“It’s Different For Girls” (season one, episode 10; originally aired 12/12/06)
“Nevermind” (season one, episode 11; originally aired 1/5/07)
“It’s Different For Girls” and “Nevermind” hit at a point in the first season of Friday Night Lights where the show has worked enough on its characters and its setting that it can now start to really land some key story decisions. It’s kind of like the writers are getting to the meat of the season—the bigger character motivations that underlie these people we’ve gotten to know; the bigger plot elements that are driving the story of the Dillon Panthers’ one year. The two episodes together pack a wallop—bringing home major moments for most of the teenagers we’ve been following. (Even Landry gets his moment.) As it turns out, these two episodes are where a few storylines peak—Jason and Lyla become less and less compelling from here on out, for example. It’s also where certain plot elements come to rest. Riggins’ romance with Lyla becomes a thing of the past; Saracen’s father is outed as the undependable man he always has been. It’s no longer a question as to whether or not Julie likes Saracen; the question now is not “if,” but “when.”
It’s a tricky thing for any serialized drama to navigate—deciding when to let the big moments happen. It requires guts. Not just to put the characters through the wringer, but also to know—as you must, in a serialized television show—that you can reliably produce more compelling moments 10 or 20 or 50 episodes down the road. It’s a problem unique to television, comic books, and multi-book series; and as pop-culture consumers, it’s also the most fun. An open-and-shut narrative can be beautiful, but nothing quite stirs the imagination like knowing you have 15 episodes left to see how this season for the Panthers is going to play out—and then four more seasons after that.
The best showrunners make the process of deciding when to drop the beats look natural and easy. The opening of “It’s Different For Girls” feels like a seamless continuation of what happened right before—Tim and Lyla are dealing with the fallout of sleeping with each other, which is both that Lyla may have irreparably damaged her relationship with Street and Riggins has to confront the uncomfortable truth that he is far more invested in Lyla than she is in him. But the shift happens at cheerleading practice, when unnamed girls (but probably one of them is Brittany) flat-out drop Lyla, when she’s in the middle of doing a stunt. Lyla is being punished, by the high school, the community, the town—the world, sort of.
What’s interesting about Friday Night Lights’ foray into the wide world of slut-shaming, specifically as it pertains to the virgin/whore complex, is that it does so by staying squarely rooted in the reality of Texas. It necessarily means that this is not an episode of television that is going to go out and say, “slut-shaming sucks.” It is not going to use the term “slut-shaming” (or the more antiquated “virgin/whore complex”). It can’t. Friday Night Lights is a show about celebrating West Texas, and that means accepting the good with the bad. It would be lovely if everyone at Dillon High sat down and had a meeting about their feelings (who here has ever felt personally victimized by Tyra Collette?), but it wouldn’t be real. It wouldn’t be Dillon—a place literally defined by the status quo, as it’s the archetypal football town in Texas.
The weirdest takeaway from “It’s Different For Girls” is the show’s tacit admission that—it just is. There’s no attempt to make anyone suddenly embrace feminism. There’s no broad arc where a character radically changes their point of view about who they call sluts or rethinks the double standard between men who cheat and women who do. It just is different for girls, because the world is not fair. And that’s not just a problem with football, Dillon, or Texas; it’s everywhere. Maybe the exact way in which it’s not fair is different in different places. But the basic unfairness of things remains constant.
And today, Lyla is on the receiving end of the stick. She’s harassed and ostracized at school, where up until now her entire identity was bound up in what it meant to be a good girl in Dillon. Captain of the cheerleading squad; girlfriend of the star quarterback. Goes to church, does her homework, respects her elders, cleans her room. Lyla’s whole life has been about being the good girl. When she says to Street that she made one mistake, she literally means it. One mistake. A lifetime of perfection, and one mistake. But because the world isn’t fair, she’s now going to have to go through hell for that one mistake.
It’s not anyone’s business, obviously, what Lyla Garrity gets up to in her personal time. It’s not right that now every boy in school thinks she’ll put out; it’s not right that other girls make a website to demonize her. But it happens, because just as much as everybody defined Lyla by this mold, so she, too, defined herself (and the rest of the world) by the norms she grew up with. Consider the constant tension between Lyla and Tyra—who the show unsubtly presents as virgin and whore, in the opening episodes of the season. It’s not that they don’t get along; it’s that they aren’t allowed to get along. Friday Night Lights is highly aware of the implied boundaries of its world. And nice girls like Lyla aren’t friends with girls like Tyra, even if their boyfriends are best friends. (Nice girls like Lyla also don’t: overeat, look sloppy, make friends with other girls, or wear too much makeup. It’s all compressed into Minka Kelly’s appearance throughout the show.)
