“The Giving Tree”
December 10th, 2008
If you’re a fan of Friday Night Lights, “The Giving Tree” is an episode made for you. It’s all about callbacks to past events, to incidents that are three seasons in the making and which are reflective of past events. The episode’s main problem, in fact, is that it leans somewhat too heavily on those elements of the story, feeling fairly limited in its real “new” developments moving forward.
But I think we’re reaching the point where, the show’s renewal seeming more and more unlikely within the newly limited primetime environment at NBC, anything that speaks to the future seems premature (but tantalizingly interesting) while everything that speaks to its past seems like a justified farewell. So when the storyline circles back to the question of Julie having sex, and its impact on her mother in particular, it feels like something that had to happen, and did admittedly feel like a new sort of conversation than what we saw in “I Think We Should Have Sex.”
The other two major storylines in the episode felt somewhat more derivative, one because of the history of the two characters (as loathe as I am to discuss that history) and the other because it felt like a fairly contrived if socioeconomically realistic plot development. This isn’t to fault the episode on some broader level, and I’m happy that the resulting points of conflict are happening for the sake of getting more of characters I enjoy, but with only three episodes left in the season I’m getting to that point where I’m caught between past and future events.
I want to start with my favourite storyline of the episode, which was a bit surprising for me. J.D. McCoy has been on the periphery for quite a while now, his football performance apparently quite drama-free and his off-field life marginalized to focus on some other characters. And even in this week’s episode it was a pretty small story, but it was also really enjoyable. He and Madison more or less have a “meet cute” wherein she is charmed by his shy, humble and milk-drinking quarterbackness, and what results is something approximating a relationship. My favourite moment of the entire episode was when Madison shows up at the McCoy mansion, and his mother and father are both too shell-shocked to even react like human beings. Seeing Joe McCoy so absolutely taken aback was kind of fitting, and Mrs. McCoy’s happiness at her son’s newfound promiscuousness was a great view into their family dynamics.
The episode really unfurled in an interesting way for them, and in a way we haven’t really seen before: yes, Landry is still awkward around girls, and Matt certainly was in the beginning with Julie, but with J.D. we see the reason. He’s quite the lothario when he sets his mind to it, but his mind is so locked into football by his father that there’s a barrier there. He more or less breaks up with her entirely on his father’s demands, something that Riggins points out as problematic and that feels like a different kind of shyness than we’ve seen. I continue to find his storylines really charming, and found the episode most “enjoyable” in the moment where his mother spots him greeting Madison and getting into her reasonably priced sedan and driving away. Mrs. McCoy was just so happy: that her son was normal, that her son was ignoring the “football is life” rhetoric that dominates their lifestyle. While it is a bit weird that she’d be objecting so strongly now, considering it’s been like that for a while, it seems reasonable that this is the first time J.D. has let something like this into his life and she sees how it could let him be normal.
Overall, it’s one of those storylines that feels like setup for next year, which mostly just makes me sad considering how unlikely it is that it’ll happen. Sure, we don’t know anything for sure, but the show isn’t likely to emerge from next Winter with much in terms of ratings momentum. But I like J.D. McCoy, who is brought to life quite realistically by Jeremy Sumpter, and I think his role in this team and in this world of high school football is something worth following. The episode also dealt with his QB coach, Wade Aikman, calling plays for the last part of the game and keeping Dillon alive in the playoffs with his decisions – this is another long term storyline, and while we’ll likely get the moment with Mac returning and finding himself out of a job we won’t see what this could do to Eric’s job security in the future. That’s too bad: I think it’s interesting to see that, much as our other players are cycling out and finding potential replacements, that there’s another QB-driven offensive coach waiting in the wings to be the next Eric Taylor.
The other storyline that worked really well in the episode, no surprise here, was the Taylor family facing yet another question of sex and teenagedom. I thought the way it was handled was perfect: the second we knew that Eric was the one picking up Julie, and that she and Matt were in bed and not getting up anytime soon, and that we’ve watched the show enough to know that Matt’s room is right inside the front door, it was like a jack-in-the-box waiting to go off. I liked that we never go to see his discovery: all we see is the exterior of the house, and eventually his angry exit and Julie’s hasty retreat. The show is so artful with moments like this, kept so human; there was no need to see it, as it is in the aftermath that the show really wanted to live.
