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Eighteen Years: The Holy Grail on Friday Night Lights

It's nearly time to say goodbye...

This week's penultimate episode of Friday Night Lights ("Texas Whatever"), written by Kerry Ehrin and directed by Kyle Chandler, moved the pieces into place for one final emotional sucker punch as we prepare to say our goodbyes to this remarkable and intelligent series.

It was no surprise that, going into the series finale, things would look so dark and grim, as the future of the Dillon Lions was called into question even as the team prepared for the state championship. In fact, everybody's future seemed up for grabs-- from Tami and Eric Taylor to Tim Riggins, from Luke and Becky to Billy and Mindy Riggins--as the episode offered up a sense that anything was possible as these characters considered their own paths, even as we get ready to see them walk off into the sunset next week.

The result was a beautifully realized episode that was a shining example of the kind of deeply nuanced storytelling that Friday Night Lights does best, creating small moments that echo throughout, of lives lived and loves lost, of passions and dreams, and of paths not taken. With so much on the line for so many of these characters, the episode magnificently set up the final game of their lives, both the shot at the state title and their own individual destinies.

Everyone seemed to be falling apart this week, pondering just what the future held for them. Would Tim stay in Texas or head for the Alaskan pipeline? Would Luke throw off the small-town shackles or would he head someplace similar to Dillon? Would Tami take the Dean of Admission job in Philadelphia? Would Eric return to West Dillon? And would there even be an East Dillon Lions team when the dust settled?

But everyone seemed to be at odds with their own expectations for the future, as a sad wind blew through Dillon. Tim Riggins, haunted by his time in prison, unable to adjust to life on the outside (remarkably encapsulated in that scene where he throws his bedding out of the trailer); Mindy contemplating a future in which Stevie doesn't even know his mother because she's surrounded by twin toddlers; Tami seeing the past eighteen years of her marriage as a constant compromise on her part, rather than a shared journey.

It's this last element that's the most gut-wrenching as we see Eric and Tami struggling in a way heretofore unseen on Friday Night Lights until this point. Throughout the series' run, we've seen these two have their differences but typically always come together in a unified front; however, we're seeing a widening chasm open up between them as Eric can't even bring himself to discuss the possibility of Tami taking the Dean of Admissions gig and moving their family to Philadelphia. For all of his openness, Eric is a traditionalist at heart; he was against Tami going back to work at the beginning of Season One and here he's stubbornly remaining defiant to the idea that Tami's work life could alter their destiny and take them out of Texas.

"We live in Texas," he says. "Texas is where I work. Texas is where I have my job." The thought never occurs to Eric that it might be Tami's chance to lead their family's path and that Eric's coaching job might take a backseat to Tami's opportunity. After all, he wasn't crowing about Texas when he had that offer lined up in Florida, or when he moved the Taylors all over the place numerous times before. But now that there's the very real possibility that he might be marginalized in this decision, he's drawing a line in the sand of Dillon. When Tami asks, "How many times have we moved before for your job," he doesn't have an answer because there isn't a rational, honest one.

Eric's entire identity is caught up in being a football coach and, on some level, he sees Tami as an extension of that identity: the perfect coach's wife, always there with lemonade and an easy smile. But the fact remains that Tami's career has taken off and this opportunity is a great one for their family. Would it take them out of Texas? Absolutely. And is that perhaps a scary proposition? You bet. But it could also be, as Tami says, a blessing, given the uncertainty swirling around the Lions.

And, even after we learn the fate of the team (Dillon will have just one football team: the Panthers), Eric still can't bring himself to even have an adult conversation with Tami on the subject. In fact, he hasn't even congratulated her on the offer, seeing it as less an opportunity and more of an inconvenience. You can sense the heartbreak in her voice as Tami sadly says, "I'm going to say to you what you haven't had the grace to say to me: congratulations, Eric."

This might just be the lowest we've ever seen Tami and Eric and there doesn't seem to be any way of bridging the gap between them. It's a true about-face for one of television's most enduring, beloved, and realistic couples, which might be why the sting of betrayal smarts the most as it seems the steadfast support that Tami has given to Eric over the years isn't quite as generously reciprocated.

Yes, Eric is a loving husband, but he's not allowing Tami to find her destiny in the same way that he pushes his "boys" to on and off the field. Eighteen years is a long time to stand in someone else's shadow and I'm glad that Tami isn't meekly going along with Eric's stonewalling.

