Self-torment. Excessive anguish. Brutality towards others. All wrapped around a tight bloody fist. That's what DirecTV's Kingdom meant to me for the past three seasons: a show that promised physical and mental introspection from its viewers. And I loved every single moment of it. From the moment Frank Grillo's Alvey Kulina disposed of a couple thugs during a run on Venice Beach, I was hooked. How could one even think about letting go of this show?
Kingdom would make you hit a punching bag and gaze for far too long into a mirror at yourself during the same instance. Byron Balasco's saga about the rigors of responsibility that stack on top of a fighter like bricks-tormenting him or her as often as a punch would delivered to their jaw-was an authentic gut punch every single week, resisting the urge to cave in and do something normal to appease viewers' digression.
The characters on the show were anything but normal, fascinating creatures that didn't like sitting in the good or bad pool, often choosing ugly because it fit better. A retired fighter with a hunger for the ring; a volatile son capable of warmth and madness; the unfortunately noble son who couldn't be his true self; an ambitious woman tied down to a gym that owns too much of her heart to leave; a tormented former champion who gets tailed by violent tendencies wherever he goes. Mix it all together in a dog eats dog world, and you have a powerful plate of entertainment.
Wednesday night featured the final episode of Kingdom, a bittersweet notice that brought tears to my eyes due to Balasco's craftsmanship and his ability to make this seem nothing like the true end. Like the creator has constantly pointed out, these seasons are like chapters in the lives of these characters. There is no final bell, no matter what a cable channel or network says. Without knowing it was the final dose, Balasco saved his best round for last. 'Lie Down in the Light" stayed true to the show roots without feeling the need to go overboard to maximize the impact.
Here are a few highlights from the series finale that haven't left my head 16 hours later:
~Grillo's work just blew me away. My readers know I have been an avid follower of the New York native tough guy long before he stepped in Alvey's shoes (I remember him telling me about "Navy Street" years ago), but Kingdom provided Grillo with a role that fit into his wheelhouse like a specifically produced lug nut fits into a wrench. It all culminated in the final hour, as Alvey battled every single demon he had in the 48 hours leading up to the Legends Fight with Matt Hughes. Broiling in anguish and guilt, all Alvey could do was use it as fuel to prepare. What if you lost someone you loved and could deal with it by punching someone else in front of thousands of people?
That doesn't mean it was an easy time, and this is where Grillo really dug into the role. He could shadow box and move around on camera in his sleep, but sitting at a table with Christina (Joanna Going) uncoiling as he tries to manufacture the proper emotion about his dead son Nate (Nick Jonas) was premium Grillo. Grillo doesn't just sob and cry profusely. It's like someone stuck hot coals into his chest and he's burning for one last moment with his son.
You won't catch the actor calling himself a great actor, but he has created a masterpiece in Alvey Kulina. Grillo is so good on this show and anything else he appears in because he isn't afraid to go method and bring a piece of himself into the role. He opens himself up for inspection in order to nail a scene.
From the first moment of the episode showing a bloodied Alvey dripping blood on his IPhone after the fight to the red blooded moments on cut day to the courageous battle in the ring with Hughes, Grillo produced a performance for the ages.
~Balasco's non-linear storytelling device. The way the finale cuts around the final two days in the lives of these characters was a great choice-and makes it more emotional for the viewer. Starting with the end as Alvey bleeds in the bar, going back to the day of the funeral on the beach, back to the sauna, and then to the weigh in day was brilliant. By going non-linear, Balasco is able to crawl inside these characters' tormented souls a little deeper.
Whether it's showing Alvey and Jay immediately after the incident in Arizona or a tender moment between Ryan (Matt Lauria) and Lisa (Kiele Sanchez), the hour never feels like a normal episode and that is the intention.
One of the great tools in Balasco's box is restraint, and he wields that often in this episode, subbing in a great song for a few pages of dialogue, and a long piercing stare instead of a pool of tears or monologue. By going the minimalist route, Balasco increased the power of the story.
~Jay Kulina's tribute to his brother
Holy cow, Jonathan Tucker's work in this scene could slay the most proud cynic. Taking the microphone before the Kulina-Hughes fight to pay tribute to his brother, Jay decided to pull out the rug from under an audience that loved to judge instead of learning how to understand the differences in people.
"We were raised by wolves. I became one. Nate did not, so I had to protect him," Jay explains. While Nate was the backbone of the Kulina family-the innocent lever to the pair of death switches-he did require protection from the certain ugliness of life from his older brother. Since Jay was very much like Alvey, Nate's innocence needed guidance, but it was a failed mission.
During this moment, Jay is channeling his anger towards Alvey at the crowd. Everything he wants to say to Alvey is also going to a crowd of people that largely would have joked at the announcement that Nate Kulina was gay. If only the world was more accepting, Nate may not have waited so long to tell his father that he wasn't like the others. That he was different.
This is the part of the scene where the jaws drop, where Jay stops playing nice with the kind words about his brother, demanding the people in the light with an opinion to stand up. Nobody does.
