Series finale review: 'Friday Night Lights' - 'Always': Texas forever?
Well, damn it. "Friday Night Lights" is over. Earlier today I posted my breakdown of my favorite moments of the series, and you can also read my interview with showrunner Jason Katims about the ups and downs of the series, and Fienberg and I also recorded a podcast looking back over the whole series. And my review of the series finale coming up just as soon as I make it clear that it's not incest...
"Will you take me to Philadelphia with you, please?" -Coach
"Friday Night Lights" has always been the story of a football team and its coach, but it's also been the story of a marriage - one of the most well-rounded, admirable, memorable marriages ever portrayed on television. Time after time, this show's depiction of Eric and Tami Taylor's relationship has revealed the "happily married couples are boring" theory of dramatic writing for the ridiculous, lazy lie that it is. This happily married couple has never been boring, and they've been as much a part of the show's core as the Panthers or Lions.
So it feels right that the series final episode should hinge as much on the future of that marriage as on whether the Lions manage to win State - and that so many of the finale's other storylines revolve around the romantic futures of the young people who have grown up with Coach and Mrs. Coach as role models of how to make a partnership of equals work.
When I did that breakdown of my favorite moments from the series, it was really hard to leave out Eric finding Tami in the mall and asking - no, begging - her to take him to Philadelphia. (The rapid delivery and the "please" were perfection.) Eric teaches his players and his children about character, he lectures Julie and Matt on how marriage requires compromise, but he's also enough of a stubborn guy that it takes him a while to realize that he has to practice what he preaches. With the Lions disbanded, with Vince mostly grown up, and with most of the same SOBs running the football program as the last time, Eric's ties to the town are as weak as they've ever been. If not now, when? And as he talks to Buddy at the crack of dawn, and thinks about being the boosters' puppet all over again, and looks at the Braemore literature, he finally gets it. And though I usually roll my eyes at the whole "run to declare your love" bit, this was different. Tami knows Eric loves her. She just needed to be reminded that he respects her and her career, too, and he does that, and it's a fantastic cherry-on-top scene for our hero and heroine.
So Coach and Mrs. Coach get their happy ending, even if it's not the ending he or we might have envisioned when the series started. And all around them, characters in the finale declare their own forms of love.
Now, maybe too many characters wind up declaring their forever love, especially in the relatively compressed time period that most of "Always" covers. I get that it's the finale, that Katims wanted to provide as much closure as he could, and that everyone has their favorite couple - and that, therefore, a Luke/Becky 'shipper might feel left out if everyone got to be all sappy and Luke was just, "Yeah, you're okay" - but if there was one part of the finale that felt like overkill, it was that.
On the other hand, most of those moments were splendidly-told on an individual basis, and not everyone got the perfect shiny happily ever after. Tim and Tyra, for instance, ended on a beautifully ambiguous note, wherein they acknowledged both that they care deeply about each other and that they want very different things in life. If somehow their paths converge again, fabulous. And if not, Tim wouldn't want to hold her back any more than he wanted to hold back Lyla. The smile in Adrianne Palicki's eyes as Tyra contemplated the possibilities was fantastic, and made me more convinced than ever that Katims was right to go with a Tim/Tyra reunion at the end rather than pairing one or the other off with Lyla or Landry.
Similarly, it's not clear that Vince and Jess are actually going to wind up together, or if Vince's big speech was more him putting a bow on their brief but glorious time together - acknowledging her awesomeness before Jess takes her coaching talents to Dallas Walker. But after some of Vince's behavior earlier in the season, and Jess' frustration at being left behind by Vince's ascent into stardom, it felt very nice to have him thank her for being a football obsessive's ideal girlfriend. And I wouldn't be shocked if some school trying to get a recruiting edge on the star of the Dillon Panthers offered to find an internship on their coaching staff for the clever Miss Merriweather.
Luke makes his grand move with the flowers and the teddy bear, apologizing and introducing himself to her mom - reverting from the bitter, jealous boy of last week to the eager and polite kid we've known for most of these two seasons. (And I like that Cheryl, mindful of his history with her daughter, reminded him of the value of wearing a condom even as she was welcoming him with open arms.) There's not much ambiguity about what these two kids want, but even their love declaration worked because it wasn't Becky's only story of the finale, or this final season. It's just as important that she's found a surrogate family in Billy, Mindy and Tim as that she's finally found an age-appropriate boyfriend in Luke, and it's just as sweet to hear her tell Mindy, "I'm a sister" as it is to see Luke hand her his championship ring as he gets on the bus in his Army uniform. (More on that, by the way, further down below.)
