The Power of Tenderness: Ted Lasso, Grail Hero
A man stands at the mouth of the Forest Adventurous, “where we meet our adventures when we are ready for them.” (Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Romance, 116) He is ill-prepared; perhaps not prepared at all. Perhaps he has only just enough awareness to realize how absolutely out of his depth he is.
Ted Lasso (from the Apple TV+ show of the same name) nearly steps in front of a speeding car on his first day as the manager of a UK football club. He’s looked the wrong way before crossing the street—the correct way, if he was still in the United States, but here he stands on a curb in London, almost struck down before he even meets his new team.
“This is the true beginning of the Grail Quest,” says Joseph Campbell in Romance of the Grail (116), referring to Parcival’s own entrance to the forest in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s romantic poem Parcival. “Everything up until this point has taken place in the way of our hero’s nature; [his] character carried him through…” Until now.
Coach Ted Lasso a folksy figure, renowned in the United States for carrying his American football team to victory. He’s not only a successful figure, but a beloved one: before we even meet him, we’re introduced to his legacy through a video of a locker room celebration with his team that culminates in a massive, joyful huddle. He is an honorable man, and this label is powerful in the optimistic land of America. Elsewhere, though, it makes him an easy mark.
When he’s finally introduced, Ted is on a plane about to take off for London. For reasons as yet unknown, he’s been selected as head coach for AFC Richmond, an English football club. His first dialogue is with a smirking fan who’s come up asking for a photo with him. “I mean, it’s mental,” the young man says with abject glee. “They’re going to murder you.” Ted’s smile doesn’t falter. After the fan returns to his seat, Ted turns to his partner, Coach Beard: “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doin’ it, you’re probably doin’ it wrong.”
Parcival, having just run the Red Knight through and put on his armor, has now gotten on the dead knight’s horse and is being helplessly carried along on its back, merely a passenger in its mad dash forward.
They’re both comical scenes: a person out of their element almost always is, and a person at the mercy of an unruly beast running full-speed into the unknown has an undeniable majesty in it, too. Brave, or stupid? He brings his full self: he is open to this vast unknown, to adventures he can’t yet fathom. He is vulnerable, and like the awed fan approaching Ted on the plane, we can’t help but admire it.
We soon learn that Ted, like Parcival, has been sent on this endeavor by someone who wants him to fail. Parcival’s mother dressed him in fool’s clothes so her son would be shamed, turned away from Arthur’s court and returned to her loving arms. Rebecca, the new owner of AFC Richmond, is equally sure of her subject’s ineptitude but has none of the maternal affection. Instead, Rebecca becomes Ted’s Fisher King, a figure of great power who carries an equally great and crippling wound. She has called him to her court not to heal her, but to expand the Wasteland, bringing everyone who dares care about the club to the depths of despair in which she resides.
Throughout the first season of the show, Ted never stops asking Rebecca, “What ails thee?” He doesn’t make the same mistake Parcival does—in fact, he makes the opposite mistake. His nature leads him to ask, repeatedly, the exact wrong question.
If Coach Lasso is following Parcival’s methods of entering into adventure, he’s thankfully got the benefit of Sir Gawain’s personality.
“Gawain is a charming character in Wolfram’s work. In fact, he’s a delightful character wherever he appears. In the English medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, he is a forthright, lovely person, graceful and sensitive, with a wonderful — how to put it? — responsiveness to feminine beauty.”
(Romance of the Grail, 124)
“Little girls are mysterious, silly, and powerful.”
Ted in Ted Lasso, Season 1, Episode 9
One of the reasons Ted Lasso had such an immediate impact on jaded viewers is Ted’s seemingly unflappable optimism. In a world of cynicism, genuineness gives us pause. The most beloved knight, Sir Gawain, is the gentle knight, the “ladies’ knight.” He is not only admired by women and children, but men in and out of court. He stops Parcival from stepping into traffic, so to speak, but does not scold or patronize.
Like water wearing away at stone over millennia, Ted’s unadulterated vulnerability wears down the icy, ironic Brits in his company over the first season. He receives all critique, all failure, and even betrayal with a benign smile and perhaps a light, self-deprecating joke, removing the wind from any detractor’s sails. He’s free with his praise and means it genuinely, even as some characters believe it’s a method of manipulation. He’s earnestly answering a rhetorical question, and this earnestness is so true it makes our breath catch in our chest.
What does our admiration say about this brand of masculinity? I’ve sat with this question for a long time. The conclusion, I believe, is deceptively simple: To be hurt and remain vulnerable is the ultimate strength. To remain open, to trust, to forgive, is the ultimate honorability.
Writer and artist Iain Thomas captures the power of tenderness with this line (which is, fascinatingly, often misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut):
“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let the pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
After finishing the first season of Ted Lasso, I texted a friend who I knew had already seen it to half-jokingly ask why I was crying over a show about soccer. She replied immediately: “Because Ted Lasso restores our faith in the concept of men.”
While we enter into Ted Lasso seeing the main character as the butt of a joke we don’t yet understand, the joke is, ultimately, on us. But it isn’t unkind; in the same way a mother lion will play-fight her cubs to prepare them for more serious battles when they’re grown, it’s an opportunity to create new reactions that will benefit us in the future, individually and collectively. Hey, it says. Here’s your sensitive spot. Here’s your vulnerable place. Use it.
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