Phil Dunster as Jamie Tartt Ted Lasso

Phil Dunster of ‘Ted Lasso’ delivered one of 2021’s greatest TV performances, and Emmy voters need to remember that

Phil Dunster as Jamie Tartt in Ted Lasso season 2 should be a name on every voter’s lips as the window for the 2022 Emmy Award nominations begins to close. Allow me to remind you why.

We’ve got until 10pm Monday before first-round voting closes for the 2022 Emmy Awards — that is, for those unfamiliar, the preliminary selection from hundreds of names that will be whittled down to approximately eight per category and end up as our nominees on the actual ballot. I love the Emmys, and I wish that I had the time and space this year to dedicate towards penning odes to every single one of my favourite performances and scripts in every potential category, but I don’t. I’ve got the time and space for just the one.

So, to any of the 20,000 Emmy voters who might come across this before the nominations close: Please, please, please recognise the outstanding work that Phil Dunster is doing on Ted Lasso this year.

In 2021, the football-themed runaway Apple TV+ hit Ted Lasso made Emmy history when the show broke the record for the amount of nominations received by a comedy in its debut season — a massive 20, winning 7. A huge achievement. But of the show’s eight series regulars, Dunster was the only one not to have been recognised with an Emmy nomination for Lasso’s first season.

I understand that this is an outsized amount of nominations to begin with, but every other person whose name appears in the opening credits was on the ballot last year. That includes Jason Sudeikis, who won as Leading Actor, Hannah Waddingham and Juno Temple for Supporting Actress, and Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt, Nick Mohammed, and Jeremy Swift for Best Supporting Actor, with Waddingham and Goldstein claiming the trophies on the night.

Dunster was left out of the running entirely, and on one hand, I get it. He came to Lasso with the least name recognition out of the whole cast, and four people from one show in one category is a lot, the vote will get split even if every voter is a die-hard Lasso fan, as opposed to any of the other shows being honoured. I wouldn’t have rooted for him to take it home last year anyway — that one was Goldstein’s to walk away with, fair and square.

But every day, I fire up my computer for work, I do my little rounds around the internet, and I am left puzzled by the fact that Jamie Tartt is not more obsessively beloved, and that Phil Dunster is not yet one of the biggest young stars in the world. He’s definitely ascending, and he definitely has a small gang of superfans who’ve attached themselves to him as any member of a brilliant ensemble is wont to attract, but I simply don’t understand why more people aren’t talking at length, and in professional pop culture spaces, about the depth of this man’s performance. Because — and sure, this is subjective, this is debatable, but I’m just going to say it — he’s doing the best, most complex work out of anyone on that show, barring perhaps Sudeikis himself.

This awards season, Dunster has done a few nice FYC interviews, but as outlets gear up for their award show coverage and publish prediction pieces or dream ballot articles, his name is still not really popping up as a serious contender. It’s going to be a stacked category, what with The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, Hacks, Barry, SNL, Abbott Elementary, and honestly, I would love to see some flowers for Taika Waititi in Our Flag Means Death as well. But the conversation surrounding the show is just not paying attention to Dunster in the way that he deserves.

So I figured that I’d give it a shot, because frankly, I’ve had enough of people looking at me funny when I tell them that Jamie Tartt is my favourite character on Ted Lasso, and that Dunster’s performance is the most nuanced thing that I’ve witnessed on screen in maybe half a decade.

It’s at the point where other actors from the show have commented on it. One such example from Hannah Waddingham stuck out — she wrote “I’m still not sure anyone has truly realised what a ridiculous talent he is,” on a post celebrating Dunster’s 30th birthday, and that’s just one of a number of similar comments that have been thrown around. Lasso’s James Lance, last year, said “I think Phil Dunster should have got an award for the way that he told Keeley that he was still in love with her at the funeral,” when I interviewed him shortly after the Ted Lasso season 2 finale, as we discussed the fact that a lot of Lasso’s best moments would be better considered for a drama nod.

I’m possibly one of the few Lasso viewers who actually liked Jamie straight away, but I recognize that in season 1, he’s difficult. But hey, so is Rebecca. So is Roy! I get that Jamie is difficult in a way that’s maybe not as easy to enjoy, not as instantly endearing as Roy, but still. (I would actually argue that we poke the soft spots on Jamie’s skin earlier than we do Roy’s, but just put a pin in that for a minute. I’ll come back to it.)

