December 2nd, 2009
The last time someone died on Friday Night Lights, the show took what is unanimously considered its largest misstep. This time around, the show has delivered perhaps one of its most effective episodes yet.
This is, of course, not to suggest that anyone is surprised that the death of a potential rapist is in any way comparable to the scenario we see in “The Son,” but it demonstrates that death is still an enormously powerful thing within this show’s universe despite Landry’s murderous ways. The show has always been about the way its characters respond to the adversity of crisis or in some instances the adversity bestowed upon them by the simple reality of their lives, and here grief becomes a necessary component of that universe.
And since Sepinwall, Poniewozik and Phipps already posted detailed thoughts about the episode, and because critics have been hyping it for a few weeks now and thus everyone know it’s pretty great, what will follow will be less than comprehensive but nonetheless extensive, as I do have some quasi-complaints (scandal) about shortcuts this particular story takes.
The one thing that sort of bugs me about “The Son” is the way the Taylors become a pseudo-family for Matt Saracen. Note that I don’t have any problem with the Taylors taking this role in his life: Eric has been more of a father to Matt than his actual father in recent years, and Tami Taylor has never quite left a motherly guidance counsellor/quasi-mother-in-law position with a player like Matt. The problem is that there was an exchange of duties that was done entirely off-screen, a scene that doesn’t seem to exist in the context of the episode but would actually be a substantial part of this grieving process.
I’m speaking, perhaps too obtusely, about Kim Dickens’ Shelby Saracen, a character that has a less complicated relationship with Matt’s father than Matt does (having wiped her hands of him while accepting the consequence of wiping her hands of Matt) and who for the most part never gets a single scene where we understand how she feels about her son (their son) going through this pain. And I feel like we needed a scene of Shelby explaining why she isn’t more involved here, why she is going to spend her time helping LuAnn while Matt deals with all of the arrangements. I needed to see them get into a fight over it, or to have Shelby tell Matt that she can’t deal with any of it, or to have LuAnn demand that Shelby have no involvement with the proceedings.
And yet, for the most part, the show chose to depict the Saracen household as inherently stable, Shelby making popcorn for the kids when Landry and Julie stop by with a movie and doing LuAnn’s hair before the funeral. I understand why the show does this, as it wants to emphasize that Matt is adrift in his struggle between grieving over a lost father and hating the man and the fact that he was never able to say it to his face. And I love the scenes where Tami and Eric become part of Matt journey, Tami setting a slimy funeral home operator straight regarding Matt’s financial position and Eric walking him home following a complex evening of alcohol-fueled eulogizing on the football field and viewing his father’s charred remains.
I just felt as if we needed a scene of where Shelby stood on this matter, understanding that she has taken a role in Matt’s life that goes beyond taking care of his grandmother so that he can take a job and live something of a normal life with Julie. The show has just sort of presumed she was there for much of the season, and while it’s clear that she was never an actual mother to him, part of me believes that in this moment more than any other she would have had a story to tell, and no one in their right mind would question whether the great Kim Dickens would be able to convey that story. Perhaps we’re going to get the story in the weeks to come, but part of me feels like it will be too late, and that the real potential for the character to fit into this story was here in her son’s moment of need and in her own complicated relationship with Henry Saracen.
Of course, this is only a 44-minute television show, and more problematically it’s a show where Matt’s journey is nearly at an end (he’s around for only three more episodes total, which from what I’ve heard are not all consecutive). As a result, the focus remains on his character and his relationship with people like his football buddies, with people like the Taylors, and with his deceased father who he knows, for a fact, isn’t funny. And Zack Gilford is so bloody fantastic doing all of it, especially everything from his football field eulogy to his eventual compromise (searching through his memories for one that tries to capture the fine line between impatience and anger that defined his father’s existence and could remain open to interpretation), so it’s not like I’m here complaining that one missed scene hampered the episode’s effectiveness.
However, what always worked so well about Smash’s exit was the role his mother played in it. I miss Smash’s Mom almost as much as I miss Smash, primarily because she was always an important part of his life despite know what she couldn’t be the only part of it. She allowed Eric to take a substantial role in her son’s life because she knew he needed a father figure, and while she wasn’t about to take charity she was going to help her son realize his dreams with the help of his coach and friend. What I needed here was a scene to show that Shelby has given up on the role of being Mother, and that the scene where the Taylor take both LuAnn and Matt to the Funeral Home didn’t involve Shelby because she had to work, or because she also needed a break. And if we had gotten that scene, I feel as if the episode would have felt more complete in terms of Matt’s position in life as opposed to his position within the show.
It’s ultimately a reminder that we’re not watching the same show we were watching last season, in terms of the series’ priorities. We open with the East Dillon Lions, who have no relationship whatsoever with Matt Saracen, and we spend considerable parts of the episode watching how Becky (performing in the Young Miss Texas pageant), Luke (dealing with J.D. McDick) and Vince (who, fittingly for Michael B. Jordan, is in the West Texas version of The Wire) are fitting into this universe. And while I thought the Becky storyline continues to accomplish very little (and the combination of daddy issues and her obsession with Tim are proving too rote for such a good show), I liked seeing Luke stand up for himself slowly but surely with J.D. (and eventually running into Becky at just the right time to sell their eventual relationship), and watching as Vince balances learning how to steal cars with speaking to young football players about being a role model is definitely a step forward for the character.
There’s just points where you want to be able to toss them aside for a moment and remind ourselves that Matt Saracen is almost gone from this show’s narrative, and to spend time at a beauty pageant feels inherently false when there was considerably more story to tell within Matt’s world. It probably seems like I’m unfairly picking on the episode, which was unquestionably one of the most emotional and effective the show has ever done, but I do feel as if there were some missed opportunities here that were perhaps necessarily missed in order to maintain momentum for the show’s other side. There’s going to be a Season 5 of this show, and Matt Saracen isn’t going to be a part of it, and sometimes that becomes problematically clear (even if it’s probably for the best in the end).
- Thank you to whoever decided to put Gracie’s hair into pigtails: that child will now be 75% less mortified when looking back on her acting days from her adult years.
- I thought the chain of events in the Luke story was perfectly depicted: of course J.D. would want to pretend as if nothing happened, and of course J.D. would be the kind of kid to do drive-by paintball shootings. It was just the right level of douche for Luke to step up and realize he needs new friends, and even thought it was a bit convenient (considering she had just been rejected by Tim) the excuse to have Matt Lauria shirtless for his meeting with Becky helped solidify what was effectively their meet cute.
- Speaking of J.D., the scene of J.D. and his father showing up at the door with a basket from the Boosters was honestly so perfect I didn’t know what to do with myself. Matt Saracen literally wanted to kill the messenger, and who can blame him? That Joe McCoy’s arrogance extends so far as to fail to realize that he (and his son of all people) are not the right medium for that message (better conveyed through a non-affiliated third party) is completely believable, but also inherently terrifying. Loved the way Gilford played the scene.
- I could have sworn Eric called Landry by his real name earlier in the season, so what was up with returning to Lance here?
- I understand that a lack of chairs (logical in a small town) would result in women sitting and men standing, but it created odd centrality to characters like Becky and Mindy that made for a strange visual.