(Photo: Audience Network/DirecTV)

There’s no way to look at the season three premiere of Kingdom without taking into account the fact that this is the final such outing for the show. DirecTV recently and regrettably decided not to continue with Byron Balasco’s superb MMA drama, so this batch of 10 episodes will be its last. And from the first hazy moments of “Wolf Tickets,” it feels like Balasco knew this was his and the Kulina family’s last shot, with Alvey passed out on a beach after a party—in his honor, no less—he can hardly remember. But production had reportedly wrapped before Balasco even learned of Kingdom’s fate, so that’s not really the case. Still, there’s something bittersweet about the rude awakening Alvey gets after yet another night of drinking; he was the last one at the party, where he picked up SoCal MMA Coach Of The Year, but he’ll be damned if he can recall any of it. Once again, his glory slips through his fingers.

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This scene unwittingly jibes with what Balasco shared in a recent interview about the final season—as the writer-creator put it, he goes into every season with an end (if not the end) in sight. And that’s something we’ve definitely seen throughout Kingdom, that getting a foot out the door can just as easily turn into setting a foot into a room. Your comings are your goings. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end (sorry, couldn’t help myself. But tell me “Closing Time” wouldn’t fit right in here). Alvey’s fighting career is over (or is it?), but he‘s been able to parlay that into success as a coach. Ostensibly, the same kind of mentoring he does as a father comes in handy while training a new generation of fighters. Of course, that’s one of the areas where Alvey’s been utter shit, aside from being a husband/fiancé. Working as a trainer hasn’t just allowed Alvey to stay in the octagon; it’s also given him another chance at fatherhood, something that was made all the more poignant by Lisa’s miscarriage in season two. And he’s had a fair amount of success there, even if Ryan appears ready to jump ship, Nate still finds it hard to take his dad’s advice, and Jay’s trying to start over as far away from Navy St. as possible.

But overall, there’s a sense of peace in “Wolf Tickets,” which jumps ahead about a year from the season two finale, “Sharp Objects.” Ryan’s slugged his way through his contract with Garo, and is poised to leave the King Beast circuit after defending his lightweight belt one more time. He appears to be enjoying his professional success, though he’s already champing at the bit to move through the MMA world, all the way up to the UFC. Ryan also appears to have found Jesus; he even calls out for his personal savior before and after the match (to Alvey’s chagrin during the latter). There’s no telling how long this quiet will last; although he did finally open up to someone about his dad’s death, a mercy killing isn’t the kind of thing you can shake or punch off. Ryan might be making plans for the future—which may or may not include Lisa at this point—but looking forward doesn’t mean you won’t stumble. And if we’ve learned nothing else from this show, it’s when you’re riding highest that you’re knocked down.

Nate also gets to share in the tranquility for now, as he’s cozying up to Will, the guy who paid him off after he was drugged and raped, basically. Look, I look forward to seeing Nick Jonas get it on as much as the next person, but this pairing is just… off. Will was basically that guy’s accomplice, or whatever you call the person who hands out hush money after the fact. It’s all just so gross, and I am trying to give the writers the benefit of the doubt, and look at this situation as temporary. Nate might have opened up to Jay about being gay, but he’s still far from out. Maybe he’s taking what he can get as far as a relationship, especially now that Alvey’s training him again; being on something like Grindr again might be too great a risk for his career. Nate is also still fairly young, and this might just be an early romantic misstep before fully coming into his own. That doesn’t make it any less questionable for the time being, though.

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As uncomfortable as their domestic bliss might make me, what really stands out is just how comfortable Nick Jonas has become in the role, and really, as an actor. Early on, he seemed to rely too much on Nate’s reticence; he mostly shifted gears between quietly fuming and looking peevish. And with everyone from Frank Grillo to Kiele Sanchez and Jonathan Tucker turning in such layered, gut-wrenching performances, Jonas stood out as the weak link. But it’s clear that he’s been taking it all in, and moving past the suggested inner turmoil. Now there’s a cocky, almost roguish quality to Nate, who, let’s not forget, was denied a real chance at succeeding his father in the first season, following an attack that was intended as retaliation against Alvey (talk about having the sins of your father visited on you). Nate might be a bit happier at home now that he’s able to indulge his feelings more, but he’s also hungry for glory. Which makes his delayed gratification all the more unbearable for him here. Despite being a professional fighter, Nate has had to keep his hands at his sides. It’s obviously starting to wear on him, as he immediately appears less content at home after his bout is canceled.

