“Black Eyes And Broken Hearts” (season one, episode 16; originally aired 2/14/2007)
“I Think We Should Have Sex” (season one, episode 17; originally aired 2/21/2007)
If there was ever a pair of episodes that speaks to Friday Night Lights’ range, it may well be these two.
They’re both classic Friday Night Lights tearjerkers—I welled up at the end of both—but they earn their payoff in very different ways. At first I hypothesized that it was because “Black Eyes And Broken Hearts” is such a dark story, while “I Think We Should Have Sex” is relatively upbeat. The former tackles civil disobedience, and the latter, the oldest kind of courtship. But looking back at the episodes, Friday Night Lights doesn’t allow for such simple dichotomies. “I Think We Should Have Sex” is painfully upsetting at times—and hints at depths of tragedy that even “Black Eyes And Broken Hearts” doesn’t get to. And “Black Eyes And Broken Hearts,” meanwhile, is unexpectedly lighthearted in spots. Of course, that levity is used to make the climax of the episode even more upsetting, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny.
If we have to talk in differences, the primary difference between the two is that the former takes place on such a grand scale: The walk-off strike has effects that reverberate well beyond the team—it goes right out and effects another team. Meanwhile, the latter is a Family Coach episode—insofar as Matt Saracen is a member of the family, and I’d argue that right now, he is. (The players also see it—they jokingly call Coach Matt’s “Pops.”)
But if you are close to and care about these people, the emotional resonance of each is nearly the same. Coach and Mrs. Coach probably felt about the same amount of anguish about the brawl on the field between the Panthers and the Cardinals as they felt two hours past midnight, right before Julie came home. Friday Night Lights excels at making stories on both scales matter; it’s not as easy as the show makes it look. But over the past 15 episodes, Friday Night Lights has sold us on the Dillon community. Now, as it looks toward the state championships and its first-season finale, it’s starting to reap what it’s sown.
I spent a few of my reviews earlier in the year not being quite sure why the show focused on Smash, and I’m glad I did—if only because I can now see how wrong I was. This rewatch has offered me more depth on this character, and though I am still frustrated with him from time to time, seeing him in this episode is heartbreaking. Last week I mentioned that Smash the boy had turned into Smash the man—and of course, that doesn’t come without its pressures. From the very first scene of this episode, Smash is sweating, straining, trying to be more than he is. He’s in a suit at a press conference. He’s bucking up his fellow strikers (by falling into a language pattern that he doesn’t use with the white players). He’s talking the talk to Waverly, who he teasingly calls his “Angela Davis.” And even when Corinna orders him to return to the game, he’s pushing—he doesn’t give Mac the time of day, he’s a peaceful opponent on the field, and faces, for a hot second, the idea of being pulled into a holding cell.
It’s horrible. Like: It is horrible. The mere idea that Smash would be harassed on the field so openly without the officials calling it out—that offends the audience’s sense of justice. (It’s not even a Cardinals problem, or a football problem—it was explicitly an issue Smash had with his own assistant coach. And yet the reach of institutional racism is so far that it comes out on another team’s field.) The further idea that a brawl would break out, after Smash scores a touchdown, because the other team is that pissed off by his existence, is terrible. The further indignity—and this is really how the show plays it, as an increasing set of terrible injustices—that the Cardinals fans, pissed and drunk, would harass these teenagers as they left the field, with the collective rage of a lynching mob, is even more awful. Sure: The Cardinals were also pissed that the officials didn’t give them a chance to finish out the game. But there’s always a good excuse.
And just when it seems like the Panthers have escaped the worst of it, police lights flash in the background.Tell me that’s not a witchhunt. Tell me that’s not a lynch mob. Tell me that’s not vigilante “justice.” For a moment in the lives of these Panthers, it looks like the world is going to fall right to pieces. The boys have already been through one fight—they’re tired and freaked out. It’s late. The game went very, very badly. And now there are cops here. If they’d boarded, I’d like to think the team would have stood up and prevented it. But like as not, they would have sat there, terrified. They’re still kids, after all. And what would you do?
It’s here where Friday Night Lights offers a moment of pure transcendental hope in the universe—the quiet stand of Mac McGill, assistant coach, government employee, casual racist. Because if the kids are terrified, and Coach Taylor is frustrated, Mac is exactly one thing they’re not—knowing. He knows these guys. He knows what they’re thinking. He knows this game. He’s played it himself. And maybe the world is split up into good guys and bad guys, and only the bad guys say awful racist things. But sometimes, you need a bad guy on your side.
It may be the most powerful moment of the show yet. It speaks so much to the man, Mac, and to the small-scale triumphs that mark the progress of any grand revolution. There is no civil rights reform until a man like Mac defends it—even if it’s just once, in the dark, and only a handful of people saw it. But it does make all the difference.
And if you didn’t choke up just hearing Mac tell Smash afterwards, as a way of owning not just his racism but also his heroism—“They made a mistake, like me”—then God, Jed, I don’t even wanna know you. We are flawed people, but we’re capable of change. Or so Friday Night Lights believes, and I am inclined to agree.
Every review, I try to make a note in the strays about the Family Coach: This week, it would be redundant. Both episodes are centrally about the Taylors; though “Black Eyes And Broken Hearts” is primarily about the racism storyline, Julie’s increasing rebellion against her parents plays a surprisingly large role—it’s the major subplot of an episode that is already full of stories. And though “I Think We Should Have Sex” is literally a line that Julie says to Matt, it’s Julie’s relationship to her parents that is really the point of this story.
