“After the Fall”
November 4th, 2009
“What exactly does that mean, start over?”
Going into the show’s fourth season, the narrative was drawn as clearly as the zig-zagging border line: with two football teams in town, one led by our fearless hero and the other by the villainous interlopers, this season was going to be about the fight between the Lions and the Panthers. And the season finale drew out this narrative, pitting the respective opening games of the two teams against each other as Coach Taylor put together a group of scrappy underdogs and Wade Aikman looked to continue the Panthers’ momentum from last year’s state championship appearance.
But what the season premiere demonstrated, as we abandoned the Panthers narrative to witness the bludgeoning of the East Dillon Lions to the point of Eric Taylor forfeiting the game, is that the show can’t sustain that narrative. The East Dillon Lions are not ready to become rivals with their crosstown brethren, for as we learn here they are not actually a team at all. After the humiliation of their loss, the players are either disillusioned by the less than glorious nature of the team or angry at Coach’s hypocrisy to warn them against quitting when he did the very same thing on Friday night.
What Coach Taylor needs to do is start over not so much in terms of abandoning these players, but rather shifting his own narrative perspective to one of building a team more than building a competitive one. They’re not unconnected ideas, of course, but the show has to essentially take a step back from the season’s central premise to get the Lions (independent of the Panthers, unless when entirely necessary) up to fighting shape.
The result is another strong episode, but one which is somewhat trapped by the need to rewind the clock and yet also advance ongoing storylines that don’t necessarily relate to the team.
The reason you get together to watch game tape is to do one of two things: you either learn from your mistakes after a loss, or you celebrate the plays that brought you to victory. The gap between these two teams was easily presumed during the premiere, but that sequence showing us the Panther success and a wide angle view of the Lions’ failure confirms that there is no rivalry here, at least not on the field. I noted last week that this is the Lions’ story and not the story of their rivalry with the Panthers, as evidenced by the fact that we never returned to the Panthers’ game after the coin toss, but this episode confirms this: the Panthers are planning for their next game, not their next meeting with the Lions, and they are on such a different level that the show isn’t concerned about their success unless when it directly impacts the character and the team we are following.
In this episode, of course, we get the inevitable: upon first meeting Luke Cafferty, who unlike J.D. and the rest of the Panthers presented himself as a decent human being capable of not being a complete jerk, it was pretty predictable that he would eventually find himself in a Lions uniform. It’s not a good sign for the amount of time we’ll be spending with the Panthers that the one non-J.D. player we’ve met has now defected, and I think that’s for the best. I have my issues with this storyline, primarily why the purposefully convoluted redistricting wasn’t changed in order to allow this supposed star to play for the team he’s worked so hard to be a part of, but I like the way that new cast member Matt Lauria really plays Cafferty as someone too earnest by half. The scene where he negotiates with Tami is perhaps a bit overly emotional, but I love the moment where he apologizes for lying to her: the episode doesn’t delve into his back story any further than it needs to, but you can see how he was given a chance to live his dream against the odds by Joe McCoy and the Boosters, and how not taking that opportunity would have torn him up just as much.
When Luke shows up to the 10pm Lions practice wearing his Dillon Panthers shirt, we know it’s not intended as a slight: he’s going to a football practice, and that shirt is part of his football identity. When he eventually throws it into the fire, it’s a sign that he’s willing to follow Coach Taylor on a new journey, and that he’s willing to take part in a new battle. Luke’s arrival creates some problems we’ll be seeing in the weeks ahead (like how both Vince and Luke are running backs, and thus compete for the same position), but it also helps to create some interesting dynamics within the team. The premiere emphasized how the team was unorganized chaos without much sense of individual identity beyond Landry and Vince, and here we get a player who has a unique place within the team and whose integration will be a different sort of challenge for Coach Taylor to handle. I saw this coming from the moment we met Luke in the premiere, of course, but it was still really well handled and felt like the kind of story the redistricting was built for.
Everything involving the Lions and the Panthers in this one was pretty good, to be honest with you. This is two straight episodes with Tami getting one over on McCoy and Aikman, and that’s a trend I’d like to see continue. What works about Tami’s victories is that they’re never definitive: she may be able to stop McCoy from digging up the ancient past about previous Dillon Panthers, but she can’t stop him from souring the student body against her and making her life more difficult at the pep rally and beyond. However, we can’t help but love Tami for arguing about the other Boosters sitting in the room twisting their State Championship rings that McCoy would take away from them. It’s important to acknowledge that Joe McCoy is not Buddy Garrity, and he lacks a connection to this team beyond a desire for his son to win and move onto bigger things. He doesn’t actually care about their state championship rings or their past, and his willingness to tear it all apart shows his true colours in a way that the boosters won’t take well if they decide that his money and his son aren’t worth the risk to their legacy. Buddy stays with the Panthers because he fears his car dealership will be boycotted by the community for the abandonment, but his heart is with East Dillon and there may come a point in time where the real legacy of Dillon football is with Taylor and not with the glory on the West side.
While it was a bit reductive of Coach’s past attempts to hunt down individual players, there was some similarly enjoyable stuff when it came to Eric trying to pull together his team. From the scene with the white flags on the front lawn (and Tami trying desperately to remove them all before Eric wakes up) to his efforts to hunt down Vince both at home (where his mother, likely strung out, begs him for money) and while shooting hoops, Eric is trying to make something out of nothing, and ends up placing his trust in players like Vince (who needs this sense of purpose even if he’s turned off by the taunting following the forfeit) and Landry (who, in a nice bit of plotting, first resents the coach before eventually being the second to throw his jersey into the fire) to help bring the team together. And the reductiveness that makes it seem repetitive for us would seem doubly repetitive for Eric himself, who went from coaching a team with hope and a future to a team who doesn’t even exist until players work out their issues and choose to come to the field for a fresh start. In the process he runs into Landry’s sense of pride and Vince’s daddy issues, and while these aren’t entirely new ideas they felt natural in the context of the events being introduced.
