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The Last Waltz: An Advance Review of Season Five of Friday Night Lights

Well, this is it: the beginning of the end.

After four seasons of emotionally resonant drama, a nuanced exploration of life in small town Texas, and one of the most realistic portrayals of marriage ever, television masterpiece Friday Night Lights is heading towards the its final days, beginning with this week's thrilling and evocative season premiere ("Expectations"), written by David Hudgins and directed by Michael Waxman.

It's not surprising that "Expectations" had me getting choked up no less than four times over the course of 40-odd minutes, as characters made their farewells and prepared to leave Dillon behind. While their goodbyes might be temporary, it was a canny way of signaling to the audience that the final parting is still to come, that with just a dozen or so episodes left, there would be no going back to Dillon.

The first two episodes of the fifth and final season--"Expectations" and next week's installment ("On the Outside Looking In"), written by Kerry Ehrin and directed by Michael Waxman--contain an aura of both sadness and hope.

Which is fitting as there is a lot of change afoot in just the first hour alone, as Landry (Jesse Plemons) and Julie (Aimee Teegarden) prepare to leave for college and Eric (Kyle Chandler) and Tami (Connie Britton) grapple with new professional challenges (including, for Tami, one hell of a high-risk student), while also attempting to come to terms with Julie growing up and leaving home.

But everyone has to deal with some new circumstances, some of which are inherently challenging. There's trouble at home for Becky (Madison Burge), who has to deal with a sudden change in her family life as well as feelings of isolation and abandonment. Jess (Jurnee Smollett) attempts to raise her little brothers now that her dad is on the road launching multiple franchises of his BBQ restaurant. Billy (Derek Phillips) and Mindy (Stacey Oristano) have troubles of their own, not the least of which is Billy's crushing guilt over Tim (Taylor Kitsch) still being in prison and further changes at the Riggins household.

What else did I think about the first two episodes of Season Five? Read on, but, as always, please do not reproduce these thoughts in full on any websites, message boards, or the like.

Given the emotional complexity of Friday Night Lights, it's not surprising that the writers tackle the pride and sorrow of Eric and Tami as they say goodbye to Julie, clinging to the small final moments they have as a family living under one roof.

In the hands of writer David Hudgins, a fruit cobbler becomes emblematic of something larger, something lost that can't be regained. An argument between mother and daughter--one of countless ones that Tami and Julie have engaged in over the years--isn't a point of anger for Eric but a symbol of what's about to change: their daughter is leaving home. (But before she does leave, look for an extremely touching final scene between Teegarden and Chandler, set against a very fitting backdrop.)

Julie's departure from Dillon is indicative of a larger change among the series, as Julie is the only remaining series regular from the younger generation of Dillon. The first episode also marks a goodbye for Landry, leaving to attend Rice University and there are several scenes that celebrate his relationships with Julie and with Matt's grandmother Lorraine Saracen (Louanne Stephens). Small moments--both tender and hysterical--that pay homage to the role that both Plemons and Landry have played in the series since the very beginning.

Before viewers get upset: Teegarden's Julie isn't going to disappear.

The second episode of the season follows her to university, where we get a glimpse of her new surroundings and her own sense of isolation, one that neatly mirrors her mother's, as both Tami and Julie attempt to fit in among strangers in new situations, with Tami attempting to snap her fellow East Dillon teachers out of their apathy. Both mother and daughter get a lifeline as it were, an offer of friendship, but I can't help but wonder whether Julie's new friend--whom I'll leave unnamed for now--isn't quite the lifeline he appears to be. In fact, he might prove to be just the opposite.

Viewers also get the chance to check in with poor Tim Riggins, who has three months left on his prison sentence after taking the fall for brother Billy. It's safe to say that the Riggs glimpsed here is vastly different from the smooth-talking charmer we last saw. Prison changes people and it's certainly changed Tim. I'm curious to see just how his story will play out this season and just what his eventual return to Dillon will mean for him and his family.

But, in the meantime, there are other issues at hand. The new season for the East Dillon Lions is underway and Coach Taylor is attempting to assemble a team with a real shot at making it to the playoffs. Which means engaging in some less than, uh, altruistic behavior when it comes to poaching a basketball player whom he believes will be an asset to the Lions.

Enter Hastings Ruckles (Grey Damon), the basketball player in question. But rather than repeat the Vince (Michael B. Jordan) storyline from Season Four, Eric's pursuit of Hastings is entirely different... and Hastings himself is as far from Vince as possible. He's a self-styled "free spirit," a "hippy" who wears a woolen hat and spouts off about football celebrates the worst elements of American society.

But Coach Taylor, that molder of men, doesn't ever like to take no for an answer and he makes it his duty to try and lure Hastings to the team, using whatever methods necessary, including leaving it up to Vince and Luke (Matt Lauria). Hastings is a wild card, one that will likely wield an influence on the plotlines of Vince and Luke this season. Meanwhile, look for some intriguing twists to some of the romantic subplots, such as the Jess/Vince relationship and the tensions between Luke and Becky Sproles.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot of these fantastic first two episodes of the season, but I will say that Season Five is already off to a cracking start and the scenarios engineered by the writers not only feel organic but begin to position the characters for a season of, well, great expectations.

It likely will prove to be a season that examines our own expectations as viewers, as well as the hopes and dreams of characters that we've come to know and love over four seasons of stories. Saying goodbye is never easy, but with the final season actually here, I'm finding it even more difficult than I thought to bid farewell to Dillon.

At least we've got an entire season before Friday Night Lights heads to that great Alamo Freeze in the sky. But, if the first few episodes are any indication, it's going to be an intense and emotional season of hope and loss, wounded hearts and renewed friendships, conflict and victory. Clear eyes, full hearts, as they say, can't lose.

The fifth and final season of Friday Night Lights begins Wednesday evening at 9 pm ET/PT on DirecTV's The 101 Network.


Amy said…
I saw these episodes the other night and fully agree with your take here. It was really a miracle I didn't cry throughout the majority of 5.01. I am kind of freaked out at the possibility of only having several episodes left, ever. At least they're clearly going to be as much of a joy as the show overall has been... well, a joy when it isn't breaking my heart.

Oh, and I loved the implication that basketball is a sport for hippies. HA.

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