Series Finale: Friday Night Lights – “Always”

“Always”

February 9th, 2011

“Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.”

Perhaps more than any other show on television, Friday Night Lights is actively concerned with the notion of legacy. The Dillon Panthers were one, the East Dillon Lions are becoming one, and the show itself has formed its own sense of legacy with distinct notions of past, present and future despite a relatively short five season run.

In politics, or even in sports, the final moments are when the legacy is at its most vulnerable. As unfair as it might seem, the legacy of Friday Night Lights could very well come down to how “Always” brings the series to its conclusion. This will be the final time we spend with these characters, their final actions and reactions, and Jason Katims’ challenge is finding that balance between progress and consolidation.

He found it. “Always” is not perfect, getting a bit too cute for its own good towards its conclusion, but it all feels so remarkably “right” that it captures in an hour what the series accomplished over the course of five seasons. It is uproariously funny and incredibly moving, and those moments which resonate emotionally are not simply those which have been developing over the course of 76 episodes. The weight is felt across the board, with characters old and new finding self-realization amidst a larger framework.

They are legacies within legacy, as “Always” captures the emotional current of what will go down as one of the decade’s finest drama series.

The presence of humor is probably my favorite thing about “Always.” It is what makes it possible to say goodbye without feeling as though this is truly the end, the sense of life and rhythm which breaks through the melodrama and the “endings” to remind us that these characters will live on. They won’t just move on, finding a happy ending: they will continue to banter, and bicker, and live the kinds of lives that we might imagine. Matt Saracen will still stand around in Landry’s garage talking about how to deal with relationships, Buddy Garrity will still call Eric Taylor at odd times of day, and the Riggins family will always be both stable and unstable simultaneously. While things remain uncertain for much of the episode, the early scenes feel so comforting and familiar that we sort of know that things will turn out.

The show’s fifth season has brought a number of the show’s characters to the edge of unlikeability, letting them make decisions that we don’t agree with. We didn’t want to see Julie sleep with her TA, and we didn’t want to see Vince allow his father to run his recruitment, and we certainly didn’t want to see Eric and Tami fighting over their future. These fall into two separate categories, though: while the teenagers are young and impulsive, needing to make mistakes in order to figure out what they really need in their lives, Eric and Tami have already made their mistakes. They’re at the point where they know what consequences can come from making a mistake, which is why Tami is overcome with emotion as she tries to explain to her daughter why marrying Matt Saracen at the age of 18 would be one.

Many shows deal with multi-generational storylines, but I think the conclusion to this season has been the most impressive I’ve seen in a long time. Eric and Tami are dealing with questions about their future, and about the state of their relationship, that occasionally feel like two young kids bickering (like in their tree trimming tete-a-tete early in the episode). However, they need to handle it differently, and know that there are ways it needs to be handled. They are mature without being perfect, uncertain without being reckless, and to the end remained the most realistic and compelling relationship on television.

This was a finale driven by relationships, almost to a fault. I think that parts of the finale were swept up by romance, with various relationships becoming a parallel for those which are most substantial. Vince and Jess become not unlike Eric and Tami, Becky and Luke feel at least a bit like Matt and Julie, and Tyra and Tim seem like a combination of the two. I see the value in the various parallels, and thought all of the relationships worked extremely well despite my initial reservations about Tim and Tyra. It just seemed like there were a lot of them, and their cumulative effect was a sort of over-coupling of the series’ narrative.

And yet the final montage, as Vince’s hail mary pass becomes a practice toss in Philadelphia, made sure that “Always” meant something more. These are the true “final moments” that we will remember the characters by, and the choices Katims made reflect his intense understanding of how these characters work. For the Taylors, nothing is surprising: Tami is loving her job, Eric is right back into the swing of things (even if they don’t yet have the “Can’t Lose” down), and Julie has transferred to Chicago to be with Matt (and, conveniently, closer to her parents). Similarly, we’re not surprised that Vince is leading the new super team, or that Buddy is back in his golf cart, or that Billy Riggins earned himself a spot on the coaching staff, or that the lovable Tinker found his way onto the team (although that got an audible cheer from me on first viewing, and still makes me smile every time). And based on the not-so-subtle foreshadowing, seeing Jess continuing her coaching aspirations in Dallas was easily anticipated, especially given Eric Taylor’s track record with those he mentors. In these moments we get our happy endings, with each character gaining a future on their own terms and a sense of satisfaction that they’ve gone quite far.

Luke Cafferty, meanwhile, is the one character whose fate remains decidedly uncertain. It’s a very purposeful choice, the one person whose path in life was established as less than clear. The show could have easily had Luke headed off the veterinary school, or working on his parents’ farm, if they wanted to give him a happy ending. Instead, they reflect reality: a high school graduate with no sense of what he wants to do with his life could very easily end up enlisting. It feels natural, even as it certainly turns into a cliché: the girlfriend kissing her fatigue-wearing boyfriend goodbye at the bus station as he heads off to basic is hardly revolutionary, but there is something about that scene which feels right. The future couldn’t be clear for everyone, their paths laid out so that we as an audience could breathe a sigh of relief. Luke becomes that person, and his story becomes much more resonant as a result.

