Friday Night Lights: “What To Do While You’re Waiting” / “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You”
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Friday Night Lights: “What To Do While You’re Waiting” / “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You”

“The return of the third-person”

“What To Do While You’re Waiting” (season one, episode 12; originally aired 1/10/07)
“Little Girl I Wanna Marry You” (season one, episode 13; originally aired 1/24/07)

“What To Do While You’re Waiting” and “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You” offer two different storytelling types to the discerning Friday Night Lights viewer. The first, in “What To Do While You’re Waiting,” tells several stories side-by-side, and ties them together using a big, transformative moment—in this case, Buckley’s win over Arnett Meade, which everyone at Dillon discovers at the Women Boosters Rodeo. It’s sort of like a columnar structure—think of the façade of the Parthenon—several non-integrated columns leading up to a big thing that connects all of them.

This is only significant because the second, showcased in “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You,” is so much different—and really, so much harder to pull off. If we call the former Parthenon, the latter is popcorn—a series of small combustions, each entirely dependent on what has immediately preceded it. It’s fitting, because “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You” starts with a bang—Smash’s mother discovering his dope in his room and barging into the locker room to deal with it. That bang sets off a series of smaller explosions, which in turn set off their own events—a chain reaction.

Friday Night Lights is not about football; it’s about community. And both of these episodes offer two different ways of portraying it. The first is a structure that Friday Night Lights leans on a lot—Dillon’s own football games are usually the big capper on top of the columns, holding together the stories in this community and providing meaning for everyone involved. From a televisual perspective, it also follows a more traditional plot/subplot structure—offering isolated adventures that will come together in a moment of climax, but generally spin their wheels on their own.

The second, the popcorn, is something else entirely—and it surprises me not at all to discover that the episode is one of 10 written by Jason Katims in his time on the show. (We’ve already covered another one, “Eyes Wide Open,” this season.) And if you want to get technical, this is just one of seven episodes where Katims got WGA’s “written by” credit, which means that he created the story and wrote the script. The other three were based on Peter Berg’s source material, so he just gets “writer.” I’m not as familiar as others with Katims’ body of work—I have watched scattered episodes of Parenthood and Roswell, and watched his work on My So-Called Life. But it’s not hard to see his hallmarks in “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You”—a story that relies heavily on personal drama unfolding in a small setting, and in the process reveals much about our characters.

What I like about this pair of episodes, too, is that it shows how Friday Night Lights sort of needs both to survive. Episodes like “What To Do While You’re Waiting” are the ones that end with big, sweeping moments. Episodes like “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You” offer the combustive relationship material that pushes the narrative forward. And though the former is more satisfying, it’s the latter episode that stays with me. It feels like each character goes through a crucible in “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You”—and inside each tiny crucible is space for just one connection or relationship, and for a brief moment in time, that connection is going to burn. Both of these episodes distinguish themselves with incredible conversations between characters, but “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You” has some really fantastic ones: between Buddy Garrity and Tim Riggins, which has got to be one of the most incredible scenes this season; between Jason and Buddy, which is one of the more awful that has to be listened to. Between Smash and his mother, and then Smash and Coach. The terrible back-and-forth between Matt’s crumbling relationship with his father and his attempts to make good with his father-figure, Coach Taylor. Between Tyra, her mother, a flat tire, and the patriarchy (sort of). This episode evokes the more complicated dynamics of a stage play than it does a serialized episode of television.

That’s a long way of saying that these two episodes work very well together, and begin to move the show into more subtle, more complicated territory. The first offers some new plot on characters we know already—Tyra’s mom’s deadbeat boyfriend, Smash’s crush on Waverly, Matt’s dad’s new job, and Coach Taylor’s subpoena. The second works to make all the pieces hit each other in just the right way. And I don’t love the second episode, from a fan’s point of view. Lyla and Jason’s marriage proposal felt like a giant mistake the first time I watched the show, and still does this time—I keep thinking “They are 17 years old” and then can’t get much farther. (They might be 18. Not like that is much better.) The budding and problematic romance between Lyla’s dad and Tyra’s mom feels weird from the start. Smash’s story with the doping is compelling, but he’s not a character we’ve grown to love, so in some ways his redemption doesn’t quite feel earned. But critically, these moments are all powerful. They’re just uncomfortable. And that’s kind of interesting for a show to do. It indicates a higher purpose, a sense of mission. And at least here, it’s elegantly pushing us to have compassion for characters who are being dumb.

