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Friday Night Lights Watch: Courage and Conviction on Season Four of FNL

Earlier this week, I finished watching Season Four of Friday Night Lights and, wiping away the manly tears that fell from my eyes, I'm already anxiously awaiting the start of the fifth and final season this fall.

Over the course of the summer, my wife and I have gone back and watched all four seasons of Friday Night Lights and fallen in love with this remarkable and heartfelt drama series, which in its fourth season inverted its premise to present even more complications for the central couple of Eric and Tami Taylor (Emmy Award nominees Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), who found themselves under attack from a number of directions at once. From the school board, from the townspeople, from parents, from those who would see them fail rather than triumph.

(If you missed my earlier posts about the first three seasons, you can read my thoughts on Season One here, Season Two here, and Season Three here.)

Whereas the first three seasons presented a series of struggles both marital and professional for the Taylors, Season Four pushed the Texas couple--and the town of Dillon itself--nearly to their breaking points, as Eric was forced out of his job as the Panthers coach and handed an impossible task: to form a new football program at the decrepit East Dillon High (recently reopened after Season Three's redistricting) while Tami remained under fire as the principal of Dillon High.

While the show has always been about the invincible nature of the human spirit, Season Four of Friday Night Lights took the series in a different direction, presenting Coach Taylor with a nearly Sisyphean task to overcome. The goal wasn't the state championships anymore nor anything quite so lofty. No, this molder of men would once again have to get his hands dirty shaping a new team, transforming sullen and combative individuals into something resembling a fully functional single unit. And prove to the town at large that both he and this young men were capable of surprising everyone.

The battle lines drawn between the Dillon Panthers and the East Dillon Lions weren't arbitrary. In the hands of Jason Katims and his talented team of writers, the division became one of economics and race, as the show tackled some weighty issues and provided a portrait of a very different Dillon, one that wasn't as idealized and noble as the first few seasons.

Over the course of thirteen outstanding installments, Katims and Co. tackled hot-button issues of drug addiction, abortion, grief, and gang violence as the focus shifted from lily-white West Dillon to the mean streets of the other side of town, a place where a park wasn't an oasis but rather a crime-ridden hellhole, its lights permanently turned off, its purpose forgotten amid a sea of brutality.

Just as Eric Taylor gets the lights turned on at Carroll Park, so too does Friday Night Lights shine a spotlight on the challenges facing East Dillon's residents. Functioning as the new entrypoint to the story is Vince Howard (The Wire's sensational Michael B. Jordan), a young man at a crucial crossroads in his life, one torn between the potential that Eric is offering him and the lure of the street, a decision complicated further by the fact that his mother Regina (Angela Rawna) is a drug addict in need of saving.

While Vince is put through the ringer, there is someone who believes in him: his friend and would-be love interest Jess (Jurnee Smollett), who finds herself drawn towards nice guy Landry (Jesse Plemons), despite the obvious simmering attraction between her and Vince.

But we can't force anyone to take the path we want them to. Vince must find his own way in the world, make the right choices for himself. The same holds true for Zach Gilford's Matt Saracen, who gets one of the most intense and emotionally resonant storylines this season as Matt grapples with the unexpected death of his father, his grief pushing him to make a dramatic change in his own life.

Among a series of innately strong episodes, "The Son"--which focused on the fallout of the death of Matt's father and how it impacts everyone around Matt as he finally has an emotional breakdown at the Taylors' house--stands apart from the rest. Gilford gives a staggering performance that taps into our collective grief, a tricky turn that balances his inability to articulate his emotion with a male rage at a lack of control over the universe. Provocative and compelling, it's a sadly overlooked performance that points towards Gilford's strength as an actor and was impossible to shake after viewing.

It's Matt's story that provides the season with emotional bookends: the kid who stuck around in Dillon to care for his ailing grandmother (Louanne Stephens) and to be with girlfriend Julie (Aimee Teegarden) finally gets out for good, flying back to Chicago with his best friend by his side. Having returned to offer Julie not only an explanation for his departure but an olive branch (a plane ticket to Chicago), he's turned down by Julie but achieves an inner peace. There's an almost beatific expression on his face as he stares out of the plane windows, Dillon receding to a place in his past, not necessarily his future.

It's a fate that's juxtaposed with that of Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who remains an important focal point within the series' narrative. Reeling after graduation, Tim ditches college and returns to Dillon, where he shakily attempts to find direction in his life. Is he destined to work on cars with brother Billy (Derek Phillips) at Riggins' Rigs? Is he still dreaming of owning a piece of land and achieving that dream of "Texas forever" that he and Jason had once spoken about so reverently? And just what is he willing to do to achieve those ends?

