"Stuff happens. Right now, it's happening to me. Someday, it's going to happen to you." -MattA lot of stuff happens to the characters on "Friday Night Lights," but then, a lot happens to the characters on every TV drama. What separates "FNL" from the pack, what makes us care deeply about it whether we know or care about Texas high school football, is the rawness with which the show has its characters deal with all the stuff, good and bad, that happens to them.
Most dramas, even the really good ones, will take you so close to the characters' emotions and no closer, as if they fear the audience will grow uncomfortable if there isn't some distance between themselves and the characters. (Based on the show's microscopic ratings, those other shows are probably, sadly, correct.) But the improvisational, documentary-style aesthetic that Peter Berg created in the film and the series pilot, and that Jason Katims, Jeffrey Reiner and company have continued over the last three-plus seasons, shatters any kind of barrier between viewer and viewee. The actors are encouraged to let everything hang out, to let us feel the fear that Tami might be feeling as she has the sex talk with her daughter, the anticipation and joy that Smash has when he gets the call from Texas A&M, the heartsickness that Eric feels when he tends to his shell-shocked troops at halftime of the Lions' first game.
Most of the actors on the show are great at this (it's no doubt part of why they were cast), but few are better at it than Zach Gilford, who owns every minute of his greatest spotlight to date.
Every character on "Friday Night Lights" gets a raw deal in some ways - this very episode reminds us of that with the stories about Vince and Becky and Luke - but Matt Saracen has consistently been the universe's punching bag, in part because the writers recognize how well Gilford plays Matt's pain and confusion every time life comes in to mock him again.
The physicality of his performance throughout this episode is exceptional: the catch in Matt's voice when he says the words "delivers pizza" while describing his life to date; his snot-filled, jittery demeanor outside the Taylor house; and, especially, the complete abject horror in his eyes (and the way his throat seems to flare out with his eyes) as he stares at his father's wrecked corpse inside the coffin. In that moment, I was there, you know? Just incredible work, and whatever reservations I had about the writers keeping Gilford around this year were entirely dispelled by this knockout episode.
As Matt struggled to come to grips with the death of the father he never really knew, "The Son" wasn't all tragedy and depression. For all the bad things Matt has suffered in his life, for all that his family was never really there for him, he lucked into a perfect second family with the Taylors, who all(*) stand up to be counted during Matt's hour of need. Tami takes care of the funeral director, Julie provides a shoulder to cry on when needed (and doesn't smother Matt when he needs his space), and Eric is there to walk Matt home in his biggest moment of despair. A lot of shows might have tried to have Eric give Matt a big pep talk, or even to spell out that Matt could always count on him, but the writers here were wise to recognize that nothing Eric could say would have made things even a hair better for Matt right now, and that actions would be more powerful than words.
(*) Well, maybe not Gracie, but lay off her, okay? She's still learning to talk!
In the end, Matt makes peace with his father's absence in his life, and the difference between the man he barely knew and the picture that the Army painted of Henry, with a really lovely eulogy. I don't know how much of that speech was Matt being sincere and how much was Matt doing what Matt does - swallowing his pain for the sake of good manners - but he already said the worst things about his father to the Taylors and the guys on the football field, and it seemed useful for him to remember the good times, too, and to realize that maybe Henry really was funny. (And speaking from personal experience - albeit one that didn't leave my hands raw and bloody the way Matt's were - shoveling the dirt yourself at a loved one's funeral is incredibly cathartic.)
Matt's still going away soon, but an episode like "The Son" is a powerful, powerful reminder of how much the show will miss him when he's gone.
Some other thoughts:
• Matt's story was the focus, but it didn't dominate the show, as we got to check in on Vince and Becky and Luke. However, because Matt gets so much screen time, the other plots didn't always move gracefully (there needed to be a transition scene, I think, in between Vince finding out the lights are off and Vince and Angry Necklace Guy getting a car theft tutorial), but this was probably the season's best balance between moving lots of stories forward while still providing the show's trademark emotional wallop.
• Eric is a good father figure to Matt, but he's also a great father to Julie, and it felt exactly right that he would recognize she was worried about losing him without her having to spell it out. Some things, dads just know.
