I’ll admit that I was beginning to worry that Kingdom’s second season was suffering from the dread sophomore slump. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s been underwhelming me, though; I’m not even sure that “underwhelming” is the right word. It’s more than just the writers letting Keith linger, despite the fact that he’s not even providing much comic relief. (I seriously just don’t get it.) The first season had a greater sense of urgency and higher stakes than year two has displayed so far. Maybe I’ve become too focused on the “underdog” aspect of the stories, but no one has seemed quite…hungry enough this time around. Well, aside from Alicia, who’s living out of her car and needs a fight even more than Ryan or Jay, it seems. I guess I just don’t want anyone resting on their laurels.

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Thankfully, “The Devil Had A Spell” has convinced me that I’ve just been underestimating the series. I’d been lulled into a false sense of diminished interest by a string of good episodes that, while not exactly knockouts, didn’t squander season one’s momentum either. So this week, I’m grateful for the change of pace, which can be attributed to a shift in focus back to Ryan, who I thought was really the protagonist of the first season. Ryan had the most to lose and gain when he first emerged from prison, and had the most significant growth overall.

Although Ryan’s defended his title once this season already, his career has kind of stalled. He managed to squeak by with a decision victory in “New Money,” but it wasn’t a worthy second act to his triumphant return to the sport in season one’s “King Beast”. His nerves might have gotten the best of him, but falling back on cocaine use was a bad move on so many levels. He must have realized that he’d test positive in the drug screening, which would not only set back his career, but also send him back to jail. But it didn’t matter, because Ryan doesn’t have much of a game plan for himself. He’s no longer scraping together a living, and he’s pretty comfortable living rent-free in Keith’s parents’ house (still doesn’t justify Keith’s continued existence on the show, though).

And yet, Ryan’s far from complacent. He seemed genuinely sorry (when he got caught), and he’s been taking his lumps as far as the shitty deal that Garo (who buried the test results) forced on Alvey, which has Ryan contracted for six fights on the King Beast circuit. He continues to take his training seriously, and this week took a significant step in cleaning up his image. With Lisa’s help, Ryan gives a joint interview with his father Rick (finally, a name!) in an effort to show that he has been rehabilitated, and not just paroled. Because not only did Ryan go to prison for attempted murder, but his victim was his father, which isn’t the kind of youthful indiscretion most people are willing to overlook. And Ryan needs them to, or at least, the people who own energy-drink and other sports-related companies, because he needs endorsement money more than ever now that he’s fighting for a pittance (but again, thanks to his own mistakes).

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His dalliance with Alicia aside, Ryan’s been trying harder to connect with his father than anyone else. Sure, father and son tried to drink each other under the table in “Happy Hour,” but that whiskey-flavored truth serum forced Rick to admit to Ryan that he pushed his wife away in order to save her the despair of watching him waste away. And his words about the humane way to end an animal’s life suggest Rick is looking for some help ending his own life. In my first viewing of the episode, I interpreted Rick’s request as some kind of emotional extortion—he would force Ryan to “finish the job,” since he’s the one who put him in the wheelchair. And when Ryan didn’t give his father an answer, I assumed the elder Wheeler would write his son off.

Which is why, back in the present, I was surprised by Rick’s (who’s played by Bo Crowder himself, M.C. Gainey) willingness to participate in the interview. Not that I assumed he wouldn’t want to help his son, but he also hadn’t struck me as someone who’s all that demonstrative either. But in any case, Rick goes on camera and on the record to forgive Ryan, and ask his son to forgive himself. It’s an incredibly sweet and loaded moment, and one in which Ryan makes sure to represent his father as something other than a victim. He reminds Rick and himself that his father was and is his hero.

And let me just say that Matt Lauria’s done a commendable job with the character of Ryan, managing to portray him as someone who’s pitiable and formidable, angry yet remorseful. Ryan found his way into MMA in a very organic way, as a student wrestler who was supported along the way by his father. Lauria gives a coiled performance as Ryan, a man who’s always had a knack for fighting, even if he didn’t have a reason to—after all, he spent some time working in marketing or something. So when we hear the line, “the aggression always took everyone by surprise,” it feels like it could be describing both the character and the actor.

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The episode’s other father-son pairing didn’t fare nearly so well, on any front. Alvey got out of jail just in time to head to Fresno for Nate’s big, not-quite-properly-sanctioned fight. Alvey has to come clean about his drunk-driving arrest, because the hotel requires a photo I.D., and his driver’s license has been suspended. Nate’s annoyed, and made even more so when Alvey gets drunk at a bar and picks a fight with dirtbag promoter Jeff Ross (his character has name, but that word sequence just works so well). Nate might be remembering his father’s previous trouble with drug and alcohol abuse, which was alluded to back in season one. Although he “only” abuses alcohol these days, it’s a still slippery slope (see: Ryan).

But Nate’s concern about his father isn’t what ultimately costs him the fight, which he does lose thanks in part to some questionable decisions by the referee, who insists on standing the men up repeatedly, presumably to get the other fighter out of Nate’s grasp. The other guy, who outweighs Nate and has the very vocal support of the crowd, is a boxer not a wrestler, which he demonstrates by punching Nate’s face enough to get Alvey to throw in the towel. Nate ends up in the hospital, and Alvey begins to question whether or not Nate should be fighting at all.

And that’s a question that’s also weighed on my mind. It’s clear Nate can take instruction well, and appears to have an inherited talent for the sport. But you know how the inverted saying goes: “the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak.” I just don’t think MMA is something Nate really wants to do, even though it’s something he can do. He just can’t recognize or admit that yet, probably because he’d feel guilty rejecting his father’s legacy. When Alvey tells Lisa that he thinks Nate probably shouldn’t fight anymore, he sounds resigned yet relieved. Maybe it’s become he has other potential heirs or protégés, but it’s comforting to see Alvey finally act like a dad.

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Alvey’s revelation about Nate’s future, which doesn’t so much strike as creep up on him, is one that the writers have actually built toward rather than just dropped into the episode’s end. Kingdom has toyed with the idea of finding something else for Nate to do all season, from his remarks to Christina about not knowing how else he’d spend his time if he weren’t fighting or training to fight, to his own mismanagement of his career. But since the Kulinas don’t appear to handle retirement (or semi-retirement), as evidenced by Jay’s “shenanigans” and Alvey’s own floundering last season, Nate will almost certainly have trouble adjusting to “civilian” life.

Stray observations

  • Jay’s having trouble losing weight, despite eating only apples and salsa for dinner and giving up bacon. I wonder what’s more satiating: the apples or the salsa?
  • I’m delighted to see M.C. Gainey dealing with another prodigal son here, but I will stop short of mentioning how much I miss Justified.
  • (Oh, I guess I just did.)
  • Keith’s new hairdo and beard are the calling card of a murderer.
  • Nate’s fight was fixed, right? Dirtbag promoter Jeff Ross totally screwed him out of it, right? Because it was definitely odd of the ref to repeatedly stand them up, when it was clear that they weren’t just locked into position.
  • Hey, I worked Christina into the review! I did leave out another one of her weirdly insensitive remarks to Jay, in which she snarked that he’s “anorexic” even though she knows he’s trying to cut weight.

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