It’s not her fault—how could Lyla help growing up in the norms of her world? Just as Lyla was raised to be a good girl, Tyra was raised to be a bad girl—Lyla’s parents are wealthy and still married, while Tyra’s parents are essentially absent, and her older sister is a stripper. But because there are rules, and because every society has rules, the community in Dillon takes a few days to punish Lyla for breaking them. And lest it sound like I’m lording it over Texas or something, this is every society; this is what we do. Sending someone to prison is not wholly dissimilar from shunning them; in The Scarlet Letter, which Mrs. Coach references a few times—and which the kids are reading in school—the system of criminal punishment and socially ordained justice just happen to be in the same theatre.
The good comes with the bad. For the Puritans, a sense of guaranteed salvation made the rules easier to live by. In Dillon, all that camaraderie and community spirit comes hand-in-hand with standards that are difficult to abide by. Because everything else that happens in the episode—though theoretically cute or harmless or inoffensive—is part of the problem, and I don’t think Friday Night Lights is unaware of this. There’s the dividing line between the football players and the cheerleaders—where the football players have to be browbeat a little into showing up for the girls, to show support for the cheerleaders who support them. It’s all amicable—Coach Taylor is a perfect gentleman—but chivalry itself implies difference, which is why feminists gained the bad (and likely erroneous) reputation of being opposed to men holding doors open for them. It’s different for girls, Coach says magnanimously. But he’s still saying it.
He says it more or less to his own daughter, too, who is trying to snare her first boyfriend. It’s cute. He’s agitated. He’s worried about her. He storms in and demands that the blanket be removed (poor blanket). He’s acknowledging the same thing: It’s different for girls. Maybe girls have a higher standard of virtue—or maybe the world is less safe for girls. (Maybe both.)
And it’s striking in those final moments of the pep rally, when Coach Taylor introduces his first-string squad, all dressed in drag, gamely attempting a cheer or two in support of both their away game and the cheerleaders’ Cheer America competition. It’s sort of funny—this is what girls wear! These are the things different about girls—boobs, and stuff!—and sort of sad, too. Perhaps because no matter how much either side might try, they’re not really going to get what it’s like to trade places. They will never find it anything besides funny.
“It’s Different For Girls” is my favorite episode of Friday Night Lights, and largely that’s because of the final scene. I have written before about how Lyla Garrity is not a character I’d ever find myself rooting for—so much of the punch of her triumphant return to cheerleading comes out of an unexpected well of emotion. But it’s also that this is a moment where Lyla gets a little piece of what she wants, after weeks and weeks of doing what other people want. There are things to not totally buy about Lyla’s arc: her sudden reversal from Tim back to Jason, her “passion” for cheerleading, and Minka Kelly’s acting range, which has definite limits. But all of that is outside this episode. If you can take it all as true—and it’s not hard to, because this is Kelly’s most heartfelt performance—it all comes together in a beautiful moment, when Lyla looks up from underneath her bangs to see the only person that matters to her sitting in the stands. Riggins thinks it’s him—and then turns to see Jason Street, sitting behind him and off to the side, there to support his girlfriend.
But what’s crucial is that Lyla didn’t draw her strength from Jason—she had it already. (And maybe Riggins helped, because he’s Tim Riggins.) She walked into that gymnasium and claimed the room, and maybe she’s a product of her environment and maybe she’ll never call herself a feminist, but her flip comment about herself to the officiant is nothing if not some goddamn empowerment: “I’m here. Lyla Garrity. Yeah, yeah, the whore with the website.”
Her coach Suzanne turns to Brittany—the self-righteous, smarmy little brat behind the website—and promptly demotes her. “Brittany, Lyla’s flying.” In more ways than one. Nietzsche would be thrilled—that’s will-to-power, right there. Brittany never stood a chance.
It’s hard to discuss “Nevermind” after something as compelling as “It’s Different For Girls”—there is nothing wrong with “Nevermind,” but it’s just a very good episode of Friday Night Lights, instead of a transcendental one. The main plot, in which Saracen and his father come to see each other in a new light, is signaled from a looong way off. The payoff is wonderful—Matt’s public meltdown is so out-of-character that it indicates just how upset he is—and positions Coach Taylor as his father figure, in a way that is a lot more overt than in past episodes.(Coach confirms it: “Listen, we’re all family here.”) Now there’s something almost too poetic about it: Matt looks up to Coach, and wants to date his daughter. It’s like The Mask Of Zorro. It works, and it is moving, but I don’t have that much to say about it.
