(Photo: DirecTV)

There are several ways that “Lay And Pray” could kick off the midseason return of Kingdom. “Traveling Alone” scattered our players a bit, with Lisa headed to northern California to get away from Alvey and wait out the rest of the pregnancy with the support of her family. Christina was also in recovery mode, as even Jay admitted that she needs professional help to beat her addiction. The episode could drop in on either woman’s “withdrawal” period—Lisa from Alvey’s drama, and Christina from heroin—but instead speeds past with a time jump right back into the heart of the action, which is now just weeks away from the Ryan Wheeler-Jay Kulina match.

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It’s my own wishful thinking that we make our way into the back half of season two by visiting with either woman, because Kiele Sanchez and Joanna Going have been holding their own alongside some of the series’ more externalized performances. Their scenes aren’t just the ebb to the flow of all the flaring tempers and tensions among the Navy Street family. Their struggles may be a bit more internalized, but they’re fighting for their lives just as much as any of the Kulina men, including “adoptive” son and brother Ryan. Christina’s addiction nearly claimed her life last episode, so it’s make-it-or-break-it time for her, as we’ll see later in the season.

Lisa’s health and safety haven’t faced the same immediate threat, but she’s also trying to break a cycle. She’s recognized that her fractured home with Alvey is no place to raise a child, especially after all the questionable decisions he made. He saw fit to give away—sorry, “invest”—$30,000 despite having a baby on the way, which was only one of several risky financial moves he’s made without her input or agreement. And she’s already seen the damage that growing up with Alvey can do—as much as she loves Nate and Jay, they’re living testaments to Alvey’s flawed parenting skills. They could have turned out much worse, I know, but even Alvey’s recognized that he didn’t know what he was doing, having previously called one son a “mute” (Nate) and the other a “maniac” (Jay).

Unfortunately, their co-parenting dilemma gets resolved in the saddest way imaginable. We learn via flashback that Lisa lost the baby, which prompts Alvey to trash his office. He later admits his anger felt performative, that flying into a rage just seemed like the kind of thing he’d do in response to such news. His initial reaction seems in line with the character, but his awareness that he did so in a perfunctory fashion suggests he’s made some headway in therapy (and in life). And yet he still decides to shirk his responsibilities on the night of Alicia’s fight. He returns to the Sunset Hawaiian to get loaded with the unnamed hotelier played by The Wire’s (and now Empire’s) Andre Royo. Alvey worries that he’s numb to his and Lisa’s loss, but his new friend reminds him that’s just all the robotripping they’ve been doing.

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Alvey doesn’t go MIA until after the big press conference for Ryan and Jay’s big fight, though he’s definitely still mulling the miscarriage news. He’s not so distracted that he’s baited by the MMA reporters who want him to endorse one of his Navy St. fighters over the other. Alvey may privately believe that Ryan’s the better fighter, but he knows better than to say so to the press. Instead, he just paraphrases Thucydides: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” It’s a nod to the series’ ever-fluid weak-or-strong dichotomy, but also a way of removing himself from the speculation. Who’s going to argue with a long-dead Greek historian (and general)?

It’s not going to be Ryan, who meanders through his response to a reporter’s question about what Jay’s weaknesses are as a fighter. He does seem to be goading his friend when he says that he’s going to make quick work of the eldest Kulina son: “He’s nothing special. I’m gonna beat him up until he asks me to stop.” There’s no mention of Ryan’s father’s death, which viewers know was a mercy killing, so I wonder if he’s told anyone yet. I’m not trying to sell the guy short; I just think it’s odd that his father’s death wouldn’t come up, given that it was only a few weeks ago (in the show’s timeline) that they shared the reconciliatory interview that helped make over Ryan’s image.

But that’s not the point at this press conference, as the reporters are more intent on exposing the cracks in the friendly façade. When asked to list Ryan’s weaknesses, Jay waxes on sycophantically, telling everyone that his opponent has no faults that can be exploited. Jay says he’ll adopt a “lay and pray” strategy once they’re in the octagon together, where his “humble goal” will be to weather Ryan’s punishment and then take a picture with the champ when it’s over. Jonathan Tucker delivers this faux-fawning speech with the perfect shit-eating grin, which simultaneously extinguishes and stokes the flames of the rivalry narrative.

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Kingdom has demonstrated on multiple occasions how small a role anger plays in MMA. It might get you get you started in the business, and it might even get you through a few rounds or fights. But ultimately, you need real talent back that up or a reason to keep going. As Jay tells the MMA reporter who’s been “embedded” at Navy Street, he enjoys fighting—he couldn’t bring himself to do it if he didn’t love it. Jay’s also in the middle of a rebranding effort; his reputation for being a wasted talent preceded him through season one and for the first half of season two, which left him straining to find someone to even touch gloves with. The reporter notes just how difficult Jay’s comeback has been and will continue to be, telling his interview subject that he’s perceived as someone who “takes a lot of unnecessary risks [leaving] yourself open to punishment.”

The suits are back! (Photo: DirecTV/Endemol Shine)

Of course, it’s lost on Jay that the interview could delve into topics he’d rather not talk about, like his abandonment and his mother’s substance abuse. When he reveals that every MMA fighter has skeletons in their closet, he ends up taking one on the chin, as the reporter quickly asks about his own traumatic upbringing. He kicks the camera crew out of his home, even as the reporter tells him this is what he signed up for, suggesting that Jay’s defense could use a little work.

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Alicia was representing the women with her first real match since joining Navy Street—the previous one was an exhibition that had no bearing on her record. She’s disappointed that Alvey won’t be there to corner her, but undeterred. “I’m gonna focus on what I can control,” she says, not long before pummeling her opponent to victory. I know I’ve said before that I wondered how well Alicia fit into the broader story, but this week the character just punched her way into her own parallel path. She’s still cocky, but now she’s got more heart, getting through her own cut day with minimal complaints and showing off her improved footwork.

The episode is capped with an Alicia and Ryan tryst in the midst of a celebration for her latest victory. She’s furious that he can’t get it together (or up) for some couch sex, but things really get nasty when Ryan makes some shitty, racist remarks about her background. That’s when we see the cracks in his façade, as he privately fumes over his own loss. There’s no telling just how adversely his father’s death will affect him, but when Ryan’s injured after drunkenly lashing out at the Kulina boys, it’s safe to say it’s not going to go away anytime soon.

Stray observations

  • Sean Chapas’ death is bound to come up again at some point, but for now, I’m glad that Alvey isn’t wandering off to get into stupid scrapes with his old pal.
  • Is it just me, or did Alicia end up looking much worse for wear than her opponent after their fight?
  • Yes, it’s shitty and racist for Ryan to ask Alicia if she’s going to clean his house or whatever. I pointed this out because it seems very much out of character.
  • Jay’s suits are back, along with Garo and his hilarious comments about Alvey’s good looks. But I still preferred Royo’s hotelier describing the Kulina dad as “fine Italian leather.”
  • Welcome back, Kingdom and Kingdom review readers! It’s been so long since the midseason finale that summer’s arrived in Chicago. A little ahead of schedule, but there you have it.

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