Season Three, Episode 13
Leaping forward about six months at the beginning of the show’s second season nearly killed Friday Night Lights – there was a sense that all the time we missed had been eventful for these characters, and their motivations had changed in ways that were not something that should happen off screen. We found a Dillon, Texas that, in many ways, we didn’t know anymore.
What we find in the show’s third season finale, perhaps its last, is a show that has recaptured that time lost, given us a sense of who these people are again. We found a group of people we care about, a group whose futures are uncertain and will be our final goodbye to many of these characters. With the team’s State championship lost last week in the penultimate episode, the finale takes the risk of flashing forward five months to the moment when their present collides with their future.
The result is a finale that defines the ways in which this show is most successful, giving us those moments and emotional highs (and lows, to an extent) that the show is known for. But what is most strange about the finale is that it was less resolute than I imagined: characters we expected to ride off into the sunset (which the episode even ends with) ended up in their own sort of holding pattern. It’s as if, almost, we’re not saying goodbye after all, but to be honest I was so expecting definitive final moments that I almost feel sad about the fate of some of these characters.
I guess it makes sense, really: in what could be a bittersweet experience balancing the joy of getting a third season and the reality of a fourth being quite skeptical, it makes sense that as the show lays groundwork for a fourth season the balance of things would feel at least somewhat out of whack. It’s natural that we get the “Tomorrow Blues” as we transition from one moment to the next, but at least the tradition brings us another fine episode in a strong season.
I do not know what to make of the personal journey of Matt Saracen. We learn quickly that his plans all came to fruitition: he got into the Art Institute of Chicago, and his grandmother is moving into a home where she will be able to take care of him. His mother is still in the picture, and there is a sense of the future in him that didn’t feel like it was there before. I was sad, as Julie was: he was leaving, they were about to break up, and I didn’t necessarily want to see Matt Saracen leave.
But I think that I am more concerned with his fate now, deciding to stay and take care of his grandmother in Dillon, than I was with him leaving. It’s not the right move for his life, even if it is the right move for the show in some selfish viewership sense of things. I like Matt Saracen, I like him on this show, but like with Smash Williams and Jason Street I don’t want to watch as he regrets this decision in a potential fourth season. Worst of all, I don’t want to have the show get canceled and have to imagine him regretting this decision as opposed to being in love with Julie and having a bright future ahead.
For him, that wasn’t what the episode intended. But when Tim Riggins, our other Panther to whom we are saying goodbye, is faced with a similar question, he has someone who puts him in his place: Julie and his grandmother seemed only too quick to accept Matt pulling back from his dreams, but Billy Riggins of all people very quickly reminded Tim that him going to college represents a fundamental change for his family and their way of life. This is how I felt about Matt Saracen, but the show only seems to be dealing with Tim in these particular terms.
And I’m glad they are – I like that Tim faces the chance for freedom and his brother’s life and is turned around back to something other than “school is too hard, Lyla isn’t going to be there, why should I bother?” I feel like this is the end of Tim’s story: I like Taylor Kitsch, but his story is more or less complete and I feel like I can be hopeful about his chances, with his brother’s support, in the real world outside of Dillon.
But both storylines ultimately had those moments of sheer pain and sheer pleasure that the show does so well. The saddest moment in this episode, which should really make Matt’s eventual decision happy in contrast, is when Matt leaves his grandmother behind at the home and realizes very quickly the emotional weight of this moment. And then Riggins gets a glimpse of the future with Billy announcing that he and Mindy are going to have a baby: it’s a very brotherly moment, and their playful tackling stranded on the side of the road was one of those moments where circumstance on this show gives way to personal relationships. After a second season where circumstance drove too much of their emotional impulses, these moments demonstrate the deeper connection we shared with our characters this year.
The real feel-good moment of the episode was Tyra Colette, who continued to advance herself through her persistence into a spot at University of Texas at Austin. I wrote a lot about Tyra this season, and this doesn’t really add anything to this particular lore: Tyra has her hopes dashed by the sheer number of wait list emails sent out to prospective students, Tyra decides that she can never do this and doubt takes over, Landry gives an impassioned speech about how he believes in her, and then things turn out right in the end as she receives her acceptance letter from UT and has a tearful group hug with her family and Landry.
