Everything about 21 Thunder, eh?

21 Thunder season finale: Between a Rock and a Hard Spot

Is it possible to cram any more anxiety-riddled storylines into one show? Sure, if you toss in loads of special effects with million-dollar budgets perhaps. But 21 Thunder series writer Riley Adams outdid himself with the season finale. Most loose ends were satisfactorily tied up in very plausible ways and yet questions remained open, leaving an opportunity for the show to grow should the series be picked up for Season 2. More on that later.

I saw this episode broken down into three distinct sections: the lead-up to the match, the match itself and the aftermath. With that in mind, let’s dig in.

Everyone was feeling the pressure from the upcoming U-21 friendly between the Thunder and London. And then several of our favourites had additional pressures to contend with. Principally, Junior (Emmanuel Kabongo), Nolan (RJ Fetherstonhaugh) and Christy (Stephanie Bennett).

We opened with the police as they took Junior in to be questioned in connection to the Isaac Boka (Ryan Allen) murder. The police accused Junior of hiring Bamba (Clauter Alexandre) to kill Boka. Before they could press for more answers including those regarding Gregoire’s ring, the Thunder’s attorney arrived and escorted Junior out because the police had no immediate intention to arrest him.

Meanwhile, Nolan, still feeling pressured by Declan (Colm Feore) to throw the match against London, seized an opportunity to confide in Coach Davey (Ryan Pierce) only to learn he too is in on the match fixing. This only added to Davey’s own grief, rendering him useless when Christy sought him out for coaching advice. Her questions falling on deaf ears with Davey sent Christy to her mother, former coach Grace (Susan Bain). This nicely set up a reconciliation between these two strong willed women—cue a tear or two. They used the moment to bridge the chasm that had existed between the two for years, and ultimately Grace advised her daughter: “You take the fight to them.”

In the meantime, Emma (Clark Backo) was left waiting in the departure lounge at the Montreal airport, having taken Nolan’s parting advice to heart. She was off to Dublin to attend medical school. That was until she ran into Alex (Andres Joseph) at the airport—how about THAT tender moment between those two? Flight delay after delay left them time to talk through Nolan’s behaviour of late, piecing his inconsistencies together until they realized Nolan’s deceit was only a guise to protect Emma. Screw Dublin, it was back to the football pitch for these two.

That brought us to Lara (Eileen Li), who was entirely fed up with being under the thumb of Mangano (Bruce Ramsay) and his boys. Clearly a woman of higher intelligence, she was busily crafting a new plan. And, how much did we love that Russian roulette scene with Kevin (Kyle Mac)? Holy cojones, Batman!

Dawn on game day arrived complete with a threat of violence against Davey and Nolan should they fail to perform for Mangano. Then Christy gave a nice little pep talk to her team that effectively ran down the season’s events as she prepared us as viewers for the coming climax: the match we have all waited for.

Game time arrived with Fatima and Sly (Themala Mpumlwana), Grace, Emma, Alex and Mangano’s hit man  all in the stands. Anyone unable to attend were glued to their sets watching as referee Desjardins (Trevor Hayes), Assistant Coach Davey Gunn and Nolan were all working against a win for Thunder. Frustrations mounted amongst the team. Upset by a lousy call from Desjardins, “Snacks” (Kevin Claydon) sacrificed his troublesome knee and took him out of play. Then Christy put two and two together, realized Davey was undermining her and ordered him off the field. That left Nolan, faced with a game deciding free kick in extra time and all too aware that he alone was the only man able to swing the game for London. “We win or we lose with you Nolan.” Since he had nothing left to lose he responded with “What the hell?” After all, he believed Emma was safely on her way to Dublin.

With that, the Thunder won. Pandemonium broke out in the stands, at Lara’s and in the prison. A double-crossed Mangano was left without his winnings and a victorious Declan pronounced, “Did you really think my boy would kneel to you?”

The final four minutes were a flurry: a shiv fight between Declan and Mangano in the prison left Declan bleeding out, the hit man’s attempt to hunt down Nolan was effectively waylaid by Davey, and a lost Sly in a crowd of celebrating fans.

The season closed with a happy, albeit suspicious, ending. Gregoire (Kareem Tristain Alleyne) conveniently returned from the dead and obviously wearing his ring; the very ring that was removed from Boka when he died. And finally, Emma ran into Nolan’s arms as they enjoyed this double-edged victory together.