Season Four finds a very different Riggins than we've seen before. No longer a football star yet clinging to his identity as 33, Rigs finds himself aimless. That is, until he meets the precocious Becky Sproles (Madison Burge), a 16-year-old who thinks that she's the perfect thing for Tim. Rather than fall into bed together, however, Tim takes Becky under his wing, protecting her against the lies her father spews at her, supporting her dreams, and supporting her when she discovers that she's pregnant.

(It's Tim's decision to seek the counsel of Tami Taylor that leads Tami to her own personal crucible this season as she's called out for counseling a teenage girl to get an abortion--a spurious claim that nevertheless leads her to step down from her position as principal of West Dillon and head up the counseling unit at run-down East Dillon, professionally reuniting her with Eric in the process.)

While Becky would have their relationship turn romantic, it's important that Tim keeps it absolutely platonic. His decision to do so demonstrates a different side to Tim Riggins, echoes of which we saw in Season Two with Julie Taylor. A protective, gentlemanly presence mixed with something almost paternal.

Which is interesting as it's Billy who becomes a father this season, though his puts his baby and his future with Mindy (Stacey Oristano) in jeopardy when he convinces Tim to begin chopping stolen cars for profit. His intentions are good: he needs money for Mindy's difficult pregnancy and for his family but his decision to commit a series of crimes opens them up for more difficulty.

Tim, however, comes up with an elegant if selfless solution: he'll confess to the crimes and keep Billy out of it. Billy can remain with his family, become the father his family needs him to be, and Tim will do the time. Having lost the land he purchased and lost the makeshift family he created when Becky's mom Cheryl (Alicia Witt) kicks him out, Tim finds meaning and a purpose: he can sacrifice his own freedom to ensure his brother's.

It's a heartbreaking and unexpected twist of fate, one at odds with the very freedom that Saracen achieves at the end of the season. Tim opted to remain in Dillon and his decision leads almost directly to him not being able to leave, a self-created prisoner whose incarceration isn't figurative but quite painfully literal. Yet at the same time, his throwing himself on the fire is an act of courage, of self-sacrifice, and of nobility, an argument against the hateful words of Cheryl. Tim Riggins might be "nothing" in her eyes and those of the law, but he has saved the Riggins family with his gesture, given the severity of Billy's previous charges.

Becky's unwanted child, meanwhile, leads not only to her own personal crossroads but to Tami's as well. Despite her pleas to Luke Cafferty (the fantastic Matt Lauria) to keep her pregnancy a secret, he tells his religious parents that he got a girl pregnant. When his mother learns that Becky had an abortion, she turns her anger against Tami and attempts to have her fired.

While Margaret (Kathleen Griffith) believes what she is doing is right, she's blind to her own child's problems as Luke develops a dependence on prescription painkillers after injuring his hip... and keeping his injury a secret from Coach and the entire team. While she's railing against Tami for offering advice that "killed" her "grandchild," her own son is killing his own body in secret.

Tami's decision not to apologize but to make a statement about how she put the needs of a student--of a scared teenage girl--first and followed protocol reveal the strength of character and conviction that have marked Tami Taylor from the start. This season found her grappling with the political nature of her public job, juggling spiteful boosters and school board members, rather than focusing on what got her into education in the first place: the kids. Her decision to go East Dillon, where she's needed," points too to her own selfless nature.

Just what will the future hold for the Taylors? Will Julie go off to school far away? Will they have to deal with financial issues now that both of their salaries have likely been cut? Eric may not have gotten the Lions to the state championship but that was never in the cards for this scrappy team. But they proved that they had the heart to overtake their rivals, the Panthers, on their own field.

It was a victory not just for Eric and for the team but for the underdogs everywhere, in every battle. It was a reminder of the unbreakable bond between teammates and of the the truth of Eric's early words in the series: clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

And in reminding us of such, neither it seems can Friday Night Lights itself.

Season Five of Friday Night Lights begins October 27th on DirecTV's The 101 Network.


Piper said…
I also came to this show late in the game (no pun intended) and instantly fell in love. You captured the angst, heart, and drama of season 4 perfectly! And now I can't wait for season 5!
J.P. said…
Friday Night Lights is brilliant and criminally overlooked. Thanks for once again shining a spotlight on this deserving show and its incredible writers and cast.
Dolphin said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dolphin said…
Wonderful review!

I, too, found FNLs late ... in the middle of Season 3. It quickly became my favorite TV show (of the past decade).

Is it a coincidence that so many are finding this gem of a show so late in its aired life?

My prediction is and has been that FNLs will be the "Arrested Development" of TV dramas. The critic's darling, it will become more and more infamous in syndication and on DVD/Netflix than it ever was on NBC/Direct TV. And THAT is a dirty rotten shame.
Liz said…
I've loved this show from the beginning. Despite the poor marketing, the uncertainty of the show's fate from season to season and the odd distribution of seasons 4 and 5, this has rewarded its faithful followers by being one of the most beautifully crafted character dramas around. At least the DVDs will preserve Eric and Tami as role models for future educators/coaches.

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