While the large chunk of the episode is Alvey and his fight, the real meaning behind the title-Lie Down in the Light-is cast during Jay's speech. Every single human being simply wants to lie down in the light-where everyone can see them-and be accepted for who they are. They don't want to hide from their troubles so strangers can accept them. The goal in life to be free and to be yourself. That is all Jay asked his father and others to do. Accept Nate for who he was, and it didn't happen. Will it ever be possible for everyone in this world to lie down in the light and be themselves?
Tucker's work in this scene reminds you of Balasco's powerful asset: Words, not punches, can leave a larger dent in someone's soul.
~I loved the way Ryan Wheeler came to the rescue of everyone in the finale.
Matt Lauria's gift as an actor is being able to show innocence and anger inside the same minute, but during this final hour, he turned into a caretaker, and that was refreshing. For the first 39 episodes, he was helped by Alvey, Lisa, Jay, Nate, and Navy Street. Without Alvey, he never gets back into the ring. Without Lisa, he is even more numb to his core. Without Jay and Nate, he isn't given adopted wolf pack brothers to stand behind him.
But during "Lie Down In the Light", Wheeler gets to provide some comfort to Alvey by cornering his fight, and nurturing him through the final two days of prep for the fight. He gets to gather a shredded Alvey on the ground and tell him how "pain is your job". He gives Jay some perspective about the price of anger towards a parent while being there for Lisa, a woman he ripped to shreds last hour. For once, the man who wanted to be the alpha just set that aside and chose to help.
This was Ryan doing what he couldn't do for Keith in the end: helping a person stay alive and safe. He struggled with not being able to keep Keith safe, and by helping his true family, Ryan was able to help himself heal a bit. Lauria is someone I'll watch in anything. He has my attention for life.
~The women of Navy Street showing their power in different ways. Lisa by taking over King Beast and hosting her big event. Christina by helping not just her son during a tough moment, but also being the blanket around Alvey as he recovers.
But I loved the short moment of embrace between Lisa and Christina before the fight. By simply telling each other that they looked beautiful, it said all that needed to be said about these two women. Whether they like it or not, they have Navy Street blood in their veins.
Also, I loved the subtle "beat him up" from Lisa to Alvey before the fight. There's still something there between those two, but Balasco wisely let it linger.
It was extremely hard to watch this scene and not feel sadness for Matt Hughes. The legendary MMA fighter is currently fighting for his life after his truck was struck by a train last month, so seeing him go toe to toe with Grillo was bittersweet. While the drama on the show highlights the hardships that fighters face in real life, Hughes is fighting a true honest to god beast right now, and I felt like the finale was a quiet tribute to his strength.
The Legends fight lived up to the billing, showing two old lions prove to the world that they still had the grit and anger to shed blood in a ring. The classic Rocky framing of the fight was well done, with Alvey coming out and working fast, only to hit a wall against the larger opponent, and get beaten up. For three rounds, Alvey was either on his back or sprawling for position against the predator-like Hughes.
Then, before the fifth round, Alvey looks over to Jay for a push and gets it, turning the tables on Hughes and-in what I believe-scoring a technical knockout. I may have been far too immersed in the scene to hear a bell, but I thought Mike Beltran jumped in and stopped the fight. However, the reading of the scorecards at the end with the slow hand raise of Alvey makes me think it was a hard fought decision. Either way, what a battle.
The use of The Fratellis' "Slow" was a signature choice for the final moments of the fight and the episode, showing a victorious Alvey sharing emotional moments with Jay, Lisa, Christina, Ryan, and dedicating the win to his late son, Nate.
Alvey then exits the ring to the large crowd of cheers, high-fiving many on the way back to the locker room. I loved the way Alvey ran to the final curtain and then started to slowly jog before a slow limping walk. It must feel that way for fighters after a long brutal showdown. All the pain and anxiety floats into your system all at once, like a dam suddenly caving in.
We are left with Grillo sitting on the floor, staring into the camera; a beaten yet far from broken man who may have a chance to salvation if he chooses the right mindset. While he lost his son in a tragic way, the elder Kulina can still learn from this terrible event. He can leave the light a better man.
Painfully, Kingdom addicts will never see that happen. But maybe that's the great part. Balasco and company leave us wanting more instead of thinking they should hang it up. The show wasn't punch drunk and out of moves, but in leaving early, it allows the juice to drip a little more. So many shows come and go to a myriad of reasons, but few leave on their own terms or with their best shot.
Kingdom didn't leave on its own terms, but it sure went out with a powerful bang. I loved every minute of it.
Now, I can go back to the pilot episode-and relive it all again. Like visiting an old friend who I know will have some great stories.
So long, Navy Street locals, and thanks for reading my overlong recaps.
"Lie Down In the Light Soundtrack highlights:
"Slow" by the Fratellis
"Baltimore Blues No. 1" by Deer Tick (this band should frame Jay's entire life)
"Brothers" by brad armstrong.