(A few words of explanation: Because of NBC's production arrangement with DirecTV, I wrote about this season of Friday Night Lights back in the fall. I'm now reposting last fall's pieces each week as the episodes air on NBC. So now, you know. No spoilers, please, if you've already seen the season. Enjoy.)
A pass hangs suspended near the end of Friday Night Lights’ fifth-season, and series, finale, moving in slow motion toward a moment that will determine whether the East Dillon Lions win the state championship. As it moves, the camera lingers on virtually every major character as they watch breathlessly from the stands or the sideline or the field. Then, with help from a little CGI, we get a cut. Now, eight months into the future, we watch Coach lead a new team in Philadelphia. We never see whether Luke catches Vince’s pass, and for a while, it seems like we’re never going to know, until we get a shot of the banner proclaiming the East Dillon Lions 2010’s Texas state champs, a banner being taken down along with scoreboard on which it hangs.
That moment captures the essence of the show beautifully. Coach Eric Taylor is a man who lives by two seemingly contradictory notions. I have no doubt he’s a fan of Vince Lombardi and believes in playing to win. But if he believes winning is the only thing, he also knows it’s ultimately nothing. He’s been in the game too much and spent too much time with players to think only in terms of what happens on the field. He’s now also had enough championships to recognize that the wins don’t linger and that each season brings new kids and new challenges, and time keeps rolling on no matter what your record at the end of the season.
As with Coach, so it goes with the show. We’ve watched characters grow up and graduate and move on over Friday Night Lights’ five seasons, many of them headed toward uncertain futures. We’ve also seen characters adapt without losing their essential essence. Buddy’s kids have forced him to grow more sensitive to what others need from him, but he ends the show as he began it: living for football and riding on that damned golf cart. Player after player has challenged Coach’s approach to his job, just as Julie and Tami have challenged him at home, forcing him to reconsider the way he works on both fronts. He’s had to call a lot of audibles over the years but retains his fundamental Coach-ness here at the end: Leading a new team that already wants to impress their coach and learn from his example, even if they’ve yet to learn his motto. He’s somewhere else now, but also in the same place he started.
Sorry to (again) dwell on the end of the episode at the beginning of the piece, but it’s hard not to focus on the way things end when writing about “Always,” our last look at Dillon, Texas, those who live there, and those who leave it. I’m trying to think of what more we could have asked for from a Friday Night Lights finale and coming up short. A little more Landry? Sure. It would have been nice to see him share a scene with Tyra, of course, but that might have gotten in the way of the Tyra/Tim business. And as great as Jesse Plemons was in his own storylines, don’t we really want to see him go out bantering with Matt? Beyond that, I’ve got nothing but nitpicks. And few of those. This episode hit like a hammer and reminded me why I’ll miss the show.
Last week, I wrote that Coach going to Philadelphia felt like a foregone conclusion and that he most likely wouldn’t even consider the Panthers’ offer. Missed the boat on that one. Turns out the Panthers’ offer was of the hard-to-turn-down sort: five years, enviable resources, the support of a town who already knows what he can do, McCoy-free boosters, the ability to stay in his Texas home (and in a better house), and a chance to continue coaching Vince. It takes effort and a lot of soul-searching to turn it down, and Kyle Chandler plays the struggle beautifully while verbalizing only portions of it. In the end, he has to go, for all the reasons Tami lays out. But I loved the way Friday Night Lights believably played this as the greatest challenge we’ve seen them face in their marriage. It’s a lot to ask of him to leave. It’s a lot to ask of her to stay.
Neither is entirely in the right. Coach is ungracious in his approach to Tami’s offer, seeing it only as a threat and not as an opportunity. Tami has a bit more perspective from the start but still charges forward as if her taking the job is the only real possibility, seeing it only as her “turn” and pressing the issue as Coach prepares for one of the biggest games of his life. And while they’ve always had to compromise in their marriage—and marriage depends on it, as Coach tells Matt—whoever gives will have to give more than usual. In the end, Coach gives. Part of me thinks he knew all along he would but put off making the decision as long as possible because it is a tremendous compromise. But even if that’s the case, his foot-dragging leads to some real tension here, and Chandler and Connie Britton play it with utter conviction, making it feel like the sort of crisis that can fracture a marriage or make it stronger. It’s the perfect end to the most fully realized happy marriage I’ve ever seen depicted on television. (I’m sure we’ll be seeing plenty of both in coming years, but how I’ll miss them together.)