We have said goodbye to Tyra, there is no question about that: like Tim, her story was about achieving something that her family hadn’t, and since season one they have been delving into the ways in which she desires to escape Dillon but lacks the opportunity. The show can’t return to her story because its almost realistic fairy tale storyline, of the girl who has so much working against her and with the support of everyone around her achieves her goal, would be undermined if we learned that going to college didn’t work out, or that she is still making the same mistakes, or that yet another rodeo cowboy has swooped in to alter her identity.
The other storyline that was given something approximating closure was Lyla Garrity, who decided to use her influence with her rich uncle Gary in order to get the money to go to Vanderbilt, who was still willing to have her. Lyla has been a waste of a character for a while, so to be honest I was kind of sad that they spent time in the finale getting rid of her. I know that she deserved closure of some sort, but the episode was fairly ham-handed in being “hey look at Lyla, 2nd in her class and going to San Antonio State!” at that awards luncheon, and I can’t say that I would ever lose sleep thinking about Lyla Garrity. Compared to the other goodbyes, it felt forced and kind of unnecessary.
But that was all of the goodbyes: the rest of the episode was devoted to robbing us of a resolution for Eric and Tami Taylor and instead leaving them in a state of disruption. This is an unfortunate necessity, as in order for them to leave the door open to a fourth season they had to have Eric Taylor ousted as coach of the Dillon Panthers by the influence of Joe McCoy, leaving Eric to be bumped over to the role of Head Coach of the East Dillon Lions. It gives us the episode’s stunning final scene as Eric and Tami walk onto the East Dillon field, a nearly destroyed relic of a past time that is in need of a lot of love and a lot more than maybe even Eric Taylor can provide.
I think it’s a great setup: it puts Eric back in the position of having an underdog team, it gives the show a chance to introduce new characters within an entirely different team dynamic, and it gives the show a natural rivalry (something that I think could be an interesting new dynamic for the series). It is a really intelligent setup, and apparently Katims and Berg are hopeful about the show getting a fourth season. I don’t quite share their hopefulness, but this episode at least demonstrates that the show is creatively strong, and NBC will have to fill spots on their schedule after football and a DirecTV supported, cast reduced FNL might be more viable than a second hour of Celebrity Apprentice.
But bigger than this episode or the show’s future, I feel like this was a strong finale to a strong season, even if the show still has a lot to accomplish in my eyes. That’s the problem here: after the second season, we were all convinced that the show had maybe worn out what made it so amazing, but here we have proof that they are still capable of giving us chills or making us care about characters like few other shows on television. While some offer more intriguing portrayals or more complicated investigations of inner psychology in the bounds of matrimony, there is no married couple on television more realistic than Tami and Eric Taylor at the end of the day.
There is an instinct here to start eulogizing the series, talking about how this is a final goodbye, but I don’t think that the show’s core principles are worn out in the way that perhaps these characters were. And while I am content with this finale, and with the third season as a whole, I think there is a lot of unfinished business here: and until we receive something final about the show’s future, consider me a believer in the potential for Friday Night Lights’ fourth season.
[Just to update, since I read this after finishing the review: the show scored a series-low rating last night, with about 4.5 million viewers. There are however some good notes: it performed better than Lipstick Jungle and also finished second in its time slot in the key demographics. So, while certainly nothing as definitive as we’d like, not a clear cut sign of death. Let the thirteen week limbo begin!]
- Is Landry graduating? It didn’t seem like he would be, and part of me feels like he was a year below Matt, in Julie’s year instead. There is an implication that he wrote his SATs, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time the show has been so very bague about anything approaching his future that to leave him on a note of “Tyra’s supportive boyfriend” seems moderately frustrating.
- I’m curious why we bothered to spend so much time with Jamarkus’ family earlier this season when we never saw him again, and when chances are (presuming we’d focus mainly on the Lions in a fourth season) he might not be on Taylor’s team even.
- I’m curious to see how J.D. fits into the show’s plans: he was noticeably absent here, named QB of the year but not receiving any part in his father’s wrangling of Wade Aikman into the head coaching job. I’m curious to know if the show would follow him as a rival to the Lions or use him as a window into the Panthers that continues to be conflicted about his relationship with his father. I hope Jeremy Sumpter sticks around (I presume he has an option for a season 4), either way.
- The other big question is what would happen with Buddy Garrity – presuming that Joe has taken over as leader of the boosters, it was weird (but I guess good for him) that he was busy with Lyla instead of there defending Eric’s honour. My presumption, based on our affinity for this character, that he would be at the very least torn between the two sides. Personally, if he fell anywhere but with Eric Taylor, I would be extremely disappointed.