January 19th, 2011
If Friday Night Lights had ended after three seasons, I would have been incredibly disappointed. The fourth and fifth seasons of the show have featured some tremendous moments, introducing new characters and offering more opportunities for Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton to demonstrate their command of the Taylor family dynamic. The idea of losing the tragedy of “The Son,” and never meeting Vince Howard and Luke Cafferty, is the sort of televisual counterfactual that I don’t even want to consider.
And yet, “Don’t Go” made me consider it. While the episode demonstrates the degree to which these two short seasons have made a considerable impact, it also demonstrates how far one character in particular has fallen. While the series may be reaching its conclusion, there has been no attempt to sugar coat the fact that not everything is going to turn out in the end. In fact, “Don’t Go” is very much about the interrogation of what exactly would constitute a happy ending for this series, questioning if there is any combination of conclusions which won’t simultaneously touch our hearts and break them in half.
When Tim Riggins rode off to college at the end of the third season, it was a hopeful ending. It suggested that he was turning his life around, that he would go on to be a college football star and find his place in the world. Now, I think the fourth season adequately showed that this wasn’t the life that Tim wanted to lead, but I can’t help but wish that we could just go back there. I think that Matt Saracen needed to stay in Dillon, needed to deal with his father’s death and to head to Chicago on his own terms. However, I don’t think that Tim Riggins needed to get himself caught up in illegal activities, forced to take a bullet for his brother and head to prison for crimes he only committed to make sure his nephew would know his father.
From a dramatic standpoint, I think “Don’t Go” makes it worth it. Taylor Kitsch has never been better than in his depiction of a broken man struggling to find perspective on his potential parole. He resents the brother who necessitated his time in prison, he’s ashamed of the way he let down his coach, and he finds a twisted (but welcome) bit of humor in Buddy Garrity stepping up when no one expected him to. And yet the moment isn’t triumphant: even though we can surmise that a combination of a supportive family and a certain job will likely be enough to win Tim his parole, Tim’s conversation with Eric shows an insecurity that is truly heartbreaking. It is a sign that prison has not hardened Tim to the outside world (as it might have seemed in his first conversation with Billy) so much as it has forced him to doubt himself and feel as though he is unworthy of the things being said about him.
But as compelling as that is, and as much as the show’s realism has always been its greatest quality, I still want to hit rewind and take Tim back to a future as a college football player. However, even beyond not wanting to deny one of the series’ most effective qualities, its use within this season as a point of comparison for the other characters is equally valuable. Continuing the sort of counterfactual feel which has connected past characters with new ones throughout the season, Luke is wondering whether college is really the right path for him. He’s stuck between getting out, moving on with his life, and potentially settling down into the life he once believed he needed to escape from. And yet he realizes that football wasn’t an escape so much as it was a form of community – it’s unclear whether he would have felt the same had he remained a Dillon Panther, if he had never met Eric Taylor, but he is now able to imagine a future which doesn’t involve running away.
That, of course, connects comfortably with the other side of the episode as the players grapple with Eric’s potential move to Shane State. This is, in many ways, another retread of past scenarios: it’s right back to season one, when the Panthers learned before the State championship that Eric would be leaving to take the QB coaching position at TMU. His conversations with Vince here certainly echo back to his relationship with Matt Saracen, but what I think resonates most is the idea that Eric stays because of the idea of Dillon as “home.” When Vince comes to his door and explains what he wasn’t able to explain in front of the assembly, it is a reminder that Eric Taylor has no need of recruitment funds and swimming pools in order to build his own empire of sorts. And that we believe he would make that decision demonstrates the strength of his bond with Vince and with the ragtag team he transformed into would-be champions who seem to be back on track to live up to his white board prediction.
“Don’t Go” did make me wonder, though, whether or not we’re supposed to believe that Eric is making the right decision. Tami’s knowing smile shows that she understood his decision completely, so it’s not as if he has made a terrible mistake, but when will it be okay for Eric to leave East Dillon? After all of the characters we know are gone? There will be more Vince Howards, and there will be more Luke Caffertys, just as there were more Matt Saracens, and more Jason Streets, and everything in between. At what point will it be okay for Eric to break the cycle, or will it never be okay? Is Eric Taylor’s “Happy Ending” the college coaching job he’s always dreamed of, or a lifetime of turning young high school kids into men one Friday night at a time?
I don’t have an easy answer to this question. However, “Don’t Go” made it pretty clear that Friday Night Lights will not find one. There are still signs that Tim Riggins will not easily transition back into his old life, just as there are signs that Vince’s father will not go gently into the night. However, without laying the groundwork for a perfectly happy ending, “Don’t Go” repositioned the Lions’ trajectory and brought the characters into alignment for the final three hours before we saw goodbye for the last time – whether the story is over or not.
- Can we get another hand for just how great Derek Phillips has been this year? The decision to keep us connected with the Riggins family could have felt perfunctory to allow for Tim’s return into the story, but Phillips and Oristano have been tremendous and maybe my favorite part of the season.
- I have come to like Becky, but her various conversations with Luke in this episode were…cute. I feel as though the character has no sense of forward motion herself, perhaps because she’s younger and thus not quite as ready to be thinking about her future. Still, I worry that her future involves the Landing Strip, so there’s still room for the character to become arced in the next few episodes.
- No sign of Julie this week – a smart choice, pacing wise, but it does make me wonder what we’ll see from her next week.