Tuned In

FNL Watch: Against the Wind

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Spoilers for the season 4 finale of Friday Night Lights coming up:

I love Friday Night Lights. I am guessing that you, since you are reading this post, love Friday Night Lights. And so I know that at some point over the last four years, you and I have both had some version of the conversation-with-the-friend-reluctant-to-watch-FNL. “It’s not just a teen soap,” goes one part of it. And then: “It’s not really about the football games.”

Which is absolutely true. And then again, there are the episodes like “Homecoming,” which, at least on one important level, are achingly, gloriously, totally about the football game. So let’s start there.

You do not have to be much of a football fan—I am not much of one—to know where this episode was going when Landry missed his first extra point, when Dillon went for consecutive two-point conversion, and finally when the score was 24-22. Did I utterly know that FNL was setting things up so that Landry would have to come in and kick (or miss) a field goal to win the game? Yes. Did knowing that spoil anything? No. Did I cheer and cry, in my office, watching the finale for the second time? You are goddamn right I did.

I did, not just because everyone in the show’s new East Dillon community so badly needed something good to happen, but because Landry, in retrospect, is in so many ways the heart of this show. (That he was unfortunately central to the show’s lowest moment, the murder storyline in season 2, only underscores that.) We’ve seen him go from an outsider to find his social place, get his heart broken and fall in love again and get it rebroken, find his confidence on the football field and in the personal life. We’ve seen him grow up.

Coach Taylor tells him, before that final kick, “I spent three years turning you into a football player. You know what you’re going to do? You’re going to go out there and you’re going to kick that damn field goal.” It’s true that he’s become a football player, but his strength has never been his toe. It’s been the indomitability of his spirit. Landry has been the guy who, spiritually, can take a punch, who can get knocked down, but never lose his decency or his sense of humor. (And continues to rock out with Crucifictorious.)

So it’s Landry who, at this season’s climax, stands in for so many of FNL’s characters—Matt, Tami, Vince, Tim, the list goes on and on. He’s had life stacked against him and persisted. He’s been challenged—he is literally, to hammer the point home, kicking “against the wind”—and gutted it out. And Jesse Plemons has sealed our attachment to him through his wry yet emotionally open performance. A lot of sad things have happened and will happen on FNL, but I’m not sure how I could have dealt with it if Landry had missed.

But “Thanksgiving” was not all victory, and there was no clock-ticking reprieve for Tim Riggins. Instead—maybe not surprisingly, but it was still gutting—he sacrificed himself, taking the fall for Billy for the sake of his nephew. If, as has been the theme of the last few of these FNL Watches, this is largely a show about the struggle to overcome your circumstances, then Riggins’ story is a necessary example that that’s not always possible. Riggins started the series as a cocky oaf, deepened and matured, and in the end, became aware of both the odds against him and his liabilities. And he worked—not always successfully but hard—to overcome them, and to overcome others’ perceptions of him. He took steps forward and back, but identified what he needed to do to change his life.

And it didn’t work out for him, not in the end, not yet. Unlike Landry, he came up a couple of yards short, tripped up by his family and the call of money. But he did learn responsibility, and Taylor Kitsch conveyed in few words both what a man Tim had become and how difficult it was for him, showing how almost physically heavily his decision weighed on him. (And given the estimate of a one-to-five jail term—though I say this based on no advance knowledge—he set up the possibility of a final appearance and maybe redemption for Riggins by the end of season 5.)

There’s always the risk of cliché when talking about these issues in a sports frame, but this finale really did come down to Coach Taylor’s question: “You ask yourselves, gentlemen, because it is time: What kind of a man am I?” Or woman, as the case may be. In its own way, Tami’s victory, small as it was, was even more satisfying than Eric’s, not just in deciding not to capitulate and read a statement she didn’t believe in, but in taking the high road and offering to go to East Dillon rather than bankrupt her school with a lawsuit. And another particularly nice FNL touch was the reaction to Tami’s non-apology: neither a slow-clap ovation nor melodramatic boos, but a mixture of a smattering of applause and outraged murmurs. (I will agree with the Vulture blog that it strains credibility that Tami would find East Dillon any more receptive after her act than West; it’s also a bit convenient a head-counselor job should happen to be open at all.)

There was much more set up in this season than the series could satisfactorily address by the end; Vince, for instance, got shunted off a bit here, and his feud with Kennard is still just out there, somewhere. But overall, it was a fine ending for a season that pulled off a difficult feat: relaunching a high-school series in its fourth year in a manner that didn’t seem contrived. And it set us up promisingly for a fifth (and presumably final) season. The Lions still have plenty of room for improvement. And FNL has proved that it can still deliver—both kinds of tears.

Now a quick hail of bullets:

* One twist in the game I didn’t see coming: Eric putting Luke back in the game after chewing him out. But in retrospect, I have to guess that was his plan all the time, no?

* I liked the contrast between the feel-good public rally in the opening scene and Coach’s speech to his team, telling them that after they play East Dillon they’ll be bonded forever. The fiction is that the game between East and West Dillon can bring the two sides of town together. The realistic hope is that, at best, the rivalry can bring each team together as a team, in a way that will hopefully improve the kids’ lives.

* Another favorite line, among many in this episode: Coach to Landry (facing a 46-yard FG attempt), “You know what, it could be worse. It could be 47 yards.”

* The song playing over the end montage and credits: Steve Earle’s “Goodbye.” Because I really needed to cry just one more time.