Friday Night Lights has always been great at rhyming stories, and here Coach and Tami’s crisis rhymes beautifully with Matt and Julie’s relationship, which intensifies with Matt’s unexpected proposal (by the Alamo Freeze, of course). It’s a bold move on Matt’s part, and he seems as nervous arriving at the Taylors’ house as he did when he showed up wearing a Members Only jacket so many episodes before. And rightfully so. Julie’s still in college, and their on-off relationship has been more off than on of late. (And, given that Matt lives in Chicago, it’s yet another blow to the Coach’s vision of the Taylors as a Dillon family.) But could their story go anywhere else? Each separation has made Julie and Matt miserable. They’ve realized they belong together, and it’s just a matter of making Coach and Tami realize it too.
That, however, involves a conversation between a couple deep into a solid marriage—albeit a challenged one this week—based on communication and compromise and a couple just beginning to understand what a lifetime commitment means. That conversation plays out beautifully, and often hilariously, in “Always,” in the back and forth between Coach and Matt—after Julie insists he ask for her hand and he ends up inadvertently demanding her hand—and Julie and her parents. But it’s Julie who comes up with the line that ends the conversation, as it should: “You guys are my inspiration.” With or without the Philadelphia crisis, she and Matt couldn’t ask for better models.
Even at 60-plus minutes, the finale has a lot of business to get to, but I think it does right by everyone. Tim makes up his mind about staying in Texas and, in the end, makes up his mind about Billy. He and Tyra also reach a resolution, of a sort, about their relationship. She wants to go into politics to become someone “Like Mrs. T, but bigger”—a nice callback to their relationship, even if they don’t get any scenes together. He wants to get a job, stay out of trouble, and settle into the Texas home we see him building when we get our last glimpse of him.
So why does Tim get the penultimate shot of the finale, pride of place above other characters? I think because, for as much as Coach and Tami served as the center, this was ultimately a show about a place and the people who live there, and nobody embodied Dillon quite like hard-drinking, good-hearted, mistake-prone Tim. But it’s also a show about how the places we come from always exert a special kind of gravity. Julie and Matt are in Chicago. Tyra’s bound for parts unknown. Vince will likely leave. Luke’s joined the army with all the uncertainty that entails. But they’ll continue to be shaped by their time in Dillon, even if they come to call other places home.
It’s a tough place filled with contradictions, but part of what made Friday Night Lights such an appealing show is the way it captured the joys of life in a small, football-obsessed town. Most of those joys stemmed from the relationships the characters forged there, all of them related, directly or otherwise, to football. Some of them were quite unexpected. Vince and Coach would have no reason to talk to one another, much less build such a father-and-son-like bond, were it not for football, even if that same sport almost tore the bond apart.
Last week I wrote of FNL’s depiction of football, “For everything the game gives, it takes something away.” I was wrong about that too. Ultimately, it portrays it as giving more than it takes. Coach’s relationship with Vince illustrates this particularly well—and reaches an apt conclusion this week—but you can see it everywhere. It gave Matt the confidence to pursue the life he wanted to live and the girl he wanted to share it with. Jess has to fight for her place in it, but the struggle will almost certainly make her appreciate her accomplishments more. (And so on down the line. I’ll let you fill in the rest of the blanks.)
I feel like I’m starting to repeat myself here, so maybe we should wind this down. I think that’s partly because I don’t quite want to say goodbye to Friday Night Lights yet. Sure, the show’s five seasons will always be around, and it’s fortunate that we got so much of a show that easily might not have lasted past the first season. But goodbyes are hard even if, as this episode and others illustrate, they’re also unavoidable. But before we close the curtain on Dillon and its inhabitants, let’s pause to appreciate a show built not from sexy storylines and shocking developments—apart from the network-influenced and ultimately more-successful-than-it-had-any-right-to-be second season—but from small, sometimes rewarding, sometimes devastating everyday moments. Friday Night Lights was a realistic-looking show that took liberties with reality—letting teenagers get away with truancy and vagrancy, catapulting Tami into heavy professional responsibilities with little experience, and so on. But it never felt less than real, thanks to its remarkable characters, the extraordinary actors who gave them life, and the care that went into creating such a strong sense of place. You won’t find Dillon, Texas on the map. But if you’re like me you feel like you’ve been there.