It means that these two episodes are full of very moving and very different moments, strung together in a web between the characters. The end of “What To Do While You’re Waiting” isn’t purely triumphant, because that sense of community ices out the former QB1, Jason Street, who wheels away from the rodeo after making tortured eye contact with Coach Taylor—away from the feeling of togetherness that is binding together the rest of the town. And then in the following episode, Jason bounces off of Lyla, Coach Taylor, Buddy Garrity, and his friend Roy. Meanwhile, Coach Taylor is pinballing off of interactions with the mayor, his wife, and Smash, in between handling a restless football team and Matt Saracen’s daddy issues. Mrs. Coach is learning about lesbians and making casseroles for the Saracen house. Buddy Garrity is having a private audience with half of our cast of characters. Each moment is a connection and a rupture and a building block. I can think of no better example than the moment that feels so jarring to me at the end of “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You”—the titular moment of proposal, after an episode where Buddy tells Jason that he can’t provide the life Buddy wants for his daughter, and Jason’s parents are almost destroyed by their anxiety around money; after we’ve seen Lyla and Jason attempt and fail to have sex; after Jason is so suspicious of Lyla’s intentions that he sweeps by her lunch with a family friend to investigate. It’s not a moment of triumph, it’s a moment of complication. And that, to my mind, has Katims written all over it.

Complication colors the other QB’s story, too. Last week I didn’t get into the Matt Saracen story too much: in part because it was just getting started, and in part because I didn’t know I felt about it yet. I am neither a father or a son, which may explain why I find it a little more difficult to parse his relationship with his father than say, Lyla’s relationship with Buddy (which reliably makes me cry) or Tyra’s with her mother (ditto). As a total stranger to the dynamic, what’s striking about the Saracen men is how carefully they navigate around each other, in a dance of performed masculinity: When Henry tells Matt that he’s planning to leave the army and stay in Dillon, Matt responds to being overcome with emotion by shaking his dad’s hand. A little moment that says a lot.

And though I talked a lot about the different structure of these two episodes, what they have in common is Matt Saracen’s arc of letting go of his father—which is the most drastic thing that happens in these two episodes—playoffs, engagements, domestic violence, and doping scandals notwithstanding. This relationship is the most changed after emerging from the crucible; it metamorphoses from a relationship between a father and a son to an adult with an adult. In Matt’s “column” in “What To Do While You’re Waiting,” Zach Gilford offers up a few incredible near-monologues, mostly directed at Julie, who has become one of the only people he can really speak freely to (it seems like Landry might use their time together to talk incessantly about CRUCIFICTORIOUS). In the stillness of communicating with her, he expresses incredible ambivalence and pain about his father’s presence-but-absence. And in “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You,” he lets his father go—but not without desperately hugging him goodbye, just after Julie anxiously and formally tells Henry, “Nice meeting you! Have a good trip back!” It’s a terrible moment of the elder Saracen accepting his own failure to be a present father, and the younger accepting that his father is failing him.

What interests me more is Matt then transferring this need for validation and guidance (if not more) onto his coach, who is also his girlfriend’s dad—which is where we fall into the subplot about the play that Matt draws up to show Coach Taylor. I don’t quite know why Coach dismissed the play outright—though he does have an unreliable temper—but as soon as we see that, Matt’s redemption is inevitable. It’s still a powerful moment; Matt has to make a choice on the field, and that choice is to take a risk for his whole team; to make a stand based on his reputation. We’ve seen Matt do this before—it’s how he came to this team—but this arc of losing his mojo, and then getting it back indicates that having faith in yourself is not a destination but a process, a faith that has to be found again and again.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose:

  • All else aside, the title of “Little Girl I Wanna Marry You” makes me sort of hate the episode. Only sort of, though.
  • I’ll need to devote more to the Collette family in due time, but meanwhile, Tyra and her mother and sister have some of the best lines in the episode—both dramatic and tragic. “My worst fear is to become you.” Followed a few moments later by, “Congratulations, mama! Let’s get drunk!”
  • “I think about what Roy would do.” “He would dump be and go after Tyra.” “No, he wouldn’t.” “Yes, he would! He told me!”
  • The Family Coach: Julie’s pronouncement when she walks in on her parents and tells them they’re the best family, and that she’s so lucky, produces very predictable smug satisfaction on Coach’s part and sudden anxiety on Tami’s. “No, honey, something terrible must have happened.” It amuses me how often Coach Taylor, like many dads, seems to be on a different planet entirely from the girls. And then learns from it, of course: He quotes “Dr. Q,” who seems like a take on Dr. Laura, at his football practice, moments after trying to get Tami and Julie to change the channel.
  • Another lovely moment with Coach and Mrs. Coach: “Never a dull moment with you.” “Aw, that’s why you married me, sugar.”
  • Corinna Williams is the best. Smash, meanwhile, is not really into Italian cinema.
  • “I’m the most infernal son of a bitch you ever met in your life.” We’re not arguing, Buddy.
  • “She’s robbin’ for love.”

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