(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.)
“Success is not a goal. It’s a byproduct.” —Coach
I like that line. It’s a classic Coachism: It only sounds like something you’d see printed on a motivational poster at first. Once you start to unpack it’s a pretty radical thing for a football coach to say. Play well. Achieve excellence the right way and the results will take care of themselves. It’s beautiful and wise. But it may also not work in the real world. In “Kingdom,” Coach’s “success is a byproduct” line of thinking gets pushed to its limit thanks to dirty play and high spirits. They win the game—decisively and sweetly given East Dillon’s history with Kingdom, to whom they forfeited during an early-season disaster last year—but Coach doesn’t like the way they win. The intoxication’s sweet, but the hangover’s bound to linger.
“Kingdom” opens with Coach asserting control of the team, insisting things be done his way because that way lies “salvation.” He spends much of the episode watching that control slip away. Vince smartly lets him know that TMU has asked for a verbal commitment before they should even be talking to him. It’s a sticky situation, albeit one Coach knows how to handle, at least until Vince lets his dad have some say behind Coach’s back and loops Luke in against Coach’s advice. They share dreams of running plays together in college, but it’s not going to be as simple as they imagine. That’s off the field. On the field there are other problems. Pushed to the breaking point by unfair refereeing, his team starts to play some “thugball.” It’s a way to win. But there’s no salvation in it. Meanwhile, the Julie situation, a problem of which he’s not yet even aware, has taken a dramatic turn.
But for all the chaos starting to swirl beneath the surface, I love the relaxed atmosphere of this episode. It captures the way time seems to expand when you’re away from home, or when the one you love is out of town. Natural rhythms get thrown off. Tami fills the hours by hanging out with her new friend and getting wasted on white wine. The players bond in their downtime. Some friendships get formed; most promisingly between the worldly Hastings and Buddy Jr., who seems a lot more innocent now that he’s sobered up. Others deepen, like that between Vince and Luke. And, just generally speaking, the team comes together as a team, and leaves Kingdom with the brands to prove it. Why do I get the feeling what’s to come will test whether or not those bonds are more than skin deep.
Those are the general issues, but really this was an episode of particular moments, like Tinker complaining about not being able to sleep in a hotel away from “cop cars and crackheads.” And Buddy Jr. telling his new friend, ““I really like the way you’re putting your lipstick on. It’s like something from a commercial.” Or the expression on Coach’s face as he listens in to his boys’ nighttime conversation as if it confirmed for him he had a good bunch of kids on his hands.
Well, good until they’re pushed. And the game with Kingdom pushes them hard. In fact, the whole Kingdom situation pushes them hard. Despite his admonition that this should not be a game motivated by revenge, Kingdom gives them virtually no choice, starting with a sign welcoming the “Loins” and carrying on through the slanted refereeing and on-field abuse, both physical and verbal. (To say nothing of those pretentious macadamia nut cookies.) Coach can only tamp down the anger so much, which puts him in a hard spot. When Vince takes the field unexpectedly to deal a punishing blow, Coach has to argue with a ref. He’s in the right—I think—but it’s not a battle he would have chosen. In the end, he gives Vince the instructions to play by “our rules” with a shared understanding of what that would be. He doesn’t relish making that call.
As good as the lead-up and the game are, it’s the post-game action that really distinguishes “Kingdom.” I love the parallels between the three parties—Tami’s, the coaches’, and the players’—and the directions each take. The team gets drunk, and gets tight. Tami finally finds a friend. The coaches play some cards and relish the victory. They all have good nights, but Coach senses trouble saying, “We let the game get away from us.” It seems like his revelation others might reach later. The assistant coaches get overconfident. Luke talks about Becky as his girl and makes plans with Vince. They’re all riding high, not sensing that things might take a turn.
So maybe, as disconnected as it feels from the rest of the episode, Julie’s confrontation with her TA lover’s wife is a precursor of what’s to come. She’s in a situation that seems okay—exciting, unknown, sexy—until suddenly it’s not. Her affair doesn’t just come to an end: It comes to an end that leaves her humiliated and physically smarting. I’m not sure if Julie’s homecoming marks the end of it, but it seems like foreshadowing for the other plots around her. She’s gone away. Had an adventure. Broken some rules. And now coming home is going to be hard.
• Where does Tinker keep the pig?
• I kind of hope there aren’t any more team raps in the future.
• Haven’t mentioned Jess, who gets to participate fully in team activities but gets shorted on Vince time. It seems like it’s going to be one or the other.
• “AAA is for women.”
• Buddy: “My son played football tonight.” Has he ever looked happier?