Last night, one of TV’s greatest drama about family, community, faith–and, incidentally, football–Friday Night Lights, came to an end on NBC. When this excellent, moving finale aired in February on DirecTV, I reviewed it here. For those of you who have been watching on NBC, I reprint it below. Spoilers, obviously:
In my preview column for the finale of Friday Night Lights, I made a comparison—obvious in retrospect, so maybe someone has made it before—between FNL and It’s a Wonderful Life. Both are stories about American towns and the pull (and sometimes the burden) of community. George Bailey dreams of leaving Bedford Falls but never does; he ends up happy because of the life he’s made and because he realizes how important he is to the town’s welfare.
Over the course of FNL, but especially its last few seasons, various characters have been faced with the choice of staying or going: moving on because there’s opportunity in the outside world, staying because they’re needed at home, or keeping a foot in both worlds somehow. Several stories in the last season of FNL narrowed down to that choice—get out of Dodge vs. Texas forever—and as the series said goodbye in “Always,” they made some definitive choices.
First of all: how glad was I to see Eric and Tami Taylor end up in Philadelphia? Honestly, since the choice came up in the last few episodes, my gut told me they would have to go. I simply could not see the series squandering five years of good will for Coach by having him make such a selfish decision as to put his career first, or (maybe even worse) to passively accept Tami’s self-sacrifice. (Seriously, what a dick move would it have been to shut Tami down, on the basis of their not being “East Coast people,” after trying to talk her into a move to Florida? He would have been sleeping on FNL fans’ metaphorical couch for all eternity.)
And yet by the final episode FNL actually had me doubting that it would go that way. Which was important, not simply because it made the resolution of the last episode more suspenseful—above it all, it made the decision have stakes. To really hit home, and to demonstrate the strength of one of TV’s most mature, realistic marriages—the decision has to have a real price. The easy out would have been to give Eric no job to go back to—to set up some kind of slight, or scandal, or ethical conflict that made leaving Dillon the only real choice.
It’s true that, having been screwed over by West Dillon and budget-cut out of a football program at East Dillon, he could have said to hell with it. Instead, he was offered a five-year contract, which he had to weigh against the unknown and starting over again out East. (This was the finest Texas-vs.-East-Coast existential crisis since Hank Hill’s discovering he was born in New York City: “It makes me no better than Tony Randall!”)
This set up one of the best scenes, emotionally and visually, of the season: Eric and Tami’s argument outside the restaurant, after a conversation about Matt and Julie that was not really about Matt and Julie. Part of the scene’s power, of course, was how powerfully Connie Britton delivered Tami’s argument: “It’s my turn, babe. I have loved you and you have loved me, and we have compromised, both of us. For your job. And now it’s time for us to think about doing that for my job. Because otherwise what am I going to tell my daughter?”
But the beauty of it—the FNL of it—was that this was clearly not a husband and wife at each other’s throats, each trying to win a zero-sum game. Neither was angry, so much as sad; even in the heat of their disagreement, they, and we, never forget that they love each other. They want each other to be happy; they want to see a way out of it; but they’re facing two irreconcilable alternatives. And the way the scene is framed—shot entirely in long distance with Tami and Eric outlined by the restaurant entrance—was a great statement. It focused us on their words and their body language and it underlined the loneliness of their position; they look here, not like the focal stars of a drama, but two little people figuring their way through a much bigger world.
They do figure it out, of course, as Eric movingly asks Tami to take him to Philadelphia with her, in what is essentially the final session of the How to Be a God Damn Man seminar that Kyle Chandler has been teaching for five years. But it takes a while, with the help of the wake-up call of Matt and Julie. And my God, my horror at the rashness of Matt’s proposal—you’re so young!—was exceeded only at my delight at the idea of his having to ask Coach for her hand.
The scene did not disappoint. One last time, Kyle Chandler’s face made that delightful journey from bemusement to cold stare: “The answer to your question is no. The answer to your question is going to be no today. It’s going to be no tomorrow. And it’ll probably be no until the sun burns out.” Though it’s always been secondary to other stories, you could argue that the defining thread of all five years of FNL has been Coach’s relationship with Matt, as he nurtured him into a quarterback, eyeballed him in his courtship of Julie, helped him through his troubles at home—and all the while, scared the living hell out of him in a way that somehow still managed to convey love. (Great work by Zach Gilford in that meeting, whose edginess and throat-clearing made me vicariously nervous—and yet who managed to slip a touch of defiance into his voice after Coach’s rejection.)
“He’s always loved you,” Landry tells Matt as they rehearse (another great scene), and though Matt has a hard time believing it in the moment, it’s true. The Taylors have realized for a while, at some level, that Matt was likely a future son-in-law. But he’s had to pass the initiation of Coach’s tough love. Eric and Tami remain skeptical about Matt and Julie committing so young—hell, they’re probably right—but that makes it no more surprising nor any less sweet to see them getting ready for the day, at the end of the episode, on some rushed, ordinary morning in the future.
This is the choice too for Tim Riggins, whose final conflict was prefigured in the very first episode of FNL, when a younger and much less scarred and mature Riggins pledged “Texas Forever” to Jason Street. Things went differently for Street, who soon got paralyzed and went out East to make a life for himself. I like that we don’t entirely know what’s ahead for Riggins—or for Tyra, whose return was welcome without being implausibly life-changing—but he has at least made the decision to stay on his land and not head off for Alaska. Or, in the larger sense, not to run from himself and his past, but to work on his present (and his still-lingering resentment of Billy).
