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The Broken Door: The Price of Victory on Friday Night Lights

Each episode of Friday Night Lights brings with it the double-edged sword of satisfaction, delivering another impassioned and poignant installment but also bringing us ever closer to the precipice itself: the end of the line.

This week's beautiful episode ("The March"), written by Rolin Jones and directed by Jason Katims, painfully reminded me of why I love Friday Night Lights in the first place, setting up conflicts both internal and external, transformative events and those quotidian moments that add up to a life in the end. For the characters of Friday Night Lights, victory on the field doesn't translate to personal glory, as this episode showed in no uncertain terms.

The March of the title might be that towards the state championship, but it's also the march that each of us endures in our own way: one day turning to the next, a broken-down door, a conversation with a spouse, a misunderstanding, a tear-filled goodbye, a brawl between brothers.

While life goes on for the Lions, poor, broken Tim Riggins has seen his life take a tragic detour. The sacrifice he made for his family--taking the fall for brother Billy's crimes so that his brother could be with his wife and son--has become a burden that's too heavy to carry, as Tim believes that his brother didn't make good on his end of the arrangement.

Billy promised to look after Becky and he did, giving the teenage girl a place to stay when even wife Mindy wanted her gone, but Becky has followed Mindy to the Landing Strip. While she's not stripping, Tim is uncomfortable with Becky's presence there, with the fact that Billy and Mindy's infant son is being fed a bottle by some strippers, while Billy sits out there, drinking his seventh beer.

Billy's casual attitude hits home for Tim, who has spent the better part of a year in prison; Billy's freedom, both physical and intellectual, is a slap across the face to Tim. After all his lifestyle was paid for by Tim's life, his ease made possible by Tim's fraternal sacrifice. Is this what it was all for?

Kudos to both Taylor Kitsch and Stacey Oristano for pulling off an emotional two-hander in this episode; I was struggling to hold back the tears when Mindy begged Tim not to go here. It was a gut-wrenching and genuine moment that passed between the two that had as much of an emotional slap as the parking lot brawl between Tim and Billy, each a sucker punch to the heart in their own way.

Kitsch's Tim Riggins is a shell of a man, having served his time and come out the other side. Gone is the irrepressible ladies' man, the football star, the hard-drinking partier. In his place is the ghost of Tim Riggins, a haunted soul who is reminded of just what he's lost. The sight of Smash on television, the whir of the radio as it announces that the Dillon Lions are going to State, the sight of Becky fooling around on the couch with Luke, they're all reminders that time has marched on for everyone else around him.

But Tim, for all his sacrifices, is still trapped in prison, a solitary soul on his own, his dream of that big open space, that "Texas Forever" parcel of land, empty and hollow now that he's seen the other side of life. What Tim, sleepwalker and malcontent, needs is to be woken up from his nightmare.

Even as Tim remains stuck in neutral, change is afoot elsewhere in Dillon, as couples fall apart at the seams, opportunities of personal and professional natures arise, and the future is contemplated. Even as the Lions prepare to take the state title, a looming budget crisis could mean the elimination of the East Dillon Lions' football program. In an interesting payoff, it seems as though there's only room--and resources--for one team in Dillon. Will it be the Panthers or the Lions? And just what does it mean for Coach Eric Taylor at the end of it?

Eric had sacrificed his own exit strategy to stay in Dillon and see his team all the way to the end, but the budget cuts that Levi is dealing with mean that he could be without a job very soon. Interestingly, I don't know what that means for Eric, whose entire identity seems derived from his role as a football coach. It's impossible to separate Eric Taylor from Coach Taylor, the family man from the molder of men. But what happens when the rug is yanked out from beneath him?

The Taylors' future seems now in the hands of Tami herself, who is offered a position of the Dean of Admissions at a college in Philadelphia, a surprise given that she's just spent the last year as a guidance counselor in a crumbling small town high school in Texas. Will Tami accept the role? And what will it mean for Eric? Just how does he fit into this potential new lifestyle?

The series began with Tami contemplating returning to work after leaving to raise her family, so it's perhaps fitting that it should end with Tami becoming the breadwinner in a way, taking the baton from her husband and running with it. She's worked hard, she's sacrificed, and stood by her husband, but it's time for Tami to seize hold of her own destiny now, to guide her family on their path.

Elsewhere, Jess struggled with her own feminine ambitions, attempting to get Coach to see that it was possible for her to become a football coach, even though she's a woman. While the odds are stacked against her (one female coach among hundreds of thousands of men), Eric does offer her the opportunity to step up and attempt to achieve her dreams, just as he's done for the countless boys who have come to him on the field. While he calls her a pest initially, I think he admires her moxie and her determination; besides, she's a canny tactician and an accomplished trainer in her own right. Why shouldn't she become the new face of football coaching? Why should he stand in the way of any of their aspirations?

