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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Friday Night Lights: "Laboring"

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(Greetings Friday Night Lights fans. A few words of explanation: Because of NBC's production arrangement with DirecTV, I wrote about this (pretty great) 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.)

Like every season apart from the show’s murder-and-tornado-filled second year, Friday Night Lights’ fourth season has been slow to build. This isn’t a show that doles out big dramatic moments on a weekly basis. It takes its time and lets viewers hang with characters and get to know them a bit. We usually end up liking them a lot. Then, with no more cruelty than life itself, it breaks their hearts and ours.

In any other show, Tim and Billy’s episode-ending downfall would seem like a too-neat bit of dramatic irony. One just became a dad. The other just carved out a piece of Texas for himself. The things they want to be happy are so modest—the absence of crippling debt and piece of land by the roadside—it seems that much more cruel for the show to take it away. But did anyone ever think it would end otherwise? Did they? The Riggins Boys are good guys, and Tim especially has added a layer of soulfulness this year, but they don’t think things through and they’ve always played a little fast and loose with the law. Of course this was going to happen. Their actions have consequences and sometimes those consequences interrupt an awesome after-hours rock-out session.


Of course, everyone’s actions have consequences. And sometimes those consequences aren’t fair. Where last week taught Tami that doing the right thing didn’t always end in praise, this week drove the point home. What was once a lone parent misdirecting her ire at Tami for her protocol-following decision to counsel a pregnant girl in trouble about her options has now become a job-threatening community outrage. She’s given a way out, but it’s a lousy, principle-shattering way that requires her to lie and apologize for something she hasn’t done.

Other times, the consequences are way out of proportion with the actions that set them in motion. After watching his field get scrutinized by prissy West Dillonites, Coach later sees it destroyed in a bit of violence vicious even by Dillon standards, presumably in reprisal for Landry’s annoying, if harmless, toothpick prank. This insult comes on the heels of a week spent listening to talk radio callers speak in coded language about East Dillon, a side of town where “things are just different.” The destruction ends with him not only giving up home field advantage but having to return to the field he used to call his own before West Dillon rejected him. “I am not playing on a level field here,” he tells Tami, even before this happens. No kidding.

Meanwhile, Vince is stuck in his own cycle of attacks and counterattacks, agreeing to come along in a revenge raid for Calvin’s death then stepping away before it’s too late. We also learn—and I don’t think we knew this but I could be wrong—just how deep into gang life his father was and how he’s spent his life trying to step away from that shadow. Everyone, as usual, did excellent work this week, but the gold stars belong to Michael B. Jordan and Jurnee Smollett. Jess’s attempts to dissuade her friend from either dying or becoming a murderer—in short, from becoming the bad guy she’s seen him try not to be—were just wrenching, and underlined by a passion that might be more than just friendly. What this means for Landry, who’s come to feel pretty deeply for her, remains to be seen.

In some ways, this episode did little but set up the events of next week’s finale: The big game with West Dillon, in which the Lions could play spoilers to their rivals’ playoff hopes, Tami’s moment of truth, Julie’s decisions about her future, the Riggins Boys’ legal problems, and so on. But it’s also one of my favorite episodes of the season, forcing the characters to crisis points that could fundamentally change who they are and sustaining a mood of slowly mounting tension that’s forever threatening to erupt. When Coach smashes the phone that’s been ringing non-stop with calls berating either him or his wife, it solves nothing. But it’s also the only move he has to make, a bit of rage at how bad things are, directed at an object far removed from the source of his troubles, as the heat that’s been rising all year reaches a boil.


Stray observations:

• This week wasn’t all grimness and despair. I like that it’s now pretty obvious Coach knows Landry’s name but continues to call him Lance anyway.


• Also, every scene involving Tim helping Billy deal with childbirth was hilarious.

• Of course Billy would be caught with his pants down when his wife goes into labor. And of course he would be wearing that underwear.


• Becky’s love for Tim: Totally unrequited or just rebuffed by Tim because it seems like a really bad idea?

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