As I mentioned at the top, we are left wondering if there will be a Season 2, and there are threads that writers have left dangling that leave that possibility open:

  1. How will Lara and Kevin’s new money making scam pan out?
  2. Is Declan dead?
  3. What now for Coach Davey Gunn?
  4. Was Gregoire somehow involved in Boka’s death?
  5. Can Emma and Nolan’s relationship survive any fallout from Mangano et al?

I reached out to series writer Riley Adams on the occasion of the season finale for some parting comments and he had this to share:

“We are so proud to have created a show that embraces the Canadian values of diversity and opportunity while reflecting the highest international standards of craft in acting, direction, photography and design. And we are thrilled the international marketplace has responded so enthusiastically. We will be announcing in upcoming weeks our international partners for Season 1 and seasons to come.”

There you have it Thunder fans! I guess we wait for news about a possible Season 2. Congratulations to the 21 Thunder team for producing a superb program that reflects Canadian diversity and inclusion. A great metaphor for the beautiful game. I for one enjoyed tagging along for the ride.

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21 Thunder: Betting on Eileen Li

Eileen Li, who plays Lara on 21 Thunder, was incredibly busy last week with her TIFF schedule. Still, she found some time to answer a few questions—ahead of the show’s first season finale on CBC—about her character, Lara, and her experiences with the predominately male cast of 21 Thunder.

Lara is returning to a dark place that she had fought to distance herself. How is that darkness for you to play?
Eileen Li: It was quite liberating to explore that side of myself through playing Lara. I have a hard time being ‘the bad guy’ in my real life so it was great to play someone who knows what she wants and how to get it. It also taught me that everyone does everything out of place of need. It’s easy to peg Lara as just the bad girl, but there is a need and determination in her to survive and to make something of herself. I think we all can relate to that on some level. She’s definitely been the most complex character that I’ve been able to play.

How do you contrast your character with that of Nolan? You both come from pasts with criminal influences. He found his ‘good side’ through Emma, whereas your character attempted to find that through medicine. Pressures are threatening to pull Nolan under and he is essentially martyring himself to do the right thing, ending his relationship with Emma and pushing her away in order to keep her safe. Lara, on the other hand, is running with this darker side, resigning herself to this lifestyle. What are your thoughts on this as your character has developed?
I absolutely think that through Emma, Nolan was able to root himself into his ‘good side.’ I think that without her love and unwavering support, he would’ve had nothing ‘good’ to fight for. Behind every man is an even stronger woman, am I right? Lara, on the other hand, has been surrounded by nothing but bad influences and nothing to root herself in. She has an innate ability to manipulate and is often one step ahead of everyone. I think that’s why she ends up being fed up with these other guys running her show. She wants to break away because she’s convinced they need her more than she needs them.

How does Lara reconcile her desire to be a doctor, and the Hippocratic oath she will have to take—do no harm, etc.—with her role in this game fixing ring, particularly taking care of Desjardins?
For her, it’s all about being in survival mode. Like she says, ‘I’ve done things I’ve never thought I could do.’ It’s one of those things that she probably was always capable of, considering her family history, but it wasn’t until she was put in that situation, that she realized she could do really do it. What good is an oath if you’re dead? I think that’s basically what it comes down to.

As one of the few females who support a professional men’s team, how was that to live with as you went about shooting the series?
21 Thunder is very much about a men’s soccer team, but if you look at all the female characters in the show, there are all strong and intelligent women. I also think the show really highlights what it’s like to be a strong woman in a man’s world. In terms of shooting, these guys are the best group of guys you could ask for. They really are a team and the chemistry between all of us is evident on screen. We’ve all become very good friends, and that’s why this show has been particularly special to be a part of.

Can you tell fans a bit about yourself? Where you grew up? How you came to the business of acting? How you got this role?
I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My parents emigrated over from China with my two older sisters, but we’ve lived most of our lives here in Toronto. I started taking an interest in acting back when I was in high school but because my parents valued academics, I went to university for kinesiology. Shortly after my first year, I realized I need to pursue my passion and the rest is history.

I was filming Kim’s Convenience last year when I got the call about 21 Thunder. I put myself on tape and eventually had a Skype callback with the producers and director. I thought for sure I didn’t get the part because it was three weeks later that I got the call. It was a surreal moment for me.

