(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 few seconds into “Gut Check” I had to be sure I was watching the right episode. Were these scenes from last week’s climax? Could Friday Night Lights really relegate something so momentous as the Lions’ first loss in a previously undefeated season to the past tense, with only brief flashbacks to the loss itself and a lot of time spent in the aftermath? But of course, after last week, that makes sense. Of course this game would be a loss. Why bother dramatizing a fait accompli? As for how it feels and whether everyone recognizes what’s just happened, consider this: When Coach barks “Get out of our field house right now,” nobody protests. They all know the width and depth of their fuck-up.
Well, almost all of them. Vince is still slow to catch on, so deeply has he started to believe his own hype. His delusions have limits, however. Talking with his dad, he echoes Coach’s concerns about making a meaningless commitment to a team that might turn its back on him. Yet he continues to behave as his father would have him behave. In the process he loses Jess and when she says, “I can’t stand being around your ass no more” he hears it. But he presses on anyway.
Vince generates tension wherever he goes. He’s alienated the team as a whole and, by failing to help out Luke, he further pushes away his on-field partner. (And, up to a few weeks ago, his closest friend on the team.) Jess leaves him then cries as she folds her towels. (Leading to my favorite awkward Coach/Jess moment: “You know I’ve got two daughters, right?” Yet in the field house he doesn’t seem able of talking to a football-obsessed girl who looks up to him.) And Coach has had it with Vince, staring him down in the lunchroom and not needing many words to express just how pissed he is. “You’re benched for Friday” says it all.
It sounds like an idle threat. Vince is a great quarterback and we haven’t seen anything in the way of a back-up QB all season. But Coach has a principle he needs stick to: no one disrespects the team and gets away with it. It’s a sound principle, too. With Vince shamed and sidelined, the infighting goes away. True, Luke’s nobody’s idea of a great quarterback, but he is scrappy and, more importantly, a well-liked leader. They win. Luke gets a taste of the glory and Vince has to hold back his dad. His dad may be the last person left in Vince’s corner. (Apart from his mom, and even she has misgivings about Vince’s dad’s counsel.) But he’s alienated Jess, Coach, and his teammates, the people that got him to where he is. The consequences of that have just begun to occur to him. Whether he’ll try to avoid them—or if he can—remains to be seen.
All this is remarkably well handled by all involved. The Vince storyline has burned slowly but intensely all season and it now feels all the more explosive for the time it’s taken. Superstars don’t become ego casualties overnight. Bonds don’t fray quickly and the show has made us feel the strain before the snap. That the show has given no suggestion it will end well makes it all the more effective.
Things don’t always end well, after all. Witness Epyck. Tami has slowly persuaded her to trust her and almost talked herself into trusting Epyck as well. She knows Epyck still lies, but she thinks she can tell when she’s lying. Tami doesn’t think she steals or is capable of assaulting her, however accidentally. In the end, she watches as Epyck gets taken away, Coach’s assurance that she did all she can later that night provides only cold comfort. But is the story over? I’m not sure Tami has it in her to let Epyck go. The Taylors aren’t that skilled at giving up.
That’s true of Julie as well, who’s gone chasing after Matt, sensing that what they had never really ended. Or did it? She senses Matt has moved on and says as much. Matt suspects he’s being used as a “safety net” and lets her know he has no interest in the role. They slip into their old boyfriend and girlfriend routine but it’s all slightly off. She tells him of her affair and he dismisses any thoughts he’d take offense, but his look in the mirror tells a different story. (And note he doesn’t seem to have any affairs of his own to confess.) She agrees to move on and, as she drove away, I found myself thinking what a bittersweet bummer—however believable—it would be if this were the last we saw of Matt and Julie together. But it’s almost certainly not. He promises they can figure it out. But it’s a lot to figure, isn’t it?
Meanwhile, back at the Landing Strip, Becky gets a taste of easy money and Mindy learns she’s pregnant. (A nitpicky aside: Seriously, what kind of laws does Dillon have about minors hanging out in strip clubs?) Becky doesn’t see the downside of her development. Mindy’s having a hard time seeing the upside of hers, though by the end of the episode she’s started to share some of Billy’s enthusiasm. (Even if she can’t muster much enthusiasm for how her second child came to be.) I know there won’t be any spin-offs for FNL, but doesn’t a Riggins family show with Becky hold all sorts of potential?
Speaking of Becky, I love the way Madison Burge and Matt Lauria played Becky’s quiet insistence that not hiding her from his parents would be a good idea. They make it to dinner, but I wonder how comfortable it could have been with such an obvious holy terror as Luke’s mom at the table. How did it go? Like so much else—Matt and Julie, Coach’s job prospects, Epyck, whether the guy at the strip club will start stalking Becky or just turn up as a single-serving creep—that’s a to-be-continued situation.
• When did Gracie get so verbal?
• I have never seen anyone else with a pair of glasses like Coach Bailey’s. Have you?
• Does Julie not check in with her parents?
• As a Chicagoan, I appreciated the attempt to fake my city—Chicago Tribune truck and all—but I can guarantee that any studio apartment Matt could afford as a student would not have such gloriously high ceilings and exposed stone walls.
• Good music this week: The Roots, Broken Social Scene, The National, etc. But what's the song that plays when Matt and Julie kiss on the street?
• "Why don't you waitress at, like, Red Lobster?" Applebee's, once the center of Dillon dining, can't even get namechecked now.