First of all, I have to disclaim that I don’t really want to pit this cast against one another, particularly not if it comes down to Dunster vs. Goldstein, whose performances are often so closely dependent on one another. And Brett Goldstein was nice about one of my articles, so I’d probably walk into traffic for him or something. (I’m leaving Nick Mohammed, who I think might have this category in the bag anyway, and who definitely deserves his own essay, out of this particular chat for a reason: my heart wants the gold to go to the performance that filled me with joy, not with horror. That’s the long and short of it, and definitely not a slight.)

It goes without saying that Goldstein is very very very fucking good. Roy Kent is aggressively adorable, and it’s understandable why he is the most beloved character and the breakout talent of this show. He is, as Ted says in an early episode, the one, coach. But Roy’s arc isn’t a very steep climb — it’s fairly straightforward. We see what he puts out into the world, and we recognise what’s underneath pretty quickly. We’re meant to see through him, and we are literally told, in that same episode “Trent Crimm: The Independent,” that softening Roy’s heart is the key to all of Ted’s plans working. As I’ve said before, a story that is easy to follow isn’t a bad thing — in fact, I think it’s one of Ted Lasso’s biggest strengths as a show.

I absolutely think Goldstein deserved his 2021 Emmy award for his work on season 1, and I also think that in many ways, Roy, rather than Ted himself, is the true male protagonist of Ted Lasso. If Ted’s the Gandalf, Roy is our Frodo, if Ted is Mary Poppins, Roy is Mr Banks. Roy might not be hard to understand, but it doesn’t mean that he’s boring or derivative of anything that’s come before. Roy Kent is, simply, one of the best characters created for television in the last couple of decades. He’s inimitable, God-tier, and he’s going to endure.

But Jamie is the one who niggles me. Jamie is the one who sticks in my teeth. Roy is complicated within himself, but in a way that’s kind of uncomplicated to the viewer. Jamie is complicated in a complicated way, and that’s completely addictive. He always leaves me asking questions. Maybe it’s because his arc involves some of the show’s biggest reveals, only outstripped by Ted’s own, but each episode, it’s Dunster’s performance that I’m left turning over and over in my head, studying the most minute of reactions and trying to piece together the internal make-up of this enigmatic young man. He certainly offers plenty to work with. As a critic with an analytical bent and a penchant for absolute nightmares, Dunster is a meta wet dream for a myriad of reasons, and I implore others to take notice of the riches on display.

After helping to relegate Richmond with his parent club Manchester City in the season 1 finale, Dunster’s Jamie was noticeably absent from the Ted Lasso season 2 trailer. It was somewhat to be expected: his whereabouts and future involvement was maybe the only major secret Lasso had up its sleeve regarding a main character, but his exclusion made the swiftness and wholeness of his sympathetic reintroduction hit that much harder, because Jamie becomes one of the few characters who travels through season 2 on an uninterrupted upward trajectory, as he returns to Richmond and redeems himself for the varied chaos he caused the previous year. As he’s reframed by the show as someone rather loveable, the truth of who he is and, in many ways, who he has been from the start, begins to leap out.

Related: ‘Ted Lasso’ composer Tom Howe on creating the white noise of Ted’s anxiety, the rawness of Jamie’s heart, and the warning of Nate’s descent

Foremost, and fascinatingly, it becomes more apparent that he’s one the show’s most emotionally available characters — no, seriously. Go and watch him. Properly watch him, when he takes it upon himself to share something. He doesn’t hold back, and he always goes above and beyond when explaining how he feels. Be it thoughtful or blunt, a brag, an insult, a silly idea, a confession or an apology, he just opens his mouth and connects straight from the brain or the heart in terms of saying what he means, sometimes in ways that startle and surprise the characters around him. For someone with hang-ups about being seen as weak or soft, his vulnerability comes as naturally as breathing when he needs it to. The way he expresses himself is phenomenal.

This is something that I was gratified to learn that Dunster loves about his character — he’s brought it up a number of times, Jamie’s frankness, as a good quality. “He’s pretty congruent with what he thinks and what he says,” Dunster told Collider, and “He is absolutely honest and true to himself. There is no pretend or bravado,” he said to AwardsRadar.

Jamie’s love confession to Keeley and his apology to Roy about it towards the end of season 2, are, I think, the point of no return for the audience to understand this about Jamie, but go further back for a minute. Take it back to what he offers up to Higgins in the broom cupboard, regarding his father, in “Man City.” Take it back to the specific way he thanks Keeley for looking out for him in “The Diamond Dogs,” or to the story he tells at the curse fire, or to how he admits that Roy was his childhood hero.