Not everything about this season worked. The presence of Gray Damon’s Hastings, for example, was never entirely justified, outside of giving us a name and a face to put to the dude other than Luke who catches Vince’s passes. There were moments when the decision to send the characters down unpleasant roads actually became unpleasant, and not necessarily in a good way.

However, “Always” captures the season’s strengths in the degree to which our emotional response comes from a wide range of sources. We respond to Matt and Julie’s engagement because we’ve been with these characters for five long seasons, but I personally responded to Becky and Mindy’s goodbye because of how fantastic Stacey Oristano has been in expanding a small recurring role into a major supporting one. Eric pleading with Tami to take him to Philadelphia with her after his sprint through the shopping mall was the culmination of eighteen years of sacrifice, while we had only two seasons to relate to Becky, Vince, Luke, Jess and the rest. It isn’t that these moments are equal: we are, inevitably, going to care more about the Taylors than we are about, say, Jess. However, they all felt in harmony with one another: it didn’t feel unnatural to switch from one to the other, as though the show was telling five different stories. The show constantly switches between generations, switching directly from Eric/Tami into Mindy and Becky’s tearful farewell and then from Tim and Tyra’s hilltop summit to Eric sprinting through the mall. “Always” is driven by an emotional current, one that unites the series’ characters.

In the end, place no longer serves that function. We end, after all, in Philadelphia and not in Dillon, as the sun (or in this case, the lights) finally sets on Eric and Tami as they survey their future. Dillon, Texas is now no longer their home, just as it is no longer home for their daughter, her fiancé (we presume – I actually didn’t look for a ring), or many of the show’s other characters. And yet, in what stands as one of the most emotional sign installations of all time, Eric’s legacy lives on in that Panthers dressing room, and on that Panthers field, and on that Panthers sideline. Just as Jason Street’s name, scrawled onto the wall, will forever tie him to that place where his dreams were made and shattered and made again, “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose.” is Eric Taylor’s legacy. They were the words that defined his character, the words which helped change Matt Saracen, save Vince Howard, and inspire just about everyone else.

If we were to fast forward eight months, Friday Night Lights would likely remain in our minds. It might be that we see familiar faces lingering in popular culture, actors moving onto bigger projects, or it could simply be that we see new drama series and think back to the good old days when Friday Night Lights was still on the air. However, as sad as we might feel, I don’t know if we’re going to look back and wonder if the right decision was made. While maybe the show could have run another season, and maybe the show could have benefitted from being allowed longer seasons to tell its stories in a less condensed fashion, “Always” never feels compromised. Despite whatever detours the show may have taken over the course of its five seasons, or even over the course of this one, the series finale felt in perfect harmony with that sign over that doorway.

And wherever these characters may journey, and however much those screws may rust, one feels as though it’s there for good this time.

Cultural Observations

  • A very smart way of getting through the football game: cutting out the commentary made for a more streamlined experience, great for time and for avoiding overdramatizing things. Just cut to the obvious, but effective, hail mary and call it a day.
  • Loved various scenes in the episode, but Tim’s entire afternoon with Stevie was some really fantastic work from Taylor Kitsch. It was sort of a return of a more lively and sarcastic Tim, certainly returning to his time with Bo way back when, but it was still a bit hardened so as to stick with the character’s new perspective. He was fantastic in his return, and I look forward to the day when he becomes the huge star he deserves to be.
  • Favorite delivery in the episode: Chandler’s “What the hell are you doing here?” when Matt shows up at the door.
  • So, do Chandler and Britton submit the finale? They got nominations last year, and I feel as though finale has enough emotional moments to work (even if they probably had stronger individual hours acting wise, if not emotions wise).
  • I think I might save my “FNL Legacy” post for eight months from today, just to be all meta, but just about everyone else posted theirs earlier today. Here’s James Poniewozik’s retrospective, Alan Sepinwall’s favorite scenes, Cory Barker’s best episodes list, Maureen Ryan’s lessons television can learn from the show, Daniel T. Walters’ own piece on the show’s impact on TV, and Denise Martin’s three part oral history as told by cast and crew.
  • I might run down finale reviews in a Morning After tomorrow, but in the meantime check out Alan Sepinwall’s series post-mortem with Jason Katims.
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1 Comment

Filed under Friday Night Lights

One response to “Series Finale: Friday Night Lights – “Always”

  1. John

    As far as Emmys go Chandler could submit this, but I’d rather he go with “Swerve”. Britton could go with this, if she goes supporting, otherwise “The Right Hand of the Father” is her best option.

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