“Upping The Ante” (season one, episode 14; original air date 1/31/2007)
“Blinders” (season one, episode 15; original air date 2/7/2007)
Of today’s pair of episodes, it’s “Blinders” that really stays with you. I like “Upping The Ante,” too—it’s a moving exploration of family intimacy, which comes in many different forms. But “Blinders” is politically charged, and because most of us aren’t from west Texas, it’s a haunting travelogue. Haunting in both good and bad ways, if that makes sense.
Somehow, the saddest moment for me in these two episodes is the powderpuff game. It feels, at first, like a lighter story thrown into an episode about a racist coach to keep some other character arcs moving forward until they get a bigger story. And the phenomenon of powderpuff football is regionally unique enough that it makes for interesting television. (Even the term, “powderpuff,” sounds absurd and quaint. The Powerpuff Girls made sure of that.)
But where the episode starts to become tragic for me is when Coach Taylor is trying to punish Julie, but then forgets to, because she tells him Matt made her quarterback for the powderpuff. He’s—hilariously and unsurprisingly—so excited, following her down the hall to pepper her with questions, and then taking her out to the yard to practice passing plays. And it’s great, and cute, and fun, that he’s so excited about it. And it’s also horrible, because there’s this tragedy underneath it—if Julie were a boy, she could have played football for her dad.
As with a lot of tragedies, it’s buried so far underneath the day-to-day reality of this family that it almost never comes up. Coach Taylor loves Julie, and affectionately refers to his family as his “girls.” He has many other surrogate sons to shower football-style affection on. It only comes up because in powderpuff, for one day, the rules are slightly different. Julie gets to be a quarterback. And Coach gets to teach her a play or two.
It’s Lyla, too, who shows up for powderpuff with an attitude that clearly demonstrates she does this every year. Why? Because she loves football. She’s been going to games with her father, dressed as a cheerleader, since she was five years old. Dressed as a cheerleader. Not wearing a jersey. Not wearing a helmet. Dressed as a cheerleader, because if you’re a girl, and you like football, you’re a cheerleader.
Except for the powderpuff game.
There are many powerful moments in these two episodes—I’m focusing on one subplot here out of dozens—but the powderpuff game, to me, encapsulates much of what makes Friday Night Lights such a subtle and powerful show. It’s just starkly real, stripped of wishful thinking or moralizing. I keep returning to shot of the stands—no one’s there. Because no one really cares about this game. (Tyra and Julie are literally only there because they’re being punished.) And because the episode gets political, I’ll get political, too: Moments like the powderpuff game are how you keep the status quo ticking. You offer a day where the rules are flipped. And then you switch back to the proper way of things. And that’s sad, because that one day looks like such an interesting and wonderful world.
The actual, explicit story in “Blinders” about politics is the story of assistant coach Mac McGill, an old white guy who said a very predictable old white guy thing on tape (sound familiar?). It’s terrible, of course: Mac says that black football players are like “junkyard dogs,” and that’s why they’re not quarterbacks. There’s some more to it than that, but not enough, really. And it puts our sometime-hero Smash Williams in the position of deciding whether or not he’s okay with the status quo. The story of “Blinders” is really of the community of Dillon building up to the moment where the black players on the Panthers engage in a quiet but powerful moment of civil disobedience. They wear their full practice gear, walk onto the field, and then just refuse to start, taking a stand in the best way they can. (And at the risk of repeating myself: sound familiar?)
Like his erstwhile girlfriend Waverly, I like Smash a lot more when he pays a little more attention to the world around him. And this is a moment of transformation for Smash—from the boy who played football to the man who plays football. But it’s not just his moment. Smash has become our (and, it seems, the rest of the team’s) mouthpiece for African-American issues, but it’s just because he’s there. He’s trying to be just a football player, but before he’s even ready to act, everyone in the community—from Saracen and Riggins to his fellow black players and Mac himself—sees him instead as the black player. Smash has to own this in order to be part of this community, because everyone around him demands that of him.
It is not a fair position to put a teenager in, but as we’ve discussed before with this show—part of Friday Night Lights’ mission is to merely depict the unfairness. And for black men in particular—who are one of the most maligned demographics in the country—there’s no escaping the prejudice. Regardless of what Smash does or doesn’t do about this, he will be tokenized, he will be judged, he will be held to different standards. And maybe he kind of got that before, but he definitely gets it now, after that moment with his mother in the bank. Waverly is fine and all, but Corinna is the real woman in Smash’s life. And she gives him a sermon that he will probably remember for the rest of his life: “Don’t give them that.” Don’t give them what they expect from black men. Everyone is watching you now. As Olivia Pope’s father said on Scandal, and as black parents have told their children for decades: you have to be twice as good—for half as far.
It is heartrending, too, that the moment of truth for Smash comes when his mother is trying to get approved for a loan to buy a house. I’m sounding like a goddamn parrot today, but—sound familiar? Housing in particular is an area in which America is decidedly not post-racial. We see, in the episode prior, what Smash’s life used to look like—playing football on an anemic strip of grass. What’s left implied in this whole episode is apparent in the scene in “Upping The Ante,” when he and Coach are talking about Smash’s childhood: That’s public housing they’re living in—or if it’s not, it’s a cheap rental in a predominantly black part of town. A house of their own would be a dream come true—the American Dream come true. So of course Corinna is angry her loan got turned down. Of course Smash is angry the dream is dead. Of course the other black players are angry that their coach is a racist. It’s the same shit, over and over again.
