'Friday Night Lights' - 'Don't Go': Fight the future
(I originally posted this review back when "Friday Night Lights" was doing its exclusive DirecTV run. The comments from that period have been preserved. For the sake of people who are watching the episodes as they air on NBC, I will ask anyone commenting from this point forward to only discuss plot events up to the episode in question. Do not discuss, or even allude to, anything that has yet to air on NBC. Thank you.)
"Friday Night Lights" is closing out its final season, and I have a review of tonight's episode coming up just as soon as I give a promptu speech...
"You know what I want more than anything right now? I want to bring these kids to State. That's what I want." -Coach
That was... fantastic, with at least three or four points in which my hotel room became oddly, overwhelmingly dusty as I watched, if you know what I'm saying. If this is what "FNL" does with three more episodes to go, I'm not sure I can even handle what else the writers have up their sleeves.
With the Julie and Epyck plots tabled for a week, "Don't Go" was able to focus hardcore on the season's strongest stories and biggest questions - and in many cases gave answers earlier than I might have expected:
Will Coach go to Shane State? No, because the team in general and Buddy, Billy, Tim and Vince in particular reminded him of just why he puts up with all the nonsense, modest pay and lack of respect that comes with coaching high school football.
Will Tim make parole? Yes, thanks to the perseverance of Billy and Coach and Buddy, who steps up to the plate for the boy he used to find not good enough for his daughter.
Will Vince find his way back to into the good graces of his teammates and Coach? Yes, even if he had to eat a lot of humble pie and alienate his father in the process.
Obviously, there's still room for parts of those stories to play out - the college futures of Vince and Luke, the splintered relationship between Tim and Billy - but again and again in "Don't Go," characters stepped up to the plate and did the right thing, even if it cost them something in the process. And as executed by these actors, this crew, these writers, when people do the right thing on "Friday Night Lights," it's kinda beautiful.
Particularly effective was the return of Tim Riggins, even more broken and haunted and bitter than when we saw him in the season premiere (and played wonderfully by Taylor Kitsch). He went to prison for a noble reason, but a year under those conditions is a long time to sit, and stew, and suffer, and begin to resent the brother you took the fall for, who got you into this shady business in the first place. We've spent much of this season watching Billy make himself crazy with guilt over what Tim did, but he's also gotten to live his life, play with his son, sleep with his wife, make gross energy drinks for Luke and be a free man. And when Tim declared that he didn't want Billy to speak at the meeting - "He's done enough damage" - a chill ran through me as I saw things again from the perspective of the man who's been off-screen for months.
The meeting itself was a great scene, providing nice moments for Derek Phillips, Kyle Chandler and Brad Leland, and particularly an opportunity for Buddy to use his powers of persuasion for pure good(*), and to give Tim Riggins something to smile about for what seemed the first time in a long time. And the following scene with Tim and Eric alone, each man feeling guilty - Tim for letting his father figure down, Eric for not visiting more - before Eric watched the guards cuff a stoic Tim and escort him away, was just as moving.
(*) It was also an opportunity for us to remember the link between Buddy and Tim. Because Lyla's been gone a while, and because the storytelling of these DirecTV seasons has been both more condensed and more fractured than on NBC, it's easy to forget what connects the two, how Buddy once felt about his daughter dating Tim, etc., etc., and Buddy brought it all back as he preached to the panel that "It's time for you to let Tim Riggins come home."
There was some more abruptness towards the end of the story, as we went from Billy potentially having to wait weeks to hear the board's decision to Tim suddenly being in the Riggins kitchen a day or two later. But even there, the awkwardness between Tim and Billy, and even Tim and Becky (who's finally, definitively moved on to a new guy at the exact moment her old crush becomes her housemate), was enough to make that scene work, and to give me things to look forward to in these final weeks.
And seeing what had become of Tim, and getting a chance to step up to the plate for him in his moment of need, was one of many moments throughout the episode that reminded Eric of what's truly important to him. Yes, Shane State would give him money and power and (relative) security, but those aren't the things Eric Taylor cares about. Eric Taylor cares about character - about passing on his own good character to both his children and the young men who are placed in his care year after year. He learned during his brief stint at TMU that the players you get in college are already essentially molded (and also that the college game is in many ways even messier and more corrupt than the stuff he deals with in Dillon). Recent events with the Lions have made him question his resolve, but when he hears all his players speak from the heart (Tinker telling him "I love you for that," etc.), when he sees Tim need his help, when he hears Vince drop the attitude, make himself vulnerable and all but beg Coach to finish the work they started last season... well, Eric Taylor may put on a stone face from time to time, but the man is not actually made of stone, you know? Who is he to say no to all these people for the sake of orange juice and a backyard pool?
And what makes that final scene just so, so perfect, is Tami's reaction to it. She didn't want him to go to TMU, but she clearly wants him to take this job. And rather than be resentful that he so publicly declines it - and does so without asking her - she recognizes that he did it for all the same reasons she wanted to build a life with him, and she tells him she loves him and wishes him a good game. That, right there, is why Coach and Mrs. Coach are my favorite TV couple (probably favorite fictional couple) of all-time. They are grown-ups, and they disagree, but they are in love and they have each other's back - always.
And now I really want to see the Lions go kick ass, take names and make fools out of the Texas high school football establishment - preferably with a smiling Tim Riggins in the stands, holding his nephew and cheering his brother's team on.
Some other thoughts:
• Tami's stint at the academic conference suggests that perhaps it'll be Mrs. Coach who winds up with a college job at the end of this, no? Or at least some kind of position where she's able to promote change on a larger scale than she can in the basement of East Dillon.
• Getting back to the TMU thing for a second, I know Eric has a good story, and seems on the verge of taking a team to the state championship for the third time in five seasons, but he's still the guy who abruptly walked away from his last college job, in a way that made the TMU coach suggest he was consigning himself to a lifetime of high school football. Shane State's being awfully risky with the keys to the kingdom, is all I'm saying.
• Also, I'm wondering why Eric hasn't been doing anything on the more urgent question of Luke's potential scholarships, since he doesn't have another year ahead of him like Vince. And I'm skeptical that he hasn't gotten any interest from colleges. Yes, most high school stars don't necessarily become college stars, but he's the second-best player on a team contending for a state title - and one who was depicted last season as Vince's equal as a talent, and who allegedly made All-State as a junior - and I can't imagine there isn't some school somewhere that's interested. Maybe not a big-time program like the ones sniffing after Vince, or maybe not even a Division-I school, but I imagine there are plenty of smaller schools that would be happy to pay for Luke's education in exchange for him wreaking havoc on offense and/or defense. Still, I liked seeing Luke realize in Tami's office that he's never really considered a life other than football, and then later realize that there are parts of the farm life he quite enjoys.
• I've been tough on Ornette the last few episodes, but really he's always been a man who has his son's best interests at heart but is too ignorant and prideful to realize that he's not the one to take him to the promised land. And so I felt a little sorry for him when Vince walked away from him at the restaurant, even though Ornette didn't listen to him. (Though maybe I was just feeling nostalgic for Cress Williams' "90210" days after watching him beat Vince at playground hoops.)
• As always, Gracie Belle is a tremendous source of comedy, here with the young actress playing her having no idea how to react to Buddy's attempt to prompt a "Clear eyes..." chant. Such a natural, sweet kid.
What did everybody else think?