What about this role are you most proud of now that the season is wrapping up?
I feel most proud of representing a strong Asian woman on screen. Lara has been capable of holding her own in a room full of dangerous men. She’s smart and she’s a survivor. She may not be making the best choices in her life but there’s no denying that she’s powerful. I think that’s a portrayal of Asian women that we haven’t seen enough of.

My thanks to Eileen for squeezing me in for a few questions!

21 Thunder‘s season finale airs Monday at 9 p.m. on CBC.

 

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21 Thunder: Together We Part

The penultimate episode of 21 Thunder arrived, and delivered! This episode was all about preparing the players—and viewers—for the upcoming friendly against London, creating lots of tension and setting us up for what I am sure will be a great season finale.

The cold open quickly set the tone for the episode: Nolan ( RJ Fetherstonhaugh) put his father on notice: Declan (Colm Feore) “can go to hell,” Stefan (Stephan Arnaud) and Damien (Lucas Chartier-Dessert) exchanged blows over Marie (Kimberly Laferriere) and Junior (Emmanuel Kabongo) was determined to enlist the expertise of Joseph Bamba (Clauter Alexandre) in order to learn the truth about his brother Gregoire, despite knowing Bamba was once involved with Fatima (Gabrielle Graham). All of this set the stage for further tensions during the remainder of the episode.

On the field and off, players and staff tried to focus on the game but external distractions were at war with that goal.  The team needed to move on from the loss of captain and keeper Alex (Andres Joseph) and Nolan was unanimously elected as his replacement. But Coach Rocas (Conrad Pla), hindered by his wife’s departure, officially resigned leaving Christy Cook (Stephanie Bennett) to fill his shoes as head coach. A fortuitous by-product of this promotion? Fix the league’s “woman problem” that was created by Davey’s (Ryan Pierce) misogynistic vlogging. Still, uncertainty had the players on edge, so Christy had the team relieve some of their pressures with a fun match of bubble soccer. Unfortunately, followers of the team were not impressed by this latest turn and lashed out online. Stefan, ever the team philosopher, pointed out, “These people are not fans. They are fanatics. They don’t love the game. They want to own it.”

Meanwhile, the mystery behind the disappearance/death of his brother Gregoire continued to plague Junior. Bamba contacted Junior to advise he thought he found Isaac Boka (Ryan Allen)—the last known contact with Gregoire—and the two set out to confront him. Unfortunately for Junior, and I suppose Boka too, Isaac was found dead of what looked to Junior as suicide. Later we learned things were not as they seemed and by the episode’s end the police tracked down Bamba and took him in for questioning for the murder of one Isaac Boka.

That brought us to Nolan and his attempt to free Emma from any connection to Declan, even association through himself. But Declan, in a calculated and desperate move, contacted Emma on his own and showed her the video of Nolan, effectively making her an accessory to the crime. In order to ensure Emma’s safety, Nolan deliberately pushed Emma further away, denying his love for her, telling her their relationship was all a lie and all but demanded that she attend medical school in Dublin. Without Nolan in her life, Emma is safe from harm. Without Emma in his life, Nolan has nothing to lose. Together they part.

And as I had expected last week, Lara (Eileen Li) did indeed exploit Davey’s financial woes and coerced him to be her coach on the ground during the friendly. She fronted him 50k as a down payment to secure a loss by the Thunder. That left Davey torn with wanting to support Christy as head coach and getting himself out of trouble with the tax man. At any rate, with Nolan wanting to save Emma from Declan, and team owner Ana (Christina Rosato) refusing to investigate Christy’s suspicions about ref Desjardins (Trevor Hayes), it looked like Thunder’s match against London may well be headed for failure.

Not a great deal of actiony action this week but all of the odds and sods dished out created suspense and lots of possibilities for the season’s close.

Hopefully, the finale will address some final questions:

  1. The obvious: will Thunder beat London?
  2. Will Nolan’s efforts succeed in protecting Emma from Declan?
  3. Will Lara’s and Kevin’s canny plan to fix the match work?
  4. Will Junior—and viewers—ever learn the truth about Gregoire?

How do you think the season will end? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

21 Thunder airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

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21 Thunder: Scoring a bit of a “tell all” with acting newcomer Ryan Pierce

Acting newcomer Ryan Pierce claims to “not really be an actorly actor” and with that in mind we stumbled along with many great laughs and detours during our conversation. I managed to pin him down with a few questions, and Ryan earned a gold star for his answers about both his time with Aberdeen and Kilmarnock in the Scottish Premiere League and his transition to acting in CBC’s 21 Thunder.

