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[Spoiler alert: This post contains all the spoilers from the Dec. 16 episode of Kingdom.]
The Sophomore Slump. It’s like the Freshman 15 for television creators: Nobody wants it, but many experience it — that moment when you realize your second season doesn’t live up to the standard that you set for yourself in season 1.
But for series creator Byron Balasco, season 2 of Kingdom managed to avoid the Sophomore Slump simply because its characters. “My feeling on it was we have great characters and we have great actors playing these characters, so I was sort of free in the sense that I didn’t have to contrive bigger, louder, faster, stronger stories,” Balasco says. “If I just kept doing what we do, the natural evolution of these characters would be enough to pull us through, and I think it was.”
And that natural evolution ended with Lisa leaving town, Chapas killing himself, Christina (hopefully) heading to rehab, Ryan killing his father (per his request), and Alvey questioning his son’s future, not to mention his own. So with the midseason finale behind us, we broke down some of the hour’s biggest moments with Balasco.
Alvey’s ongoing battle
From the beginning of the show, Alvey has been very open about the battle he faces as an ex-fighter, as someone who feels like his best days might be behind him. “I think that as long as that demon is out there, he’ll constantly be chasing it,” Balasco says. “I think that’s part of the reason you see Alvey make so many reckless decisions. It goes against his own best self-interest, but he can’t be happy if he’s not getting what he’s always needed. That’s the difficulty of getting older and having more responsibility in your life and being beholden to others. Alvey loves the people in his life, but he also is afflicted with this need to fight and test himself and live in that pocket.”
As for what happened with Chapas, and what that means for Alvey, Balasco says, “One of the things we do in this show is that we start accumulating layers and layers and layers of character moments and story points that we’ll sometimes let lie for a while and come back, or sometimes they don’t. We sort of wait and see what the natural flow of the story and these guys’ lives are going to be.”
Ryan mercy-kills his father
That dedication to following a “natural flow” of story is why Balasco says that Ryan ending his father’s life at his request felt like the “logical conclusion” to their relationship. “We felt like the big weight around Ryan’s neck was the relationship with his father,” he says. “He really was just never going to get over that, so we wanted to figure out a way that he could at least know that his father still loved him as a son despite everything. I wanted to give that to Ryan, because I think he needed it, but I also wanted it to come with a difficult decision and this idea that Ryan had to give his father something as well, which may ultimately take more out of Ryan than he expected going forward.
“It felt like something Ryan was uniquely suited to do, and his father almost putting Ryan’s worst traits and darkest currents to use for good, if you want to call it that.”
As to why Ryan called Jay in his moment of need, Balasco simply says that it was about not wanting to feel alone. “I think that was a moment of him reaching out, without any logic to it, to the one person he felt like would be able to understand Ryan in that situation. Somebody as f—ed up as him, basically. Somebody that would not judge where Ryan was or what he was doing, somebody that would not try to give Ryan some sort of advice about anything. Ryan just literally needed to hear a voice to know he wasn’t alone in the world. And Jay is that guy.”
The phone call also served a purpose for Jay, who “had a hell of a night,” Balasco says. And yet, when asked if Christina has hit rock bottom, Balasco doesn’t seem to think it’s that simple. “I think that rock bottom is kind of a sliding level,” he says. “You can think you’re on the bottom, but until you’re dead, there’s still certainly floors to fall through.”
For Balasco, it’s not about Christina wanting to change. It’s about her ability to change. “[As an addict], your brain chemistry is changed. It’s not necessarily a choice, and that’s what makes it so painful for her,” he says. “Watching Jay shoot heroine is devastating for her, but the chemicals in her brain are telling her she needs the thing or she’ll die. I think it makes the character frustrating in a good way because you want her to make the right choice, but it’s just sometimes not possible for certain people.”
As for Nate, he’s not only temporarily filling Lisa’s shoes —yes, Balasco promises that Lisa will be “very involved moving forward” — but he’s also just found out that his father isn’t sure he should be fighting. “We wanted to explore with Nate — it sort of runs parallel to the battle with his sexuality — this idea that Nate’s biggest fear is being seen as ‘other’ and not a part of who his family and friends are and not a part of the tribe he was brought up in,” Balasco says.
“His father, who’s saying this to him out of love because it is a hard life, is telling Nate, ‘Hey, maybe you’re not one of us.’ How heartbreaking that is to Nate and how horrifying that is for him to hear that from his dad was something [I thought] would be very powerful between those two.”
Alvey’s speech gives Nate something to think about, though he may not agree. “Who’s Alvey, really, to say what he should and shouldn’t do with his life? So Nate got that advice. Whether he takes it or not remains to be seen. It may in fact push him to want to fight twice as hard.”
Regardless of what happens with any of these characters, Kingdom will continue to explore what Balasco calls the “painful ascent.” It’s the idea that “you set goals to reach because you have to have something to do, but they don’t really change your life once you get them. You just need to find a new goal after that,” he says. “So we will continue with the fallout from obtaining these goals and the feeling of emptiness that sets in once you don’t have the journey. We’ll keep going. There’s still a lot more to mine in that area.”
Kingdom will return for the back-half of season 2 in 2016.