Where the episode started to fall off the rails somewhat, if we’re being honest, is in the duelling storylines between the two ex-Panthers that remain within our ranks. The problem with the storylines offered Tim Riggins and (especially) Matt Saracen is that they are simultaneously too connected thematically and not connected enough practically to the rest of the story. In this episode, Matt visits with an avant garde metal worker who walks around in his underwear and is told that there is a single element of his artwork which doesn’t make the guy puke which he should focus on. Effectively, it’s a message that Matt should “start over,” which happens to be a key theme in the episode. However, the scenes don’t feel as if they have any real purpose, and while Smash and Street (in their goodbyes) both had periods of uncertainty they also felt more connected to either a compelling real world scenario (Street’s young child) or to part of the show’s existing aesthetic (Smash’s football dreams). Gilford is a good actor, and the scenes weren’t poorly conceived, but the storyline felt too conveniently themed in the same vein as the episode. I needed to see more of what Matt Saracen actually wanted, and a quick conversation in the car with Julie isn’t enough to do it for me.
And while Tim Riggins gets a bit more time here, and got more time in the opening episode, there’s something about his trajectory that similarly lacked focus here. It seemed like we were missing a few scenes where we saw why he was so willing to offer Coach Taylor help, and why he wasn’t at the 10pm practice to help bring the troops together. I was convinced that Tim was going to be the person who helped bring the team together, uniting them under one common goal, but this didn’t happen. On the one hand, I understand why: it is more valuable, and more powerful, for the new characters and the people on the team to self-actualize in this instance. On the other hand, it turned the scene into a random aside, as if Tim had simply been walking by and happened to enter into the episode’s main narrative. The rest of his story, as young Becky (Madison Burge) uses his tow truck for a free lift and bristles a bit as Tim moves into a trailer in her backyard after her mother offers it up to him, wasn’t bad so much as it was a simple “present a problem, offer a solution” scenario. I think using Tim to get to know Becky isn’t a bad idea, as I like her energy and straight talking thrown up against his stolid nature, but it just seemed like this was going through the motions of Tim achieving Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as opposed to establishing why he needs that or, more importantly, why he would be so eager to help out Eric with the Lions.
I think that both of these stories are interesting, but handling both of them in the same episode like this gives neither of them much spark. I’m fine with basically marking time with them before something more substantial happens, but both characters are aimless and wandering and whereas Smash and Street both had Coach Taylor to give them a hand and pull things together he can’t be in three places at once. It’s let these characters drift in a way that has narrative value, demonstrating how staying in Dillon has set them down paths that may not give them the opportunities they want or deserve, but it needs to be focused in order to tap into that. Both characters stumbled into ways to make life in Dillon work out for them, but the episode could have done more to indicate that those realities would make Tim happy to stay while they could offer Matt the ability to leave. I just want something more substantial from these two, and right now the show is in too many different places to give it to me.
But there’s a whole season ahead of us, and part of the episode’s modus operandi is basically throwing on the brakes: we’re not to the point where Saracen is ready to leave Dillon, or at the point where Tim Riggins is prepared to examine his future from a critical perspective, or at the point where the East Dillon Lions are a legitimate football team. The premiere gave us a taste of that last feeling before taking it all away, and now we get to see the show build from the ground up. And while that created a whole lot of moving pieces in this one, requiring that some of them take a back seat, it continues to set up into a season that plays into the show’s strengths. While not quite the pillar of narrative purity that the premiere was, building off of the strength of the finale, this nicely reorients the audience into what to expect in the weeks ahead.
- As Alan Sepinwall’s headline points out, the search for Vince immediately threw up “Where’s Wallace?” references for me. Speaking of Vince, his daddy issues also sent me back to 30 Rock, and the extended montage of Tracy Jordan’s “You’re not my dad” moments in childhood.
- The entire “You gotta find your inner pirate” sequence was a bit convenient (having a random passerby approach Eric about ways in which he should motivate the team), but the scene was intriguing enough as justification for Eric’s pirate-esque burning of the uniforms (which was great both as an evocative scene and for the hilarious final line of “I have to find a way to get new uniforms”) that I’ll let it pass as a bit of magic realism not that uncommon amongst football-crazy Texas.
- The Big Bang Theory did a storyline this week about the level to which high school football permeates Texas culture even for someone like Sheldon, so it was interesting to see that the East Dillon Lions, despite being a new team, were met with anger as a result of their loss. Julie walked through the darkened halls long enough to confirm the external shots of the school weren’t lying about its more “dangerous” state, but I do kind of want to see more of what life at East Dillon is like to understand how they relate with the team beyond their generalized frustration with the forfeit.
- I think the thing I find most bizarre about the craziness surrounding high school football is that so many people would willingly go to school on a Saturday – boggles my mind.
- We also got to meet Jurnee Smollett’s Jess Merriweather (who spelled out her last name very carefully) this week, the last of the new characters (I believe) to be introduced. She was a bit thinly drawn for my tastes, and it seemed like there was a scene or two missing in their storyline as well, but pairing her with Landry is never a bad way to bring a character into the fold (presuming Landry isn’t going to kill them), and Steve Harris is an enjoyable actor to have on board as her diner-owning/running father.
- “What are you doing?” “Drinkin’ wine.” – I love Connie Britton so much.