It was just a really well executed series of events: having Lyla in the house gave Julie someone to talk to about it, having Eric maintain a sullen silence was perfectly within character and drove Matt the right level of insane, and Tami’s reaction was the right evolution from her powerful emotion we saw back in Season One. Then, Julie was 15 and making a rash decision with a boy she hadn’t known for very long: this time, she’s 17 and far more convincing when she says that she is in love with Matt and that he loves her. Tami reacts accordingly: this isn’t an issue about grounding, or about punishment, but about ensuring that they can discuss this in the future. Connie Britton and Aimee Teegarden were as good as ever, both knowing that conversation out of the park – it’s the point at which Julie realizes that the independence she has always wanted from her parents has in some ways arrived, but at the same time she was still stung by the guilt of disappointing them. It’s a mature storyline, perfectly reflective of a show in its third season that has allowed its characters to grow.
The other major storylines we get are technically returns to the past, but they feel less evolved. In the case of Tyra and Landry, from which we get the episode’s central allusion, it just feels like old news. That Tyra doesn’t yet realize that she uses Landry without giving him anything in return (except for, you know, sex) feels egregious, like something she would have put together by now. I know that it’s her pattern of behaviour, but I would have thought that being in the exact opposite position with Cash (where he was using her and neglecting her) might have made her more aware that what she and Landry had was capable of being something different. I still think that these two have some issues to work out, and that they will take some time, but I would have liked to see something somewhat new as opposed to pretty much their relationship after Season 2 decided to forget that the murder ever happened.
It feels like they should have matured more to this point, but I don’t see it yet: perhaps we just need to give Tyra time, but her knee-jerk show booking skills aren’t enough for me. I did like, though, his band teasing him about her using him, and I thought that both Plemons and Palicki continue to do some good work. I’m not convinced that they should be together romantically (the show can’t leave us on that note, I feel, because Tyra is so flighty that I refuse to believe she’d settle down), but I do want these crazy kids to figure things out before we leave the third season behind us.
I don’t quite know what the show is doing with Buddy Garrity, however. Don’t get me wrong: I love Brad Leland, the writers love Brad Leland, and I’m pretty sure that everyone thinks that Brad Leland should play an important role in the likely end of this series. But it’s a storyline with serious flashbacks to his divorce, and one where I don’t know if we’re really supposed to feel sorry for Buddy Garrity. The best Buddy stories are not the ones where he is desolate and angry, but those where he is frustrated and disadvantaged. This seems like it goes too far: all signs point towards absolute self-destruction, and I was expecting a suicide by the time the episode was heading towards its ending. I get that he’s a reckless car salesman in a dying economy, which is not a good place to be in, but the idea that he also gave away Lyla’s college money and was so surprised at her anger felt like too much of a downward spiral, and I’m worried that this character will get a tragic end.
And I don’t want any tragic ends: I want happy people who are going to live happy lives. It’s an odd request, after I just spend a lot of time in the past week talking about how the tragedy of The Wire was so effective, but Friday Night Lights is telling a different story. Yes, it is about the oppression that can come with a small town high school football-driven lifestyle, but it’s more about the humanity that is found within that environment – this show is about hope, and I think that’s the message it needs to leave on.
Not that I want it to leave at all, of course.
- I may be hard on her quite often, but Minka Kelly is a good actress in moments like her confrontations with Buddy. I like her a lot better playing comedy, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t up to the level she needs to be to pull off those moments. Her and Buddy’s fight outside the Riggins house was well drawn by both parties.
- Speaking of Buddy, I thought that it was smart to actually let us see his actions, unlike the scene with Eric discovering Matt and Julie in bed together. It sounds really bad when read at the hearing, and while it was in fact quite bad it also felt more organic and understandable. The storyline wasn’t awful, just a bit too big for its britches at points if that makes any sense. No? Okay, fine, I just want Buddy to be happy, that’s all.
- One more new episode to come next week, and then we’re waiting until January 7th for the next new episode – the finale follows on the 14th, just in time for the show to start all over again on January 16th on NBC.