I now realize that I overrated last week’s episode. Not that it was a bad episode. It wasn’t. It was probably even a necessary episode, bringing everyone up to speed on where everyone is and what they’ve been up to since last we saw them. But, man, this week’s episode made me realize I’d forgotten just how great this show could be. And it’s not like it’s a particularly momentous episode. Apart from kicking the season into gear after last week’s warm-up, this didn't feel like a big, important episode. Nobody died. Nobody left the show. Everything just worked, however, and tied together brilliantly. I don’t want to spend all season lamenting that this will be Friday Night Lights’ last stand, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a show that ended while still performing so vitally five seasons in.
Though it most obviously applies to the East Dillon Lions’ outside status, the episode follows through on its title—“On The Outside Looking In”—with a Mad Men-like sense of making connections between characters who never see the way their lives parallel other lives around them. Billy, Julie, Tami, Becky, Hastings, even Epic—the famously troubled East Dillonite we meet this week after hearing about her last week—all fit the description. They’re newcomers trying to see if they can live in the places they’ve chosen to call home.
Billy, for one, begins the episode by doing his best impression of a tough-minded football coach without realizing that it takes time to earn the respect needed to pull it off. He’s also directing it at Hastings, a player who needs to be handled differently, as Coach recognizes. But that’s not the only arena in which Billy is forced to adapt to changes. At home he’s now a surrogate father to Becky, a role he’s never played before (unless his days, badly, looking after Tim count.) He’s adapting well enough. I never got a hint that Mindy’s suspicions that anything untoward could happen had any grounds in reality. He just doesn’t seem the type, especially with someone as vulnerable as Becky. But by episode’s end, that dynamic has changed pretty starkly. Min slips easily into the parental role with Becky who responds with confusion and maybe some appreciation that she now has two people who care when, or whether, she comes home at night. (And, poor Min: Still getting used to be mom to an infant, she’s now forced to get a sneak preview of what mothering a teenager is like.)
Not that anyone has it easy this week. Jess has to figure out what it means to be a woman who’s into football and not just football players. She’s got no interest in being a rally girl or performing any of the attendant duties, but she has no use for Marah the, um, I think the polite term is "sexually aggressive young lady" who steps in to fill the rally girl void. All of this pushes her outside her comfort zone, leading her to fight Marah physically and beat her at a drinking contest. Neither venture ends well, and it’s unlikely to get any easier for Jess as Vince’s career progresses. The rally girls are just a local temptation; there’s a world of college women willing to be used as recruitment lures, or just interested in new football recruits, out there. And while Vince (now) seems like a stand-up sort of guy, temptation isn’t always easy to resist.
The way this episode draws connections between Jess’s ill-fated attempt at stunt drinking and another sort of drinking contest—Tami’s outing with her new co-workers—is part of what I love about the show. It doesn’t put too fine a point on the parallel, but it’s no less a battle of wills, as the teachers compete to find the bottom of their collective cynicism, and Tami tries to hold her own. At least she wins a convert in Laurel, a teacher who doesn’t seem entirely corrupted by the difficulties of teaching in East Dillon. We’ll see if it lasts. I admire Tami’s idealism and the way it persists even as she’s forced to adapt it to new circumstances. Quietly appalled that the teachers would not want to join in her after-school tutoring scheme, she changes tactics and tries to bring them in one-by-one, rather than en masse. Surprised that more parents of troubled students don’t seem concerned about their kids, she decides to do what she can, most notably with Epic who here takes the first steps of coming out of the juvenile delinquent cold. (It is Epic, right? The IMDB is proving less-than-helpful with this name.)
Also connecting with Jess’ plight of what it means to be a woman immersed in the nuts and bolts of football—whether she likes it or not—is Julie, who’s drifting through her freshman year without any real connections to anyone so far. Her roommate’s perpetually occupied with boys. At a gathering, she gravitates to a TA, whose interest in her seems a little creepy, frankly. I doubt we’ve seen the last of him, but before that sub-plot goes any further, should we pause for a moment to consider Julie’s history with older men from Matt, who had a couple of years on her—which matters in high school—to the John From Cincinnati teacher, whose subplot got cut short by a writers’ strike, to the Habitat For Humanity guy. It’s not a long history, but the show does have a habit of pairing her up with older fellows.
Meanwhile, Vince discovers the pros and cons—well, just pros so far—of being a star. He’s got recruitment letters that promise a brighter future, and he’s able to use his local power to land his mother a job. The future looks bright and open, but I doubt it will be as easy as he’s imagining. For one, I think ethics committees would frown on his mother taking that job, a choice that might come back to haunt everyone involved quite quickly.
All this, and we haven’t even talked about football yet. The team spends most of the episode worried about where they’ll land in the rankings, only to discover that they’re not ranked at all. Coach tries to squelch the talk, knowing that getting obsessed with rankings can lead to trouble, but he secretly shares the team’s concern and hopes their hard work will be recognized, and legitimized, by rankings. “There is no they,” Coach says, but if he doesn’t know otherwise already, he knows it by the end of the episode. He’s an outsider, and outsiders get their players benched for supposed on-field infractions that nobody thought much of at the time. And they don’t get ranked. So what choice does he have? For a man like Coach there is no other choice but winning. So we get that thrilling ending—a whiteboard with the word “STATE” written on it—that’s the only possible response Coach could have to being told he has no place with the big boys. It’s also, however subliminally, a rallying cry for all the outsiders in this episode, all of whom get beaten up, none of whom plan to stay down. One day at a time. One game at a time.
- Did I miss it, or do we only see “Buddy’s” in the opening montage and over the credits? I suppose we’ll find out more later.
- “Everybody in Texas smokes. Even babies smoke in this state.”
- Failed to mention the Becky and Luke sub-plot. It's just starting, so consider it mentioned. I will say it struck me as odd that Luke could be so cavalier about asking Becky in after the events of last season. I'm guessing his parents weren't home.