Of course, Jess, Vince, Becky and Luke were newcomers, and Tim and Tyra were rekindling a relationship that technically ended in the series' third episode ever. (Though, as I noted last week, they were still very present in each other's lives until Tyra headed off to college.) Our fourth young love story is one that has lasted, on and off, for the life of the series, all the way back to that scene from the pilot Landry referenced, in which he and Matt got nervous about the very idea of talking to Julie Taylor. So even though I'm with Coach and Mrs. Coach(*) that they're probably too young to get engaged - and that this story, more than the others, might have benefited from a more elastic timeframe in the finale - I'm still glad that both Julie and Matt have dealt with their respective demons and recognized that they're as perfect for each other as Tami and Eric are. The proposal scene was great, both for Matt choosing to do it at the Alamo Freeze and for his nervous, Matt Saracen-esque "Really?" when Julie said yes, and I was glad to see Matt get to stand up to Coach one more time.(**)
(*) Speaking of their concordance on this particular subject, I laughed heartily when Tami pointed out that it's stupid for them to be yelling, since "I think we agree on this!!!"
(**) Though is it me, or does Eric seem as irked that it's Matt as that they're this young? The show kind of waxed and waned over the years about how Eric felt about Matt - both as a person and as the guy dating his daughter - and I like that it's not squeaky-clean. Eric can be there for Matt when Matt's own father dies, but because of the Julie thing, and because of their conflicts in seasons two and three, it's never been a cozy surrogate father/son relationship the way it is between Eric and, say, Jason Street.
So on the swooningly romantic front, all's well that ends well. And as for the team? Well, Fienberg and I recorded that aforementioned all-"FNL" podcast, and in it he argues pretty vehemently that the Panthers should have lost in "State," and that that victory takes away a bit of the specialness of the Lions winning here. And while I agree with him in terms of what that victory meant to the show's second and third seasons, I don't think that matters now. This is literally a different team, with a different legacy, and the stakes are different. Because the Lions are about to be erased from existence for the second time, nothing is at stake, and yet everything is. This is the last chance for this collection of players and coaches, in this uniform, on this side of town, to show the world how great they are and to publicly shame the Panthers boosters - if they're even capable of shame - for what they did.
And because of how important that statement is, I was glad to see the Lions win - and to see their victory presented the way it was. Save for the timeout before the final, game-winning play, that entire sequence was shown without dialogue and almost no ambient sound - just the usual brilliant, haunting score, and image after image of Vince and Luke and Tinker and the rest leaving it all out there on the field in the same way the Panthers did during their two trips to the title game. And because we'd already gotten to see one of Eric's teams jump up and down in a championship celebration - and because we'd gotten to see this particular Lions team leaping in triumph after Lance kicked the game-winner against the Panthers last season - we didn't need to spend time on that again. Just an elegant cut from the last pass of Eric's Texas coaching career to one of the first practice passes of his new life in Philadelphia. We see Vince wearing a championship ring at Panthers practice (and later see Luke give his ring to Becky), and we later see workmen taking down the Lions championship banner from a field that has sadly become a parking lot, and that's all we need. We followed this team all season. We know how good they were, and what a crime was perpetrated against them by the school board and the boosters. Everything else is garnish, and I'd rather that time have been spent on that Where Are They Now? montage, and on many of the earlier scenes like Tim taking little Stevie on a tour of his Dillon or Tyra trying to distance herself from Tim on the same dance floor where Matt and Julie are locked in their perfect love.
For a show in which the characters so often struggled and got smacked around by life, it's a remarkably upbeat ending all around. The Lions win State (even if they then disband), Vince and all his pals and coaches get to stay together on the Panthers, Matt gets Julie, Becky gets Luke and the Riggins family, Billy and Tim reconcile, Tami gets her dream job and Eric gets to keep on coaching high school football, in a part of the country that's quite passionate about the game but not quite as insane about it. (Something tells me if the Pioneers lose a game early in the season, Eric won't find For Sale signs on his lawn the next morning.)
Our final scene, appropriately, is of Coach addressing his new players, being tough ("We have a long way to go, gentlemen") yet hopeful ("And you know what? I'm looking forward to it"), eager for the challenge of again building something - not just building a team, but building character. His new kids don't know the "Clear eyes" chant yet, but they will. Coach Eric Taylor will teach them that - and a whole lot more.
