The haymaker’s a move from boxing 101, one that most teachers would advise against using. It’s not that the punch isn’t effective, when it lands. But the sport’s evolved to a point where it’s referred to as “the sweet science,” and that old punch just lacks finesse. Even if we’re just thinking of efficacy, the haymaker gives too much away—it requires a lot of build-up, telegraphs your plan to your opponent, and most damningly, leaves you open to their assault. It’s a street fighter’s move, a last resort.
Kingdom’s denouement is the mythical haymaker, the one that connects and destroys. The last two episodes have all the subtlety of that wild swing, and thankfully, much of its power. Which isn’t to say that I saw the final moments of “Cactus” coming. I felt fairly certain that if a family member was going to die, it would probably be Annette because, as Kingdom’s amply proven (and Alvey has noted), when someone in this particular family wants to hurt themselves, they always find a way.
So as we head into “Lie Down In The Light,” I’m past the point of worrying about the loose ends and dead ends of the first eight episodes. I’m not about to wring my hands about late additions Dom and Annette, two characters I had very disparate reactions to, and their unsatisfying send-offs. I’m going to ignore the questions I have about Christina’s precarious situation at the sex-cam hostel, and Ryan’s intermittent grief (the latter is something I actually understand all too well). I’m going to lay down the burden of pondering the missed opportunities, inconsistent pacing, and whatever else might have come up wanting this season.
None of that matters because Nate is gone. I don’t say that because the younger Kulina cub was my favorite character—that was Jay, duh—or because Nick Jonas was my favorite performer, though he was more than square with his co-stars this season. But Nate’s violent demise threw the show into reverse and overdrive; it made time stand still even as it brought his to an end; and it stripped the show of its excess baggage while opening up new possibilities for creator Byron Balasco. (Here’s the requisite acknowledgment that neither Balasco nor his cast knew the show was ending when this final season was written and shot). It was a kind of late-hour reset for the show, though, sadly, not a last-minute reprieve (not at the time of this writing, anyway. But if you have the ear of someone at Audience, let your girl know).
At least, that’s how I processed Nate’s death, arc-wise. And it certainly knocked the wind out of me emotionally. But there’s also part of me that saw it as joining that all too regrettable tradition of fridging characters to give the lives of others more meaning, and more specifically, touches on pop culture’s long history of killing off LGBTQ characters. That obviously wasn’t intentional, not after such a soul-baring coming-out scene at the bar. But despite foreshadowing tragedy all season long—mostly through Jay’s foray into parenthood—something just feels off about losing Nate. Consider Jay’s speech before Alvey’s big fight. As he tells the crowd shortly before calling out the homophobes among them, Nate had, for the most part, been spared the self-destructive tendencies of his family members. Nate had his father’s temper to some extent, but had otherwise pulled a 180 away from the rest of the histrionics. He ultimately showed more force of will than anyone around him by deviating from the Kulina patterns. That’s what makes his death feel especially senseless.
We’ve had far more indications that it was Jay who was running out of time and at the end of his rope. And while I can see how it packs a greater wallop for Alvey to lose his son in every respect after shutting him out during his coming-out at the bar, this feint feels a bit too calculated. I’m not surprised to see my expectations blown up, but this feels more like the team grasping for a way to make a mapped-out ending resonate more. Thanks to the wonderful cast, which has just gotten more cohesive with each episode, this scene works. But I feel just a bit tricked.
I’ve focused so much on “Cactus,” the penultimate episode of Kingdom, because 1. I wasn’t able to review it while I was at the Television Critics Association summer press tour last week, for which I apologize, and 2. it really set the stage for Alvey missing his chance for redemption, too. Not in his big fight, which, despite giving us something to look forward to this season, would have always come in second to the fulfillment he would have experienced if he’d gone into the fight with both of his kids in his corner. After watching “Lie Down In The Light,” I’m not sure Alvey felt redeemed. Jay might have forgiven him, and Alvey might have secured his legacy in a split decision, but none of that quite makes up for his other loss. We see that in Alvey deciding not to attend the press conference, as well as in the beginning of the episode, when he tells Lisa that Nate must have known he loved him. Alvey’s a fighter and a survivor, and so he’ll find a way to overcome this—of that, I have no doubt. But in that moment, with his swollen face, Alvey’s as vulnerable and frightened as Nate was in his final moments. He’s trying desperately to reassure himself that he didn’t totally fuck everything up with Nate.