You bridged two worlds, the world of professional soccer and acting with your character Davey Gunn. What have you been doing since filming to continue that process?
Ryan Pierce: My main project is myself right now. I took some time out to do some travelling, and some soul searching. I have only just recently gotten back into things. I took a couple of commercials this last month, but apart from that theatrically, I have just been interested to see how this show [21 Thunder] went. I guess I have been working on furthering my career internally, to see if this is the path that I should be on.

When coming from playing soccer to becoming an actor and playing a soccer player, that is a very different transition but is something that I definitely connect to and I can see a future in. But I am just taking my time. I have adopted the mantra from The Tortoise and the Hare and just taking my time.

You have travelled a unique path to get to where you are today. Can you share a bit about this journey?
This is definitely an area that I have been into for some time now; preconditioning, and why you are the way you are. But I got to the point where I had to choose between being a soccer player and continuing my education. My dad was a former professional soccer player as was my uncle. My mum wanted me to stay on in school but my dad had this dream for me and was also my coach from when I was very young. I guess I was his project and I wasn’t very big on school. I was happy to make the jump and move to Aberdeen, which was three hours from my home in Glasgow, and live there. But my parents were very supportive. For me, it wasn’t so much about playing soccer as it was about leaving school. I guess the rest is history. Soccer was very up and down for me personally, but the experience made me who I am now and I can reflect upon that and use that as a way to grow. These hardships that I put myself through because we all put ourselves through all of these things, I have managed to learn a lot about myself, so I can only be thankful for all of these experiences that I have had in the past.

Your character, Davey Gunn, has had a life of privilege having played professional soccer, and he is now having to carve out a new niche for himself in both a new country and in a new role as a coach, something very you yourself are also doing with your own transition. Can you tell me a bit about that process for Davey?
I guess with Davey, being such a high profile and successful soccer player with a lot of baggage, he is a protagonist with soccer in his blood. I guess the transition is easier for him going from soccer player to soccer coach, than for me to an actor. I mean Davey and I, we are the same people basically. We are so  so different and yet we are so similar at the same time. I have had my troubles off the fields as has Davey, as you will see throughout the show. But Davey has a god complex and being this public figure for such a long period of time because being a soccer player, you leave school, especially in Britain where you leave at a young age, and you are thrown all of this money. It must be very easy to feel this superiority. And then coming over to MLS, and not to do a disservice, but a lot of professionals from the past and present have came, as they wind down their careers, for the lifestyle and the weather. Davey kind of hopes that this is a way for a fresh start for himself. But obviously having to coach the under-21’s is a bit of a pain for him. And for being such an animated character on the field and off the field I think that ultimately it is an easy transition for Davey Gunn because it [soccer] is his life and has only ever been his life. It is life outside of soccer that catches up with him, and this is where you will see his life kind of unfold.

I have to ask. How much of what goes on in 21 Thunder representative of what life is like in a professional soccer league?
Well in terms of Andres Joseph’s character Alex, being transferred when his life is so intertwined with this club, these things happen all the time. People signing a three-year contract, and then all of a sudden the manager doesn’t like them as a football player, or in perhaps as in many cases, as a person, because it can be so personal, your life can just be uprooted out of nowhere and you have to start again. So all of these issues that they are going through are real because they are human beings who deal with real problems.

In the case of match fixing, that is, unfortunately, a thing in the world of soccer. All of these things that are happening in the show in some way shape or form are all there or are at least relatable to real life outside of the show. I am sure a lot of players out there have a lot of demons.

There is a player in the UK by the name of Joey Barton and I think he was banned or suspended for betting on games. He was not fixing games but he was betting on games. There were claims he had some sort of information about certain players being unavailable for matches or what not.

But back to your question which was about how much of the TV show is basically legit and along the same story lines off the field, I would say that they are all very similar.

Finally, I am curious about this on screen relationship between Davy Gunn and Grace Cook.
That is a fun one! I [Davey] just understand her. For me as a person, I am familiar with that character and the hard mum. The parent being hard on her daughter. I can see through it and I can see the psychology of the situation. I can relate. She likes a bit of alcohol, I like a bit of alcohol.

My thanks to Ryan for taking some time away from his stroll on Venice Beach to have a chat with me. Slàinte!

21 Thunder airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

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21 Thunder goes to war

Episode 6 of 21 Thunder opened on Monday night with action that set the tone for the next 44 minutes. If I were to describe the episode with one word: angst, and lots of it!