Like the season 3 finale (which was also written as a potential series-ender), we close on the camera pulling back from Coach and Mrs. Coach as they're arm in arm on a football field. Only this ending's not bittersweet. Now these two have gotten nearly everything they've ever wanted. And if that's sappy, it's also a nice reward for them, and for those of us who went through mud and rain and blood and heartbreak and anger and all the rest over these five seasons.
Sometimes, good things get to happen to good people. In the "Friday Night Lights" finale, good things happened to almost everyone. And that feels pretty damn excellent.
Some other thoughts on "Always":
• "Friday Night Lights" always had great music, and they really blew out the music budget in the finale. The songs included "Christmas In Texas" by John Evans, "Heaven" by Brandi Carlile, "No Truth In Your Eyes" by David Kitt, "Sleigh Ride" by Ella Fitzgerald, "Hanging Around My Door" by Denny Earnest, "Friends For Life" by The Local, "Holy, Holy, Holy Moses" by Alec Ounsworth, "Back To Jail" by The Lucky Strikes, "Hello Darlin'" by Conway Twitty, "Don't Tremble" by The Low Anthem, "Inside It All feels The Same" by Explosions in the Sky, "To West Texas" by Explosions in the Sky, "Stokkseyri" by Jonsi & Alex, "Deus Ex Machina" by if These Trees Could Talk, "Stokkseyri" by Jonsi & Alex and "Devil Knows You're Dead" by Delta Spirit.
• Lance! While our other returning characters got major screen time this week (and last), Landry unfortunately gets only the one scene where he's once again playing the role of QB One's sidekick. And no mention of him at all in any of the Tim/Tyra scenes (not even a bit of teasing, a la Vince joking about Jess's love of punters earlier this season). Oh, well. Not enough time to deal with everyone - Smash never came back at all - and Landry did get something of a farewell in the season premiere. Besides, diminished presence in the finale seems a fitting punishment for a guy who killed 17 people across 10 states, right?
• Speaking of which, wouldn't that little story put a big crimp in any political ambitions Tyra has?
• Ornette's story got a bit of short shrift. I'm glad there wasn't some kind of false happy ending where he's so moved by seeing his boy win State that he decides to clean up for real, but at the same time, him just entering the stadium didn't feel like quite enough closure.
• Not sure how I feel about Luke joining the Army. Given his situation - economic hardship, some potential future options but none that spectacularly interest him - a military career doesn't seem like that surprising an option. I'm sure there are plenty of 19-year-old Army recruits who were the stars on their high school football team. But the show didn't mention the military as an option, even in passing, in all this discussion of what Luke would do if he didn't get a big-time scholarship. Again, only so much you can do even with an extra-long finale.
• Funniest Tim Riggins finale line: "It's not incest" (said in stereo with Billy), "Never turn away a memory," or the one about never doing anything illegal again as he opens himself an underage beer?
• I wrote most of this review before talking with Katims, but I did want to ask him who the new Panthers head coach was. I had assumed it was Crowley, by virtue of seniority, but he says the idea was the town brought in a new head coach, and he just hired most of the Lions staff. And they, along with superstar Vince, no doubt played a big role in finding roster spots for the likes of Tinker and Buddy Jr. (Buddy Sr. probably also helped on that one.)
• Hastings Ruckle never amounted to much as a character, did he? Given 13 episodes to work with and a lot of returning characters to service, I'd rather the show didn't try to force in a Hastings story arc. But the vagaries of series regular contracts are funny; Grey Damon was a regular castmember and in the main titles, while Lamarcus Tinker was roughly as prominent this season but always a guest star.
• Tough as it was to see Grandma Saracen so muddled in last week's episode, it's good to see that certain subjects - like, say, her grandson's impending nuptials - can still bring her back to lucidity for a bit.
• As Katims explains in the interview, there's an alternate version of that final scene on Tim's property that also featured Jason Street, but it got cut because Katims wanted to focus specifically on the two brothers. Still Street got his curtain call earlier in the season, and we still got to see the "J. Street" graffiti under the Panther logo on the corridor to the field
So go read the Katims interview and listen to the podcast.
And after that... well, there's always the DVDs. Clear eyes, full hearts... I'd say we'd deal with the rest later, but there is no "later" with "Friday Night Lights." This was it, and most of it was spectacular.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org