The ending’s ambiguous—Alvey stares directly into the camera, panting, his bloodied face proof of his victory and loss. (Talk about being careful what you wish for.) And for maybe the first time ever, he’s wearing all of his hurt on the outside; his defenses are totally down in this moment. It’s to Balasco’s and director Padraic McKinley credit that this scene would be just at home in a midseason breaking point or season closer as it is in the series finale. The hush that falls is a standard cue to exit, but as we sit with Alvey, we can also see the gears turning in his mind. He’s always acknowledged the importance of a good camp, but he’s also been quick to point out that once you’re in that octagon, you’re on your own—and so he is at the end of “Lie Down In The Light.” It’s just Alvey in that final shot, and it’s open to interpretation whether the gears are turning in preparation of another fight, or if he’s still just processing what’s happened or just at a total loss for how to proceed.
I’m similarly still reeling from the one-two punch of the final episodes. I’m trying to think like a judge and score each “bout” individually, and I don’t want to saddle the final fifth of the season with too much responsibility, but I’m relieved that Kingdom returned to its roots to say goodbye. Even with all the new players on the horizon, thanks in part to Lisa’s new job, “Lie Down In The Light” was a family affair. It was intimate and devastating, but also optimistic. While I’m not sure I agree with the means, I do think returning to the question of Alvey’s redemption was a solid end.
I’ll be thinking about this show and this episode and this ending for some time. I truly believe Kingdom was something special. It had a dysfunctional family like no other, whose talents occasionally presented as big an obstacle as their faults. It made me think about loss of purpose and the cycles of life—we so often frame parenting as full of sacrifice, and while we saw that to some extent from Christina, Alvey’s story always presented a different option. We also saw how hard it is to end other kinds of cycles, like substance abuse and shitty relationships. No other show knocked toxic masculinity on its ass like this one, while never forgetting the strategically violent world it was set in. And as I’ve argued in other spaces on this site, Kingdom featured powerful and economical storytelling, and its first season is some of the most consistently great TV I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure why it branched out so much for the third season, other than that there were suddenly a lot more cooks in the kitchen. But while I question some of the narrative choices—I know, Kingdom’s always been more of a character driven show, but I just couldn’t with Dom—the cast never let me down. I don’t doubt that they’ll all move on to great things, or that Byron Balasco will find another show, but for now, I’m just going to sit with this. Don’t worry—like Alvey, I’ll get back up, eventually.
Season grade: B
Overall series grade: A-
- Aw man, how are you going to close out with the Mozes And The Firstborn song that introduced us to Nate? Low blow, show. (I kid. Mostly.)
- I wanted more closure re: Christina’s storyline, but again, this was supposed to be a different kind of finale, so what can you do? I did think it was interesting that Kayla was still around. I wonder what the show had in store for her.
- In that vein, I also think Ryan got the short shrift.
- Jay managed to transcend his pain and forgive his father. I wonder how much more therapy I’ll need for something like that.
- Given more time, Ryan’s broken hand and solid coaching might have set him on a similar path to Alvey’s. Would that have had the same results? That is, would Ryan end up as resentful?
- Kingdom was obviously so much more than this, but I do think it should be noted for being the show that really honed Nick Jonas’ chops.
- And seriously, kudos to this cast and these producers and directors and writers: Byron Balasco, Frank Grillo, Joanna Going, Matt Lauria, Jonathan Tucker, Kiele Sanchez, Nick Jonas, Adam Davidson, Vladimir Cvetko, Scott Wilson, and everyone else who made this show so great.
- However many times you think I stopped to wipe away some tears watching these final two episodes and writing this review, multiple that by about five.
- Well, that’s it for Kingdom and Kingdom coverage. I’m sorry it was so fitful in the last two seasons. I wish I’d commented more, but please know that I did read your comments, and was always grateful for the added insight. Thank you all for reading!