"I am not playing on a fair field here." -CoachOn one level, "Laboring" is a table-setting episode, preparing us for the season-climaxing showdown between East and West Dillon, for a reckoning between Tami and the school board, for whatever's to come between Vince and Kennard, and between the Riggins boys and the cops.
"That makes two of us, hon." -Mrs. Coach
But, like season one's penultimate hour, "Best Laid Plans" (with trouble swirling around the Panthers on the eve of the state championship), "Laboring" was a table-setter that brought a lot to the table on its own: great moments for half the cast and some huge developments in their own right, regardless of how things play out in the finale.
There's a real sense of despair to a lot of what happens, particularly with the Taylors. Eric knows he doesn't have much of a prayer of beating the Panthers(*) under optimal conditions, and those conditions are now far, far from optimal. Luke is out of the game, which limits his offensive weapons to, basically Vince, and takes away most of the gadget plays that were working so well earlier in the season. And because the Panthers had to use a bazooka as a fly-swatter to respond to Landry's toothpick prank, the Panthers get to play the game on their cushy home field, with the Lions and their fledgling fan base forced to feel like pathetic outsiders in a game that should have been theirs.
(*) And, it occurs to me, if he were to win that game, the people in town would only grow to hate him more. Panther pride runs a little too deep for people to applaud the plucky underdog school across town for an unlikely victory, if that victory also keeps the beloved Panthers out of the playoffs.
And Eric has to deal with this - and the idiot radio calls(**) and defacing of his car and the rest - at the same time Tami has developed her own hate squad thanks to the abortion controversy. "FNL" in general, and Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton in particular, often offer up a ray of hope and idealism in the middle of potentially grim circumstances, but here our most hopeful characters were at their most hopeless. Tami doesn't want to write that letter of apology(***), but can she put her ideals ahead of her family's livelihood?
(**) I thought it was a nice touch that Slammin' Sammy, usually just as much a pig-headed yahoo as his listeners, tried to shut down that one caller's attempt to paint East Dillon as a ghetto hellhole she wouldn't take her family to. Sammy may be an ignoramus and an agitator in many ways, but that doesn't automatically make him a bigot.
(***) And would the apology letter even work? Given how dug-in the opposition seems to be, wouldn't Tami apologizing (for something she didn't do) only make matters worse? I don't know small town politics very well, but isn't the wiser course for Tami to argue that at no point did she tell Becky to get an abortion? Which has the benefit of being true?
While the Taylors are trapped in bleak circumstance, it's up to the Riggins boys to provide some hope and happiness - for a little while. After some comic relief from Billy failing to be calm about the birth, we get this perfect moment with the two brothers at home, staring down at the baby, and Tim (wonderfully played by Taylor Kitsch) getting to appreciate the site of a Riggins man being a good daddy for once.
Of course, a Riggins man's happiness can never last very long. So after Tim got to enjoy being an uncle, and showing his new ranch property to Becky, he winds up going to jail, along with Billy, for the chop shop operation. (The large wad of cash Tim gave the realtor surely didn't help.) And will little baby Stephen Hannibal suddenly have to go years without seeing his daddy? With Taylor Kitsch not being a regular after this season, I could see a circumstance in which Tim and Billy do go away for a while, and if we see Tim at all in season five, it'll be with Coach talking to him through prison glass.
Meanwhile, Vince was busy burying the man (boy, really) responsible for drawing the Riggins boys (back) into a life of crime, and then being sucked into Kennard's plan for revenge at any cost. And Jess, realizing what her ex is about to risk, fights to stop him from doing just that, even if she has to ditch Landry in the process.
As with most "FNL" stories related to the criminal world, Vince's plot was the part of the episode that most bordered on cliche. But every time it threatened to get silly or caricatured, Michael B. Jordan and Jurnee Smollett dragged it back into something real and painful, as exemplified by the scene where Jess shows up at Vince's apartment to tell him, "I know that good guy that's inside of you!" To which Vince (desperate to keep Jess away from him as he goes on a mission that could land him in jail or the morgue) replies, "I am a monster! That's what I am! I am that guy!" That dialogue could be terribly corny, bu these two superb young actors made me ignore the words being spoken and focus on the pain, hurt and love behind them.
Thanks to Jess, Vince makes the right decision in the end, but he does it in a way that puts him in the sights of Kennard (who feels like Vince owes him this killing for the rehab loan). And it occurs to me that, because Kennard was the mastermind behind the whole car theft ring, we could see a finale in which Tim and Vince's problems cancel each other out, with Billy rolling on Kennard to secure his freedom (and unintentionally secure Vince's safety).
