“State” (season one, episode 22; originally aired 4/11/2007)
I don’t think there’s any way this episode couldn’t be an A, given that it is a capper to the debut season of a series that has become, in retrospect, momentous. Friday Night Lights didn’t get a lot of attention when it aired—in the era before most cable packages came with a DVR and Hulu hadn’t signed its clever “last five episodes” syndication rights, it was harder to find and love a niche show.
The episode that “State” is closest to, like all good season finales, is Friday Night Lights’ pilot. The feeling of starting the season as an untested team of potentials is very similar to the feeling of ending it as a team that might become the state champions. The hopes Coach Taylor pinned on Jason Street in their opening night are similar to the hopes Coach Taylor pins on Matt Saracen tonight, when he has to let the team out of his hands to do what they need to do, without him. The structure of the episodes are similar, too—there’s the buildup to the big game, the big game, and then the fallout.
And his halftime speech to the team, in the locker room, when they have yet to make it on the board, is the whole game, the whole season, his whole arc with the Panthers in a nutshell. He calls back to that first episode, because that’s where it started for him; and now, in his last game with the team, all he can tell them is that he believes in them, and that there are people in the stands who still believe in them.
Belief is the fuel for this team, and for this show. It gets through Saracen’s Hail Mary and Smash’s dislocated shoulder and Jason Street’s life-changing injury; it makes them come back from 20 points down and a lost star quarterback. The pivotal moment of the game is when Coach Taylor chooses to believe in his own team, the team he’s built. “You run it,” he says to Matt Saracen. “We can do this, Coach,” says Smash. And they do.
There was never any doubt in my mind that the Panthers would win state—we never saw enough of the other team, or humanized them enough, for them to be worthy winners in the world of the show. I wish it weren’t quite so simple, as the “good” guys winning the game, in this season finale. But to its credit, “State” throws a lot of other stuff into question, and the show itself didn’t know if it was coming back for a second season. It would have been sad to see the Panthers never win state, and everything we know about Coach Taylor indicates that he would have made it possible.
But I never really cared whether or not the Panthers won State. Football sort of is and isn’t the point of Friday Night Lights, and at the risk of committing a mortal sin against the Church of Buddy Garrity, at the end of the day, the game is not all that matters. I remember several weeks ago I observed that the game was pretty coherent to a football rube like myself. Commenter Mach0ManRandySavage observed:
You might be the first person ever to compliment the “coherence” of the football in FNL. Not to say that it doesn’t work on a dramatic level, which is what you’re probably getting at, but what they play on this show barely resembles actual football. The last play in the game during the pilot is so patently ridiculous that it’s legitimately amazing that it actually works and doesn’t ruin the whole thing.
Which, first of all, thank you for pointing that out! And secondly, spurs me to excavate the mission of the show a little more. I discussed some of this last week, about why Friday Night Lights is the show that it is, and why it chooses to be what it’s about. Peter Berg and Jason Katims, to my mind, are creators invested in community. Now Katims is doing other shows like Parenthood, that are even more intimate—focusing on family—and Berg just directed The Leftovers pilot, which is another community, albeit a darker one. Here in Dillon what they discovered is a community that is bound together by football.
This is not a show that is about football, as I’ve said before. It’s about community—and this one happens to be a community that comes together around football. What fascinates Friday Night Lights is not football itself but that people care about it at all. The show is invested in the basic fact that people do this with things, whether that is football, soccer, roller derby, competitive chess, beauty pageants, or even talking about a TV show that aired eight years ago. People come to a thing and imbue it with meaning, and gather around it, and it is a ritual so sacred and so primal that, normally, we call it religion.
There’s more to the sociology of religion than Emile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms Of Religious Life, but I think for our purposes, that’s the thesis that Friday Night Lights is working with. The Dillon Panthers—the mascot is their totem. The state championship ring is proof of manhood, or of valor. The game is their ritual of worship. The parade is a feast day to cap a successful year.
But the point of the show isn’t that we do this. That’s the given. The point is that we do this, and sometimes, it hurts us. Our own failings and foibles come through in the worship. What is best about Friday Night Lights is that it never stints on analyzing how doing that hurts the community, or it helps it. It is fitting, indeed, that the last moments of “State” are played to a song called “Devil Town,” a cover of a Daniel Johnston composition performed by Tony Lucca. And the parade of triumph is intercut with shots of Lyla, shed of her cheerleading uniform for the first time in her life, and Tyra, eyes cast down. They didn’t know it was a devil town, but oh my lord, does it bring them down.
Bittersweet. Always, bittersweet. And insofar as this show is about Coach Taylor—who is, most often, our window into this community that is new to him—it is, fittingly, the most bittersweet for him. You can see it in the bemusement on his face when they do win. And now, this is happening.
Anyway. The way that these TV Club Classic reviews have worked out, I won’t be going into this for seasons two, three, four, and five; this is our last review of Friday Night Lights, a show that now exists only for posterity. It’s sad. It’s also fitting for the way that I first watched the show, which was just the first season, once, very quickly, and then nothing else, as season two bored me and life caught up with me.
Also, the way we do things here is so much in homage to the same ideal of community—this is our “club,” as we say, where we get together to talk about these things. Our rituals are “OF COCK” and “firsties.” Our totems are “staff” badges. Our offerings are upvotes. And there’s a lot of good and bad in it, but that’s how it is. This is who we are, too. I feel blessed to have carried this torch with y’all; thank you for reading with me over the past few months.
And now, once more, for the nosebleed seats:
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose:
- Jason Street giving a motivational speech to the assembled Panthers was around where I started to cry. So I made it to the end, anyway.
- There is nothing better in this episode than Tyra and Lyla yelling at each other next to the highway. “Hey cheating cheerleader bitch, you wanna ride?” And then later: “Garrity, get in the damn car.” To which Lyla offers a prim, very in-character response: “No, thank you.”
- “My Lord, is that Tyra? Did you bring the booze?”
- The Family Coach: Watching Tami tell Eric about her pregnancy is one of the most emotional moments in this series for me, because a) their relationship is so perfect and b) that hint of sadness at having just one girl in a world full of football-playing boys always lurked beneath the surface. Of course the Taylors handle it beautifully, and their love for each other is so real it’s almost tangible. “I am livin’ my dream right now,” he tells her, and he totally means it. This episode sold for me, more than most, that this marriage is at a crossroads; no matter how good something looks from the outside, from the inside, it’s always work.
- This is how you draw a truce, in any situation: “Well, we have food.”
- Landry makes Tyra be a better person, by asking her to apologize to Lyla. We will ponder this, for now.