"Because Friday night... Friday night, there will be a bond formed between and among you, that will never be broken. I will not be proven wrong on that. Do I think we can beat the Dillon Panthers? I don't think we can beat the Dillon Panthers. I know damn well we can beat the Dillon Panthers. The question is, do you think that we can beat the Dillon Panthers? Then show me!" -CoachThe minute I saw the final scene of "Friday Night Lights" season three, I knew exactly how season four would go: Eric moves over to East Dillon, brings the football program back from the dead but suffers through many struggles, then salvages some measure of pride (and gets some nice revenge on Joe McCoy) when his once-pathetic team manages to knock the Panthers out of the playoffs. And then in the final season, the Lions would move more believably into being a good team, if not taking Eric to his third State championship in five years. You didn't need to be a rocket scientist to figure this is how the year would go, just so long as you had a knowledge of underdog sports movies (in this case, "Necessary Roughness"), and that's (so far) exactly how things have played out.
So the question is, is it bad that the show traveled the route so many of us predicted a year ago? Or is the predictability - and, let's be honest, implausibility - of the Lions beating the Panthers outweighed by the fact that every character on this show (and those of us in the audience who care about them) really needed something great to happen after all the darkness of this season? I say yes to the latter.
One of the key themes of the show is that, while sports may not cure most of the ills facing a community and its inhabitants, it can at least provide a distraction, and a sense of common purpose, and a feeling of uplift in the worst of times. And, therefore, after the season our characters have been through - after Vince's best friend was murdered and Becky had to get an abortion and Tami ran into trouble and Eric constantly scraped and clawed to make this new gig work, and Tim Riggins went from college scholarship kid to voluntarily taking the fall for the chop shop - I would have found anything less than a dramatic come-from-behind win by the Lions unacceptable. After all the garbage so many of these characters had to eat this year, they deserved this ending. And so did we.
And even within the usual sports story tropes, I thought the execution was wonderful, from the Coach speech I quoted above, to the sequence of everyone at Hermann Field getting ready for the game, to Coach finding the exact right words to take the weight off Vince's shoulders ("I'm gonna enjoy watching you beat 'em all night long," which reminded him that this was supposed to be fun, dammit), to Vince leading the halftime chant, to Coach screaming, "LANDRY! WHERE'S MY KICKER?!?! LANDRY!!!" and giving Landry(*) a much tougher, but equally perfect, pep talk before our man kicked the game-winning field goal. It wasn't any more realistic than most of the other dramatic victories Eric's teams have had over the years, but it may have been the most pumped-up I've ever been to watch one, and Kyle Chandler's performance showed that it was the most excited Eric was, too.
(*) The only thing that would have made it better, frankly, is if the show had had a more consistent vision to the whole Lance/Landry thing. I know it's hard to plan this far in advance, but imagine if this was the very first time we ever heard Eric call Landry by his real name. How cool would that have been?
So after the incredible high of the Lions' win, and then the devastating - and yet honorable - low of Tim walking to jail so his nephew won't be another Riggins boy to grow up without a father, and the more bittersweet endings like Tami becoming a guidance counselor again at East Dillon and Julie and Matt splitting up (but on better terms than when he skipped town), where does that leave us?
Well, it leaves us with a very strong, but also noticeably flawed, season, and it gives Jason Katims and company a pretty clean slate on which to draw the fifth and final season.
I admire the ambition that went into this season. Katims basically tore down the series' foundation and started over, turning the Panthers into the villains, introducing new characters and a whole new world into the pre-existing one, all while servicing the pre-existing characters and giving Saracen and Riggins extended farewell tours.
That would be a lot to deal with even if the show were still doing 22-episode seasons, and I would argue it proved to be too much in 13. There just wasn't enough time to deal with everything, to give each character the shading he or she needed, and to provide each story with proper closure. The Lions win and Tami gets a new job and Tim goes to jail and Matt flies back to Chicago without Julie, but lots of other things were left unresolved or inadequately explored.
Kennard's still out there, wanting revenge on Vince for bailing on the hit (and for owing him money for Regina's rehab). We don't know where either Landry or Julie are going next year (though, presumably, we'll be seeing both Aimee Teegarden and Jesse Plemons for a bit next season). The abortion story went from one about Becky and, to a lesser extent, Luke, to one about Tami, and so we never saw enough fallout from the teen's respective families. I watched Luke's parents - who have never had much use for football, who would rather he be helping out on the ranch, and who are devout Christians who feel deeply disappointed that their son would get a girl pregnant (let alone the type of girl who would then abort their grandchild) - cheer wildly for him when he finally got into the game and thought there was an awful lot of that family dynamic that went unexplored, because there was no room.