These are shades of his father, who has a bender’s worth of hair of the dog throughout the episode. We’ve seen Alvey drink before (and how), but he steals sips at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, though there’s no real food in sight. Ryan is so put off by the boozy breath that he breaks off a training session early. They’re clear signs that, despite the now thriving business, Alvey remains miserable. We’ve seen that before too, enough to have a good sense of what has him so low. His time in the sun is over, and he’s never really been able to come to grips with that. Alvey’s tried all the things that are supposed to provide you with personal satisfaction: family, love, making a home, etc. Nothing’s ever filled that void, though, a fact that his family (and viewers) have held against him. Being a parent usually involves a certain degree of selflessness, but Alvey wasn’t about to sacrifice anything. He left that to Christina, who ended up so low on resources that she used drugs to check out of her life.

Photo: DirecTV/Audience Network

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Alvey’s a supreme asshole, which, again, we already know, but one of the most masterful things about Kingdom is how it makes his grasping infuriating yet pitiable; pointless yet relatable. No one’s going to forgive what he’s done to those closest to him, but wanting your life to have some purpose outside of your family or personal attachments isn’t unreasonable. Training may be Alvey’s job, but it’s not his calling. Of course, mixed martial arts don’t offer a longstanding platform for anyone, so it’s just his bad luck that it’s what took hold of him. But he might get another shot after all, as Garo offers him a fight. Not one of his fighters, but Alvey. It’s a legacy fight, which Alvey naturally scoffs at initially. But after he has to coach Ryan through his latest fight, he realizes he wants to do some of that sparring himself. So cue “Eye Of The Tiger,” because Alvey’s going Rocky. Sort of.

While Alvey hopes for a chance to relive his glory, Jay commits to not making the same mistakes his father did. He’s now raising an infant daughter with his girlfriend, Amy. That’s the good news. The bad news is, he’s not pulling off the working stiff thing at all. For all the bullshit he’s so gracefully dispensed in the past, he can’t quite nail the simultaneously intimate yet detached prattle of a real estate agent. Even more glaringly, Jay is unable to sell anyone on the idea of a home because it remains such a foreign concept to him. Oh, he’s going to try, judging by all the great suits, and the love and attention he lavishes on his daughter and Amy. We know Jay is going to give it his all, but this domestic bliss isn’t likely to last. “Wolf Tickets” ends with him imagining the worst, as he asks Amy if they can have their daughter baptized “just in case.”

Even before that heartbreaking whisper, Jonathan Tucker conveys Jay’s sudden fear, clutching the sleeping baby and staring unblinkingly at the ceiling. That’s another look we’ve seen before, but let’s just hope that the unthinkable doesn’t happen. I don’t see how Jay could take that. Christina’s MIA this episode, but even though they appeared to patch things up last season, it’s telling that she isn’t around despite having her first grandchild. Alvey is also absent, though that’s par for the course. But it’s all in keeping with Jay keeping his old life away from his new one: the fighting, the parents, the drinking, the drugs. He is really invested in his little family, though we can safely assume the dynamic won’t be quite the same before season’s (and series’) end.

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“Wolf Tickets” does feature a match and a victory for Ryan, but what’s far more compelling is what happens away from the arena, especially when those triumphs have been much more difficult to come by. This is the balance that Kingdom has always struck, which makes me all the sadder that there are only nine episodes left. But if the season three premiere is any indication, they’re all going to be winners.

Stray observations

  • Hello, and welcome back to Kingdom reviews! The clock is winding down, but I look forward to talking about these final moments with you all.
  • It was such a relief to see Lisa owning the room, whether it was the locker room or the dining room. She’s never just been someone who can cut it with the guys; she’s a level-headed professional, and it says a lot that her fighter is Navy St.’s most viable.
  • The suits are back, yea!
  • Amy, saying what’s on all our minds about Jay: “You’re too sensitive for this world.”
  • Guys, I am very worried about that baby.
  • Seriously, look at Alvey’s face when Ryan talks about Jesus in the post-fight:
Screenshot: Kingdom

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