August 6th, 2010
The best compliment I can pay Friday Night Lights right now is that I left its fourth season finale wanting so much more than I received.
I know this is normally considered a negative statement, in that the show was somehow lacking in something that I desired, but that’s sort of the point of the ensemble drama: by showing us the lives of so many characters, there will inevitably be plots we don’t get to follow, relationships we don’t get to spend time with, and stories that could have had broader implications. The mark of a good ensemble drama is that we actually wanted to fill in those gaps, and the mark of a great one is that even with those gaps we are enormously content with the story that has been put on screen and want to see more.
Friday Night Lights hasn’t had a perfect fourth season, trapped between interesting new characters and paying service to those who came before, but the world of Dillon, Texas remains as vibrant and empowering as ever before. “Thanksgiving” is neither a definitive goodbye to original cast members nor a defining moment for the new characters who arrived earlier this season, but rather a series of moments that define this ensemble and the world in which they play football and, more importantly, live their lives. And while some part of me wanted a three-hour finale, giving us the scenes that it felt like we needed before the various stories came to an end, the selective gaze which Jason Katims adopts in the episode feels satisfying as a whole, bringing to an end an uneven but affecting season of network television’s finest ensemble drama series which bodes well for the final chapter this fall on DirecTV.
I think the one problem that “Thanksgiving” has is that, unlike Season Three, it’s trying to do everything all at once. Last season, the two goodbye arcs (Smash and Jason Street) were done by the time the show got to its finale, and the football climax was in the penultimate episode of the season, which allowed the finale to serve as a sort of denouement and a launching pad for where the show headed in Season Four. Here, the show is dealing with the end of Matt Saracen and Tim Riggins’ storylines in the series (at least in terms of remaining substantial parts of the cast, the door remaining open for both to return for a guest spot), the climax of the season’s football stories, the personal journeys of the new characters introduced this season, plus Tami Taylor’s employment struggles.
In the case of every story, you wish that there was more time for things to develop. For example, Luke’s parents are extremely problematic for me, in that I have trouble reconciling Mrs. Cafferty’s efforts to get Tami removed as Principal with her excitement at watching Luke play football. This is especially true since the show initially established a narrative wherein Luke’s parents didn’t care about football, and yet there they are in the final game cheering him on. Luke was the one character that felt like he bounced around a lot within the narrative, and while I really like Matt Lauria I don’t think the character really came into his own. Between being caught in the Panthers/Lions battle early on, then getting Becky pregnant, then becoming dependent on painkillers, his final moment of helping rescue the game despite being quite seriously injured didn’t feel like his story, but rather an extension of Coach Taylor’s desperation (using an injured player as he was).
This is inevitable, and I think that Luke is a character that can grow a lot in the show’s final season. However, by comparison I thought Vince and Becky (the two other new characters who got considerable arcs of their own) both really came into their own late in the season, settling comfortable into a particular role within the ensemble. At various points, Becky and Vince became central figures in the narrative, the former through her pregnancy and the latter through being associated with some dangerous criminals, and yet the best thing you can say about them is how nicely they fit within “Thanksgiving.” Becky becomes a member of the family in Tim’s desire to avoid disappointing her, while Vince becomes part of Eric’s personal mission – each character is more or less devoid of real drama, with Vince’s mother comfortably in rehab and Landry’s frustration over Vince’s relationship with Jess overshadowed by the Big Cat Clash, and yet they feel like they have become part of the series’ ensemble. I wouldn’t say that their season arcs were necessarily all that cohesive, and the criminal element of things was especially problematic, but the end result is that we can comfortably shift our gaze to what they will be up to next season.
“Thanksgiving” is mostly tied up in what are technically goodbyes, however, as Matt Saracen flies back to Chicago to continue his new life while Tim Riggins sacrifices his own freedom in order to ensure that his brother will be able to keep his life on track. In the former case, the goodbye is sort of a restatement of what we saw earlier: instead of having Matt and Julie persist in a relationship where they live in the past, they’re given a chance to reconnect before Julie chooses to end things before she gets caught up in Matt’s dreams instead of choosing her own. In some ways, this isn’t Saracen’s goodbye at all: he doesn’t return because he has to tie up some loose ends, but rather because Julie needs to be able to follow her own path. It creates a really effective moment which brings Matt back to Dillon without violating the emotions surrounding his exit, using his memory as a way to allow Julie to move forward.