• Before the season, the producers were very clear that Adrianne Palicki wouldn't be turning up until season 5, but they were vaguer about Minka Kelly, and now we know why: so Lyla's appearance at Henry's funeral would be a big surprise. Her presence felt a bit odd to me, though. On the one hand, having Lyla come back from Vanderbilt for the service illustrates how seriously the community responds to a loss like this. On the other, Lyla has no real relationship with Matt - I'm not even sure I can think of any meaningful on-camera interaction the two characters had over the last three seasons - and so I'd rather it turn out that Lyla was back in town anyway and decided to go to the funeral because it was the right thing to do. Presumably, there's more planned for her with Riggins (who shared a nice, knowing, sad look with her at the end of the service) and/or Buddy.
• While one alum came back, another was mentioned but not really seen, as Eric has a Texas A&M game on while he's reading to Gracie, and we learn that while Smash is still coming off the bench (a realistic touch, given the stature of the program and his own entry into it as a walk-on last year), he's at least impressing in garbage time of blowouts and has a promising future ahead of him.
• It's still fascinating to see Eric deal with a mostly hopeless team instead of his Panthers juggernauts. He doesn't want his players to call their own plays, but he can't let himself get too mad when the inevitable wildcat play works, and he allows them to enjoy their moral victory in the locker room afterwards by telling them they have nothing to be ashamed of. A program much further along can only concern itself with actual wins and losses, but right now Eric has to build the confidence of these kids, to make them believe they're not hopeless, and the end of that game was a start.
• I'd like there to be more consistency with the Landry/Lance thing. Either Eric knows his real name by now, or he doesn't. In theory, they could turn the joke into something a bit deeper by having Eric call him Lance when he's annoyed with him in practice, or just in a light moment, and shift to Landry when things are more serious. But to call him Lance while asking him to say a prayer for his best friend's dead father was a distraction.
• Speaking of Landry's name, I'm not sure if it was an intentional running joke or not, but I was amused that the episode featured Landry and Julie arguing over what his nickname should be ("Twinkle-Toes" vs. "Golden Foot") as well as Billy trying to retroactively dub Matt "Mayday."
• I thought the writing of JD McCoy was much better than in his first appearances this season. He's still a jerk and a bully, but he's a more realistic, nuanced jerk in the way his friendly teasing of Luke turned ugly when Luke refused to forgive JD. And I liked how good he was at talking to the pancake breakfast kids (particularly in contrast to Vince, who was not well-coached by Eric in this circumstance), because of course Joe McCoy would have programmed his little robot son to be a great public speaker as well as a great passer.
• JD and Joe's presence also led to one of the episode's funniest moments, as a frustrated Matt simply closes the door in their faces when they show up to offer condolences on behalf of the Panthers.
• I don't want to constantly be making "Wire" references just because Michael B. Jordan has now had supporting roles on two of my all-time favorite dramas, but it's hard to look at Vince carrying his passed-out mom back into their apartment (like he's the parent and she's the child) and not see echoes of what little we knew about Wallace's relationship with his own junkie mom.
• Riggins' nightmare of accidentally having sex with Becky nearly came true, but he managed to stop it in time, driving the mortified girl to go on a fortuitously-timed beer run that finally gets things cooking between her and a shirtless Luke. It's about time, too, that Madison Burge starts having regular interactions with castmembers other than Taylor Kitsch.
• The editing on the pageant and wake sequences was odd, making it seem like they were going on simultaneously, with Riggins somehow teleporting across town as soon as Becky finished singing "Popular" so he could be in both places at once. I know that both wakes and pageants can be very long affairs, but the way the two sequences were cut together became a distraction when Tim was in one place and then suddenly in the other.
• Jess hasn't gotten a lot of screentime in the last few episodes, but she's quickly become the show's go-to person for reaction shots during Lions games. Jurnee Smollett does a really good job of conveying just how much Jess cares about the game and the team - and since we care about the team going in, it makes us like her even though she's a newbie who hasn't had a lot to do yet. Well-played, show.
• The song playing over the end of the funeral, and as Matt works his hands bloody with the shovel, is "Driveway" by Great Northern.
Finally, the good people at DirecTV who provide me with access to these episodes have asked me to remind you that you can catch new episodes of "Friday Night Lights" ever Wednesday night at 9 p.m. Eastern on The 101 Network.
What did everybody else think?