Throughout the season, there were shortcuts and/or missed opportunities. Jess's dad made a fairly abrupt conversion from bitter anti-football ex-jock to enthusiastic Lions booster (and Jess herself tended to drift in and out of the narrative). Tim's role as unofficial assistant coach was forgotten fairly quickly. The fact that the Riggins boys were working for the same criminal organization that Vince drifted in and out of would have seemed like a natural opportunity to put the two together, but it never happened. In a lot of ways - that story, the abortion plot, the Landry/Jess/Vince love triangle that was mainly about Jess and Vince - it felt as if stories were only being written with one or two characters in mind, and not all the characters who were involved. The show is about a community, yet at times this year the stories seemed as insular as they did in the mostly-disastrous second season, where it often felt as if we were watching six different shows at once that all just happened to take place in the same town.
And I understand why that happened. Again, I respect the hell out of the ambition that went into this season, and that the show was able to tackle its usual issues about race and class and sex and coming-of-age with as much sensitivity and power as it did, even as it was showing us the building of a football team (and the community around it) from scratch.
And if certain stories or characters often left me wanting more, it was because what little we got from them was so wonderful. Landry was under-utilized all year - and got a couple of consolation prizes in the finale in the game-winning kick and then the flight to Chicago to hang with ol' buddy Matt - and yet Jesse Plemons absolutely nailed Landry's stunned, hurt reaction to Jess telling him that she still had feelings for Vince. Becky never really connected to anyone on the show but Tim, but the moment where Tim gave her his mother's snow globe for safekeeping during his prison stint (and as a peace offering after her feelings of betrayal) was beautifully-played by Taylor Kitsch and Madison Burge.
Kitsch was incredible throughout the episode, and I'm still kind of amazed by how much I disliked him at the start of the series. I don't know how much of the growth was him getting better versus the producers recognizing his strengths (screen presence) and weaknesses (delivering lots and lots of dialogue), but Riggins went from one of the show's weakest links to probably its most integral character outside of Coach and Mrs. Coach. I understand why Kitsch is leaving (with a few breaks and the right roles, he could do very well in movies) and also recognize that there was perhaps only so far they could take Tim's story before he completely disconnected from the rest of the series. But damn, I'll miss him, and Kitsch got a great moment to go out on in that long, stoic, frightened walk into the sheriff's station.
And after his abrupt departure earlier in the season, and then his depressing reappearance a few weeks back, Saracen got a more definitive goodbye, and one that nicely straddled the line between too depressing and too inappropriately sunny. He and Julie ended on a better note, but it's still an ending, and now Matt has to make his way in Chicago without her. And the series finally has to move on from yet another one of its great characters, and a tremendous actor in Zach Gilford.
And that, again, gives Katims and company a fairly blank canvas on which to paint the last season. Tami's now at East Dillon, so less time has to be spent justifying Tami work stories. We don't need to be introduced to a lot of new characters, though a few additional players (and/or expanded roles for people like Tinker) would be fine. The show doesn't have to worry about preparing for the future anymore. It can go for broke, do what it wants with characters without needing to save things for later seasons, and can give Coach, Mrs. Coach, the team and the town a proper ending if they want, or just a beautiful life-goes-on kind of finale if they don't.
That finale's a long way off as I write this, at the end of the DirecTV run, and I look forward to seeing how the NBC viewers react to any and all parts of the season. But "FNL" season four lived up to the expectations created in the season three finale - not just in terms of what happened, but in terms of how good so much of it was.
Some other thoughts:
• The usual assortment of great off-the-beaten-path tunes this week, including "Sway" by Heartless Bastards (the Thanksgiving practice), "Goin' Home" by Dan Auerbach (Eric driving around with the Big Cat Classic trophy) and Steve Earle's "Goodbye" (the final montage of Tim, the Taylors and Saracen and Landry).
• Last week, I suggested that a Lions win might wind up making Coach even more hated in town than he was before, and I don't particularly buy Slammin' Sammy Mead - the unseen stand-in for all the most devout Panther-loving yahoos in town - talking about how impressed he was by the Lions' grit and determination. No. Just no. Just as people in town act like Eric "quit" on the team after last season (when, in fact, Joe McCoy got his job taken away), they would all view the Lions' win as yet another betrayal from the former coach of their beloved Panthers.
• Not much room to show JD and Joe dealing with their comeuppance, but the little we see - JD throwing an on-field tantrum, Joe looking mystified after Landry's kick is good - was fairly sweet. I also liked all the shots of Wade Aikman on the sideline throughout the game looking like he wanted his momma. While the talent level we'd seen of the Lions suggests they had no business giving the Panthers a game, even with Luke playing a couple of series, I can believe that the McCoy machine got over-confident and simply never took their ghetto rivals seriously.
• To spare any possible confusion: the scholarship Luke tells Coach about (yet another story that got fairly short shrift in a very busy finale) wasn't to college, but to a private high school. Luke's not graduating yet, and will surely be back on the show/team next season.
What did everybody else think?