Friday Night Lights – “Stay”


December 9th, 2009

“What else do you want?”

Last season, when Friday Night Lights said goodbye to Jason Street and Smash Williams, they were leaving to be able to follow their dreams. Jason left Dillon so that he could be with his baby mama, while Smash left so that he could fulfill his dream of playing college football despite his recent injury. In both cases, what kept them in Dillon was out of their control: Street’s injury kept him from taking the path he had always imagined for himself, while Smash’s injury delayed what was supposed to be his triumphant moment. They did not so much stay in Dillon as they were forced to remain in Dillon, and as such we were able to view their eventual departures as an overcoming of unique circumstances.

However, if we root for Tim Riggins or Matt Saracen to leave Dillon, Texas, we are effectively arguing against staying rather than arguing for their departure. Dillon is holding these two characters back more than it is helping them move onto the next stage of their journey, and while both Jason and Smash found support and opportunity in Dillon that could give them the boost they needed it has become inherently clear that living in a trailer and delivering pizzas is not going to be a stepping stone to a prosperous future for either 7 or 33.

Accordingly, “Stay” is about those characters (and quite a few others) dealing with the separation anxiety that people have with the town of Dillon, the people who live in it, and the connections they made that cannot be overwritten so easily by things like common sense or opportunity. You may want to stay, but if you ask yourself what else you might want out of life you might find that staying isn’t going to achieve those goals. While not quite the emotional powerhouse of last week, it’s an almost too consistently themed hour that connects well with the last we’ll see of Matt Saracen for at least a little while.

The biggest challenge facing Friday Night Lights this season with the exit of Matt Saracen is managing to make the inevitable both dramatic and interesting. You see, those of us “in the know” have been aware of his departure for quite some time, and the end of last season (with Matt choosing to ignore his Chicago scholarship in favour of staying with Julie and his Grandmother) set up a circumstance where we wanted Matt to both leave (to escape Dillon) and stay (to be with Julie, and to be with his grandmother). The show needed to convince us why the former was the right move, and to keep his departure from feeling like an abandonment.

And ultimately, his father’s death was the ideal catalyst: his grandmother is pocketing a $100,000 gratuity for her son’s untimely death, and Julie begins to feel Matt’s unhappiness enough that the weight of being the reason he stayed (or one of the reasons) gets to her. And thus it makes sense that Matt, after their trip to Austin makes them both question why he stayed, Matt decides to leave his mother to take care of his grandmother while he drives off to parts unknown. Gilford got his big emotional moment last week, and here he relied on his usual brand of quiet contemplation: Matt was reflecting back on the past few months and realizing that it’s now or never, and watching Julie realize the same thing and eventually collapse onto the floor once back home was as heartbreaking as Matt’s escape was uplifting (albeit with a healthy dose of uncertainty). We’re still going to be checking in with Matt later in the season, which I am definitely looking forward to, but that final shot would have been a fine way to leave the character (who, with far less of a “purpose” than Smash/Street is inevitably going to have a less finite end on the show).

The story was surrounded by a number of characters who are at that point where they’re resisting moving on from their current positions, or regretting moving on, or just about anything else you can connect to the theme. You have Tami’s concern about Julie being in Austin, which is really anxiety over her eventual departure to College, which was basically an excuse for Connie Britton to bring the house down for 40 minutes. Then you have the return of Lyla, rekindling her romance with Tim just long enough for her to realize that as much as she misses Dillon she needs to leave before she ends up managing Riggins’ Rigs (and so that Tim can finding something else to want other than her). And Becky, still hung up on Tim Riggins, refuses to move onto a relationship with Luke (with whom she shared a quasi-date last week, and who is a pillar of chivalry with his gummi bears and earnest desire to see her again) despite Riggins’ insistence that nothing is going to happen. You could even throw the brief scene of Jess refusing to accept Landry’s suggesting of investigating their relationship further in there if you wanted to.

Some of the stories worked better than others (Minka Kelly did some of her best non-melodramatic work on the show in her brief reappearance, and Taylor Kitsch was great overall, but I find Becky and Jess to be sort of all over the place right now), and there was never really enough time to tell the football story they appeared to want to tell. That Eric’s voiceover played over the team leaving the field, robbing us of seeing his big speech, made it seem like a definite footnote, one that should have been a bigger deal all things considered. The game was far too quick and romanticized to really mean anything: the team had supposedly only punted three times, but we never got to see the Lions defence make their presence known, nor did we ever see when the old Lions quarterback (who never got a name) gave way to Vince as the new leader. As someone who knows a bit about football, I was still confused about how all of that came together. I like that Vince and Luke are friends now (the Sears scene was fun), and I liked seeing Billy and Tim back on the field to help get the team in shape, but when they rush the football stories like that they feel too marginalized.

All in all, it was never going to be an episode like last week, but I thought there was some good stuff here that does drive home the thematic relevance of Saracen’s departure. It will be interesting to see how the aftermath works out, and to what degree his absence will see the show move further with the Lions (who are clearly being built up as a spoiler for the Panthers, considering that the episode bothered to indicate that this week’s opponents are expected to be the Panthers’ biggest rivals).

Cultural Observations

  • If this is the last we see of Saracen in Dillon, it was good to give him one last scene with Landry and a couple of nice scenes with Julie (especially their picnic on the hood of the car). I have to presume, though, that he’ll be back, as there is no way we won’t be getting one last hurrah for Grandma Saracen.
  • Nice to get to see a bit more of Vince’s mother, although it seemed like a subplot that deserved more time. Vince also got that odd scene of his efforts to hit up Jess at her place of employment, leading to her father all but throwing the kid out the door. I didn’t entirely “get” the scene, as while I know he’s interested the show has always sort of pulled him back from the brink of being a dick.
  • Very fun montage of the Lions doing media for the big game, although I think Landry has done a very similar interview in the past (which was perhaps the joke?).

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