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The Ring: Endings and Beginnings on the Series Finale of Friday Night Lights

"Texas Forever."

Those words have been spoken quite a few times throughout the five-season run of Friday Night Lights and each time they've been said with a slightly different meaning in mind. Early on, they represented the optimism and vitality of youth, of dreams for the future that were spoken by those who had yet to learn the lesson of loss. But here, they're some of the last words spoken in the series, a statement of freedom and happiness, yes, but they've been tempered by the experiences of the last few years for Tim Riggins.

It's with a great deal of emotion that we've reached the end of the road with Friday Night Lights, which wrapped up its storylines and left the door open for the viewers to imagine the future ahead for the Taylors, for Julie and Matt Saracen, for Vince and the super-team of the Panthers, for Luke and Becky, and for Tim Riggins himself, finally able to build his house on his land.

The series finale of Friday Night Lights ("Always"), written by Jason Katims and directed by Michael Waxman, was a beautiful and poignant installment that ranks up there with the all-time best series finales, so accomplished in its sense of nostalgia, so true to its tone and its characters, and so willing to give the audience not only what we wanted, but also what we needed.

In many ways, the breathtaking series finale brought the plot full circle back to the show's pilot episode, offering up scenes of the players being interviewed by the news crews, those familiar director's chairs popping up once more on the field. Familiar musical themes made their fitting reappearance here. And the "Texas Forever" spirit that embodied those early conversations between Riggins and Jason Street proudly having reached their apex with Tim finally getting that open land he had dreamed about all of those years before.

Likewise, just as the series began with Tami Taylor considering returning to work, it ends with Tami now taking charge of her destiny and stepping out of Eric's shadow to stand by his side. For his part, Eric has finally learned the lesson of compromise and sacrifice that he tries to impart to Julie and Matt in the restaurant; he's able to finally separate himself from his career to see that his stubbornness is actually killing his wife.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, really. In the hands of Katims and Waxman, this was a finale that not only paid homage to the legacy of the series, to the 75 episodes that came before, but also set up an imagined future for the residents of Dillon, one where they would go on to live out their dreams, even if we, the audience, can no longer be the fly on the wall to these proceedings.

It's fitting that the show ended on such an optimistic note. This has been a series that has found its characters struggling to find happiness in a town--and perhaps a world--that didn't want them to, that offered numerous roadblocks and speedbumps on their quest for personal and communal glory. It was a place where, every week, something went wrong for Coach Taylor and his team, or the individuals that made up this wonderfully vibrant town.

Life goes on, as they say, and the same holds true for these characters. The final coda that Katims offers up, set eight months after the Lions win the state championship (and then cease to exist at all in the process), holds open a window to their futures that lay before them, showing us the Dillon-ites at their very best: Tim and Billy, finally united, building that house together; Vince leading the "super-team" of Panthers, Tinker by his side; Luke embarking on military service, as he's seen off at the bus depot by Becky; Jess in her element on the football field in Dallas; Julie and Matt enjoying a moment of domestic bliss; and, finally, Eric and Tami standing as equals together on yet another field, this time in Philadelphia.

It was, in many respects, an evening of long goodbyes.

There was a grace and beauty to the final sequence amid the state championship, the hushed atmosphere and minimal dialogue, the heartfelt prayer offered by Eric to the team, the elegance of that final soaring arc of the ball overhead. It was, amid a series that prized the silent moments, a nearly silent sequence, save the lilting strains of the instrumentals. I had my heart in my throat throughout, my stomach in knots, my eyes misty. And while we knew that the Lions would roar at the Cotton Bowl and bring home a second ring for Eric, there was something magnificent and triumphant about them doing so, and how the action connected from that final pass to one eight months later in Philadelphia. The circle, it seems, is unbroken.

Kudos to Kyle Chandler for pulling off a tightrope-walk of a performance in these final episodes. It would have been easy to vilify Eric for his lack of support in Tami's career, in his patriarchal mindset that his professional goals would naturally come before those of his wife's, that Dillon was where their Christmas tree was and where they would be staying. But, thanks to Chandler, Eric isn't unsympathetic. He's a product of his environment and his upbringing, yes, but the fact that he supports both his daughter Julie and Jess in their efforts to achieve their dreams point towards a root cause that isn't misogyny; it's miscommunication.

Eric and Tami have always had an understanding about their respective roles in this marriage. Just as Tami is able to turn on the charm at the end of last week's episode when she needs to, Eric sees her as the consummate coach's wife, always willing to rustle up a barbeque or some lemonade when the need arises, to always be there by his side, but not to run ahead of him.

Eric's entire identity is constructed around the fact that he is a football coach and he's made huge compromises in pursuit of that objective, choosing to stay in Dillon rather than go to Florida, defraying his dreams of stability and glory in order to safeguard Vince's and the others'. The conversation between Eric and Tami is one-sided because it doesn't even dawn on Eric that there's even a possibility that he would take a leap into the unknown because his wife has a job offer in the Northeast.

