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Coming Undone: The Safety Net on Friday Night Lights

It's human nature to lose your way and even the most steadfast among us can sometimes become rudderless.

On this week's superb episode of Friday Night Lights ("Gut Check"), we saw three characters become directionless for a number of reasons. Creating three largely parallel stories, the writers offered up varying portraits of just why we come undone, whether in the face of adversity, due to bad advice, or simply because we're running from something that we can't--or won't--deal with head on.

For Julie, Vince, and Epyck, their struggles took them to some different places within the context of this week's installment, each straining to find their path in life while others attempted to coax them towards their full potential... or whispered some half-truths in their ears.

Of the three, it seems it might be Vince who truly realizes just how far off the path he's wandered. Listening to the advice of his father Ornette, Vince has been transformed from a team player and a natural leader into someone sullen, arrogant, and self-absorbed, someone who is more concerned with his own success rather than the Lions' as a whole. And when you add that to the already strained relations on the team, you have a volatile situation that only looks to become more explosive.

But the fact remains that no matter how far we stray, there's always the possibility of regaining our inner compass once more. Sometimes all you need is to grab onto a touchstone.

I've been critical of how the writers handled the character of Julie Taylor early on this season. Or if not Julie directly, then the circumstances that lead up to her departure from college and her relationship with her married TA, Derek Bishop. But putting aside the narrative clunkiness of those first steps, I will say that the writers put Julie through the crucible this season, forcing her to reexamine the choices she's made and the person she's become.

Aimee Teegarden's Julie has come a long way from the adorable and seemingly perfect student (and daughter) that we first met back in Season One, becoming over time a realistically flawed and mercurial teenager. Her internal journey--from being the sophisticated big fish in the small pond of Dillon--to losing her way entirely has been utterly fascinating, a portrait of how even the best of kids, coming from the best of parents, can still fail to meet everyone's expectations, including their own. I don't believe for a second that Julie would have ever anticipated leaving school, returning to Dillon, and then disappearing to Chicago altogether.

Not only has she emotionally lost her way, but she physically makes a major U-turn, blowing off school to go see Matt in Chicago. But is she there to be with Matt, to reconnect with him and start a life, or is she still running? Does she still have feelings for her high school boyfriend, or is he a convenient safety net to run to in times of stress? Is she moving forward or moving backward?

I'm glad that Saracen called Julie on some of her childish antics. While she seems to want to draft Matt into the role of confessor, he denies her that authority over her decisions. He's not her parents and he wasn't her boyfriend; she didn't cheat on him and she doesn't owe him an explanation, yet he does chafe against her own expectations even as she begins to build a (false) life in Chicago, relishing the excitement of the art scene, playing house and making spaghetti dinners.

Yet this isn't her life. Julie has latched onto Matt's and is holding on to thin air, believing that this temporary vacation into Saracen's life is her own. It takes Matt to remind her that she's just passing through; she doesn't live in Chicago, he does. She has to go back to her own life, to face her demons, and to get on with her own life.

So off she goes, narrowly missing being rear-ended by a Chicago Tribune newspaper truck. But that's not the end of Julie's journey, nor of the love story between Julie Taylor and Matt Saracen, as he runs after her car and kisses her, telling her that they'll figure out the future together, whatever it takes. It's a beautiful coda to their romance and to Julie's waywardness in general. Whether or not Matt was a safety net (he was to a certain extent), their "extended weekend" together proves that they do have a future together. But it needs to be built in reality and not on some half-baked dreams. Here's to hoping that these two can make it work because they so clearly do belong together...

Back in Dillon, things were far less certain for Vince and Epyck in their respective storylines. After learning the truth about Epyck's living situation, Tami didn't turn her back on her rambunctious protege, but forged on trying to help her see that she has opportunities just like anyone else and that she needn't be defined by her past. Those circumstances might shape us but they don't own us, something that was echoed in the Julie/Matt arc this episode.

For Epyck, she's so locked into her combative mode, so tested by everyone around her, that she can't see the possibilities that might exist for her. Tami gets a glimpse of it this week when Epyck comes over for dinner for some study help and Tami sees her interact with Grace. It was nicely planted last week that Epyck gets along well with children and we're able to see this in full force here. Gone is the raging bravado, the forced fierceness; Epyck here is calm, collected, and gentle, able to play with Gracie one-on-one. She's clearly a natural with kids and should be looking to do something with children professionally.

But then there's the incident with the $20. I'm still not entirely sure what happened to Laurel's crisp $20 bill, but either she misplaced it or one of the other kids in the "homework club" stole it out of her purse. Because it sure as hell wasn't Epyck, who vigorously defends her innocence. So much so, in fact, that a minor scuffle in Tami's office ends up with Tami getting slammed against the window.

