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Blinded by Anger: The Loss of Grace on Friday Night Lights

What defines a man and a player? Is it grace in victory as well as defeat?

That's always been the view of Eric Taylor, a coach whose love of the game has often meant that he has allowed his team's opponents the ability to score a few points so they don't walk off the field at zero. Or who tells his team, after a particularly brutal victory, to "take a knee" rather than unnecessarily run them into the ground. There's no gain to be had from kicking a man when he's down.

Unfortunately, the Lions--or at the very least, Vince, under the guidance of his crafty father Ornette--doesn't see things quite that way. His decision to make a 65-yard throw and win the team another touchdown, acting against the instructions of Coach Taylor, was an opportunity to not score another goal or even conquer the Panthers, but rather to put the spotlight squarely on himself. While there might not be an "i" in team, Vince is trying his hardest these days to squeeze one in there.

I'm not to proud to admit that I teared up at the very start of this week's episode of Friday Night Lights ("Perfect Record"), which saw the return of Jason Street (Scott Porter) to Dillon. For too long, I've wondered just what Street had been up to and his sudden and unexpected return took me by surprise.

But for all of the changes in Street's life, he is most definitely Coach's protege, a man who was formed by Eric in his own image, with his own innate sense of sportsmanship, honor, and courage. The difference between Street and Vince became all the more clear this week.

First, I'm happy to see that Street has made a place for himself in the world, one that allows him to work within the sports world that he knows and loves. And that Street did in fact marry the mother of his child. There's a nice sense of closure there, of knowing that despite everything that befell Jason over the course of the series, that he's out there living his life and that things have fallen into place for the former Dillon Panthers quarterback.

I've missed the dynamic between Jason Street and Eric Taylor, something that blended both the mentor/protege dynamic as well as that of father and son. Eric's pride at Jason's achievements and his hurt that he didn't know that he was married were palpably felt in this episode, as the two caught up over a meal. Jason's life may not have gone according to plan, but he's still the man that he ought to have been, a man who was molded in the heat of battle by Eric.

It's been clear throughout the nearly five-season run of Friday Night Lights that Eric cares deeply for these kids, that he takes his role as coach seriously and dutifully, that he's there as much to push the kids towards a better life of promise and potential as he is to improve their game.

Eric plucked Vince off the street and gave his life purpose and direction. It's interesting to look back at Vince at the beginning of Season Four and to see how far he's grown and changed since then. While he was always mature--he did, after all, have to care for his junkie mother and keep their lives chugging along--he was headed towards criminality, jail, or death. In pushing Vince towards the Lions, Eric saved his life.

Which is why it's all the more upsetting that Vince is being swayed by Ornette, by a father who just a few weeks ago Vince couldn't stand to look at. Ornette may have Vince's "best interests" at heart, but they're short-term best interests rather than long-term ones, goals motivated by dollar signs rather than what's right for Vince.

Eric's feelings on the matter are echoed by Jason, who urges Ornette to find a college that's a "right fit" for Vince rather than chase after the biggest pile of money. I do believe that Ornette does care for Vince but it's a father's love that's twinned with the need to cash in on his son's arm and his future. Eric's utter dismay at Ornette stepping between him and the recruiters was one of shock and anger; he's always had these kids' "best interests" at heart and he was looking to do right by Vince. While he's aware that Ornette is (as Street put it) a "problem," the breadth of that issue becomes all the more clear as the episode goes on.

I don't want to wish any ill-will on Vince but I do want him to wake up and see that the Lions aren't just a platform for him and his skill, that Ornette might not want what's best for him overall, and that he gets knocked down a few pegs. After all, we saw what all the glory and guts got poor Smash; it was only through perseverance and the help of Coach Taylor that he was able to play again and get his life back on track.

I can't help but wonder whether a similarly eye-opening experience is in the cards for Vince. After all, it wasn't just Vince who shown on the field in the game against the Panthers: Luke Cafferty was also a star in that game and I can't help but wonder if there isn't an ironic twist in the works in which Luke sneaks ahead once more of Vince.

As for Luke, he should know better than to ever take the advice of Billy Riggins. I loved the workout sequence between the two as Billy looks to Luke as Tim 2.0, training him in the same way that he trained his brother (lifting fenders and propane tanks). But by ignoring Becky and giving her the cold shoulder, Luke risked alienating her altogether. However, I was pleased that the two finally had some words after the game and Luke came clean about his "plan" to win her over and how he was surprised that she liked when he was nice to her. (Oh, Luke, you've got a lot to learn about women.)

And the two--FINALLY!--shared a kiss. It's been an interesting rollercoaster between the two of them, a the start of a real relationship between Luke and Becky after last season's pregnancy and abortion and the thawing of the iciness between them. Plus, the two of them are just adorable together.

Elsewhere, Julie Taylor continued her shame spiral, as she still refuses to return to school, or really to even leave the house. I'm glad to see that last week's drag-out fight between the Taylors didn't permanently damage Eric and Tami's relationship, as they both seem to be on the same page about their daughter now. Julie needs some tough love but she also needs support. If she's unable to go back to school right now, she'll at least complete her coursework and finish the semester. Tami believes in forcing Julie to take on responsibilities at home (dropping off and picking up her sister, cleaning up, and running errands) and Tami herself drives to Julie's college to get her books and work, where she runs into Derek himself.

I was stunned to see just how cool Derek played his scene with Tami, inquiring about Julie but never once apologizing or expressing any guilt in her decision not to return to school after the encounter with his wife. No real emotion, at all. And I was glad to see that Tami kept things business-like and civil, though her true venomous feelings towards Derek were written all over her face. No smiles, no friendliness, no questions.

Meanwhile, Eric and Tami are fine, thankfully. I loved the scene where she climbed into bed with him and he asked if she wanted to fool around... only to have her fall asleep on him within seconds. Ah, married life.

But it was Tami's sadness and her line ("You need to study") to Julie upon returning that stuck with me long after the episode ended. It's a Tami that we haven't seen much of lately, a nearly defeated one, a mother trying to do best by her daughter, trying to push her towards fulfilling her potential. Just as Eric's own sadness, the loss of grace in their victory over the Panthers, as he watched Ornette and Vince chatting up those recruiters in the parking lot, revealed just how disappointed he is in someone he cared for as well.

Our pasts might not matter (those released criminal records), but what does is what we do next, how we roll from adversity, how we carry ourselves when we lose and when we win. And that lesson was, most depressingly, lost on Vince and on the Lions.

New episodes of Friday Night Lights will return on Wednesday, January 5th at 9 pm ET/PT on DirecTV's The 101 Network. On the next episode ("Fracture"), Coach fears he's beginning to lose his grip on the team; Tami worries that one of her students is being neglected; Vince alienates his teammates; Becky enters a beauty pageant.


Anonymous said…
Seeing Scott Porter touched me more than I thought it would. It was a nice set-up for the return of Matt Saracen and Tim Riggins later in the season, and of course, the eventual series end.

Cress Williams and Michael B. Jordan are a fantastic pairing, and even though it meant seeing less Steve Harris, I'm glad Williams was added to the cast as a recurring player. A strong adult black male central character has been missing from this show since the days of Smash, and the Williams/Jordan dynamic brings a nuanced view at a type of relationship that we don't often see on television.

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