While much of the finale came full circle to FNL’s longest-running characters, it didn’t forget several of the Lions-era characters, nor should we. Surprisingly, I found myself most moved by Jess’ resolution: though her desire to get into coaching for a living came toward the end of the season, the seeds of it were laid from when we first met her character, who always preferred keeping stats and learning plays to being a rally girl. By the same token, I’m glad her story ended on her own ambitions, and not some guy.
(There was a telling exchange, by the way, between her and Coach Taylor in their last talk, when Jess says that being with the Lions has been the greatest experience of her life, and he says he believes that it’s been his too. I think this is true: that coaching the Lions, specifically, as opposed to the Panthers, has been where he has reached his crowning fulfillment. Maintaining excellence at a school with a strong football history, after all, is one thing; rebuilding a school that had next to nothing is another, and if it was a bit rushed—FNL having two seasons and not three at East Dillon—i also showed Eric being a coach on the truest and deepest level. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show relaunch its premise as well as FNL did in season four, a change that not only kept the show creatively alive but arguably improved it, even if I’d probably put season 3 at the top of my list.)
Meanwhile, Becky—the bright girl with a lot of strikes against her at home—got an ending that suited her too, seeing Luke off as he headed for duty. Luke’s a decent guy, and Becky’s all kinds of smart, but given where they haveto start from, it’s clear that their future is going to involve a lot of hard work.
And Vince. And that pass. I loved that the final game was played, and scored, not like a dramatic showdown but like a sad, goodbye montage, with almost as much focus on the spectators as the players. The last seconds of that game—the long bomb with three seconds left on the clock, and the crowd hanging on it—inspired me in writing the end of my column, which I had to phrase so as not to give away any spoilers or indicate that this was the scene I was referencing: “FNL is a football show, but one in which what matters above all is not the Hail Mary pass but the faces in the stands watching its arc.” That really is what FNL is to me—a series that has always ultimately been about not winning or losing but how you play the game.
So viewers can argue about whether we should have seen that pass come down. (Vince and Luke’s championship rings, and the banner at the dismantled East Dillon field, tell us the Lions caught it.) To me, having it dissolve to another pass, thrown by another kid under Coach’s eye, underscored what the series has always been about: teaching, and learning, and caring.
The East Dillon Lions won, regardless—won because even though the team is being disbanded, the community has hung together. Vince has gotten his confidence. His father has manned up and shown up. Matt’s grandma is losing her presence of mind but is passing the torch, and her wedding dress, to another generation. Billy is holding down a job and helping Tim build his house, Buddy is still gadflying around the Panthers, &c. There will be other games. But life will go on. And these characters will have many more problems, but Dillon will survive. Eric and Tami Taylor have poured themselves for five years into giving to this community—sometimes even when Dillon did not appreciate it—and we see the results here in one sweep.
The Taylors’ kids—all of them, in Dillon—are going to be all right. And it’s OK for Eric and Tami to move on. This was the simple resolution that FNL’s finale offered—and it’s why, though I sobbed but good watching this finale, it didn’t feel sad. It just felt right.
So one last hail of long passes:
* This review was a little long. Sorry. I think I subconsciously believed that if I didn’t finish it, the series wouldn’t end.
* I’m not going to say the finale was perfect. The subplot with Vince’s dad, which began with the promise of a complex conflict between Vince’s good and the team’s, settled into a story about a pushy, manipulative sports parent, and in this episode became pretty much an afterthought. There were also, to my taste, probably a few too many lines that were not just sentimental—FNL is all about well-expressed sentiment—but a little canned in a greeting-card way. (“You may never know how proud I am of you.” “You changed my life, Coach.”) But I’m glad to chalk that up to the episode needing a lot of goodbye moments, and well-earned ones.
* Likewise, while I’m generally impressed with how well the final season wrapped up—or at least saluted—so many stories (as did season 3, actually), in a final 13-episode season, some characters were going to get short shrift. One, most notably, was Landry. Jesse Plemons did such fine work over five years (even in the much-maligned murder plot of season 2), and his character became the heart of the show for a long time, so I was sad to see him end up in the sort of supporting comic-relief role he began the series in. That said, he got a worthy sendoff in his sweet and funny pep-talk with Matt. (“You plant your feet, you be assertive and you say, ‘Coach Taylor, I’m gonna marry your daughter. I love her–you can fill in the blanks with all that, she’s the light of my life, whatever. Or you go in, you plant your feet, and you just start crying.”)
* In that spirit, though the episode brought the waterworks as you would expect of FNL, there were also flashes of humor—typically, in the Taylors’ bickering around the Christmas tree. (“It’s jolly!”)
* Interesting that Coach’s most stirring speech in this episode, by my lights, was not in the locker room but at the dinner table, and even though he doesn’t realize it, he is actually speaking to himself: “Marriage requires maturity. Marriage requires two people who, for the rest of their lives, are willing to listen, to really listen, to each other. And that marriage requires the greatest of all things, which is compromise.” Free advice: next time you’re fighting with your spouse, give that one a re-listen.
* And oh, what the hell, it’s cheap and obvious but I can’t resist it. One last time: CLEAR EYES! FULL HEARTS! …