(A few words of explanation: Because of NBC's production arrangement with DirecTV, I wrote about this season of Friday Night Lights back in the fall. I'm now reposting last fall's pieces each week as the episodes air on NBC. So now, you know. No spoilers, please, if you've already seen the season. Enjoy.)
“Why can’t they give us something solid?” Buddy asks his son as they exit the hospital after he sustains a war dance-related injury. “It’s either broken or it’s not.” Buddy’s got no time for the ambiguity of a hairline fracture, but this episode is all about living in situations on the verge of breaking apart, most obviously the team itself. Success is weighing heavily on the still-undefeated Lions and the source of the trouble is also one of the main reasons they’ve gotten as far as they have: Vince.
Vince is a star now. He’s being treated as a star and behaving in kind. He began the season still a relatively humble kid who’d spent the summer working hard to keep his game sharp, but that’s changed now, and one of the best elements of this fifth season has been the way the show, and Michael B. Jordan, have shown the slow change in Vince’s personality as victory, the attention of his father, and the flattery of recruiters from seemingly every school in the region have inflated his ego. He’s still fundamentally the same guy, but he’s now coasting on the narcotic of success. He’s dismissive of Jess’s concerns, oblivious to his teammates’ offense at his limelight hogging and then annoyed by it, and now habitually lying to Coach. He can still use his “cannon” to throw the ball, but he’s start to split from the team that allowed him become a standout in the first place.
But is it a hairline fracture or a real break? That remains to be seen. This week, it looks like a break. Vince would be nowhere without Coach, yet he’s willing to alienate a man who’s always had his own best interests in mind to chase his own success. This week that involves a trip to Oklahoma Tech, a school with a large stadium, an impressive rock-climbing wall, leggy tour guides (even for unofficial visits), and a head coach with a flexible definition of inappropriate recruiting techniques. Vince is dazzled, as is his father, who sees the attention almost as something Vince is entitled to because of his skills. Neither of them sounds out the promises to see if they ring true or hollow.
Coach, of course, knows better. But Vince’s dad thinks he can keep him at a distance from Vince because he knows Coach is being courted, and at least listening to the offers. Is that an equivalent sort of disloyalty? It doesn’t seem like one to me. Vince is putting his future, and his team, in jeopardy by focusing on his own performance and risking a scandal by flouting recruiting regulations. Coach is maybe sort of thinking about taking another job at the end of the season. And, after this week, who could blame him? His coaches are at each other’s throats and his team has started to hate their quarterback.
Reflect back to “Kingdom,” a mere four episodes ago: Coach sits outside eavesdropping on his players bonding. They’re good players but, just as importantly to him, good guys. Sitting out in the fall air, he has a moment when all seems right. But by the end of the episode, he’s less sure. The team unites for victory beneath the motive of revenge. They play ugly and even then he seems to know that the ugliness is bound to spread and turn destructive.
But has it caused a hairline fracture or a real break? We won’t know until later. But let’s consider this: Is Friday Night Lights the sort of show that will let it be a real break? Could this undo the season and Vince’s future? I lean “yes” even if my head tells me the answer is “no.” FNL has let its characters experience plenty of heartbreaking setbacks—some the result of their own poor choices, others simply the result of life’s unhappier turns—but it tends to pull back from truly unhappy endings. It ultimately lands on the side of pragmatic optimism, the sort rooted in the faith that goodness begets goodness. That’s part of why I, and I suspect anyone reading this, love the show. And yet it seems like a show that could tilt all the way into darkness. This team could fall apart. Coach might not come through. And that’s part of why we love it too.
Elsewhere, this episode shows that coming together can cause as much tension as breaking apart. Becky can’t let herself get intimate with Luke because their history and the lingering anxiety from their last—and her only—sexual experience, her subsequent abortion, and the controversy it stirred. But she has finds a supportive chorus from Mindy and her Landing Strip friends, who prep her for her return to the pageant world, cheer her on then jeer when she places as second runner-up. “I think you should take a hard look at the company you keep,” one snooty judge warns her, a sentiment that doesn’t look like it’s going to find much traction. The company she’s keeping is getting her through a rough time. It seems like the company she needs.
Meanwhile, Tami continues her attempts to reform Epyck, whose history gets fleshed out a bit. I’m enjoying this subplot, but I keep waiting for it to deepen a bit. Right now it seems there mostly to give Tami something to do. Something, that is, beyond worrying about Julie, who this week has to come to a decision regarding her TA, who’s quit his job, made noise about divorcing his wife, and now shows up expressing remorse and good intention. Coach doesn’t buy it. He sees through the guy just like he saw through Oklahoma Tech’s offer. And, in the end, Julie sees through it too. She’s her father’s daughter, even if she doesn’t necessarily keep to her father’s wishes. And she ends the episode taking a u-turn and driving the car she’d recently wrecked to Chicago and to the front door of a character we haven’t seen in the while. (Kind of a shame the opening credits tipped off his last-minute appearance, right?)
• Those shots of Buddy next to Buddy Jr. almost look like CGI effects, don’t they? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a father and son acting team who looked more like real family.
• Five episodes left. Anyone else getting sad?