Riggins’ goodbye is similar, in that it is designed to allow Billy to move forward – the entire episode is interested in establishing a future, and so it is fitting that Taylor Kitsch’s exit is done less to stop his character’s journey and more to allow for other characters (Becky, maybe even Billy) to remain part of this world. It’s unfortunate that we need to say goodbye to Taylor Kitsch, and I think the episode somewhat romanticizes his action in order to get past the fact that this was Billy’s fault, but that scene between the two characters as Tim tells Billy his plan is the most emotional in the episode. Derek Phillips is fantastic throughout, especially during that speech at the Taylors’ Thanksgiving dinner: he thinks that he is giving what could be the last such speech he ever gives, but what he doesn’t realize is that he’s convincing Tim that he can’t allow that to happen. I’m sure that we’ll be seeing Tim at least once more in the final season, but if this is his final definitive act I think it’s the sort of sacrifice which fits the character: after leaving college, Tim was struggling to find his way, and to see him come so close to making something of his life before being derailed is tragic until the moment he takes ownership. At that point, as much as the legal/criminal element of things gave me terrible season two flashbacks at various points, it feels like his journey has been given purpose, especially in terms of transitioning Becky into the cast.
The other long term storyline being wrapped up is, of course, Tami Taylor’s battle with the school board surrounding the abortion issue. Connie Britton is fantastic in the finale, capturing her character’s anger and frustration with the situation while also acknowledge how much it hurts her to be at odds with the job she loves. While it’s a bit convenient, the final decision feels like the right one: Tami’s rivalry with the Panthers was played out in the early parts of the season, so moving her over to East Dillon is a nice way to set things up for the fifth season considering that the conflict between the two schools is unlikely to be as prominent as the Lions chart their own course. It also perfectly fits her character, as for all of the issues I had with the one-dimensionality of the threats levied against her it makes perfect sense for Tami to try to avoid an extended lawsuit and to end the ugliness before it starts. Sure, the idea that Luke’s mother would be happy about Tami transitioning from the Principal at one school to the Guidance Counselor at her son’s school seems incredibly unlikely, but the smile on Tami’s face as she joins her family in putting up Christmas decorations says all it needs to say about her journey this season.
However, in the world of Friday Night Lights everything stops when the football begins, which is part of the joy of the series: Eric’s story here is no more complicated than personal pride, looking to play spoiler (as we all predicted from the point the season began) to the heavily favoured Panthers. The show did some good work building up to this moment in the penultimate episode, and it ended up being just a simply told tale of a football underdog: I think Landry was ultimately let down by the season, dumped by Jess and largely an afterthought for Matt, but it made sense that he would step up when it mattered most and that Eric would put his trust in as many different narratives (Vince’s leadership, Luke’s return from injury, Landry’s confidence) in putting together a victory. While he emphasizes that you win by pitting your strengths against their weaknesses, you also win when every part of the team is working together, and the game was nicely built around that principle to the point where Eric successfully won himself a prideful moment and won the Lions a place in the conversation next season.
The end of Season Three was perfect: the setup for the East Dillon/Dillon rivalry was just a stroke of genius, and the fourth season had high expectations as a result. However, part of what Katims establishes in the finale is that sometimes the most obvious setups don’t go as you think they will, heading in directions that you didn’t see coming. He could have played out the rivalry in a pretty straightforward fashion and gotten a pretty tremendous season, but I think he likes to capture the ability for life to take you in unexpected directions (which explains Landry the Murderer, even if it can’t make up for how terrible that storyline was). In some ways, the fourth season comes together as I imagine the second season would have if it had been able to finish, making the most out of some difficult storylines by emphasizing first and foremost the sense of community which bonds them together, whether it be the Riggins family unit being maintained through Tim’s sacrifice or the Taylor family each heading into a future full of potential.
There’s nothing perfect about “Thanksgiving,” or the fourth season, but the messiness is sort of the charm: with so many characters to deal with, and so many things to set up, that watching the finale made me wish a great deal that Season Five was starting tomorrow seems to be to be something to be thankful for.
- I’ll be curious when next season starts, precisely: Season Three had the benefit of flashing forward to the end of the school year in the finale, but we don’t have that luxury here, and so I’m looking forward to seeing how that comes together.
- As for Landry’s future, which is sadly not substantial enough to earn a paragraph, it makes sense: going to Chicago with Matt is the right move for him at this stage, as he searches for his identity in a town which keeps kicking him in the teeth romantically.
- As always, some nice comedy here, highlighted by Billy Riggins’ offscreen “Mindy, I think we have poop.” I’ve been avoiding all spoilers, but I really hope that we’re not losing the Riggins clan in its entirety as we did when Smash exited the series (Mama Smash 4 Lyfe!).
- One of the season’s problems was that they kept running into circumstances when characters who had left the series largely due to the actors moving onto new projects should have logically returned: they never address why Tyra and Lyla didn’t return for Thanksgiving, for example. In a packed finale, they obviously would have made things even more crowded, but a brief mention would have been nice (especially since both could return for final goodbyes).
- Neither submitted the finale, but want to take this chance to acknowledge how much Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton deserved their Emmy nominations – they’re both long shots (Chandler, especially), but it’s nonetheless a beautiful capper to the year.