“Crossing The Line” (season one, episode eight; originally aired 11/28/2006)
“Full Hearts” (season one, episode nine; originally aired 12/5/2006)
Unlike many of the characters on Friday Night Lights, Smash Williams is not one that I find all that easy to love. Perhaps that’s because he’s so full of himself—he inspires more irritation and scorn than outright affection. Though there’s a lot happening in “Crossing The Line” and “Full Hearts,” the common thread over the two episodes is Smash looking for and eventually finding himself—his lost talent, to be precise. In “Homecoming” the pressure got to him and he choked. In “Full Hearts” he finally finds his way again. What he doesn’t quite seem to realize is that his success has very little to do with those drugs he’s injecting into his abdomen, and much more to do with how he feels about himself. It’s understandable—he’s 17 years old. But in the meantime, it’s just a matter of time before he gets into a lot of trouble.
What Friday Night Lights manages to do in these two episodes is make Smash’s decision to start doping believable. Within the show, it’s not really that surprising. Friday Night Lights convinced us way back in the pilot that football isn’t just a game: It’s a culture, a religion, an industry, a way of life. In the context of the show, it makes perfect sense why Smash would go down this path. Zoomed out, though, this is a story of taking performance-enhancing drugs that anticipated the doping scandals surrounding Marion Jones, Alex Rodriguez, and Lance Armstrong. It belies Friday Night Lights’ journalistic nature, that it seeks to tell a personal story of doping.
But it doesn’t quite land for me. I’m willing to acknowledge that part of that may be that I am a terrible person, who is dead and broken inside. But there is another component, too: More than most stories on Friday Night Lights, Smash’s descent into doping has the storyline and atmosphere of an after-school special (admittedly, one with much better production values). Smash’s decisions are all weighed with the same portentous significance, along the lines of “uh-oh, he’s crossed a line.”
And Smash just isn’t integrated into the rest of our characters’ lives in the way that Saracen, Riggins, and Street are, even this relatively early in the season. Tim and Jason are best friends (who have slept with the same girl, now); Saracen is tangled up in the Taylors’ personal life, now that he’s asked Julie out on a date. Smash is best known amongst all these people for being a grandstanding rival. A great player, perhaps, but not a great friend.
It’s kind of Smash’s curse, as a star black football player in west Texas. I mentioned in my review of “Eyes Wide Open” that the church scenes underscored how divided Dillon was, between the black community and the white community. “Crossing Lines” recalls that church scene with another—this one where the pastor calls upon the mostly black, mostly hard-up for cash congregation to give money to Smash. It’s both a demonstration of racial segregation and an indication of just how far gone Smash is, that he would betray his people like that. Smash’s whole story in these two episodes indicates to me that part of his isolation (and part of the reason the story doesn’t quite land for me) is because he’s a part of a marginalized population. He’s got a support system in his loving family, but it’s weird—Smash doesn’t really have friends. He shares the most camaraderie in “Full Hearts” with his cousin and rival who plays for the Gatling team, and even that’s pretty limited. Given that, his fixation on his father is entirely understandable—and heartbreaking, in its way. His aborted attempt to work with Saracen (and perhaps strike up a real friendship) is just another brick in the wall: Smash is alone. And pressure is hard to handle alone.
At its best, Friday Night Lights is both a pedagogical tool and a soap opera—which is sort of the tone newspaper feature writing hopes to strike, too. There’s a very journalistic desire here to educate, inform, and stay true to the facts; and that informs the soap opera, which builds most of its drama from the daily lives of these people in Dillon. For me, Smash’s story never quite makes it to the soap opera, and stays a bit more on the pedagogical side. It’s interesting, and I feel for him, but I don’t feel for him the way I do when Saracen kisses Julie at the end of “Full Hearts.” I think as successful as the show is in demonstrating to us Smash’s personal struggle, it’s less successful at making him beloved—at least at this point in the series. Which is perhaps just a reflection of how people feel about Smash in Dillon, too. Interesting, but not beloved.
There are a lot of pieces moving around in this episode, and I’m not going to get to all of them. Aside from Smash, there’s Saracen and Julie’s date—a disaster, perhaps, but it all leads up to that fantastic kiss on the football field in Gatling. It’s telling that Saracen is a ball of nerves off the field, but grounded and calm on the football field. Literally on the field, which is why that’s where he finally kisses Julie. And much of the Lyla/Tim/Jason dynamic, which is now increasingly complicated by the horrible vitriol of Dillon’s teenage masses, is best dealt with in next week’s “It’s Different For Girls,” which might be my favorite episode of this series, ever, though I haven’t rewatched it yet. So I’m going to hold off on that for now. But damn if I didn’t choke up when Buddy Garrity tells Lyla that football is “only a game.”
But as I wrote above about Friday Night Lights’ balance between the soap opera and the teachable moment, let’s conclude with Billy Riggins, Tim’s has-been older brother, who gets unexpected depth and warmth in “Crossing The Line.” Here the intersection between pedagogy and story works well, perhaps because it’s going for a much smaller scope. Billy strikes me as a very real and very identifiable character—the man who doesn’t yet quite grasp how much of his opportunities have been squandered, and is terrified of confronting that reality. His character development comes from an unexpected corner, as he starts out his life in Friday Night Lights as just that guy on the couch in Tim’s house. It’s a welcome surprise to see him flower into more than that.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose:
- There’s a pattern to the grades, in case you haven’t noticed: Episodes that end with football games are just better than those that don’t.
- Both of these episodes offer a glimpse into just how great Friday Night Lights’ location scouting is. The moment that stuck out for me was when the Williams family is at the house in Gatling. Behind and below them is a highway, which you can both see and hear. It’s difficult to imagine any film crew willingly opting for something right next to a highway, because the sound effects would be murder. Friday Night Lights said instead, “well, where would these people live?” It’s striking—that highway cutting through that neighborhood tells a broader story of disenfranchisement through urban planning, depreciating property values, and a working-class family on the edge of middle-class comfort. All that, in one scene.
- Do Tim and Tyra just occasionally make eye contact and decide they’re back together again? I don’t know if I understand what happened in that scene at the grocery store, though I am fine with it.
- Smash’s sister is maybe my favorite character in this episode.
- “Anyone but her.”
- The Family Coach: Coach Taylor’s sex talk with Julie, while playing ping-pong, is maybe all that ever needs to be said on the subject of boys, sex, and dating, until the end of time.
- “Is that a members-only jacket?”