I get the sense that most of Tuned Inland’s Friday Night Lights fans are waiting to watch it on NBC, so most of the readers who weighed in asked that I wait until the NBC run to post about season 4. For various reasons—mostly personal laziness—I’ve abided by the request. But last night’s episode, “The Son,” was so good that it deserves a comment. (Obvious, but note: Spoilers ahead!)
I’m not going to pretend that Zach Gilford has a chance at an Emmy nomination next year. But put him down now on your People-Who-Got-Ripped-Off-for-an-Emmy-Nomination list. As he took Matt Saracen through the stages of grieving for a father whom he resented—or actively hated—most of his life, he was flat-out stunning.
Even within the world of a cult show like FNL, Matt Saracen is a difficult kind of character to stand out for playing. He’s not a tragic stud like Riggins, a comic-relief player like Landry, an emotions-on-the-sleeve character like Tami (or Smash) or a rugged leader like Eric. Matt is the very definition of even-keeled, a kid of forced early maturity who holds it together when his grandma is losing it, his girlfriend is in crisis, his team is fighting or his family is falling apart. He’s the good kid. It’s hard for good kids to win Emmys.
In “The Son,” he was given one more keep-it-together task that was beyond even him: to be the good son and maintain the phony facade of reverence for a father he resented. For once, his easygoing, self-deprecating facade crumbled. And it was magnificent.
From the moment Matt talked to the military messenger, whose description of his “funny” dad was so alien Matt thought he might have been talking about the wrong soldier, he was faced with his problem: could he dutifully play along with the phony reverent version of his father who was going to be presented for the sake of decorum? Or would he take a hard, honest look about his feelings toward his father—and, for that matter, his feelings toward himself as the kid left behind to take care of grandma and deliver pizza.
To FNL’s and Gilford’s credit, they both showed that facing these truths was not easy. We saw that literally in Matt’s shocked, hurt, horrified reaction to seeing his disfigured father in the coffin. (Among the excellent things about that scene is that it left the question open as to whether the funeral director—an exploitative chisler though he may have been—was right that Matt’s impetuous demand was a bad idea.) We saw it figuratively in his breakdown with the Taylors, where he acknowledged how destructive his anger at his father had been to him—destructive, and perversely useful, as his dad gave him a convenient place to focus all his anger, whatever the reason.
In the end, Matt eulogized his father, recalling his own “funny” story of grocery-shopping with his dad. The beauty of the story is that it didn’t actually seem that funny. But the dual image it conjured—a very young Matt, seeing something funny in what really seemed like his dad’s borderline-angry acting out, and the Matt of today, trying to make the best of the closest thing to a fond memory he has—told us all we needed to know about Saracen. Maybe he was being dutiful again in the end, trying to give the mourners the image of a mourning son he knew they needed to see. Maybe he was trying to convince himself.
Either way, what Gilford showed us was a boy, who had to be his own father for so long, accepting what it meant to truly be fatherless. What a good kid. What a good actor.