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FNL Watch: Leveled Playing Field

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Spoilers for Friday Night Lights coming up:

Two exchanges between Eric and Tami Taylor stood out to me in this episode. The first is the most obvious, is the one that played off the condition of the Lions’ home field on the eve of the Panther game, which became a metaphor for the rough situations nearly all of the featured characters found themselves in leading up to the season finale. “I am not playing on a fair field here,” the beleaguered Eric tells Tami, who’s facing her own unfair fight in trying to keep her job. “I know,” she says. “That makes two of us.”

The other exchange comes at the end of the episode, and it’s just as important as a counterpoint. Having had the facts of the situation laid out for her—if she doesn’t apologize, despite having followed procedure in advising Becky, she will lose her job, legal case or not—Tami tells Eric: “I’m going to make a statement.” Eric asks: “What statement are you going to make?” She doesn’t answer.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, much of Friday Night Lights is about what it’s like to deal with an unfair playing field. The show is unusually, unsparongly honest about how people’s lives are determined by their starting conditions, by their economic class, and by forces beyond their control. That’s an important part of FNL’s greatness. But by itself it could lead to a fatalism that could make for poor drama (though one could argue that The Wire is an important exception) and for a poor life. Yes, people’s circumstances often determine their outcomes, and it’s a bad narrative that tries to deny this. But that’s not all there is to life. There is still some room for free will, some room for authorship, even if you are not guaranteed a happy ending. Characters still have choice, and thus responsibility.

Yes, things are stacked against you. Yes, the opposition is not playing fair. Yes, life sucks that way. But: What statement are you going to make?

In “Laboring,” which set several conflicts in place for next week’s season finale, Vince makes his statement, deciding not to be the irredeemable monster he tells Jess he is and to take control of his destiny by refusing to revenge-kill for Calvin’s death—at risk of being shot himself if necessary. Coach Taylor has the opportunity to make his statement by proving himself against his old team, the Panthers, despite the vandals who got their way by destroying his field. And Billy decides to man up with the birth of his son, charging into the delivery room and muttering to himself “I am the dad,” as if convincing himself that his life has changed—before Tim is brought in for his poor decision to grab a quick buck in the chop-shop business.

Does free will mean that the characters are free to rewrite their destiny? Not necessarily: victory’s not guaranteed, Vince is in danger, Tami has no good choices and the Rigginses may not wriggle out of their predicament. The episode was in some ways a downer, ending with many of its central figures literally brought down—off their feet, heads in their hands, not knowing what to do next. But each in some way has, or has had, the opportunity to assert their integrity in the face of bad options; Michael B. Jordan, in particular, gives a fine performance as Vince discovers a level of maturity he didn’t know he had. (And, given his “monster” speech, that he perhaps has never really been told he had.)

It’s a good way to set up the finale. You may not get to choose the field you have to play on. But you still have to bring it anyway.

Now the hail of bullets:

* It’s amazing, watching this season, to think that a year ago, the West Dillon Panther were the ones we were rooting for. And yet, thinking back, it’s not as though the team and the community were just suddenly turned, 180 degrees, into villains. The tendencies that we saw emerge as ugliness and pettiness, both toward Eric and Tami (and snobbery if not outright racism toward East Dillon), were there in one way or another from the pilot. Just as the radio host reminded his caller that there are good people in East Dillon, we know that people are people in West Dillon. But boy, is it showing how the Panthers community is missing the guidance of someone like Eric Taylor.

* And speaking of rivalries, I absolutely love how the complex Landry-Jess-Vince triangle is playing out. Here’s a boy-girl-boy relationship on a teen drama, further complicated by race, yet there are really no bad guys in it: we want everyone here to come out well, even if that’s not necessarily possible. And Vince’s telling Landry that he’s happy for him and Jess, and that he should make Jess happy was really touching.

* While the next episode promises to bring these stories to a head (obviously, I won’t spoil anything), it’s hard to imagine, at this point any outcome that will make life in Dillon exactly happy for the Taylors. Even in a best-case scenario—say Tami keeps her dignity and her job—she’ll still have enemies in the school, and memories of how the administration was ready, if sadly, to sacrifice her. And while a win would be a big boost for the Lions, it’s not going to end any of the tensions, either for Taylor or his underdog team. One way or the other, they’re setting up a hell of a season five.

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