And the white characters in Friday Night Lights are literally and honestly taken aback. It’s not that they agree with Mac—of course not—but surely, as Riggins says to Smash, as one guy in the gymnasium yells to another, surely we can agree that it’s not such a big deal? They don’t get the rage—because they don’t have to deal with it. And who can blame them? There are plenty of other things to worry about in the world, and this is high school, after all. But outside of the idyllic world of Panthers football, with its easily measurable successes and failures, Dillon is a complicated and flawed community. Smash wakes up in this episode. And his moment of wakefulness inspires him to bring this protest back to the team.
It’s not easy to offer both sides of a story about racism with openness and empathy. But aside from Mac (who seems entirely beyond saving, really) Friday Night Lights manages it. Last week I talked about two different modes the show uses for telling stories about the community. Overall, though, what this show does is tell the story through the lens of this one thing that happens to bring everyone in this town together. So the problem almost has to start on the football field. And after it does, it must end on the football team. All respect to Mrs. Coach and her efforts for dialogue, but you can see why that conversation fell apart. The people who were most important weren’t there. And like the powderpuff game, not enough people were looking. There just weren’t enough people in the stands.
There’s a bunch of other stuff that happens in these two episodes, so I have to leave this thread behind for now. (It’s not resolved yet, so don’t worry, there will be plenty more preaching about racism in America!) I mentioned earlier that “Upping The Ante” was about family intimacy. The episode follows a few different dynamics and ruthlessly exposes their weaknesses and strengths, when it can. So a lot of the episode is about Tim’s relationship with his dad—a tragic, but evolving relationship—and Lyla and Jason’s engagement, which naturally sends some shock waves running through the Garrity family. It’s a unique form of character development—focusing a little less on the individual’s growth, and a little more on the evolution of a cluster of people, or a dynamic between two people. Both of the stories are perfectly fine, though they also both feel like stories that are not unique to Friday Night Lights. Jason has moved into the phase of his character that is frustratingly mean to Lyla all the time, which is hard to watch—his decision to just tell her parents strikes me as terribly unfair, and that’s not the type of thing you want to see in a partnership between two people. And Riggins’ stories will always be heartrending, but the estranged-dad thing is less unique than some of the other stories Friday Night Lights has told for Tim. The best moment here is the end, of course, at the football game—when Billy stops Tim to tell him that dad’s showed up, after all. It’s a triumphant moment, but it’s tempered with something else—the look on Billy’s face, which is a mixture of frustration and disappointment. This isn’t a happy ending. The family dynamic grinds on, even after the episode ends.
The other two dynamics aren’t families at all—but act like families anyway. The first is Julie and Matt’s relationship. Interestingly, Tyra—and Matt’s grandmother—get roped into the conception of family in that storyline, even as the relationship falls apart (for now). Similarly, even though Smash’s family is a strong force in his life, it’s his intimacy with his coach that takes up much of the episode’s space. Matt asks Julie to watch his grandmother; she invites over Tyra, who enthusiastically joins in to paint Grandma Saracen’s nails. (Grandma also nods along sagely when Tyra tells Julie to take up with another guy to make Matt jealous. Chicks before dicks, as they say.) And Coach Taylor takes on a role he’s somewhat used to—surrogate-father-slash-drill-instructor, running Smash through all kinds of punishments before letting him back on the team.
As interesting as these two stories are for the character dynamics, it’s also more evidence that the writers of Friday Night Lights really did their homework. Rural low-income families in particular are often written up in social-science journals for having a complicated web of social relationships that they rely on when everything else—employment, marriage, health—falls through. It’s social capital. It can be joyful. It can also be incredibly draining. And it’s a dynamic we require more of the poor, who are more likely to be hard-up for resources and more likely to strain their existing relationships.
It all ties together. We don’t all live in Dillon. Many of us choose to leave our hometowns or home cities. Many of us didn’t have to rely on this network to survive. We can, luxuriously, be more independent. But some people don’t have that option. And if that’s the case, this is how it works. Sometimes you have to be the person in a community that spearheads an uncomfortable conversation. Sometimes you have to watch your boyfriend’s confused grandmother. Sometimes you ref the powderpuff game because no one cool will do it. It’s not easy. But hey, if you wanted to fly solo, you should have run track.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose:
- Tyra and Lyla try to work out some aggressions on the field. Instead, they yell at each other. “This is supposed to be fun!” “Oh honey, this is fun.”
- Riggins and Saracen have very, very different coaching styles.
- Aimee Teegarden is so goddamn convincing as Eric and Tami’s kid—and as a temperamental teenager, too. That huff when Matt chooses her for the team is epic. All that said, though, I don’t care how mad Julie was, I do not buy that she skipped any class.
- The Family Coach: “Blinders” offers a bit of role reversal for the Taylors—instead of Tami talking Eric out of a brown study, it’s Eric who has to rescue Tami from her own frustrations after the terrible open forum about race. “You’re my wife, and I’m damn proud of you.”
- “Did you order up some rally girls?” Which leads me to wonder: What on earth are rally girls like? What are their motivations? Who are they?
- “I was that kid,” Smash says, pointing to the proud ball player who is about half his size. Miles Shepherd, as he introduces himself to Coach Taylor, will this year be ready for high school football. (2014, he says. You go, Miles.)