It's unexpected and it's a little shocking for all involved, most of all Epyck, who realizes what she's done. Levi has no choice but to call the sheriff and Epyck is led away in handcuffs as Tami tries to save her at-risk student's future. The sadness that Tami feels is not directed at Epyck (it was an accident, after all) but at the system that is more willing to throw Epyck away than to help her, to write her off rather than save her. That door to possibility is slamming shut around her with a deafening boom.

Vince, meanwhile, is still "knocking on the wrong doors." By buying into the false dream that Ornette has spun around him, Vince is turning his back on everyone that once believed in him: Coach Taylor, Jess, and the Lions as a whole. But I'm glad to see that his mom attempts to show him that Ornette is doing what he thinks is best for Vince but that Vince also needs to listen to his own thoughts. He does have a good head on his shoulders and he should listen to his father's advice but he doesn't always need to follow it.

Vince has become everything I hoped he wouldn't: vainglorious, embittered, and egocentric. He fails to show up to help Luke, leaving Jess--who breaks up with Vince--to do his work for him, and doesn't do the one thing that Coach had asked of him. It's a slap in the face for Eric, who has done everything for Vince, who has given him every opportunity, just to see Vince's gratitude turn to ash.

I think Vince finally sees just what his father is when Coach keeps Vince on the bench the entire game... and Luke ends up giving the Lions a W when he's the QB and not Vince. Ornette's wrath threatens to rain itself down on Eric, but Vince is able to restrain his father; after all, we saw just what happened the last time someone got on Ornette's bad side when Vince was involved.

Will Vince snap out of this funk? Will he see the play-offs as a chance to regain his team's support and confidence? Will he realize just what Eric has been looking to do for him? One can only hope.

Elsewhere, I loved that Becky was tempted to the "dark side" after subbing as a cocktail waitress at the Landing Strip for one night, seeing the opportunity to make some quick cash, even as Mindy wasn't too comfortable with the idea of her working there. While I don't see her stripping, she's clearly realizing the value of working around drunk men with cash in their wallets and the power she has over them.

Plus, I was pleased that Mindy told Luke that she was mad at him for not standing up to his parents and telling them about their reconnection and their new relationship. While Becky is rather matter-of-fact about the situation (and the bad blood that exists between her and Luke's mom), I was glad to see that she wasn't hysterical... and that Luke clearly got the message: he showed up for dinner with his parents with Becky on his arm and said that they should change the reservation to four people. Sweet.

Finally, Mindy Riggins is pregnant again (was that not the best description of her and Billy's baby's conception ever?) and she seems less than pleased with the news, even as her husband is over the moon about the thought of a little brother for Stevie. Mindy's low-key discomfort and unspoken fears were immediately shown across her face, which seems etched with worry about the future. While Billy seems to think that everything will be okay, it's clear that Mindy is less than convinced.

Kudos to Stacey Oristano and the writers for making Mindy a compelling character over the last few seasons. What started out as a supporting character--the stripper sister of Tyra Colette--has blossomed into a major character with her own self-doubts, internal struggles, and journey. It's rewarding to see that happen when the actor is as wonderful as Oristano, who manages to make me love Mindy more and more each week. The fifth season has been a wonderful showcase for this fantastic actor and I'm now getting misty-eyed at the thought of not seeing what the future holds for Mindy and Billy.

All in all, another fantastic episode that showed off the tonal interplay and emotional grit that Friday Night Lights has in spades, giving some real heft to an array of characters' journeys this week and showing us that the future isn't really clear-cut for any of us. For Julie, Vince, and Epyck (and even Mindy and Becky), the possibilities of the future are very much determined by what we do in the present. What we do next, the people we choose to be, the way we react to adversity, that might be the only thing we have any control over. So, choose wisely before someone else makes that choice for you...

Next week on Friday Night Lights ("Don't Go"), an elite college football program attempts to lure Coach away from East Dillon; Vince vows to earn his spot back; friends and family speak at Tim's parole hearing.


Anonymous said…
I always enjoy reading your "Friday Night Lights" reviews. They are always so well thought out and I usually agree with you analysis! Kudos! Four episodes to go... I am not ready. :(
Ben Phelps said…
Great review! I loved having Saracen back, and thought the ending with him and Julie was perfect. I don't usually care about character relationships one way or the other, but with these two, they'd better end up together.

One of my only complaints about this season is Tami's story line. Even though she is back at the same school as Coach, she is on the sidelines, really only interacting with one other student, who isn't even someone we knew beforehand. It would be nice to see her integrated into a main story, like last season with Becky's pregnancy/abortion. It would also save Tami from always being painted as the Great White Hope.

Overall, though, great episode and a great season thus far. Can't believe there are only a few episodes left...
brett said…
Loved this episode, especially the end to see Luke start off shaky when given the opportunity on Senior Night, only to get get things together for the win. Also really thought it was great that they used that Ted Leo song “Woke Up In Chelsea” during the final game, it really added to the intensity of it all, without being distracting. FYI that whole scene is up at

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