When the decision about the future of Dillon football comes down, it's the moment between Vince and Eric that gets me every time: the mistiness in Coach's eyes as he tells Vince that he'll be the star of the Panthers the following year, their embrace which says more than words ever could. Everything that Coach has sacrificed has been for kids like Vince and his generosity and spirit with them make his indifference towards Tami's opportunity all the more glaring.

Elsewhere, the denizens of Dillon had their own struggles in this week's episode, which afforded a number of fantastic two-hander scenes, such as those between Eric/Tami, Eric/Vince, Vince/Jess, Luke/Tim, Tim/Tyra, Tyra/Julie, Mindy/Billy, Luke/Becky, and multiple other permutations. The scene where Tami attempted to reassure Julie that everything would be okay and that her parents loved each other very much seemed so real and so upsetting to both of them, Aimee Teegarden's Julie shrinking in her seat like a small child, her mother's words perhaps making her even more uncomfortable than before.

But the question of love and fidelity seemed to loom large in this episode, as well saw one couple fall apart (Luke and Becky) while others finally came together (such as Vince and Jess and Tim and Tyra). I was beyond pleased to see the return of some familiar faces such as Teegarden, Adrianne Palicki, and Zach Gilford, in this week's episode; the writers have always been generous with wrapping up the storylines of the original cast members and there's a distinct sense of having come full circle here, from the news cameras on the field (reminiscent of the early days of FNL) and the returns of Tyra and Saracen to Dillon.

Tyra's return comes at the perfect time for Tim Riggins, who is debating whether to sell off his land and head to Alaska, to set his sights on something that's inimical to Dillon, it seems. These two have so much history that it's telling that it's Tyra who is able to shake Tim out of his despondence, to make him feel something for the first time in a long time. When these two have their roll in the hay (let's be honest, it was inevitable), it feels like a genuine decision on both of their parts, Tyra drawn back to the past she was so dead-set on running from, Tim opting to feel rather than shut down.

Their moment is echoed, perhaps inversely, by the loss that Julie feels, sitting alone in her car outside of Saracen's house, his #7 Panthers sign on its side in the yard. Her scene with Tyra sums up so much about where both characters are heading, as each admits that Dillon is "a hard place to shake."

Luke, especially, wants out of small town Texas, realizing that his recruitment offer is just trading Dillon for another small town existence. Matt Lauria's scene with Tyalor Kitsch summed up his inner conflict. He loves football but he knows he won't be happy if he takes the offer, D3 school or no. But it's Tim's words that truly seem to hit home, as the Lions prepare to go to state, the last game that this team will play together. "Play it like it's the last time you're ever going to lace up," he says, echoing his own experiences. "Play it that way and then move on."

In the end, the real question on many of their minds is whether they're running towards Dillon or away from it. With just one episode to go, I can promise that the results of that soul-searching will be heartbreaking, powerful, and will stick with you for some time to come. The end, it seems, is finally here, the last game, the last showdown on the field. Will the Lions grab the holy grail at the end of the day? And will these characters seize their destinies? Find out next week.

Next week on the series finale of Friday Night Lights ("Always"), the Taylors face several decisions that could change their lives forever; Coach and Tami are caught off guard by Julie's future plans; the Lions go to state.

Comments

Ben Phelps said…
What a great, great episode, and the finale next week is even better. Sad to see FNL go, but at least it's going out as strongly as possible. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts next week.
Ally said…
Such a great episode. I think that what often makes the episodes so good is the simplicity of the writing. We don't need long speeches or fancy banter. One line - "I'm going to say to you what you haven't had the grace to say to me: congratulations, Eric" - cuts so deep and says so much.
snapthejap said…
The second to last episode of Friday Night Lights was almost exactly what I had expected (with a few surprises). I expected building drama between the Taylors. I expected the finacial decision to provide the outcome it did. I even expected Tyra's return to lead to its eventual outcome. What I DIDN'T expect was, that despite how predictable most of this episode was, I was still taken aback by everything.
As Jace pointed out, this show is filled with little moments that resonate. The characters are rich and familiar without seeming stale.
Friday Night Lights is one of my favorite dramas. The emotional component is always masked by distractingly good performances.
shaxs said…
Im not going to lie. I am at 28 year old man and I am pretty sure next week I will be crying. I will mourn the loss of one of the best tv shows I have had the pleasure to watch.

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