(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.)
“Vince Howard is now a Panther. The sons of bitches got him,” Coach tells Buddy, shortly after the hearing that shuts down the East Dillon Lions. It might be the first moment he’s realized that getting Vince Howard is what the whole budget crisis was about. After two years of shaping the team and its star, Coach has fallen victim to a hostile takeover he didn’t see coming. And why should he have? It’s a ballsy move, even for the Dillon Panthers and their supporters. But it’s also perfectly in keeping with the depiction of the town over the past two seasons as a place with a deep divide between those that have and those that don’t. Now that he’s a star, Vince has become a commodity for those that have to obtain. (Coach, too, but we’ll get back to that.)
It also keeps perfectly with Friday Night Lights’ depiction of football from its first episode (a point driven home by another version of the Daniel Johnston song “Devil Town” used so effectively throughout the show). For everything the game gives, it takes something away. And vice versa. It got Vince off the streets but gave him a whole new set of problems. It took Jason Street’s ability to walk but reshaped him as a man. Or, in this episode, witness Luke’s conversation with Tim, who sees a bit of himself in the kid. As high school players, they get to be stars. Then the stardom goes away, leaving only dreams of past glory.
It’s best not to cling too tightly to those dreams or expect the rest of life to offer the same thrilling highs, as Tim has discovered the hard way. Of course, it’s hit Tim harder than most. Most former football stars don’t wind up doing a prison stint for their brothers and emerge to find their bitterness continually overwhelming their sense of nobility. But who can blame him for feeling that way? Or for wanting to leave Texas behind? I don’t think that’s where Tim’s headed, however. His restlessness has defined him, and the character has drifted from makeshift home to makeshift home. (A habit he’s resumed post-prison by squatting in a trailer that’s not really his.) But a love of Texas has also defined him, and the look on Tim’s face when he found a piece of the state to call his own last season is the look of a man who’s found home at last.
Then there’s Tyra, who shows up to offer a friendly ear for Tim and a rekindling of their relationship, however unsure their future. (Everything seems to be coming full circle now, doesn’t it? See also the Lions commiserating drunkenly on the football field like their Panther predecessors.) Adrienne Palicki makes a welcome return this week. And though her character looks a little less blonde than the last time we saw her, she’s unmistakably Tyra. This episode doesn’t really do much to fill in the gaps in Tyra’s story—she asks Julie about Matt, but Julie’s less inquisitive—but she still plays a key role, offering what almost sounds like a thematic summation for the show itself and its love/hate relationship with small-town Texas life. As Tyra and Julie watch the town go nuts at the announcement of a single football team united under the Panthers banner, Julie and Tyra are filled with fondness and disdain. Tyra doesn’t like coming back. Julie can’t seem to leave it behind, rushing back the moment she’s done with her finals. But both agree that the place is a “hard place to shake.”
It’s at least partly the people that make it that way. Julie drives by Matt’s house, and (for now) there’s only an old rally sign to remind her he was ever there. Then there’s Coach, who’s made the town a better place for more people than he even knows, even if many aren’t exactly shy about praising him. One of my favorite scenes in this week’s excellent episode—in an exemplary season—is when Vince and Jess spoke of his effect on them to the district official. He hears and is moved by them, but when he makes the announcement about the discontinuation of the Lions program, he has to go with the will of the board.
Coach has long served as the fixed point around which most of the other characters revolve, but it’s rarely been as apparent as in this episode. Billy asks about the future of his “football landscape.” Jess pesters her way into a chance to shadow him. (By the way, just as I would watch a show only about Billy and Mindy, I would watch a show starring Kyle Chandler and Jurnee Smollett. I love their scenes together.) But will that point remained fixed this time next year?
I don’t think that’s a matter of much suspense, honestly. When Coach tells Vince, “You’re going to be the star quarterback of the Dillon Panthers next year. And you are going to shine,” it sounds like he knows he won’t be around to see it. And despite Buddy’s machinations, I can’t see him taking the Panthers up on their offer to come back. Even if his pride would allow him to go back, his sense of right and wrong most likely wouldn’t. His boys have been betrayed. He’s not going to serve those who betrayed them.
That doesn’t make the tension between Coach and Tami any less real, however. Tami gets the chance of a lifetime to serve as the dean of admissions at one of the Friday Night Lightsverse’s finer fictional colleges. While her career path may seem unlikely, I’m willing to accept it for the same reason Tami gets the offer in the first place: She’s an amazing person. And she’s an amazing person who’s been living in the shadow of another amazing person for, as she points out a couple of times this week, 18 years. As terrific as their marriage is—and Friday Night Lights has spent five years showing it as a loving union with a beautiful balance maintained by constant, often intense, not always comfortable conversation—even the best marriages have issues that can’t be resolved by careful compromise. She wants to go East. As Coach points out they “live in Texas.” What’s to be done?
Next week will surely provide an answer to that and any other lingering questions. (Well, apart from Matt’s disappearing nurse, Buddy’s foster child, Julie’s possibly lecherous English teacher and other abandoned storylines.) Hard to believe we’re so near the end, but TV shows, like football teams, weren’t meant to be together forever. One more episode. Then we’ll take off the cleats and keep walking.
- With so many callbacks to the first season, I almost expected a trip to Applebees.
- The only bum note for me this week and last: It feels like Vince’s dad, whose development from cagey ex-con to pushy stage dad had been so carefully developed, devolved into a less complex character too quickly. Vince’s scenes with his mom—especially the moment when he lets her know it’s okay not to go to the game—still kill me. I often worry that Friday Night Lights’ cast will get the roles they deserve outside the show. Anyone casting Angela Rawna would be lucky to have her.
- Curious about when this season will be on DVD and NBC? You should read this.