Friday Night Lights: “Mud Bowl” / “Best Laid Plans”
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Connie Britton, Kyle Chandler
Connie Britton, Kyle Chandler

Friday Night Lights: “Mud Bowl” / “Best Laid Plans”

“A real Texas toad-strangler”

“Mud Bowl” (season one, episode 20; originally aired 3/28/2007)
”Best Laid Plans” (season one, episode 21; originally aired 4/4/2007)

“Mud Bowl” is probably the most perfect episode that Friday Night Lights ever attempted. Not the best, necessarily, though it is pretty damn amazing. But “Mud Bowl” is sort of the whole vision of Friday Night Lights, crystallized into one 42-minute ride. There’s the determination to play football no matter what, and the enthusiasm from Coach Taylor to create his own football field, if they’re being denied their home field. There’s the Taylors’ marriage as centerpiece—Eric dragging Tami out to the field in the cool twilight, while she’s still wearing her sweatpants, as the cows are peacefully chewing their cud. Imagine it, he asks her. He is giving her his dream for a moment, to let her see the world his way.

It’s also an episode that quite deliberately follows the non-football players of the story—most dramatically culminating in the attack on Tyra outside the Alamo Freeze, which is one of the most problematic storylines Friday Night Lights ever attempted, leading into a dismal season two that didn’t quite know what to do with itself. It’s tempting to look at the rape plot as something that happens separate from the strongest parts of “Mud Bowl”—it’s certainly not connected to the story in any meaningful way. But the isolated attack underscores another Friday Night Lights favorite topic—the narrative of community, which translates, here, into a narrative of failed community. The mud bowl is a triumph of communal effort; the sudden, violent stranger rape is a lapse of the same. It’s like the network that holds Dillon and its flawed people together suddenly tears, and Tyra drops through.

I imagine that Peter Berg and the rest of the team had the idea for the mud bowl at the series’ very inception. The beginnings and endings of seasons often bring out ideas that have been with shows from the very beginning. Bringing in this colossal effort—the football game on a cow patch—in the state semifinals just adds to the general beauty of the episode.

It is a little—a little—corny. Friday Night Lights is heavy-handed with its emotions. But in “Mud Bowl,” it feels to me like the show earns it, perhaps because this is a moment that is the most true to its vision. (I did find myself rolling my eyes a bit at the unfurled American flag at the game, though.)

If “Mud Bowl” is the pinnacle of the show’s execution, it seems like “Best Laid Plans”—in homage to its title—is the messy aftermath of reaping whatever plot seeds you’ve sown. It’s a disappointing episode, almost by design: The viewer is forced to contend with a lot of complication, after the romantic, black-and-white morals of “Mud Bowl.” Coach Taylor accepts the TMU job. Riggins breaks it off with Jackie, and insinuates himself back into Tyra’s orbit. Tami takes Tyra to the police station, where the officers treat her with clinical disdain. Jason takes Coach Taylor to court—or at least, to settlement. And Lyla throws her engagement ring at Jason’s face. The game is a fluid, beautiful moment of togetherness, where everything makes sense, and the rules are clear, and the goals are achievable. Outside the game, nothing is simple.

Which is why it’s telling, I think, that so much of the complication in Friday Night Lights dogs those characters who aren’t in the game. Jason Street’s life becomes infinitely more confusing when he’s unceremoniously kicked out of his former life. Riggins prefers football to anything else because when he’s playing, he sees how he can succeed, and how he can fail. The world makes more sense.

And the reason I linger on all that is because I never quite got over Coach Taylor choosing to go to Texas Methodist University in this episode. I was willing to go with some of the other punches the show tossed my way, like its steadfast disinterest in keeping Riggins happy for long, but Coach’s decision really stung. Rewatching it this time around, I don’t feel all that differently. We’ve seen the Taylor marriage as one of profound mutual respect and trust, but it has still been one dictated, primarily, by his career. And up until now, Tami has been enthusiastic about that—she was as excited about moving to Austin as he was, at first. That worked for them both. It’s not working so much anymore, and it’s painful to watch. Much of my own investment in the show is my investment in Eric and Tami, so friction between them is like sandpaper on a wound.

Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler are so good in general in this show, but they are so good in particular in these two episodes, which paired together offer the whole spectrum of their marriage, from loving, affectionate support to misunderstanding and frustration. Eric’s refusal to even contemplate life without his family is irritating, because it seems like he’s steamrolling over his wife’s wishes. But it comes from a very human need for them to be with him in this next phase of his life. It’s selfishness, but it’s a selfishness that comes from knowing that he loves these people more than anything, and can’t bear to be parted from them.

I came away from this episode believing that Tami Taylor is a beatified saint, because she manages Eric’s frustration and Julie’s rebellion (and Tyra’s secrecy and Landry’s confusion) with so much wisdom and grace. Connie Britton never makes Mrs. Coach seem holier-than-thou or too perfect, but damn if she isn’t very, very close. She is always right, as Coach always says. And she has so much love in her heart for all of these people in Dillon, even though so much of the time, no one is extending all that much towards her.