He knows himself, this boy. Whenever he slows down for a minute, he sees himself in the mirror perfectly. He may peacock, but he doesn’t posture, doesn’t perform — for better or worse, he is shockingly earnest in all that he does. He means all of it. He doesn’t struggle, doesn’t hide. He’s not locked up. He doesn’t mask, he doesn’t shield. He doesn’t lie. Do you know how rare it is to see a character who doesn’t lie?

This facet of Jamie Tartt is why he gets to me so much, because he’s also deeply traumatised, and generally, men who are traumatised — especially those whose trauma stems from toxic masculinity — are shown to be repressed. Most Showboating TV Boys who are Sad Underneath are massively repressed. The cockiness is generally a cover — it’s a fairly classic archetype.

Instead, Dunster imbues Jamie with his own sense of self, a genuine level confidence in a good way, even if it contributes to his “prickishness.” His ego is all the more enjoyable because it isn’t fake, it isn’t a symptom, and his more pleasant behaviour in season 2 still has this flavour to it, in a sweeter, more guileless way. It’s nice to think that Jamie hasn’t grown a shaky new personality after dropping some of the bitterness and the baggage — this is who he always was, and this is who he still is, and who he’ll remain.

I love that it wasn’t an affectation or a defence mechanism – it’s yet another thing that makes Jamie feel so unique. Ted Lasso does deal in repression aplenty in various permutations — Ted, for one, and Roy, who I adore but who is basically being kept alive via the medium of sheer repression. Keeley and Rebecca are both somewhat repressed in some really interesting ways as well. But not Jamie.

And yet, in a show that primarily deals with how people respond to trauma, out of every character we meet, Jamie’s particular trauma is the loudest, the freshest, and the most violent. His absent father, who re-entered his life once he heard his teenage son was making a name for himself as a Man City up and comer, is an abusive bully with loud but uneducated opinions about Jamie’s talent and success.

When we meet Jamie, he has almost lost sight of anything he might truly feel, want, or be in favour of pushing back against his father’s view of him. As the series goes on, it becomes clear that Jamie does not respect, approve of, or want to live up to anything his father wants him to be. It’s long past being about seeking approval, it’s about doing everything short of telling him “leave me the fuck alone” to make James Tartt leave his son the fuck alone. But living so defensively unfortunately has the effect of transforming Jamie’s behaviour into something his father would encourage, and Dunster weathers most of season 1 not quite as our villain, but certainly as somewhat of an antagonist, and an obstacle for the culture Ted is trying to create.

We first hear about Jamie’s father in season 1’s “Two Aces,” but we see the impact of his carnage much earlier than that, in how Jamie flinches and shuts down in conflict with male authority figures, in how he can’t handle being teased, at how he disbelievingly melts at the slightest bit of kindness. When we first actually see Tartt Sr. in the season 1 finale, it is a moment of abject violence, of belittling fury, and the audience — and Ted himself — are given clarity, too late, in terms of what Jamie has been dealing with, and what has been influencing his actions.

And when Ted witnesses this go down, and he does nothing to stop it. So as season 2 begins, it speaks to Jamie’s desperation that he seeks Ted out again and begs for a second chance, talking with his trademark honesty about his father and his needs. The way Ted talks about tough dads there never sits well with me — it sounds like he’s saying that Jamie can attribute his success to his father’s pressure, or at least as a pushback against his father, in some way, and I simply disagree.

Ted’s got his own demons, but for now, keep in mind that for all we know, Jamie still thinks that Ted is the one who terminated his loan last season. He didn’t want to leave Richmond, and there’s not been any resolution for him about what happened. We know the truth about Rebecca, but it is very likely that Jamie doesn’t. So the courage it took for Jamie to have that conversation with Ted is immense. This is the first of Dunster’s truly stand out scenes from season 2.

We know, of course, that Ted is our hero and will eventually help Jamie. But imagine, for a moment, that you are in Jamie’s shoes: you don’t know anything about Ted’s personal issues, you just know that this manager was hot and cold on you, got rid of you and then said kind things about you on TV, watched your father abuse you and stood as a bystander. A kind note and a kids toy doesn’t do much in those circumstances. For him to hear you out, with all your troubles, and say that about your father, to say that you’ve burned too many bridges when the last time you were around the team was a joyful and inclusive moment of growth. For Ted to then turn Jamie down, rather coldly, is a tragic and confusing moment.

