Friday Night Lights – “In the Skin of a Lion”

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“In the Skin of a Lion”

November 11th, 2009

It isn’t precisely a dud, but “In the Skin of a Lion” is certainly the weakest episode of the fourth season thus far. It’s really an issue of premise more than it is of execution: every scene and storyline that they ask these actors to portray is effective and hitting the right notes, but there are some underlying imbalances to be found within them.

It’s a problem that the show had, to some degree in its third season, but which felt overcome by an intense emotional centre that kept the show balanced. Part of what the episode is about is how that emotional core is absent in East Dillon, and while the episode works to bring it back the vacuum at the centre of the East Dillon Lions makes this episode distinctly less enjoyable or empowering than the episodes which came before it.

Now, there’s no question that this in many ways makes sense: we’re supposed to feel as if Eric Taylor has no idea what he’s doing, and we’re supposed to sense that Buddy Garrity feels out of place with the Panthers boosters, and we’re supposed to know that Matt Saracen is aimless working at Panther Pizza and staying in Dillon. But while I applaud the episode for thematic consistency of sorts, it seemed as if the point was made while moving away form the thematic consistency of the season thus far. The episode was predicated on people believing that the Lions aren’t going to make it, and that everything is going to fall apart, which is in direct opposition to how we as an audience feel about the team and about Eric Taylor’s ability to lead it. And while there’s a value to the show’s narrative in making this distinction, it seemed like it wanted to do so many things at once that it never quite clicked for me.

There were some great scenes in this one that surrounded this issue, like the drive through the East Dillon community to collect donations. The scene says a lot about how dire the team’s position is, as the only money they’re getting is that which Coach Taylor gives to Tim Riggins to give to the crowd (some of whom aren’t even willing to give away someone else’s money for the cause). This storyline ultimately led to the big game, where a single touchdown (off of a fumbled field goal attempt) is enough to bring the school’s principal around to the cause, and to keep the team motivated going forward. I think, if this had been the only instance where it felt like the team was effectively losing the plot, unable to pull in the local community, it might have felt more effective.

But the episode was quite insistent on taking this theme and applying it to everyone. When it comes to applying it to Eric himself, as he writes a personal cheque for new jerseys and hides it from Tami, the storyline works because of how great Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton are. The show has often been successful taking somewhat clichéd relationship stories and turning them around, and this one felt emotional and visceral because of how great the actors were. And similarly, we know that Matt Saracen is going to be leaving Dillon in time, so taking this as an opportunity for his new mentor to drop hints to Julie (and Matt) that he’s wasting his potential in Dillon for reasons outside of himself (Julie, his grandmother) makes a fair bit of sense.

However, it felt like it was spread out too thin. While it makes sense for Saracen to fall under this theme, to have an episode about him leaving for an entire day and not even bringing up his grandmother felt strange, and feels like we’re not seeing all of the parts of his story. I’d have gladly sacrificed the “Julie vs. Religion” runner that went through the episode for a bit more time with the Saracens, although again there was nothing wrong with it: Britton and Teegarden nail the mother/daughter interactions, but I’m simply questioning if they were really necessary to the pacing and effectiveness of this particular episode.

And while I really liked the idea of Vince and Luke dueling for the spot of running back, the storyline felt underdeveloped as well. While I thought Luke’s half of the storyline made a lot of sense, as Taylor’s distracted state means he starts to neglect Luke (who Riggins discovers just wants to be part of a team, and who feels that Eric hates him because of the situation with the Panthers) and Luke in turn tries harder to impress him. We learned more about his background, discovering that his parents are not supportive of his football aspirations and that their farm ties him geographically to their area (which helps answer why the borders weren’t drawn around him, if not exactly why we’ve never heard of him before), and the episode set Luke up for that final moment.

But for Vince, the show simply brought back the former Lion who Landry fought with to plant seeds of racism, thus giving him his motivation. I thought adding racism into the equation was entirely unnecessary, as was the idea of placing Vince in direct opposition to Luke. I think it would have made more sense if they had stuck with the idea that Vince rejects Eric because he’s acting like a father figure: daddy issues might not be any more original than racism, but I think the episode could have been more powerful if it had centered the team’s problems around Eric himself (and thus his struggle playing both coach/booster role) and less about the other dynamics between team members. The football scenes could have also used a few more shots on the field itself to really personalize the conclusion: shooting at a wide angle and never quite giving us enough of Luke’s frustration seemed false, as if his part of the storyline disappeared once Vince’s took over. It just felt unbalanced, and that’s not entirely normal for the show.

The episode’s finest moment was also its more predictable, as Buddy Garrity finally realizes that for all of his concerns over his car dealership he is ultimately not a Panther anymore, so long as the Panthers represent the kind of culture which goes after Tami Taylor’s job for simply following the rules. Brad Leland absolutely nailed that sequence as, having already been told by Eric that the Panther organization is starting to fall away from him, he simply gives up everything he’s built and realizes that the football legacy lies elsewhere. It’s a great scene that emphasizes how he has felt lost within one organization and will now look to another.

It just feels like this story could have been told more effectively, whether by streamlining it (getting rid of the Riggins/Becky flirtations, as fun as they were on occasion, for one) or finding a better way to bring it all together in the end. The fact that things come together really by chance, as a fumbled play turns into a touchdown, seems to send the message that these things just work themselves out, or that the characters have been given a reprieve to think things through next time around. I know it might be too soon for people to actually start working out their issues, but I feel as if the muddled nature of the characters’ journeys kept the episode from coming together as much as it could have.

Not a bad hour by any means, considering how great the performances were throughout, but just not quite up to the strength of the last couple of weeks.

Cultural Observations

  • I’ve got serious issues about Coach Taylor deciding that Landry should suddenly become a kicker, and that he would rely on him in such a high pressure situation. The scene with Landry and Jess was fun and all, and Landry makes far more sense as a kicker than anything other position on a football team, but it seemed more than a bit random and could have been better handled if we understood more of the logic behind it.
  • I also think that having Vince and Luke both playing defence needed to be contextualized: if the argument is that the team has so few good players that it was necessary, the show needs to tell us that. As it was, it felt like a contrived reason to create the tension-filled interception return.
  • We learn this week that Jess’ father was once a football player himself, and considering he owns a local business and is played by a recognizable actor one has to presume he’s the kind of person who could be a useful booster (in terms of support if not finances) if he wasn’t so down on football since his younger days.
  • As far as product placement goes, Under Armor is probably pretty happy with this one, as it makes their sales rep seem like the nicest guys ever. In fact, he might have seemed TOO nice, giving people a false impression of what these reps can do in this economic climate. “Hey, can’t you be like that guy on Friday Night Lights?”
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