And if that's what winds up happening, I'm not sure how I'd feel about it. On the one hand, it would seem a little too neat for a show that likes to be sloppy even with its happy endings. On the other, after so much bleakness for our characters in recent weeks, I could use a little sunlight - whether that comes from an improbable, pride-restoring win for the Lions, or Tami getting to keep her job without compromising her beliefs, or Vince and/or Tim getting out from under their criminal burdens. I don't know that I want all of those problems to be solved, but I do love these characters - both old and new - enough to not want to see them suffer any more.
Some other thoughts:
• Am I the only one who was under the impression that Jess's mom was either dead or out of the picture, and that she and Virgil had been raising her brothers on their own? Instead, this week we meet her mother, Bird (played by Lorraine Toussaint), whose appearance played out as if Steve Harris wasn't available this week and so the writers scrambled to give Jess a different parent. Then again, Toussaint's IMDb entry says she was in "Stay" earlier this season, but either I didn't notice her, her scenes got cut, or (as is often the case with the IMDb and TV guest stars) the info is wrong. Whatever the explanation, I was distracted. UPDATE: Several commenters have pointed out that in the final air version, Jess introduces Bird as her aunt, not her mom, which means one of two things: 1)The line was changed in post-production after the screener I got (ala Principal Burnwell's reference to the game "last night"/"last Friday" earlier this season), or 2)My hearing's going. I am open to either possibility.
• Speaking of moms, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson makes her first appearance of the season as Mindy's mom (Tyra's, too) in the labor and delivery scenes.
• Though we know Coach to be a very good and wise man, he's also a stubborn one who (rightly) views himself as separate from the kids he coaches, so we very rarely see him admit a mistake to one of them. That's why it was a bit eye-opening, if appropriate, to see him apologize to Luke for giving him a hard time about the injury. Some of you last week objected to my attempt to categorize Luke's actions as selfless - that he was doing it in his quest for a scholarship that will get him the hell out of town. And while there was certainly something to that, keep in mind that he suffered the injury in the same episode where Coach gave him a giant guilt trip about missing practice because he had to help his dad with the fence - sending a very clear message that Luke should never let his personal problems get in the way of practicing and playing for the Lions. And I'm sure Eric, away from the heat of the moment when he discovered the hip flexor injury, realized the role he played in this mess.
• Presumably, this is Jesse Plemons' last year as a regular on the show as well, and I feel bad that Landry has been a bit lost in the shuffle as we head to the end of his time in Dillon. His relationship with Jess has turned out to be more about giving us a window into Jess's feelings for Vince, and this was the first episode in a while where he felt like an integral part of the football team (between his field goal kicking being the only thing standing between the team and more jingle-jangles, and then Landry coming up with the toothpick plan). And though his big moment (waiting outside the BBQ joint for Jess, only to be told by Bird that she wasn't coming) wasn't as flashy as Jess and Vince crying in each other's arms, Plemons did again make me feel sorry for young Lance.
• Kennard said their target was a couple of hours away, and it certainly seemed like Vince got out of the car close to the end of their drive. How exactly did he make it from the middle of nowhere back to Dillon on the same night?
• Notable songs this week: "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked" by Ida Maria (Billy goes in to be there for Mindy during the delivery), "Rock Candy" by Montrose (Tim playing air guitar at Riggin's Rigs before the cops come), and "When the Night Comes" by Dan Auerbach (the final montage).
• Every time Principal Burnwell complains about all the problems Coach has brought to his school, I want to remind him that his school didn't exist before this year. But as with all things East Dillon, the show tends to wax and wane on what all these characters were doing before the redistricting happened.
• Because Madison Burge isn't technically a regular castmember, and because Becky seemed to say goodbye to Tim last week, I wondered if we had perhaps seen the last of the character - that perhaps that was the compromise the creative team had to make for this story, by letting a character get an abortion and then quickly writing her out. But she's still very much present, even if Tim won't respond to her crush on him, and even if, with Tim in jail and Luke having been pushed away, her connection to the rest of the "FNL" world is pretty tenuous.
Back next week for the finale - which will be the first one, I believe, where I'll watch it not worrying if it's the last episode of the show I'll ever get to see. Hooray for two-year renewals!
What did everybody else think?