There are serious issues at play between Jamie and Ted, perhaps one-sided issues. Ted isn’t able to handle Jamie very well, he isn’t able to get too close to him and his damage, or to be the support that Jamie needs. He’s never been able to, really — his grand plan of taming Jamie via positive reinforcement saw exactly one outing before he pivot to a different approach involving raising up the rest of the team.

Ted’s Jamie trouble is something I plan to write more about, and something I hope that season 3 will land, because in a show about trauma and fathers and sons, they’re the most mirrored in the distress they wear, down to their similarly anxious hands. Jamie has been a factor or, indeed, the direct trigger in three of Ted’s major season 2 panic attacks, but so far, they barely have a relationship, and it feels like Ted is keeping Jamie at arm’s length. They’re no longer adversaries, and Ted has helped Jamie in broader ways, but something is definitely up. Luckily, part of being a good leader is knowing how to delegate, and Ted is a great leader. Thank God for that, and for Roy Kent. After Roy returns to Richmond as a coach, the Jamie-baton gets thrust at him, and he picks it up admirably, if reluctantly.

Related: ‘Ted Lasso’ costume designer Jacky Levy on the challenge of maintaining individuality at a funeral and the origin of Roy Kent’s socks

Jamie’s relationship with Roy is a dynamic that was established early on as foundational to the show, and as the ingredients behind their vicious animosity come to light — jadedness and jealousy on Roy’s side, approval-seeking hero-worship on Jamie’s — it’s easy to get invested in reaching the light at the end of the tunnel for these two. They’re inextricably wound up in each other’s lives, in ways far more complex than dating the same woman, and although the show is toying with something of a triangle, Dunster has insisted that the real love story at play here is the one between Roy and Jamie.

I’m inclined to agree, but going into season 2, I had absolutely no idea what this pair were going to get up to. They’d found a moment of connection right before Jamie was sent away, and then Jamie played a role in Roy’s career-ending injury. I was expecting friction, but I was surprised and delighted by what actually played out once their roles were reframed from teammates to coach and player.

The actors and their characters both elevate one another — Dunster and Goldstein were made to go toe to toe with each other, just as Roy was made to mentor Jamie. Roy understands Jamie’s potential far more than Ted has the capacity to, and Jamie comes alive again on the pitch under Roy’s care, achieving almost the impossible.

But Roy is still, on his own personal journey of self expression, pretty stuck, and I was amazed to see the show use Jamie’s growth and his aforementioned emotional intelligence as a device to alert the audience — and Roy himself — of moments where Roy flounders in contrast, or is soundly in the wrong. Even Keeley compares Roy to Jamie in this department, motivating him to make changes. Jamie, wittingly or not, is also helping Roy, and teaching him things, all the time.

Perhaps, in season 3, Jamie could teach Roy about the joys of therapy, which the latter sorely needs to embrace. With the arrival of sports psychologist Doctor Sharon, we only see the very beginning of Jamie’s initial session, but it seems like he takes to counselling like a duck to water, and the results are clear in season 2’s eighth episode “Man City,” when Jamie is forced to confront his father at one of the lowest moments of his career.

If Dunster gets on the Emmy ballot next week, it’ll be for that episode, and for this pivotal scene, and I mean, yeah. It is, in my opinion, the single best moment of television for 2021. In fact, as soon as the episode aired, I tweeted “If ‘Man City’ doesn’t put Phil Dunster on the Emmy ballot for next year, there is no justice in the world of entertainment” and I have been banging that drum ever since.

I went into season 2 already a Jamie fan, was unable to get him out of my head for more than a few hours at a time between episodes after his return in “Lavender,” but this performance is just transcendent. In our end of year roundup in December, I wrote:

“The way Dunster performs this scene, the way he tries to control himself, the way he tries to apply calm boundary-setting tactics – because Jamie, like most of the players, has been in therapy all season with the wonderful Dr Sharon, and it seems clear that he must have discussed this issue in how he attempts to repeat a script that he’s been coached on – the way he finally snaps, and the way he freezes… Hand that man the Emmy just for the way he stands in silence as the weight of what’s occured, in front of everyone, crushes him.”

Despite feeling that the industry is not quite giving Dunster his due, my waxing lyrical here, at least, isn’t an unpopular opinion. I mean, look at him. Look at those eyes. Look at how he breathes. It’s freaking insane.