Just as he doesn't congratulate Tami when she receives the offer, so to does Eric not really broach the subject when she tries to bring it up, either forcefully or more delicately. It's not a conversation he wants to have, it's not a possibility he wants to consider, despite the way that his attitude cut Tami to the core. Even, as Tami sobs outside the restaurant and says, "What will I tell my daughter?" Eric still can't bring himself to console her or to make it right.

It's only when he sees his future in front of him, those early morning calls from Buddy, the in-fighting and the politics, does he finally see the offer letter from Braemore right in front of him and sees just what Tami, after eighteen years of marriage, is giving up because she "can't win this fight." It's only then that he makes it right.

The future seems to be a point of contention in a number of storylines in the finale, in fact, from Tyra and Tim's conversation about whether their dreams can "merge" at some point in the future to the marriage proposal offered by Matt Saracen to Julie. Eric's anger at Saracen, his disregard for Matt and Julie's wishes, and his insistence that his daughter is too young are all caught up and reflected in the conflict he's enmeshed in with Tami.

While Julie says that she views her parents as her "inspiration," it's a statement that cuts Tami to her core. Eric makes a big point of the fact Julie and Matt are too young to get married and that he and Tami wed at a very different time. But what signal is he sending to Julie if he makes it clear that his goals are more important than Tami's? Does Eric, at some subconscious level, realize the injury he's doing to both his wife and his daughter?

Just as Camelot can't last forever, neither can Dillon, Texas, it seems. The legend was brought up by Hastings and the others on the East Dillon field last week but it's felt sharply here. There's a sense of promise about the future and Tami and Eric's new start--for all of their new starts in life, really--but there's also a sense that something important and mythical has ended.

I loved that Matt nostalgically got down on one knee in front of the Alamo Freeze and asked Julie to marry him... and that Landry, characteristically, brought up that only a few years earlier Matt was nervous about even talking to Julie. Nice to see the two of them together, if only for that one scene. (I also loved the fact that Tyra, Matt, Julie, and Tim had their scene in the bar together, reuniting a large chunk of that original cast.)

There was a nice sense of symmetry between Julie receiving Matt's grandmother's ring and Eric getting his second state champion ring. I loved the scene between Julie and Lorraine Saracen in the house as Lorraine kissed Julie's hand when she saw her own engagement ring. The theme of family, however non-traditional, seemed woven throughout the episode: Lorraine telling Julie to call her grandma, Becky telling Mindy that they were sisters, Tim telling Becky that they're more than friends: they're family.

That's been at the heart of this series from the beginning: the way that people form something resembling a family, whether that's Coach and the team or the ragtag individuals who end up living with one another, each blending together into something bigger than themselves.

While I'll freely admit that I cried several times during the series finale, one of the moments that got me the most choked up was Becky moving out of the Riggins' house as Mindy and Billy drop her off at her mom' house. The final embrace between Madison Burge's Becky and Stacey Oristano's Mindy was overflowing with emotion; the two have come a long way in their relationship since that first night Becky crashed there after leaving home. There's a kinship there, a sense of sisterly love, that's unbreakable, even at a distance. The single tear on Mindy's cheek as she turns away as Becky is caught up in her mother's arms was heartbreaking in its simplicity.

Another? Seeing how emotional Eric was as he lead the team in prayer one last time, each of them knowing that this would be the last time they'd be taking the field together. And the moment that passed between Eric and Vince? Understated emotion at its best, as Eric told Vince that he would never know how proud of him that he was and how Vince in turn offered his thanks for everything that Coach had done for him. We've always known that Eric Taylor was a molder of men. We see here just how much of an impact he's had on the lives of the men he's trained.

But the moment that really got me was one of the simplest: the sight of Jason Street's name on the wall of the West Dillon Panthers' locker room, right there under the "P," as Billy puts the "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose" sign to its rightful place. It's a subtle moment that underscores the love that both the audience and the writers had for these characters, for the struggles that they endured, and for the men and women that they became. Their presence is keenly felt just as much as their absence.

Glory might fade, but memories last forever.

NBC viewers will have the chance to watch the fifth and final season of Friday Night Lights beginning April 15th.

Comments

Ally said…
*sniff*
Annie said…
Amazing finale, amazing write up. I am going to miss this show and miss hearing your thoughts. Texas forever!
Bella Spruce said…
Series finales can be so disappointing but this one was perfect! They did a wonderful job bringing back old cast members without it seeming forced and also providing satisfying endings (or new beginnings?) for the current characters. I'm so sad that the show is ending but glad that they were able to end it on such a fantastic note.
Anonymous said…
How perfect is that Landry cameo. A small moment, where two best friends act just like no time has gone past between them. This show did those little moments so well. Same with the I have plans, i dont exchange with Riggins and Tyra. In a show that was always about moving up from small town Dillon one person liked the humble simplicity of life in a town with great vistas, beer and football. Not to mention a small army of very good looking women to bed. honestly sounds like a great place to retire.

I like to think of this as the first British show done by Americans. Like british shows like the office, skins or Misfits the language is totally unique in this case American. Its also very English in nature because not everybody always wins. the hand held cameras help too.

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