Where I’m more invested in this episode is with Landry and Riggins, who are yoked together in an unlikely arranged marriage by Tami after she discovers that Riggins has been cheating to pass classes. Landry (who Coach and Mrs. Coach believe to be named Lance, by the way) takes his mission very seriously. The whole thing invokes My So-Called Life, where Brian Krakow learns that Jordan Catalano can’t read; Friday Night Lights pays homage by having Landry crack a joke about Riggins’ literacy right from the start, so that Tim can retort that he can too. But when Tim still refuses to get around to it, Landry sits down and reads the entirety of Of Mice And Men to him, which is about 100 pages, and then yells at him until he’s forced to think about it. (Landry, obviously, is going to make a great dad.)
“Nevermind” is the name of Street’s Nirvana album that he’s looking for (which, okay, of course he listens to Nirvana), and sometimes these episodes don’t have a ton of meaning attached to their titles. But “Nevermind” does seem to be about sudden switchbacks and second-guessing—a reassessment, given more information. Saracen changes his mind about his dad’s return—he thought it would fix things, and by the end of the episode, he wants his dad to go back to Iraq. Jason and Lyla tentatively make fits and starts towards a new relationship, but it can’t follow the same path as it did before—there’s a whole new relearning and re-falling in love that has to occur (and begins to happen here).
While Lyla and Jason have been on a flashier road to recovery—trying to find themselves after a disaster literally broke one of them—both Riggins and Landry have had quieter struggles with the new world order. Now Landry is QB-1’s best friend, and Riggins has to say goodbye to the dream of the ranch with Lyla and Jason and Texas forever. In my humble opinion, the show didn’t quite do enough with the connection between Riggins and Lyla—his love for her is so apparent, as indicated through Taylor Kitsch’s eyes, and yet we’re at a loss to determine exactly what it means (and how it relates to the rest of his life).
But there’s a glimpse of it here in “Nevermind,” when Riggins is staring out at the football field after reading a book for the first time in years. The comparison is not just apt to him and Street, who have variously tried to end each other in the last few episodes. It’s also apt to him and Landry—though who is the oaf and who is the murderer, I am not sure. Friday Night Lights relies on Tim Riggins to feel for the entire show, and in that moment on the bleachers, he is feeling it all. Mrs. Coach tells Jason that there is no weakness in forgiveness. And what is forgiveness, if not re-evaluating, and changing your mind?
Riggins, by the way, gets a B-minus.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose:
- A few wardrobe details this week that stuck out to me: Coach’s sweater is inside-out in his house, because of course it is; Buddy Garrity, God bless him, is wearing his bluetooth headset throughout the entire exchange with Brittany’s dad and then later looking up the website online.
- Coach Taylor’s intimidation tactics: “It’s ‘Julie and me.’ It’s a common mistake. Go ahead.”
- Mrs. Coach’s intimidation tactics: “Who’s the other one? Watch the curbs, whoever you are!”
- Gotta respect that Saracen says hello and goodbye to every possible adult on his way in or out of a house. Boy was raised right.
- The song playing over Riggins’ mid-rain plea to Lyla to go cheerleading is José Gonzalez’s “Storm.” And do I wish I could offer some explanation or meaning for that scene, which is probably the most important scene in these two episodes? I really do. But there isn’t a lot (though maybe you commenters will have something for me).
- “Because I’m crippled and I wanna listen to Nirvana, is that so hard to understand?”
- “It’s part of my job to make sure you don’t grow up stupid. It’s bad for the world.”
- The Family Coach: The Taylors have a wonderful cadence when they speak to each other. Coach: “Did you by chance make it your personal mission to take over the education of Tim Riggins?” It’s a sentence with lyricism. And some of that is the Southern dialect, I know. But some of that is that Coach and Mrs. Coach are so used to talking to each other that they almost sing to each other, instead. There are harmonies and arpeggios.
- CRUCIFICTORIOUS. Discarded name: STIGMATALINGUS.
- “Oh my goodness, my boy is growing up! … Of course your ding-dong went soft—it was tryna protect you!”
- A fine if tiny moment from Tyra, just seconds before her heart is broken—not only does she want to chew out Riggins for sleeping with Lyla, but she also wants to chew him out for making it worse by sitting next to her at the cafeteria. She doesn’t need this right out. Tyra, like Lyla, knows the rules.