Anyone with a soul would be moved by this, and was — it’s raw as hell, the tension so thick you could cut it, and it definitely made waves when it aired, not least because of the stunning, shocking hug of support from Roy when Jamie is frozen in space and time, trying, and perhaps failing, to process what’s just happened. Only when he’s in the arms of his idol, who he’s struggled and strived to connect with, does he let go and weep, and from there on out, it’s a no-brainer. Even the strongest Jamie hold-outs — and I know a couple — caved after that, finally accepting the scope of this character and Dunster’s work in the role as something truly special.

But the thing is, it’s not just that episode. Ted Lasso season 2 makes Jamie’s entries series arc so far hit that much harder. It retroactively shows us things that have been colouring him from day one. Those who dismissed his romance with Keeley as casual and thoughtless learn that no, they were in love, and that Jamie has not moved on. Those who didn’t know quite what specific brand of asshole his dad was — I saw some theories of a controlling, high-achieving “stage mother” type, putting pressure on his son — learned that no, he’s a clout-chasing classic football hooligan, more loyal to the ephemeral concept of his historical team than anything else.

Related: ‘Ted Lasso’ hair and makeup designer Nicky Austin on season 2’s character journeys and what she and Juno Temple want fans to know about Keeley

It’s obvious that Jamie’s individual achievement does not matter — to James, Jamie simply provides bragging rights about a connection to his beloved City. His aggression towards Jamie being soft and weak as a player is nothing to do with the sport itself, is nothing more than toxic masculinity at play. He takes pleasure in mocking Jamie for not being good enough for Man City any more, and he sees Jamie walking out on them as a shameful slight against the thing he loves best. As his priorities become clear, so does Jamie’s response to them, and that, in and of itself, deserves looking back at.

Not that many people came out of Ted Lasso season 1 overly enamoured with Jamie, despite the narrative guiding us along with his progress. Even though he’s framed in a somewhat sympathetic light in season 1, it isn’t quite as obviously loveable as Roy, or even Rebecca. It’s much more secretive. But these new levels of understanding about what’s been wired into Jamie throughout his life reveal Dunster’s work in season 1 to be an equally world class showing, because it is all there, really, from the start.

“Biscuits,” in particular is a strong early example, for the way that Jamie listens to Ted’s criticism and is totally disarmed by his praise, and for the way that he tries to maintain that lesson when speaking to Trent Crimm, but isn’t able to hang onto it when he overhears members of the opposition mocking Richmond as they leave. It’s clear, upon reflection, that Jamie is seriously struggling with being told that it’s okay to lose — that he doesn’t have to beat himself up about it — and that he is angry that Ted isn’t taking their standings as seriously as he is. (I’d be remiss to not mention the fact that Roy, early in that episode, is angry at Ted for the very same thing, and he isn’t quiet about it.)

Dunster’s performance, right from the beginning, is a multi-layered masterclass. It is worth revisiting over and over, because it rewards the rewatch so brilliantly. Retroactively, it is evident that Dunster has been guarding Jamie’s heart all along — all of this is brewing right under the surface, in his sad eyes and nervous hands, since we first meet him. At this rate, I can only assume that anything revealed in season 3 will unlock a whole new level of Jamie to dissect in countless future watches.

Ted Lasso is an incredibly intentional show, and Jason Sudeikis is known to have walked his actors through their arcs, helping them to create a place to start from that’s anchored in the past. All of the men on this show seem extremely emotionally intelligent — I think you have to be, in order to play something so fully realised, to telegraph things that the character doesn’t know about themselves yet. That goes for nearly every character on the show, and in my book, double for Dunster, who finds the most incredible comedic beats in the moments when Jamie is taking himself utterly seriously, and the most profound, heartbreaking moments of clarity, which are, ironically, often quite self-aware.

Plenty of credit can be attributed to the writing, of course. He’s been given incredible material to work with — the wealth of development he’s had over the course of the season is thrilling, especially as fans really didn’t know whether to expect him to show up much at all, and it was initially suspected he may not even return to Richmond as a Greyhound until season 3. But in the hands of a less thoughtful, less talented actor, Jamie would fail to resonate in the way that he does.

Dunster hits every single note with precisely the right tone, and the notes only get louder and more beautiful when you play them back again on repeat. Listen out for them.

Both seasons of ‘Ted Lasso’ are now streaming on Apple TV+