“War” focused on Junior Lolo (Emmanuel Kabongo), Nolan (RJ Fetherstonhaugh) and Lara (Eileen Li). And right off the top these three actors turned out fantastic performances. I was grieving with Junior, I was fearing for Lara and I was just as furious with Declan (Colm Feore) as Nolan was. 21 Thunder just keeps on getting better and better!

Last week, we saw Fatima (Gabrielle Graham) return from her visit with Gregoire, her face covered in bruises. This week we opened with Junior, intent on seeing Gregoire and was immediately attacked by Isaac Boka (Ryan Allen) who we now know was impersonating Gregoire. Junior learned from his brother’s imposter that his brother is dead, supposedly he succumbed to pneumonia—however, a quick look on IMDb shows Gregoire (Kareem Tristan Alleyne) appears for one episode. IF Gregoire is dead, then his identity and his belongings are nothing now, but for Isaac Boka they could be a life saver—but why then if he is in so much danger was his apartment unlocked when Junior arrived? I have to wonder then, who attacked Fatima and Sly (Thamela Mpumlwana) when Junior was playing in Boston? Why start a fire threatening Fatima?  Something still does not add up here.

Lara, charged by Declan to ensure the Thunder makes it to the European tournament, paid Desjardins (Trevor Hayes) his first installment to fix the upcoming road game against Boston. But Desjardin failed to show.  We saw Lara’s fear; Eileen Li’s portrayal made it palpable for viewers. The moment she contemplated pulling the fire alarm, you could sense the knot of dread coiling in her gut. Meanwhile, the effects of Lara’s  game fixing were felt far wider than she herself was aware. John Mangano Jr. (Bruce Ramsay) was seen squeezing Declan for a cut of the profits. As punishment for not ensuring the game’s outcome, Lara had to see to Desjardin’s punishment and she paid a visit to Desjardins accompanied by two of K’s (Kyle Mac) thugs.

Upon the team’s return to Montreal following their victory in Boston, Kevin greeted the team bus, under instruction to take Nolan to his father. This capitulation by Nolan, it seemed, was the last straw for Emma (Clark Backo) and she declared she was done with him. Nolan met with Declan, who then invoked his parental  influence over Nolan, and ordered him to toss the upcoming match against London. Nolan wanted no part of his father, but Declan played his trump card: he still has the video on K’s phone proving Nolan was present when Kevin took down the dealer in a deal gone bad.

Side stories updated this week: Davey Gunn (Ryan Pierce) found himself in serious financial straits due to his salary cut. Because of his injury, Davey was unable to fulfill his contractual obligations. Alex (Andres Joseph) was called up to Utah’s first team which means Nolan has lost an instrument of positive influence from his childhood. Albert (Conrad Pla) upon returning home, found out his wife Renata (Paula Rivera) had left him. Coach Christy Cook (Stephanie Bennett) began to carve a place for herself with the team, earning praise from a stoic Coach Rocas. Finally, Grace Cook, with help from her new friend Davey Gunn, changed her mind and did not enter the rehab facility. Instead, she agreed to fully commit herself to home therapy. I am really loving the interaction between Davey and Grace. Here Davey can be himself and Grace is treated with integrity rather than as an inconvenience.

Things to watch for next week:

  1. Will Nolan be Declan’s inside man on the field, tossing the game against London and his big chance in front of international scouts?
  2. Will we learn who started the fire at Fatima’s apartment?
  3. We are still waiting to see if anyone goes to police about the murder Kevin and Nolan are involved in.
  4. Will Coach Davey Gunn’s serious financial difficulties mean he will be the coach Lara targets to help fix the London match?

As an aside, much has been said about 21 Thunder‘s message of diversity and this episode takes racism head-on. During the match this week we saw Tran (Jonathan Kim) fouled and a Boston player telling the “Gook” to stay down. Following the match, this same player from Boston started a fight in the hallway, tossing more racial slurs at Tran. This was the first time the show overtly tackled racism and it was done seamlessly within the plotlines.

I do have to mention just one minor complaint. Why on earth would Lara be seen around Desjardins’ in her team warm ups? For a bright girl, that is not so bright.

“War” was an outstanding buildup for what I am sure will be explosive action in the final two episodes.

Related: Read our interview with RJ Fetherstonhaugh!

21 Thunder airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

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