyone out. He also asks Nate to stay away from the house while he “helps” Christina. Jay’s teary, wide-eyed gaze is heartbreaking; he’s afraid of losing his mother again, either to drugs or the streets. He’s made especially desperate by the recent loss of Laura, whom he scared away with his overwhelming need for commitment and stability. Despite his wayward lifestyle, those are the things Jay craves. So, in order to keep the only woman in his life in his life, he shoots up with Christina’s heroin right in front of her. The ploy works—Christina is devastated at the sight, then looks after him as he’s going through withdrawal. Rather than try to bully his mother into getting sober, he showed her just how much she’s hurt him, and probably at a significant cost to himself. Heroin isn’t exactly a one-time deal, and Jay’s already shown addictive/compulsive tendencies.

We do finally get to see Alicia in action, but not before she freaks out a bit and tells Alvey she isn’t “feeling it. I don’t wanna do this.” And here I felt she was making a valid point. If her heart isn’t into it, and if she’s not pulling from some angry reserve to knock her opponent out, how can she step into the ring/cage? That just sounds like a good way to get yourself killed. Alvey’s not having it—he thinks she’s being petulant, not anxious. He reminds her of everyone at Navy St. who’s helped her get this far. When she wails that she “can’t find it,” he orders to get her shit together or get out of his gym. And this is an effective pep talk for Alicia, who makes an impressive showing and beats her opponent in the second round. She hasn’t snagged another victory for her record, but she has won bragging rights and very likely a sponsorship, much to Ryan’s chagrin.

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Stray observations

  • “You look like an action figure.” That’s one way to put it, Keith.
  • That Slaughter Water guy is just skeevy, perfectly-parted hair notwithstanding.
  • I wonder if the guys who recorded Ryan had already uploaded the video/photos to the cloud.

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