The alternative is far scarier, demonstrated by the personal hell endured by Vince's mom Regina, struggling to keep clean amid a household that's increasingly falling apart. It starts with Ornette's insistence that he be allowed to drink in the house, followed by a brutal scene at the BBQ shack in which Ornette manhandles Regina and reveals that he's using drugs again, and culminating in a truly upsetting moment as Ornette attempts to bash down the door to their house after Regina changes the locks.

The violence, the brutality, the fear, are all palpable here, even as Regina and Vince try to remain strong in the face of Ornette's savagery. Vince's sadness etched on his face as he struggles to keep his father at bay. It's the cruelest cut, seeing as Vince reluctantly admitted his father back into his life, only to be betrayed by him in so many ways, both big and small.

But, most touchingly, the episode set up that victory can mean very different things to different people. Even as Vince manages to save the game against Arnett Mead with just two seconds on the clock, Regina manages to control her inner demons, sacrificing her son's moment of glory for a support group meeting. The look of pride on both their faces, as they spot each other across the crowded lot, and run to each other, recounts their strength and love for each other. It's a moment of pure happiness, as mother and son embrace each other, their tears both for themselves and each other, their victory hard earned and deserved.

And then there's Eric Taylor, standing alone amid the celebration, looking for his wife, for something to hold onto in the face of victory and on the path ahead of them. But Tami is thousands of miles away, having achieved her own success, and Eric seems more than a little lost without her by his side.

Is it a prophetic moment? Or a reminder of what's truly important at the end of the day. With only two episodes to go before the end of Friday Night Lights, it's safe to say that there's likely going to be more than a little change before the final credits roll and that life for all of them, Dillon Lion and Taylor alike, is about to change forever.

On the penultimate episode of Friday Night Lights ("Texas Whatever"), Coach Taylor is offered a deal he can't refuse; Tim assesses his future plans when an old flame returns to Dillon; the fate of East Dillon's football program is decided.


snapthejap said…
nice write up! I got chills reading it, re-watching last night's episode in my mind. The 1st episode of FNL grabbed me by the heart-strings and hasn't let go (even through a shaky 2nd season riddled with landmines).
I know some people don't watch this show because they assume it's about football-- to them, I say, you are missing out on one of the best dramas of the last decade! This show has a way of making you care about the characters, both primary and ancillary (Smash's mom ALWAYS made my "allergies" attack).
The greatness of this show is only proven by the lack of mass-appeal. A bunch of (then) unknown actors (save for the somewhat-known Taylor parents, Friday Night Lights is the underdog that has proven it can battle the big boys, despite the mismatch.
Annie said…
Another fantastic write up, Jace. I'm going to miss your take on FNL almost as much as I'm going to miss the show. Last night's ep had me in tears from the first minute.
Ben Phelps said…
Overall, this has been a terrific final season. The Julie arc wasn't the most compelling (and it says something that she's been absent the last two episodes), and Hastings has been completely unnecessary and unserviced (it would have been nice to see his series regular credit go to Buddy or Billy), but everything else has been working incredibly. I'm nervous for the end, since I don't think FNL is the type of show to give everyone a happy ending, but I still can't wait to see it.
Jace Lacob said…

I agree that FNL isn't likely to give everyone happy endings and I'm a little nervous to watch the final two installments (they're sitting on my coffee table as I write this). I also agree that Hastings was seriously underutilized and largely undeveloped as a character. I keep waiting for his arc to pay off in some way, but there have been episodes where even Gracie had more lines than Hastings...
Effie said…
Such a great episode - definitely brought tears to my eyes more than once. This show earns those heartfelt moments that could seem cheesy or predictable in the hands of less skilled writers or actors. So many shows try to do what FNL does and fail. FNL has genuine heart and soul, and that's not something you see on television very often!
wendy said…
Right there with ya on all fronts! The Vince story has been my primary love this season (and last). In all my years of watching TV I've never seen a show deal with the substance abuse and co-dependency issue the way this one does. When Regina told Vince she HAD to go to a meeting, you have no idea what that did to me, having lived for years in the orbit of people who refused to deal with their addictions. My heart stood still - and then the payoff at the end where they find each other in the crowd after having to endure the betrayal of O (don't know what the O stands for) one more time. Luminous acting. Luminous writing. Luminous directing. Why must it end?

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