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Outsiders: Cynicism and Optimism on Friday Night Lights


Throughout the four-plus season run of Friday Night Lights, we've gotten quite a few inspirational speeches from Coach Taylor, spirit-rallying calls to action, soul-stirring St. Crispin's Day speeches intended to join men into a single unit, to merge them together into a single entity before they leap once more into the fray.

Sometimes, however, all it takes is a single word scrawled on a dry-erase board.

On this week's episode of Friday Night Lights ("On the Outside Looking In"), written by Kerry Ehrin and directed by Michael Waxman, a number of stories about isolation and unity tumbled together in an appealingly loose fashion. There was the nicely rendered parallel stories of Tami and Julie, each adrift in their own way, desperately seeking to fit into an environment that has them ill at ease.

Despite the distance between mother and daughter, they're linked here by a taut thematic thread. For Tami, it's an effort to fit into her new surroundings as the guidance counselor at East Dillon. She's got her work cut out for her, given the apathy of her fellow teachers, the disinterest of the parents, and the outright hostility of some of the students, including at-risk Epic. Julie, meanwhile, can't quite fit in at college. She's got a roommate who is less interested in getting to know her and more interested in, uh, getting to know the opposite sex.

Better news, however, for Vince, who receives a tonnage of letters of intent from various colleges. The look of shock on his face when Eric explained just what those letters were and the look of pride and love on the face of his struggling mother spoke volumes about just what Vince has been able to accomplish since he joined the Lions last year. It's the first taste of the power of the game beyond the joy of winning; it's the realization that it's a transformative experience, one that can forever change both his and his mother's lives if he sticks to the straight and narrow.

He's also become a bit of a local hero, in the light of his performance on the field. From the free lunch to the fact that he's able to get his mom a better job with Bob at the garden supply center, he's experiencing a sense of fame and power that he never has in the past. We've seen other plays utilize their local weight in the past, but I can't think of a time (perhaps with Matt Saracen) where we've seen the first inklings of change rumble in their heads.

But Vince has some other issues. For one, there's the threat that Maura clearly poses to his relationship with Jess. Maura has made it clear that she intends to steal Vince away, going so far as to put her panties in his locker, something that enrages Jess and leads to a full on girl fight in the bathroom. (It also leads, later, to Jess getting blindly drunk at the party in an effort to compete with Maura.) I'm a little concerned about just where this storyline is leading, particularly with Maura drunkenly being lead off-screen by several guys. (Could it be that we're seeing another rape storyline spring up, one that's perhaps less melodramatic than Season Two's revenge plot for Landry and Tyra?)

The Lions themselves, despite their surprising victory last week, aren't ranked... and the tackle that Luke made during that game is under investigation. Was it a clean hit? Is there a safety issue? And will Luke be suspended as a result?

The answer to the last one, this being Friday Night Lights, is yep. Despite Eric's insistence that the entire hearing is politically motivated because the Lions beat a team that they weren't supposed to beat, Luke is suspended for one game, a twist of fate that sends him racing to the bottle.

I thought it interesting that Luke's rage should be so directed at newbie Hastings and that it was Becky--given their shared history--who intervenes and gets Luke home safely. The boy still clearly has feelings for her (he was so desperate to get her as a rally girl) and he went so far as to trade his pig (!!!) to Tinker in order to land Becky as his rally girl.

But despite what Becky might feel, there was no way she was going into his house with Luke as drunk as he was. Her "not tonight" was just ambiguous enough to imply that on another night, under other circumstances, maybe she would have gone inside. I'm concerned though that that history, the thing that binds them together, might be the wedge that keeps them apart. How does one recover from what happened to the two of them? And the fact that Luke's mother went so far as to try to get Tami fired for even counseling Becky in the first place? Hmm...

I loved Mindy's fury when Becky came in late, after she chewed out Billy for the girl even staying with them in the first place. (Her Jon/Kate/nanny analogy was classic.) Whereas other teens may have been defensive about getting yelled at by someone who isn't even their mother, Becky's smile showed that she's not used to someone even noticing that she's not home... and that she might actually enjoy the attention and worry for a change.

As for Tami, she attempted to launch a volunteer tutoring program and tried to get the other teachers to offer some of their time but the "homework club" seemed to rub everyone the wrong way. Despite the conversation between Eric and Tami about catching more flies with honey than vinegar, Tami's very optimism--one of her great strengths--seems to be working against her with such a defeated, apathetic group. Despite not fitting in at all, she makes an effort to attend the weekly happy hour (an invitation very reluctantly offered) and makes a quick exit after getting a drink spilled on her. But she does win over one teacher--Laurel--who offers to volunteer. And she does get Epic to turn up for their meeting. Baby steps!

Julie, meanwhile, finds herself on the outs with just about everyone, though I do find it hard to believe that a beautiful girl like Julie wouldn't have the freshman guys swarming around her. She seems bored by her classes and by college life in general. (The girl isn't even in a study group! Horror!) She attends the history department mixer and spars with her TA, Derek Bishop, about the outcome of a classic football game, repeatedly telling him that there is a 36 throwback in the game. (He very wrongly doesn't believe her.) From their next meeting, it's abundantly clear that he's intended to be a new love interest for Julie but I question whether, as a freshman, she should be getting into bed with her graduate TA. This will end badly...

Eric, meanwhile, isn't going to give into defeat, even with the armaments being turned on the team from all directions. As I mentioned earlier, I loved that rather than give another moving speech, a Clear Eyes, Full Hearts shout-out, he very simply wrote "state" on the board. It's a direction, a goal, a mission. And it's very likely where the series finale of Friday Night Lights is heading. One can only hope for a victory, an opportunity for this ragtag team to come together and bring home the ultimate prize. I can't help but get misty-eyed just thinking about it...

Next week on Friday Night Lights ("The Right Hand of the Father"), someone from Vince's past resurfaces; Julie connects with a faculty member; Eric tries to instill discipline in the team; Buddy is troubled after learning something about his son.


Anonymous said…
If I had been lucky enough to write for FNL in it's final two seasons, I would have been sore tempted to build S5 up to another State game - East Dillon vs West Dillon. [It's gotta happen, right?] But I'd want that either as the climax of ep 12 or done by halfway through the final ep, to leave room for all the goodbyes - DB.
Dolphin said…
I thought the writers are on the same pace as last season ... which is somehow comforting during this final season.

The final scene set the stage for the season, much as the uniform burning scene did in Season 4. However, I thought the dramatic buildup of episode 5 02 was perfect (to allow some other story telling). Again, without spoiling it for those who do not have Direct TV ... that final scene ... all I want to say is that I *LOVED* IT!!!!! Beyond perfection in terms of writing and pacing.
Oscar said…
Damn, I'm gonna miss Dillon. I've already seen Season 5 on DirecTV, but reading your ongoing reviews of the season gets me misty eyed all over again.

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