So anyway, goddammit Coach, you keep that woman happy.

And perhaps I’m noticing the fractures in this central relationship of the show more than usual, because it seems like this closing arc of Friday Night Lights’ first season is about a lot of romantic relationships, on the verge of collapsing or shifting. All of a sudden, the last few months in Dillon have become a precious time to hold on to for the Taylors; as Coach and Mrs. Coach think about long distance, so do Julie and Matt. Riggins’ affair with Jackie ends, just as it looked like something could actually happen with Landry and Tyra. And Jason and Lyla are pretty much non-engaged now, given that he took the time to make out with another woman right before Lyla showed up to say hello.

Far more interesting than the sordid details of Jason and Lyla’s dissolution is the arc of Lyla Garrity, cheerleader, who has gone through upheaval nearly as significant as Jason’s in the last several months. I’ve written about her a lot before, but it’s never quite done; with both Jason and Lyla, the show seems determined to follow through with the lives of two people who are disenfranchised by the football machine, and what happens to them when it’s all over. I wonder who either would be without Street’s accident, because that event has shaped them both considerably in this show. Lyla has been the best version of herself ever since she drove a brand-new car through the front window of her daddy’s dealership, and these two episodes showcase that in fine form. She gets together with Waverly and shoots guns, taking the first tentative steps towards having a friend that is also female. (The gun-shooting scene is delightful, if entirely irrelevant to the rest of the plot.) She’s sassing Smash for never saying hello to her in the past. And she serves Jason some stone-cold realness: “I do it because I love you, stupid. […] You wanna play rugby? Find another team! You don’t like this lawsuit? Find a way to make it go away! And the next time you want a glass of water, say please.

Compared to Lyla’s flying sparks, Suzie seems tolerable, but temporary; the show doesn’t invest enough in that tangent to make us believe it’s really going to happen. As a result, the whole episode exists to characterize Jason and Lyla—and Jason is just really boring. Sympathetic, for sure, but not terribly compelling otherwise. Aside from a horrible accident that should never have to be part of anyone’s burden, Jason is a 17-year-old annoying jock. Moving him towards coaching is where he starts to seem interesting again, perhaps because he is finally interested in something again—and perhaps because it shows a side of himself that is willing to accept his accident. Quad rugby was an escape; it was another way to be a jock. Coaching is something else entirely. It’s not about stardom. Jason is probably a natural coach, but he has a lot to learn about not being an asshole.

I said flippantly two weeks ago that Landry pining after Tyra frustrated me; neurozach, in the comments, observed that “Every Landry pines after a Tyra.” It’s true (I say that as someone who is more Landry than I ever was Tyra or Riggins). The way that Friday Night Lights addresses it still sort of bugs me, and I’m trying to figure out why. It’s not that Landry has a crush on Tyra, which seems like a reasonable course of action, all things considered. But at times in “Best Laid Plans,” it seems like the show itself thinks that Landry might deserve to be with Tyra—when otherwise, this is a show that is very even-handed with its characters, whether or not they are cheating, lying, roiding, or otherwise. Maybe I’m pulling some of season two into this rewatch.

It’s just that chemistry and relationships are a lot more complicated than who’s the “nice” guy, or who deserves what. Riggins might slouch into everyone’s life for a moment or two before inevitably getting drunk, causing a scene, and being thrown out the front door—but don’t we all love Riggins for that very reason?  And can’t we trust Tyra to do what’s best for her?

Maybe not. I’m not sure. What it makes me think, more than anything, is how these patterns and types that are formed in high school are so, so hard to shake off. Whoever you were in high school has a way of rearing its ugly, pimpled head at the worst possible moments, with the exact same narrative you’ve worked 20 years to get rid of. Which is why the whole dynamic with Tyra and Landry and Riggins seems to matter to me so much today—it just seems like a triangle that none of them will ever really escape from, for better or for worse.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose:

  • “Is there something wrong with Oprah, Saracen?” This may become my new default comeback. 
  • “Not bad, cheerleader.” “Beats the hell out of making Rice Krispie treats.” I’m actually surprised that Lyla’s never fired a gun before, but not at all surprised Waverly’s familiar with them.
  • The Family Coach: Tami surveys the land her husband has brought her to, hat in hand, heart on his sleeve. She draws a breath, and then asks: “Where would people park?” These people.
  • The same song plays over the last montage in “Best Laid Plans” as in “It’s Different For Girls”; “Stay Alive” by José González.
  • Cheese-factor aside, Matt kissing Julie in the muddy football field is a wonderful moment.
  • Riggins at the roast reminds us of his major fatal flaw: comedy. And Buddy Garrity steals Smash’s jokes. Ah, small-town life.
  • “Home field, in the truest sense of the word.”

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