What strikes me about the Julie/Matt storyline is how, in the end, it’s a story about power: The moment of change is introduced by Matt saying no, not Julie. It’s a subtle kind of power, for sure. But it’s at the heart of Eric and Tami’s concern for Julie. It’s not that they don’t trust Julie—in fact, a lot of the episode indicates that they do. Instead it’s that they’re scared for her, and they’re scared for her because she’s a girl. That comes right back to Coach Taylor barging in on their date with the offending blanket in “It’s Different For Girls.” Julie is 15, in love, dating a football player, and achingly vulnerable. If Matt wanted to hurt Julie in some way, it would be ridiculously easy for him to do so. He has at least 50 pounds on her, and most of it is muscle. He is a star quarterback of a football team that matters more to this town than the law, the church, or even themselves, really. We know this already: If a valuable athlete commits a crime, he’s not held accountable in the same way as anyone else would be. Especially if the crime is rape, where the perpetrators are already not held accountable enough.
It’s true, I’m reading into it: No one in the episode says “rape.” But what else, really, are the Taylors worried about, except that their baby girl would be hurt?
So it has to be Matt that says no. He would have listened to Julie, of course. (We know Matt Saracen well enough to know that, even if the Taylors don’t.) But the story isn’t about the vulnerable and the disenfranchised making a stand—at least, not today. Instead the story is about someone in power choosing what to do with that power. And in Matt’s case—as in Mac’s case—the decision is not to divide, not to take, but to connect.
It’s dawning on me that Friday Night Lights isn’t just about community—it’s also about learning how to have a responsibility to your community, and to the people around you. Most of our main characters are kids in the process of growing up, so that’s a more obvious goal. But here we see Mac relearning his responsibility to his players. We see Corinna re-evaluating her responsibility to her children. Coach Taylor considering how to handle Daddy Riggins’ theft of a camera. And it’s about becoming a responsible community, too; becayse all of that happens amidst stories where the community is irresponsible. The Cardinals fans throwing popcorn are a community; the football players talking about Matt relieving Julie of her virginity are also part of a community. It hearkens back to “It’s Different For Girls,” when the community decides to vilify Lyla Garrity for making a mistake.
In two episodes full of a variety of moments, that’s what stands out to me. That, and the mirror story that’s happening while all of these big, real, romantic stories are happening up top—the story of the most disenfrachised losers in Dillon, the Rigginses and the Collettes. For as vulnerable as precious as Julie’s innocence is made out to be, it’s amazing how Tim’s and Tyra’s are so casually tossed to the wayside. The moment that stuck out for me is in “I Think We Should Have Sex,” where the bartender calls Tyra to tell her that “your boy Tim” came over looking for a fight. Tyra rolls up with Billy in a pickup truck, in time to pick up a bloody, trashed Tim, who is picking a fight in some attempt to feel, or not feel, take your pick. Just that shot of her supporting Tim, throwing an arm over her shoulders. It all speaks volumes. She couldn’t talk before—she was busy, she was waiting tables. Maybe it’s just me, but at 16, walking into that kind of trouble would have scared the living daylights out of me. But we know they both have done it before and will do it again—Tim is an underage alcoholic; Tyra fought off her mother’s abusive boyfriend. Julie is the only one who has the privilege to act her age in that group, where Tyra has to drop by the strip club to pick up cash and Riggins’ dad indirectly humiliates him in front of the coach. I don’t know if innocence is really as great as its touted to be—Julie sure wants to be rid of it in some crucial ways—but Tim and Tyra don’t even really have the option, and that is tragedy.
As much as I love Tim Riggins, I’m not sure that his character would be coherent without Taylor Kitsch’s performance. It’s not always possible to parse his actions, and the show has not yet put a lot of effort into charting character arcs for him. With Kitsch behind him, though, Riggins is more a force of nature than a character; an agent of occasional change that drifts in and out of people’s lives. It’s a real thing, and a tough job—it takes a toll on our warrior-poet. As charmed as I am by him in this rewatch, I’m looking for Riggins the man, not just Riggins the plot device. Either way, it is amazing to me how much he cares about the game—there’s a lot of anger from him towards Smash for what he sees as quitting. And that culminates in one of the finest moments of the episode—the quiet little conversation between the two in the hallway at school. Riggins asks: You’re really going to quit? Because we all not know I’m not a leader. Smash replies: Didn’t you hear? “You white. You were born to lead.” These two boys—rivals, teammates, friends, doppelgangers. It’s a fascinating dynamic.
Anyway: Smash didn’t throw the first punch; Riggins threw the first punch, defending Smash. And Friday Night Lights rewards the audience by letting you see that information and then never bringing it up again. Similar excellent direction: the juxtaposition of the black assistant coach’s face whenever Mac talks. An untold story behind that face.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose:
- Tyra, meanwhile, is wholly coherent, wholly recognizable. Adrianne Palicki doesn’t get enough credit for this role, where she makes the “hot girl” archetype into something so much more than that—a character who owns the type as much as she expands what it means.
- “Three girls in a hot tub is definitely diamond-bad.”
- The Family Coach: Oh, fine—I can’t not talk about the parents Taylor. Coach Taylor barging into guidance counseling to have feelings about his job is a gift of a scene (“Is there anyone else I can talk to? … The three of you scare me.”); Eric and Tami reconciling after snapping at each other is so warm and real it comes through the screen; and Connie Britton’s delivery of “I don’t like your tone” channels every mom, everywhere.
- Corinna and Tami should hang out, boss their children around, solve mysteries, whatever. I’d watch it.
- “Black Eyes And Broken Hearts” doesn’t outright say it, but it’s a Valentine’s Day episode. That gift of the necklace, and Julie’s birthday being in February, feels more relevant somehow.
- I love Landry; I hate Landry interested in Tyra.
- I don’t know why I didn’t notice this before, but: Tim is wearing cowboy boots in his fight, and Eric is wearing them in a few scenes, too. I think of them as being in sneakers or cleats usually, but off the field, some Texas creeps in.